Locked down but Looking Out..

There’s no doubt that the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has thrown education around the world into chaos. According to UNESCO, 85% of the world’s learners are not going to school right now. This means more than one and a half billion children are stuck at home!

But as we know, out of chaos there can sometimes arise incredible creativity, especially where Palestine is concerned. After all, Palestinian teachers have been providing quality education and dealing with the chaos imposed on them by external forces for many years now. They have consistently been finding creative ways to help children learn despite all the challenges – and to enable young people’s art to be noticed and their voices heard.

As a response to the current crisis, HUP has already reinvented ourselves and changed pretty much everything that we do. By immediately moving our sessions from #Zoom to #FacebookLive we’re coping with the school closures and enabling kids to access our team of volunteers in their own homes.

And next week we’re going to introduce three new creative ideas into the mix and hope that these will be ways not only to support the educational needs of young people in Palestine, but also to support other young people around the world under lockdown who want to practice and develop their English.

Mighty Pens – Saturdays, 12pm Palestine time.

As you may know we have been doing lots of storytelling sessions and grade specific English for Palestine sessions on Facebook live. This weekly session will also take place on facebook Live on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pg/handsupproject/videos/ but it will be an opportunity for young people to get some support creating poems, chants, stories and plays. It’s suitable for young people under 16, and everyone is welcome wherever you are.

Intercultural Show and tell – Mondays, 2pm Palestine  

This weekly session will take place by #zoom (downloadable here https://zoom.us/download ) and will be limited to a maximum of 15 students aged 16 or under from anywhere in the world. The idea is that everyone brings along a personal possession which means something to them. It could be a favourite book, something which represents their hobby, a picture of someone they admire etc. They’ll then have a chance to talk about it to the others and one of our volunteers will provide supportive feedback. See this blog post I wrote about it a while back, and here’s an example of yours truly doing it as a beginner learner of Arabic as a second language (If I can do it anybody can! 🙂 ) Please send us an email at info@handsupproject.org to reserve a place.


Students versus Teachers – Wednesdays 2pm Palestine time

This will be a chance for students everywhere to get revenge on teachers for asking them questions all the time! 🙂 The idea is that students from around the world come up with some difficult general knowledge questions in English for the remote volunteer to answer. It’s a chance to practice language related to other areas of their curriculum in English. The students will score a point for each question that the remote volunteer fails to answer correctly. There’ll be a different theme each week and to kick us off on Tuesday we’ll focus on the theme of Science. (Please see the examples below from our classroom based versions in Palestine) The session is suitable for young people under 16, and limited to 15 students maximum. Please send us an email at info@handsupproject.org to reserve a place.



The irresistible power of storytelling in a time of a crisis: stories for survival

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This post is by Haneen Jadalla, teacher at Asma Prep girls UNRWA school, Gaza

It’s the start of a very beautiful day and the sun spills its rays on the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean, declaring a new beginning , new hopes to be spread from the horizon and piles of wishes to touch the clouds above.

Meanwhile, a rich – deep voice starts to tell not breaking news nor a scientific fact but – a story . This story melts the hearts of the people who are  listening  and empowers them to face the hardships of life. Story telling is the art that merges the acts of mind and the acts of heart. It’s how you put your body , your soul and emotions in the context of language.

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As schools in Palestine are closed because of Corona virus, The Hands Up Project has recently launched daily facebook live storytelling sessions for kids to take part in in their own homes. Here, in this blog post, I would like to talk about the real impact of these storytelling sessions on English language learners at this very challenging time.

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I believe that learning can happen at any place and at any time irrespective of all the obstacles which are placed in their way. When children are free from the classroom walls, from rules, from marks , from pens and pencils, maybe they can travel even more easily by their imagination with the story telling sessions far away. They live the actions of the stories in their mind, smell the aromatic scents of the scenes as if they are really with them, and hear the music in their own silence to cheer their spirits in spite of all the hard times they pass through.


Learning through online stories and being exposed to different styles of storytellers can be immensely effective for the students – maybe even more so than what happens in their regular classes. They learn how to how to use language functionally, and how to be creative and brilliant with it at the same time. Its also about sharing and discussing values, gathering all together and feeling united, sharing cultural aspects and even creating a future generation of story tellers . Moreover , it is a kind of survival for those learners wherever they are. It  helps them to escape from being stuck at home in self – isolation to a more motivating international cultural context.

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At the end of each live session the volunteers suggest tasks for the kids to do as a follow up. This could be creating  their own videos as a kind of reflection on the stories that have been told, re-telling the story, creating a chant to practise the language or even singing their favourite English song.  Getting students to create things in English is the ultimate goal we wish to achieve with our language learners. It practices new language but also makes their voices heard loudly and clearly  all over the world.

I strongly believe that the hands up project has succeeded in helping these kids to survive every challenge that life throws at them. It helps them put their their hands up high to celebrate their glory while telling them a story.

Haneen Jadalla, teacher at Asma Prep girls UNRWA school, Gaza, March 2020

Long live Facebook live…

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Because of schools being closed in Palestine we can’t do any of our regular link HUP ups via zoom so, until the situation changes, we’re doing 3 Facebook live sessions a day from our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/handsupproject/ ) The sessions are for Palestinian kids and they can access them from their own homes while they can’t go to school.

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Here’s the timetable.

All times in Palestine time 10 am 12pm 4pm
Sundays Story based session for 12 and under aged kids English for Palestine sessions – Grade 9 Story based session for 12 and over aged kids
Mondays Story based session for 12 and under aged kids English for Palestine sessions – Grade 5 Story based session for 12 and over aged kids
Tuesdays Story based session for 12 and under aged kids English for Palestine sessions – Grade 6 Story based session for 12 and over aged kids
Wednesdays Story based session for 12 and under aged kids English for Palestine sessions – Grade 7 Story based session for 12 and over aged kids
Thursdays Story based session for 12 and under aged kids English for Palestine sessions – Grade 8 Story based session for 12 and over aged kids

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There are a few drawbacks to using Facebook live instead of zoom. We can’t see the kids or hear them, and we have no virtual background (green screen) facility, screen sharing, or easy options to record and edit the video and publish it to youtube (though the recording does get published on our Facebook page of course).

However there are also some great things about working in this way.

  1. Since the sessions are open to everyone we can access a greater number of kids in each session, and there is even scope for kids from other parts of the world to participate too and interact in the comments with kids in Palestine. I like to think that kids are doing it with family members present too so they can help each other and learn from each other.
  2. The ability to post comments easily is great. It means that the volunteer can ask a question or set a task and can see lots of examples from different people. The volunteer can then then read out and (perhaps reformulate) what students say, even writing it down on a mini whiteboard for display. The only slight problem is that there is a bit of a delay between when the volunteer asks the question and when the comments are visible to him or her, so I’ve found that it’s best to have something else to do while you are waiting for responses.
  3. Lots of teachers are participating in the sessions too. Initially I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing, but I’m finding it’s really useful to have them there to provide supportive written feedback to the learners’ comments, as there isn’t time for the volunteer to do this while they are doing the session. There is also teacher development going on as activities are being demonstrated that could be adapted for the teachers’ own classrooms later.

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Stories and critical thinking

I was so looking forward to going to Gaza on Sunday to participate in the conference ‘Creativity and Critical Thinking in ELT’ organised by our advisory board member in Gaza, Rida Thabet.

There were going to be lots of talks and workshops about this theme by Palestinian teachers, supervisors and education specialists and I was going to be doing a short talk myself called ‘The power of story’

Unfortunately, like many other conferences  around the world, it’s been postponed until the corona virus emergency situation is over.

So instead, here’s a whole session that I did with a group of twenty girls and their teacher at Zaytoun Prep Girls school – Gaza a few weeks ago. In the session, I told two stories and both of them involved points where Saida, their teacher in Gaza, and I asked questions to the students in order to encourage them to think critically.

If you’re a learner of English and you watch the video, I’d suggest that you pause it whenever we ask questions and think about how you would answer the question. It might be a good idea to even say your answer out loud.

Poetry Please

The other day I was doing a very short session with Haneen Jadalla’s drama group at Asma Prep B Girls UNRWA school Gaza when Haneen suddenly announced that two students would like to perform a poem to me.

I love it when these kind of impromptu things happen in the sessions and what a great poem it was – by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

Here’s the text of it..

Think of others – Mahmoud Darwish (1941 – 2008) 

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you liberate yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).

And here’s the video of Basma Enaya and Doaa Abu Shanab performing the poem. I’ve set up a new youtube playlist just for poetry so please send us your videos of poems performed by young people and we’ll add them.


Engaging students before and after Zoom Sessions

When we do zoom sessions in the Hands up Project, we generally try to build in activities for students to do before the sessions (as preparation) and after the sessions (as a follow up). This is a great way to keep the students engaged with English for longer, and to make the online link ups very meaningful and student-centred. This post by long term volunteer Inas Younis in Khan Younis, Gaza has lots of great ways to do this. Over to you Inas….  

As one of the English teachers, involved in making live zoom sessions with a partner outside Palestine, I realised that  it’s so important to think of more ways to involve your students as much as possible in these sessions.  I believe that the special opportunity to communicate with a speaker of English outside of Palestine really adds a lot to their acquirement of the language.

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This year I had some special wonderful sessions with Sara Wood ,  a British teacher who lives in Spain .My students and I enjoyed these sessions a lot. They added a lot of things to our experience.

During these sessions , my main aim was to get my students  to learn as much as they can. As I believe in the great results of  active learning, I was always thinking of ways to involve them positively as much as I can. Here are some ideas:

1- Before every session, me and Sara plan  together what we will talk about . She sometimes sends me an email of the activities we’re planning to do. Also, she asks about my suggestions at the end.

2- After receiving  the email I meet my students and give them an idea about the topic or the activities of the next  session. Then,  depending on the topic, I ask them to search for something on  Google or draw some pictures or write a short story. These things are all in preparation for the session.

In one of our sessions , I asked them to draw some pictures which start with the first letter of their names. Then they have to write a short story  using the names of these pictures.  Actually, it was really a nice activity as they practiced many different skills.

3- Another activity which was very useful for my students is the adjectives activity . It was Sara’s idea to make all the session about learning some adjectives. She sent me these adjectives by email and I asked the students to find out their meanings. Also , Sara suggested to ask them to think of one person they know who these adjectives apply to. Students wrote about their fathers , uncles and friends. Additionally , they prepared some silent sketches demonstrating these adjectives which Sarah would have to guess in the sessions.

4- In the same session, Sara told me that she will talk to them about space. So they printed some pictures and wrote some words about space life.

5- Another activity was when Sara told the girls a Chinese story about a family of rats and she asked the students to think of how this story could end. Then they prepared to perform the story with puppets that they made themselves. Two students who are good at drawing volunteered to draw the pictures and make the puppets, and I helped them to write the script. Then I asked them about the end and we agreed to end it the way you will see in the following video.

Also in the video you’ll see some information that they prepared about our festivals to tell Sara. Then they gave a quiz to test her on what they had told her. Sara, also told them about one of her favourite British festivals – “Bonfire Night”. It was a nice new information for me and my students.


Learnable moments

Zoom is the platform of choice for our online sessions with young people in Palestine and Jordan. One of the reasons for this is that it’s really easy to record everything that happens on both sides of the webcam. After the session, an extract of the recording might be used to create some teacher development materials and added to our youtube playlist.  Or the whole recording can be sent to the classroom teacher in Palestine so that the kids can watch it again and learn even more from the experience.

But it’s also really great to have this facility for us volunteers ourselves so that we can see what we’re doing, reflect on it and learn from it.

After I’d posted last week, I watched the whole video of the 45 minute session. For a part of the session we were playing a game where I was asking them questions to see what they could remember about a picture.

The screenshot below shows the exact moment where I asked the question “How many people are pointing at the cat?” As you can see, I mimed ‘pointing’ simultaneously with asking the question. I did this because I suspected that lots of them wouldn’t know what the word ‘pointing’ meant.

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However, as I watched the video I started to wonder whether I’d done it in the best possible way to maximise learning. Isn’t it better to give students the opportunity to process language in English without providing them with a translation?  What I was doing by using the gesture at the same time was giving them with an immediate  translation – not into Arabic but into gesture language – and by doing so I was denying them the opportunity to predict/work out/hypothesise what ‘pointing’ meant for themselves.

You might not agree with what I’ve written above, but it’s certainly true that the experience of watching this happen in the video was a learnable moment for me. It was a moment when I reflected on what I was doing and thought about how I might do it differently next time.

So now over to you.

I’m asking all HUP volunteers around the world if they’d like to do the same; watch a recording of themselves doing a session and pick a moment where something happened that you learnt from. It doesn’t have to be something where you felt you were doing something ‘wrong’ (as in my example). It could also be a moment where you felt that something really useful/meaningful/engaging/brilliant was happening.

I think these could make really interesting blog posts and they could, in turn become learnable moments for other teachers around the world…

Story follow up activities

If you go to this playlist on youtube you’ll find lots of ideas for things that can be done in online sessions with the young people that we serve. But there aren’t so many examples there of whole 45 minute or one hour sessions (apart from this brilliant example by Alex and Sahar)

Our new volunteers understandably have lots of questions about what a whole session might look like?

-What kinds of activities might happen during a 45 minute period?
-How can we link activities together in a session?
-How can we involve everyone in the class in activities?
-How does an online session fit with what has happened before in previous sessions, or with their regular classes?
-What is the role of the classroom teacher in the process?
-How do the students generally respond to what we do?

In the video below you can see a sequence of activities that I did a few days ago with a small group of around 15 girls from Beach Elementary Co-Ed UNRWA school in Gaza. In the previous week’s session I’d told them the story of Juha and the Meat. It’s certainly not a model lesson by any means but I think it does provide some possible answers to the questions above. Above all I think it shows how nice the kids are to work with!

Please feel free to ask questions or post comments below..


Stop to be silly!

I’ve written lots of conference workshop abstracts over the years but this is probably my favourite ..

The Communicative Approach has emphasised the need for realistic and authentic models of language, and for meaningful language use. But is this always the best way of making language accessible, interesting and memorable? Come along if you’d like to experience a range of activities which focus on the meaningless, the absurd, and the downright silly. This workshop may contain nuts.

I first ran this workshop at IATEFL about 10 years ago and then also at various other conferences around the world. It looked at practical classroom based ways of what I saw as implementing Guy Cook’s ideas from “Language Play, Language Learning” This book in many ways is critical of the communicative approach and its obsession with natural, authentic models of language, calling instead for an increased emphasis on playful, creative language use. I’d say it’s one of the books I’ve read which has had most influence on me as a materials writer.

But there’s also another side to being playful, or silly of course. That is going with the flow, doing things which break from the monotony of planned exercises from the coursebook, being spontaneous, having fun..

My feeling is that these are the moments in classes which are often the most engaging and memorable – for students and teachers.

Yesterday afternoon was a case in point.

I was doing a very quick zoom link up with one of our longest standing volunteers, Sahar Salha in Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza. We were basically doing it to test whether the internet was fast enough to start doing sessions again, but some of her students were around and they wanted to talk to me. We chatted and then I suddenly decided to do something a bit silly. I showed them two eggs – one real and one made of plastic and asked them to tell me which one they thought was not a real egg. I promised to balance what they said was a plastic egg on my head.

Unfortunately I only started recording the session at that point but here’s what happened next…

What about you? Anything spontaneous or silly ever happened in your English classes that you’re willing to share in the comments below?