Testing the teacher

In many language classrooms around the world teachers generally ask a lot of questions to students. They do this as a way to generate chat and discussion, as in ‘Did you have a nice trip?‘ or ‘What do you think Jbene should do now?‘, but they also do it to test the knowledge of the students, as in “What’s the past of go? ‘ and ‘How do we say سمك in English?

Recently, in my online sessions with groups of kids in Palestine, I’ve been experimenting with a technique that encourages the learners to ask the questions. What I do is ask their teacher to organise them into different groups of about six students. Each group is assigned a different topic – Geography, History, Science, Nature, Palestine etc. Their task is to plan and write down some questions to ask me. Their teacher helps them out with language queries that come up and then as a group they choose their most difficult questions that they think I won’t be able to answer. We then do it as a kind of competition. One representative from each group comes up to the webcam and asks me the question. If I get it right, I get a point. If I get it wrong, they get a point. Here’s a short excerpt of how it worked with one group in an UNRWA school in Deir-al-Balah, Gaza.


There are six things which I particularly like about this activity:-

  1. It provides a link between English and other areas of the curriculum.
  2. It changes the traditional classroom status patterns so that leaners are enabled to say what is right and what is wrong, rather than the teacher.
  3. It can work well when there are power cuts or the internet goes off, as learners don’t need to be connected to the remote teacher during the question planning stage.
  4. It provides many opportunities for scaffolding and upgrading of language -with the class teacher, the remote teacher, and between the learners themselves.
  5. It provides a nice balance between accuracy (the writing and asking of the questions) and fluency (all the conversation that happens around the questions)
  6. It’s less about what learners know about English, and more about what they can do with English. (This is the theme of our conference which is happening 2 weeks today – more info here )

So how would it work in your context? If you teach French to teenagers in the UK, could you use a variant of this where you ask the learners to plan questions for you in French about recent films or songs that the learners know and like? If you are a foreigner teaching EFL to a monolingual class of adults, how about asking the students to prepare questions about the customs or culture of the country you are in?

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this activity. Please leave a comment below.


Performance in Language Learning

We are excited to inform you that Saturday the 14th April will be the Hands Up Project conference at Westminster University in Central London. As you’ll see below there is a fantastic line up of speakers and the climax will be a live performance by the winners of our playmaking competition – ‘Inner Thoughts’ from Khan Younis, Gaza.

Please reserve your place (and your Palestinian lunch!) using the details below. If you have a UK bank account you could arrange the minimum donation of £15 by bank transfer using these details and your name as a reference.

Account name : The Hands Up Project

Sort Code: 40 52 40

Account number: 00029718

Or you could do it through Paypal using the email address info@handsupproject.org

Hope to see you there!

The Hands Up Project conference -14th April




Practising what we pre-teach

The Hands Up Project isn’t really very good at  ‘teaching’ language.

After three years of running this project, I’ve come to the conclusion that with all the power cuts, the often weak internet connection and the lack of physical presence, working online like this is actually quite an ineffective way of teaching anybody anything at all.  The sound quality is nowhere near good enough for most kinds of pronunciation clarification, and it’s really hard to know whether learners have understood any grammar or vocabulary focus that we might do, simply because we can’t see enough of them at the same time to be able to gauge whether they are following us, or not.

But thankfully we don’t need to worry about this too much. The children we work with in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan have their own English classes at UNRWA, the Palestinian Ministry of Education, and Relief International. Their teachers generally have a high level of English, and are very experienced and proficient in teaching grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. The fact that these teachers know their own curriculums inside out, and speak fluent Arabic as well, means that they are probably much better equipped than we ‘outsiders’ are to know what to teach, and how to clarify meanings.

But anyone who has ever taught a language for any period of time will know that there is much more to language teaching than teaching language. What the Hands Up Project can offer is an opportunity for learners to use the language that they are being taught in their regular classes with someone in a different context – someone with whom Arabic wouldn’t be the language of choice for communication. I think this can make their learning of English become more meaningful and motivating.

On Thursday I started a new connection with a new group of 50 grade four boys in a school in Gaza. Their teacher Ashraf, had been working with a unit in the coursebook called ‘Let’s make a cake’ and he’d asked me if I could do some practice activities with them to activate some of the language he’d been teaching. In the video below you can see some of the activities that we did.

The play as a project

Organising a play writing competition is a good way to motivate learners of English, but drama as a tool for learning has more depth, is more holistic, and is much more wide-reaching than an approach which only emphasises the achievements of the few groups that win.

In this post I want to focus on the process based drama work of two Gazan UNRWA English teachers, Sahar Salha and Saida Almadhoon who, each in their own way, have incorporated drama into their English curriculums by turning the playmaking competition into a drama project.

Sahar’s story..

Despite being in the era of global communication, Palestinian children  still suffer from the seige, from poverty and many other problems. So they really appreciated having the chance to convey messages to the world about love, peace, hope, dreams, illness, siege, poverty, war and social problems that the Hands Up Project gave them through the playwriting competition.

My students and me had a great experience preparing for the competition but choosing the topic for the play was really difficult. We discussed different ideas a lot and eventually decided to focus on a real story about a student in our school who suffers from cancer.

I’m so pleased that the girls worked really well as a team in writing the script in Arabic. They then individually translated it into English. When everyone had their own translation  they all worked together again to produce the best English version they could. It was nice to see them using the internet to look up words and expressions to use in their play.

They then discussed a suitable location to film it, the costumes , props, and background music, and then chose people to be the actors. In the end they produced something pure of their own which made them feel more confident.

In short , the process of creating our plays affects the girls and the teachers to produce their own literature not just for competitions, but also for life. When a twelve year old student has her or his own literature published in a book, this means that the Hands Up Project opens the space for Palestinian kids to become their own Shakespeares.

Here is what some of the actors said about the experience of creating our play “The fighter”:

Roqaya , the narrator

“This  drama means that we can write and act . I’m happy because we are little actors”

Sara , the doctor

“My dream in life is to be a doctor and I’m happy that I played this role in the play. When I join such activities, I feel that I am distinguished”

Rawan ,the patient

“I become more confident when I participated in this activity . I want to do more in the future. There is nothing impossible with my teacher –Sahar – and my parents’ support.

Maha , the mum

“I’m not afraid to speak English anymore. I will be on Youtube . I’m a star!”

Sara, the dad

“Engaging in such activity helps to practice my hobby and speak English and transfers our ideas and feelings to the world”


Saida’s story

It was a real pleasure for me and my students to participate in the playwriting competition. The students have gained lots of benefits through creating and  performing the plays. They have become familiar with standing on the stage in front of others as they performed the plays in front of the school principal and some other teachers. This, of course, has increased their self- confidence.

When I heard about the playmaking competition I decided to organise things in a way that could involve all the students in the school. So, I declared a competition for all students to write a short story in English with five characters or less. A lot of students participated and then I picked the best ones which I felt could be made into a play. I arranged a meeting with the students who wrote the best stories and discussed some ideas with them and with the school principal. As a result,  we agreed to create and perform 4 plays including Teddy and Benjamin Carson as examples of famous people whose lives have changed because of good persons behind them.

They started working in groups to turn the stories into plays. Most of this was done in the breaks between classes, using their own ideas, but they came to me to check things and sometimes I suggested modifications. It took about two weeks to agree on a final version of the scripts. Then we set up some after school sessions to rehearse the plays. The students who wrote the original four stories were given the chance to act in them more than others, and to choose who would play each part. Everyone was very enthusiastic during the whole process of making the play, I think because they had a specific goal that they were trying to achieve.

With love from Brazil

There is something very beautiful that’s been going on between Brazil and Palestine.

It all started last summer when I was sponsored by Cambridge University Press to go to Brazil to do a series of talks all over the country. I was talking about the use of images in language learning and, since images are such an integral part in the way we work, I mentioned the Hands Up Project a lot. The talks went down well but the Hands Up Project went down even better! After every talk I did there was a long queue of teachers wanting to volunteer, or to connect their classes to children in Palestine.

Now at that time of year the time difference (6 hours) makes online connections between Brazil and Palestine difficult,  but one teacher, Masako Moriwaki managed to overcome this problem by making HUP an English language learning project for her own teenager students, whilst simultaneously addressing the needs of learners in Palestine. Here’s how one of the students involved, João Felipe, describes what they did.

How did the project start?

Ms. Moriwaki suggested using the Hands Up Project as the last activity from our Language Course because we wanted to do something more creative and meaningful near the end of the course. It was explained to the students what was the current condition of Palestine and all the questions that the teacher couldn’t answer on her own were written down in a formal letter and sent to Mr. Nick Bilbrough, creator of the project.

What class activities did we do?

As we got to a better understanding of the condition of the whole Palestine situation, some activities were made such as various discussions to brainstorm what could be done to help the project, to decide each student’s function, to reflect about the work that was done and to give feedback to each other. E-mails were written to Mr. Bilbrough and a report about Palestine as well.

What did we do?

Live chats with Mr.Bilbrough were done to plan what could be done to help the project, therefore, in order to raise funds, a Halloween party was given to the young students at our school.  Then we held some video conference sessions in which we could get to know some Palestinian students. At these conferences, we discovered that there were delicious Palestinian food so we made a Palestinian themed dinner to reach an even greater deepening into the Palestinian culture and also to thank teachers and other school’s employees who were so helpful at the Halloween party. Then we made a series of videos to entertain and to introduce the Palestinians to Brazil. After reaching the accomplishment of all the different activities, an exhibition was held in order to show students from other classes the reality of Palestine, the Hands Up Project and what we’d been doing.

What did we learn from the project?

We learned that ignorance gets us further from peace and that making a connection made it possible that these kids had the opportunity to experience a different reality from the one they had to live in. When it comes to the Project itself, we loved to work with such dedicated people, we loved to hear their stories and to tell ours, it is relieving to know that there are people fighting for a better life in Palestine and we are glad if we have managed to help these people to get a few tiny steps closer to achieving a decent place to live and more respect from their neighbours.

Thanks João Felipe and thanks to Masako and all her students in Brazil who were involved in this. I love the way this idea simultaneously addresses the needs of English learners in two different contexts and it’s certainly something which I think could serve as a model for other learners around the world who’d like to get involved.

So now over to you! Here is the Brazilian students’ youtube channel with the videos that were made and are still being made for Palestinian children. My question to you as English teachers in Palestine is what would you do with them? Do you see any links with English for Palestine with any of the videos? Would you use them in class, or would you ask the children to look at them at home. What, if any, tasks would you give the learners while, before, or after they were watching? How might you follow up these activities?

The results

We are very pleased to announce the results of the Hands Up Project Playwriting and play performing competition for Palestinian children.

Though I have had the enormous pleasure of watching and reading all 88 plays that were submitted,  I was not involved in the process of picking the winners at all. A panel of 25 independent judges from Palestine and around the world, including experts in the fields of acting, educational drama, and English language teaching were given this challenging task.

By all accounts, the creativity and the quality of the acting and storytelling way surpassed all expectations and this made the judges task very difficult.   After a 2 week long process of reading the scripts and watching the videos the judges voted on which one they felt would make the best overall performance as a play. In the end it was incredibly close, particularly between the three plays below. The results are as follows.

1st Place – Inner Thoughts

Created and performed by Rawan El Alawi, Dania Dahalan, Batool Sager, Salma Shammout and Zaheya Arafa from New Khan Younis prep school, Gaza, with support from their teacher, Amal Mukhairez.


2nd Place –  A window onto the outside

Created and performed by Diana Hadeehi, Monaliza Abo Seda, Tasneem Belbesie and Leena Zaqout from Mamounia prep school, Gaza, with support from their teacher, Rana Musallam.



3rd Place  – Live your life

Created and perfomed and Sally Hweihi, Shaza Hamad, Razan Hweihi, Marwa Hamad, and Malak Hamdan from Beit Hanoun prep girls school A Gaza, with support from their teacher, Manal Ismail.


Of course, there were many other outstanding plays within the remaining 85 plays that were submitted and huge congratulations to everyone who took part. Together the plays make up a fascinating testament to what life in Palestine is like, to the incredible creativity that exists there, and to the power of playmaking as a tool for learning. The plays cover themes such as the family, the occupation, hopes and dreams, and cultural issues. We will be inviting many of the runners up to perform at local conferences in the West Bank and Gaza, and awarding certificates and other prizes.

We will also be including as many of the scripts as possible in a book which will be published, with names of the participating students if desired. If your school submitted a play for the competition and you would like it to be included in the book, please email me at info@handsupproject.org and include a short text (maximum 100 words) about the process you worked with with your students to create the play and how you think they benefitted from the experience.

Please also email me if you would like me to share specific feedback from the judges about your play. I also need the signed parental consent form in Arabic so that I can publish other videos of plays on our youtube channel. I would like to share as many of these amazing plays as possible so that people can around the world can benefit from seeing them.

Congratulations to everyone who submitted a play for being part of something truly engaging, inspiring and incredibly moving!



The play’s the thing

The difference between theatre and classroom drama is that in theatre everything is contrived so that the audience gets the kicks.  In the classroom, the participants get the kicks.

So wrote the acclaimed drama in education specialist, Dorothy Heathcote in Drama as a learning medium; Wagner (1999). But we shouldn’t just take Dorothy’s word for this.  The three girls in Gaza who took part in this play that was performed at the Sharek conference at Westminster University in November (and last week at the British Council Young Learners’ conference in Santiago, Chile)  have each made a short video talking about how they think they have benefitted from the experience (see below).




And if you’d like to see the play that they are referring to, you can see it here….



Of course this is about working with a play that was written by somebody else. Learners writing and performing their own plays will bring even more benefits. It’s been very interesting to hear from many of the teachers in Palestine who’ve been helping their students with their own plays  for our play writing and play performing competition about the value of this process.

We had more than 80 eligible entries for the competition and our panel of 24 judges have been busy watching the videos, reading the scripts, and attempting the very difficult, and unenviable, task of picking a winner.

So next Thursday will be the moment we have all been waiting for, when we will be announcing the winners on this blog. The quality of the acting and the writing has far exceeded our expectations. For this reason the panel of judges have really struggled to come to a decision. But in a sense every single participant is a winner. My own very humble attempts to act in Arabic have certainly made me feel like a winner!