Poems from pictures

Picture1I was  disappointed not to be able to go to the Palestine Expo which took place at the Queen Elizabeth centre in the heart of London, this weekend. This was a huge event, expected to be attended by up to 10.000 people, celebrating Palestinian culture including music, cookery, storytelling and other spoken word events. I’d planned to go but at the last minute something came up and I couldn’t make it. I hope it was a huge success.


So, talking of Palestinian culture, here is a painting by the 17 year old Palestinian artist, Malak Mattar. I used this painting for the poetry writing competition that I launched in my regular column for IATEFL voices magazine. It was open to young learners of English anywhere in the world and the task was to write a poem inspired by the painting of maximum 50 words. Unfortunately there wasn’t space in my column to publish all of the entries so I’m publishing them all here instead (in no particular order). I hope you enjoy them and if, like me and all the entrants, you feel inspired by this painting then please feel free to write your own poem in the comments below.

1) Moon girl (by Natalia Tamas, Hungary)

Everyone looks at her like a Bright Star
She sits on a furry chair
Like she is a beauty of art
She flicks her hair which twisted in the air
She wants to be a person like you
But everyone knows that she is called the Moon.


2) Mission impossible (by Artemis Kyriakou and Ioustina Louzi -Greece)

I paid for the blood
I painted “freedom and peace”
Was it all useless?


3) (by Waed al Sufi, Gaza)

When the moon appears
We sit to read
When the sky is black we read a lot of stories
When the moon appears we read and read
Under the sky we read and read


4) Sleepless night (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

The sun has said its final goodbye
Now a lone light in the night sky.
Two pale blue eyes shining in wonder
Waiting for sleep to finally find her.
A raven haired beauty, alone in the night
A single book to save her till daylight. 


5)  (by Nasam Younis, Gaza)

I can see moon and the light
One day I’m go to fly
One day when heaven calls my name
One day I go to fly away
One day I will see your eyes again
I lay down and close my eyes at night
I can see moon and the light


6) Twilight’s colors (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

The moon is shining oh so bright
It’s wonder lighting up the night.
For a lonely girl for who to rewrite
Her story, once painted black and white
Now in the colours of twilight. 


7) A lonely angel (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

A lonely girl, wishing in the night
Her eyes shining in the moonlight,
A single book forgotten in her hand.
She’s dreaming they would reunite,
Soon, in a city of light.
For it was love at first sight,
Now a lonely princess, waiting for her knight. 


8) A hope for mankind (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

The moon is lighting up her eyes
As the last ray of sunlight dies.
Her smile and heart are shining bright
Hoping that she could rewrite
A word filled with hate and lies. 


9) Madam Rose’s lecture (by Canache Ioana-Andreea, Romania)

Madam Rose’s reading a book
Under white moon’s clear look.
Madam Rose reads during the night
About brave knights who fight!
Madam Rose’s reflecting deeply
About time passing inevitably.
About knights’ flashing sharp swords
Turning into society’s venomous words!


10) (by Canache Ioana-Andreea, Romania)

Sparkly black pearls wander through the galaxy,
Maybe they belong up there.
She doesn’t even know why,
But her eyes shine like stars,
Will her beauty wilt like roses,
Will her eyes die when Sun rises?
Beautiful Anastasie with strings of darkness flowing as her hair..
She reads a novel down the stairs.


11) A different world (by Petra Romana, Romania)

A book is a window to a different place
Where your mind can also wander and create
Once you open it there’s no turning back
It will keep you awake and trapped
Inside a world of beautiful and new
Where everything is both lovely and cruel
Words that you read from a book


12) (by Feda Al Sufi, Gaza) 

Under the clear sky,
luminous stars and light moon sat a girl,
a beautiful girl, reading a book to learn and educate to be great to get her freedom
Under the moon, sat a girl

13) (by Ghaidau Tayseer Abu, Gaza)

As if the book in your hands shines with the glint of your eyes too dim
I will make reading a language to shout to all of Palestine
I will look at the moon for nights and days until I remember the spectrum that passed it



Teachers as theatre directors

In previous posts on this blog (for example here and here), I’ve written about the importance of activities which combine controlled and freer language use; the kind of thing where learners get repeated, controlled practice of areas of language, but also where they have opportunities to use language to share their opinions and personalities with the people around them – what we might call genuine communication.

At first glance it might seem that our competition of creating a play script doesn’t really fit into this category. After all, it’s pretty much just about control, isn’t it? (Writing material that is grammatically accurate, rehearsing the lines so that they are pronounced correctly and appropriately, learning the lines by heart etc) However, as with any collaborative creative activity, good playmaking should also involve lots of free talk. Learners need to talk to each other in engaging and motivating ways in order to decide what to make a play about, to agree on how the lines should be said and the way in which people should act, and to reflect on and evaluate each others’ writing and performances. If students are working together in small groups to make plays, it might be a good strategy for them to appoint one person in each group to be the director – to be in charge of making suggestions as to the direction that the play needs to take.

But however much we might insist on English being used for this, it’s natural and understandable, especially if they are lower levels, that the students break into their mother tongue for these conversations. So here’s where the voice of the teacher become important. I think that sometimes teachers need to take on the role of theatre director, and engage in conversations with learners about the way that their plays are taking shape. In the video below you can see me trying to do this through Zoom with a group in Gaza, but if you’re in the room with them, face to face, you’ll be able to do this much more effectively. And because you’ll know your own students much better than I do you’ll also be able to pitch your English at a level that’s just right for them so that it’s a more of a scaffolded learning experience.

Playwriting for beginners

A few weeks ago, I announced that the Hands Up Project will be running a play writing competition for young learners in Palestine. You can read more about the rules of the competition here, and about some of the language learning (and other) benefits that children may get from creating, rehearsing, recording and performing a play in this post.

But as language teachers, how might we best support learners in the process of creating a play? How do we help them to develop ideas and to structure these ideas into something that is accurate and well performed, without taking over too much, and ending up writing the play for them?

Well one simple way of course is to start with a story. This could be a story that everyone already knows, or one that the teacher has told the students in class. It could even be a personal story about something that has happened to one of the students or someone they know.

  • Once the story to be worked with has been agreed upon, ask different groups of learners to write a short dialogue based on a part of the story. You could either assign a different part to each group, or let them choose it themselves. Check their work for accuracy as they are doing it, pushing them to use language at the edges of their abilities.
  • When they’ve finished ask them to think about how they would add gestures and movement to make the scene come alive. If space allows they can practice this. They should also think about how they would say the lines in order to make it as meaningful as possible.
  • When they’re ready, ask them learn their scenes by heart and then perform them in front of the class. The rest of the class can observe and comment on what they see.
  • For homework students might like to develop their scene into a script for the whole story. These could then be performed in front of other classes, presented via video conference link up to other students around the world through the Hands Up Project’s worldwide connections, or filmed and entered into our playwriting competition!
close up Jbene
Girls from Gaza performing a play through Zoom at the IATEFL conference in Glasgow


Another way of working is to start with a topic. Last year at the IATEFL conference in Birmingham I attended an excellent talk by Gobinda Puri, a teacher of English in Nepal. Gobinda works with quite large classes (40-50 students) of grade 9 and 10 students and usually encourages his learners to create plays about social issues which are widely seen as problems in Nepalese society.

His approach to helping the learners create a play follows the following main stages.

1) Students work in groups to discuss which social issue they would like to create a play about.

2) They improvise around the chosen theme.

3) They start writing a script.

4) Gobinda corrects and reformulates what has been written.

5) The students plan how they will perform it. They rehearse and learn their lines

6) They perform their scenes in front of other students.


Here is a very short extract from one of the plays that was created in this way.


Tshomo’s  Father:   Sit here. ( He pulls the cushion close to him and asks her further to sit there) Tshomo, you are grown-up now and moreover, you are female. Today we received Gylpo’s brothers who came here for your marriage with Gylpo. Nanu, you have to marry him for our prestige. We have already decided.
Tshomo:  No, I can’t papa. How come you say so? I want to continue my study.
Tshomo’sFather :  Tshomo, how can you bluntly reject this? You, little girl! You don’t know how good your groom is. Gylpo from lower hill and our in-laws have both name and fame.
Tshomo:  Papa… I can’t … (She cries and runs out of the room. In the mean time, her mother follows her to comfort her. There’s a brief silence for some time.)


So what do you think? Would these approaches work with your learners? What other strategies might there be for helping learners to create their own plays? Please leave a comment below so that we can share ideas about ways to help our students create plays in English.




Your story

This week we have a guest post by one of the latest teachers to join our ever expanding pool of  volunteers around the world, Emi Slater. What Emi writes fits in very well with the current trend in the work of the Hands Up Project to focus more on children creating stories, rather than merely consuming them. Over to you Emi…

I cannot believe that in my little village on top of a hill, deep in central England at 7am on Monday mornings I have been hearing and telling such profound and deep stories. I’ve just started working with the Hands Up Project and Nick asked me to work with a wonderful teacher called Sarah Zahran. She is also new to the project and we have had some fun over the last few weeks getting to know each other and the students despite the foibles of the Palestinian internet.  After the first lesson Sarah asked me if it was really true that there were homeless people in Britain. When I told her there were thousands she asked me “but how! you are such a rich country?”. I was reminded of the time I spent travelling around the Soviet Union on the cusp of Perestroika when people in Siberia regularly asked me if it was really true that all British people had servants. That in turn reminded me of Nick’s comment on this blog that becoming global citizens is the only way out of this mess we are in.

We started with Nassreddin and the dinner party – using the Stories Alive version about a farmer who goes to a party in his work clothes and is rejected because of his appearance.  So cross is he that the party guests only accept him after he has been home to change that he starts to pour food into his pockets, his hat and his trousers. When reprimanded for making a mess he declaims  ‘I’m giving the food to my clothes’ . ‘I think you invited my clothes to the party – not me!’ Sarah had chosen it and it seemed so perfect for a group of 13 year old girls who would presumably be interested in clothes and self-image.

But their responses turned out to be far from such shallow trivia that so often preoccupies British teenagers. By our first lesson the girls had already written out the story, drawn their own pictures and were enthusiastically retelling me the story with their pictures on line. I was blown away by their enthusiasm and asked Sarah if the girls could write down their responses to this tale.

By the next lesson the girls had written their own moralistic tales, illustrated  and even adapted them into mini plays – one about a poor black family who helped the white people despite how badly they had been treated by them, one about a man who, having lost his legs on his journey to work in England, was mocked by his own son for begging because he was too ashamed to return home, one fable depicting the ever increasing divide between rich and poor and one about a man who put a spell on some boys to stop them throwing stones at old people.  I was slightly at a loss – the stories were already so wonderful and they had already illustrated them and performed them! It seemed wrong to start picking them apart and working on language or correcting them or even developing or editing them. The girls voices were strong and clear across cyberspace and I didn’t feel right interfering with such honest, important stories. I felt like I would be threatening the whole delicate and important ethos of the Hands Up project if I started behaving like an “english teacher”. And so it occurred to me that the only thing that might perhaps be useful for the girls was to hear my version of their stories. Partly for language learning purposes (obviously by recasting and extending I was creating more complex sentences which might perhaps be useful for the students to hear and perhaps work with later) but the key reason was confirmation. Confirmation that I had understood their stories correctly, and this not just on a linguistic level but on a human communication level – did I really “get” what they were trying to tell me?  I tried to imagine what it would be like to hear someone Russian (the foreign language I know best) tell me a story that I had tried to write in Russian back to me. I decided it would probably be thrilling and so I suggested it to Sarah. The girls in Sarah’s class seemed to like my version of their stories and you can see them nodding at various points in the video. Is this them responding to my confirmation or is it because they liked or were interested in my version of their story from a language perspective?  And of course they were only my versions.  Certainly I could try harder at it making them fuller, rounder, more vocabulary rich but as Nick has been consistently saying on this blog the simplest things so often work best.

The original story created and told by Palestinian learners of English in a girls school in Jerusalem suburbs, Palestine 

A reformulated version of the same story told by Emi

The Hands Up Project playwriting competition

After working online with so many different groups of children and their teachers in Gaza over the past two years, it was such a joy to meet some of them face to face last week when I finally managed to get there in person. The British Council and UNRWA organised a wonderful conference where Scott Thornbury and I both gave plenary workshops for the 250 Gazan teachers of English who attended.


We were also treated to performances of song, dance and theatre by the 50 children who were also there. It was while watching this play, written and performed by Gazan children that I had an idea for the first Hands Up Project competition.


The competition is open to any children and young people in Palestine aged 15 or under who are attending UNRWA or Ministry of Education schools. The task is to write and perform an original play in English which is maximum 5 minutes long and which has a maximum of 5 actors. Any groups who would like to submit an application need to send a video recording of the performance, together with the written script to info@handsupproject.org by 31st December 2017. Videos longer than 5 minutes long, with more than 5 actors (1 actor may play more than one character of course), or submitted after the deadline will not be accepted. The best entries will be published in a book and the videos published on youtube. Entries will be judged on both the quality of the performance, as well as the quality of the writing. The panel of judges will choose one entry to be the overall winner and the actors from this entry and their teacher will be invited to perform the play at the Hands Up Project conference which will take place in London in early 2018.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing a couple of posts which will focus on some of the language learning benefits of writing and performing a play in English to help you through the process. The very best of luck to you all! 🙂


Here’s a post by Sahar Salha in Gaza and Alex Guzik in Russia, which shows the wonderful way that teachers are working together to produce very effective classes for children through the Hands Up Project.


Sahar: It’s a long time that me and Alex are working as a team. We agree on what we are going to do during our online sessions. Alex always leads the session, giving instructions, asking questions, and answering the girls’ questions. And I’m on the ground facilitating the session and monitoring the class during the activities.

Alex: This is a great opportunity to be able to discuss what we can do in our online session. Sahar helps me a lot when choosing topics for sessions and types of activities we do with the girls. In one of our conversations we mentioned visualisation as a possible activity for one of the following sessions.

Some background from Alex
Visualisation (or Guided Visualisation) is a tool I quite like to use with my classes.  Getting children to close their eyes and dive into the jungles of their imagination makes a big difference to whatever is happening later in this class.

The advantages of Visualisations might be:

  • The learners process the language and transform it into images. This promotes thinking in L2, which is, arguably, the main purpose in language teaching and learning
  • By listening to nice music, learners relax and their thinking process is not disturbed by the worries of the day.
  • It also gives a great opportunity to practice


Alex: This was the first time we used visualisation in our online session. It was a risk, for the connection is not always reliable, the voice might come in bits and pieces with some delays, and the ‘right’ atmosphere is a bit more difficult to create than with face-to-face classes.

We certainly struck it lucky with the connection last time. The girls looked excited when they heard my ’Sit comfortably and close your eyes’. And with their teacher, Sahar, in the classroom everything went smoothly.

Sahar: During this session, Alex gave clear instructions; e.g close your eyes, imagine that you are in a village ,walking ,eating …..etc with background music ,but I was watching the girls, how relaxed they were, how quiet the atmosphere in the class was.

When the music stopped and the girls returned to the real world in the class, I liked how Alex encouraged the girls to talk to their partners about their imaginative villages. Then they followed this up by telling Alex about their villages. The most interesting thing was that the situation was completely spontaneous. I liked the way the girls expressed their imaginative world using simple innocent words and sentences which encouraged them to speak irrespective of grammatical mistakes.

Alex: I was amazed by the girls’ great imagination! And this time it seemed much easier for them to express their ideas and they felt much more confident speaking. Thanks to Sahar’s hard work!

Sahar and Alex, 19th April 2017

The translation game

The other day I found myself suddenly having to cover an online session in Gaza because I’d forgotten that one of our volunteers wasn’t able to make it. I didn’t have any specific plans so I began by asking the boys what they would like to do in the session. Several of them said they’d like to hear me talking Arabic, so we came up with this simple and highly enjoyable idea for a game.

The boys took it in turns to come up to the webcam and interact with me.  I tried to say something in Arabic and they tried to translate it into English. Then we did it the other way round – with them saying something in English which I had to translate into Arabic.

There are four things I particularly liked about this activity…

  1. It seemed to be a great way to combine some inner with outer language use (Willis 1992) -(See one of my early blog posts for more details about Jane Willis’s way to categorise classroom discourse). In fact it seems that for the learners, the inner language – the sentences that got translated – were actually quite a minor part in comparison with all the outer language that happened around discussing the translations.
  2. The activity plays around with traditional status patterns in the classroom by turning the students into teachers and the teacher into a student. I think this is good for us all.
  3. It was a completely spontaneous activity. We thought of it on the spot but also the sentences that we asked each other to translate came up spontaneously; sometimes out of the things that we’d been saying to each other. Khalid’s idea to ask me to translate ‘I don’t have any grey hair’ when we had just been talking about this was brilliant, as was the way he gently teased me by saying ‘You will win fil mish mish’ 🙂
  4. Because of 1 and 2 and 3 it was a lot of fun.

Willis, J. (1992) Inner and Outer: spoken discourse in the language classroom in Coulthard, M. Advances in Spoken discourse analysis; Routledge p 162 -183