Learner Voices in Teacher Development Sessions

I’ve learnt lots of things about education from working with teachers and students in Gaza. Like other areas of the world which are discriminated against, oppressed, and neglected, people in Gaza generally value education very highly. This is perhaps partly because studying hard is seen as a possible way out of the mess that the rest of the world has inflicted on the people of Gaza, and partly because, with nowhere to go, mass unemployment and not much to do in terms of leisure activities, studying is often the only thing that you can do to keep yourself active.

Although, I’ve worked with teachers and students from Gaza for about 7 years now, the first time I ever went there in person was only in April 2017.  This was to speak at an UNRWA, British Council conference, together with Hands Up Project trustee, Scott Thornbury. I learnt an important thing on that day about organising teacher development sessions  and it’s stayed with me ever since.  Scott was due to do a workshop called ‘My ten favourite speaking activities’ and mine was called ‘My ten favourite writing activities’.  Both sessions were very practical in nature and we’d planned to demonstrate the activities with the participation of the teachers who were there – which I guess is a standard way of working in TD sessions.

However, when we got there we found out that as well as around 200 English teachers, there were also about 40 eleven to fourteen year old learners of English in the room. We spontaneously decided that we’d get the learners to do the activities instead of the teachers wherever possible, and have the teachers observe. I think this worked really well for a number of reasons.

When teachers take part in activities which are designed for lower level language learners, they either have to pretend that they are lower level language learners themselves, or (more commonly in my experience) they do the activity as themselves, using all the language that they have available to them as fluent, or near fluent users of English. Neither of these situations is ideal in my opinion. If as trainers we’re demonstrating activities because they have the potential to promote language learning it’s far better that real learners of English do the activities so that this learning may actually happen. This also frees up the teachers to be able to observe the activity taking place and to reflect on its potential benefits.

scott with learners
Scott demonstrating a speaking activity at the conference with real learners of English

In next week’s post I’m going to share my experience conducting a remote theatre training course in Gaza in which there were 15 young learners of English and 10 teachers of English working together in the same room. Before I do that, I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

If you’re a teacher trainer have you ever worked in this way or would you ever consider doing so? Is it feasible to do this in your training context? What other ways may there be of bringing the voice of the learners into a teacher development session? If you’re a teacher would you like to participate in a training session that included real learners or the voice of the learners more? Comments below please…

From Gaza to Jerusalem

It was wonderful to witness the enthusiasm and sheer joy that 15 girls from Gaza felt when they visited Jerusalem, took part in a drama workshop with young Palestinians of their age from Jerusalem, and performed their plays at the Palestinian National Theatre. But sadly the teachers who worked so hard to get the plays ready for performance were not able to be with them and share in their success, as their permits to leave Gaza were not granted. One of these teachers, Haneen Khaled, sent this to me after the girls had returned.


From Gaza to Jerusalem: The dream has come true!

With its adorable beaches , sandy shores and very tasty food , Gaza could be the most beautiful area to spend a holiday by the sea. However , the reality is not like that . Life in Gaza has become more difficult than one can imagine. People in Gaza are deprived of many things, including the simple right of being able to  travel freely. But still they have a dream that one day everything they hope for will become reality.


The Hands up Project has succeeded in making this dream come true. 15 girls from three different UNRWA schools in Gaza managed to break through the blockade and make it to Jerusalem as finalists in the Hands Up Project’s remote theatre competition.  I can’t put their hearts into my pen while writing this as it is an indescribable feeling when they were there in the most holy place in the world. Their heart beats say that the hands up project has made a massive achievement that deserves us taking our hats off for it.

I think this trip is not only a prize for winning , but it is also a space to connect the two parts of the world together and unify all under the umbrella of drama . It is a golden chance for those girls from Gaza and others from Jerusalem to put their hands together and sing for their beloved country the closing song ” Let us be together ” despite crossings and borders . In fact , they did it amazingly well . They showed their success and glory to the whole world .


When coming back , they were flying high in the sky holding their accomplishments and their gratitude to the hands up project and to Nick Bilbrough , the manager of the HUP who made all this come true . Abeer Al-khatib wrote about this , ” It was an enjoyable trip that allowed me to learn and get information about my country , acting and theatre . I will not forget this in all my life ” .

My last word is,

” Hands up project gives our students a space to tell their stories to the world

They gather to write and act to travel by their souls abroad

Writing a play become their joy

And to Nick Bilbrough , we say thank you ,

You made our dreams come true ”




Animated stories

This week we have a post by Luzan Mattar, a teacher at  Beach Elementary Co-ed (C) UNRWA school, Beach Camp, Gaza who has been coordinating HUP sessions in her school for a long time now. Luzan is very interested in using drama activities and her students performed one of my favourite plays in last years’s competition – ‘I will wait till they open the gate’ . Here though she writes about a strategy for involving students who feel less confident about acting in front of others. 

Teaching English as a second language for Palestinian children is a big challenge, especially under the tough circumstances they live in. Palestinian teachers are always looking for suitable techniques that may facilitate and support their process of learning English. So the Hands Up Project has been a golden opportunity for the children in our care.  It’s their chance to practice English through drama and the online sessions in which they can express their ideas, feelings and emotions freely. They also have a lot of fun during the online sessions and they feel they can improve their English very easily like this . The playwriting competition made their dreams come true and stimulates  their creativity by enabling them to write and perform things that express their life and dreams in the real world. The competition opened a window to the whole world to tell other people around the world the truth about Palestinian life.

Although lots of students at school want to participate in hands up project online sessions and participate in writing and performing plays, still we have students who are not brave enough to do so. I tried to find a way that may help these students to be  involved too. So I thought about asking them to write their own stories, or rewrite a story they like in their own words and to make an animation out of it.  This technique was really good because it encouraged the shyer students to get involved in the world of storytelling and they were excited and motivated by doing it. Then when they watched the animation of their stories it helped them feel braver about speaking English in their regular classes.

Here’s a short film of some of the animated stories my students made..



From Milan to Khan Younis with love

As two English teachers , we like the idea of connecting our students together to help them improve their English language and make new friends at the same time. We believe that using zoom sessions on the internet can be the best way to do that. Our students can hear, see and interact with each other easily and effectively.

Therefore, we decided to write our reflections of this wonderful experience from our different points of view.

erica 2




by Erica Napoli (in Milan)….

I am proud to be part of the Hands Up Project as one of the volunteer teachers for the Gaza Strip learners because this has offered me the opportunity to meet lovely people and feel more like a learner than a teacher.

 In fact, whatever you may assume a teacher must be, this experience is a very distinctive one. The fact that those smiling kids live in danger and constantly have the sense of fear and death makes them different from any typical Italian or European teen; the experience of teaching is not only related to practice in a foreign language but also to sharing a sense of humanity. As much as this may sound strange, I hadn’t reckoned on how much this could impact on me and my class.

For this reason, I want to share with you something about the four classes we had during the last two months (instead of the scheduled six due to the bomb attacks which happened in the middle of this period)

The first lesson with Inas’ class, together with my 12-year-olds’ class, was conducted by Nick who gave the kids some instructions about making up a story starting with the letters of their names. This was a task that my students loved to prepare and share in the second lesson.



The first meeting though was something of mess, at least from my point of view in my class. As a matter of fact my students had just come back from a week’s school trip so I had not had the time to get them prepared for their first online shared lesson experience. They jumped in and out of the camera-range, all talking together, making comments, showing a lot of chaotic interest and being over-excited. But at the end of this first session, my class was enthusiastic and we all had the feeling of having made new friends. We spent some time talking about Gaza and Palestine, looking at a map to see where they are located. My students were shocked to know about how difficult life in Palestine can become, always being afraid of bombs. However, they were all conscious of having experienced joy and found happiness in small acts like sending each other little hearts, shaped with their fingers framing their face.

erica 4

By thinking of how to improve our lesson technically, the kids realised that some rules need to be followed in front of the camera. Specifically, they noticed that the Palestinian students were more used to staying in front of the camera, speaking one at a time, pausing and repeating, drawing big signs to make everything clearer. This kind of feedback after the lesson was a way to become aware of how powerful English is as a lingua franca and at the same time how our culture can influence our way of speaking. Despite the fact that my students are only 12 they show an understanding of  this point and become more respectful towards the others. So for example, during the second meeting they were expected to prepare a presentation about their country and habits. My students noticed how their assumptions about being teens could be different, so when they were preparing a quiz for the girls of Palestine they started wondering what it was best to ask. For example, my class assumed that kids in Gaza can have the same opportunity to travel as they have. Discovering that they are kids just like them, who have the same ideas of beauty or love but a different concept of freedom, can be enlightening when you are only twelve. Maybe this can help you become less selfish and more aware of others when growing up.

erica 1

Therefore, I had the impression that this way of working in class in connection with Gaza has not only been a great opportunity to improve their way of speaking and listening, but also an opportunity to broaden their horizons. They truly realised that they have a different culture due to the fact that they live in a different place, but also they have the same feelings and share the same desire to have fun, to be accepted by the others. In other words they saw what it is to be friends.

Finally, I think that the person who has learned most from this experience so far is me: I’ve noticed how kids do not have to overcome barriers in order to reach a common ground and they also minimise cultural impact; they simply act naturally, giving the best examples of communication.

inas 7


By Inas Younis Shurrab (In Khan Younis)….

 Connecting students through live sessions on the internet can affect them in many ways. It benefits their personality development, their language acquisition and their knowledge improvement. All of these things can widen their gazes to learn more quickly.

When Mr. Nick Bilbrough , the founder of the Hands Up project, posted on facebook about a teacher in Italy and her students who want to connect with a group of the same age from Gaza , I didn’t hesitate to ask him to connect me and my English Club students. Mr. Nick agreed and organised our first meeting. The next day I told my students about that and they were very happy and excited. For them, it was the first time to have such an experience.

The First live meeting via zoom: (12th March ,2019)

Mr. Nick was the host of this session . He started it by introducing both groups to each other . He showed us some nice things he has from Palestine and Italy and we were very happy to see them . Then , he made a wonderful activity with students to enhance the four skills of learning English . The idea of the activity was to write your name in the middle of a piece of paper then to draw some pictures starting with the first letter of your name. After that ,you have to write a short story using the names of these pictures. He did a model with his name , Nick, then he asked our students to do the same at home as a homework before the next session.

inas 6

The Second meeting:(28th March,2019)

I and Erica , agreed on the time of the next session. It was really a fantastic one as we and our students enjoyed a lot .The students were working all the week to draw their pictures and to write their stories. Erica suggested having a vote to decide the best story. The students of both groups started by showing their names and pictures and asking the other group to guess the names of the pictures. Then they started reading their stories to each other. Actually , all the stories were great. We voted for the best story and Lama , one of my students , won.

At the end, my friend, Erica decided to send Lama and her friends a parcel from Italy . It was a surprise for us and the girls were very happy.

The Third session (30th of April,2019)

inas 5


On this session , Erica and I decided to tell each other about the customs and the sites of our countries . I divided my students into groups then I asked each group to prepare some pictures and information about something from our country , i.e , the famous places , the food, the traditional clothes etc.

When we met at the agreed time ,we had another exciting zoom session. We presented our country to them and we showed them our traditional dress and dance, the dabka. They were very happy to see it. Then our Italian friends made  a nice quiz for us to find out about their lovely country , Italy and their city , Milan . We learned a lot from this session and my students wished to visit Italy one day as it seems fascinating to them.

inas 1.png

The fourth session: (the 3rd of May)

We had a long time before we arranged this session as we couldn’t find a suitable time for it and we both were busy. Erica told me that they really wanted to see our winning play in the Hands Up Project Remote Theatre competition, “The Play of the Play”. I asked my students to be ready for that.


We met on Tuesday , and I was nervous as I was late for joining Erica. There was a problem in the internet connection in my school but we fixed it at the end. Also, some of my students were late for the meeting , although I asked them to come on time. Therefore , Erica started to do some vocabulary activities with us , she asked us to guess the meaning of some words and we guessed most of them .

Then she did another useful activity with both groups as she asked them to write as many words as possible related to a word she gave them .They wrote about homework , holiday and summer. After they finished , they counted the number of words they wrote . Every time the other group had more words.

The third activity was to show my students a picture of  from a book and to ask them to describe this picture to their friends in Italy . The other group have to draw this picture from the description they hear. My girls enjoyed these activities a lot .

At the end of this session , my students performed their play live through zoom and they liked it a lot.

inas 2

The Conclusion:

 Developing the skills of students is an important aim to achieve during the school year . And finding new ways  to do that by using the 21st century modern technology is even more important .

My students’ experience with the live sessions of our kind Italian friends was really unforgettable for me and for them. We spent many enjoyable hours communicating and practicing English .

This experience also helped us a lot to learn more vocabulary to express our culture and customs. We never thought before to talk about these things using only English.

I hope that our meetings will never stop . And I wish to continue this wonderful partnership with this lovely group from Italy.

Thanks Italy and thank you Erica and your lovely class.

At the end , from the depth of my heart , I thank Mr. Nick Bilbrough for such meeting to help our students practice and learn English . Also , I want to thank him for all the things he does to make the voice of the Palestinian children louder and louder.


erica's class


Hands up parents and children

For about a year now Manal and Rinan, two English teachers at Beit Hanoun Prep School have been doing weekly online sessions with Julietta Schoenmann, a HUP volunteer based in the UK. Here’s their account of a session they conducted which involved parents and children working together. 

On April 14th 2019, the English club students in Beit Hanoun Prep. Girls’ A School, with their teachers Manal Ismail and Rinan Al Mazanin, had an online session with our volunteer, Julietta. We were honoured with the participation of the students’ parents.  It was a unique, exciting experience in which parents took part in classroom activities with their children.

The session started with a warm welcome from Julietta, who expressed her extreme happiness and surprise to see such a large number of parents especially mothers.

Julietta then moved to the first activity in which girls created dramatic scenes using two dice for inspiration. One die had place words (e.g. forest, circus, café) and the other had job words (e.g. singer, doctor, clown). For each group of 5/6 students Julietta threw the dice so that the group had a place and a job to use for their dramatic scene. Even though some of the combinations were strange – a doctor and a circus, a clown and a forest – our students were very creative like they always are. They immediately wrote the scenes with their parents’ help and acted them out. Everyone enjoyed the acting and admired the endless creativity and good language skills of the students!

After that, the parents had open conversations with Julietta. They asked some questions related to HandsUp project activities and they expressed their gratitude to the HandsUp project and Julietta for giving their girls the chance to talk freely, to act, to sing and use drama to convey their thoughts and feelings. Julietta really enjoyed talking to the parents and listening to their ideas about learning English. She said it was brilliant that parents were so interested in supporting young people in their learning and said how much she enjoyed working with the girls on their English language skills.

Deema’s mother said, “Deema always talks about you, Julietta.” This sentence summarises all the love and thanks to Julietta. (Jules adds that she couldn’t do any of this without the expertise of Manal and Rinan in each lesson!).

We can’t tell you how proud our students are now, thanks to these sessions which have opened a gate to the world for students and their parents.s



Why set up a drama club in your school?

Last year, thanks to generous support from the Eddie Byers fund, Greenall Florent Books, Wendy Arnold and Walter King, I was able to go to Palestine on several occasions and run some short courses for UNRWA and Ministry of Education teachers on establishing and running English drama clubs in Palestinian schools. In all over 200 English teachers from different areas of Gaza and the West Bank took part and I’m so pleased that drama clubs are now very well established as a tool for extra curricular English language development, and as a focal point for Hands Up Project remote sessions with volunteers around the world. 


drama club trees png
Drama club leader training course at an UNRWA school in Gaza city


Like many of the new drama club leaders, Haneen Khaled, a teacher at Asma Prep B UNRWA school, Gaza, used some of the time in the drama club to prepare plays for last year’s remote theatre competition.

Here’s the brilliant play they submitted.. 


And here’s Haneen’s reflection on what it means to have a drama club in their school 

Drama : Your vision to the world

Drama is about possessing another soul while you are acting. It gives you a space to be who you are . It makes you fly out of happiness or collapse from total sadness. It can enable you to live in another age with other people. It can ignite your imagination to be the person you dream to be. And it goes beyond what people can already see, to what you want them to be able to see. It is not I or me, but it is we. Drama is about speaking from the heart – not only from the words that come out of your mouth. Drama is life as it is and life as it should be.


I can say about drama that…

Drama is everywhere,

It lets you feel and helps you care 

It feeds your soul  

It makes you sad or mad

It describes the life when it is good , or bad

Drama is your vision to the world

So, keep on doing drama – it is precious like gold

haneen 4 png

For all these reasons , we set up our drama club at Asmaa Prep UNRWA school “B” to give those brilliant girls a space to practice their creativity and dig into their own talents. They gather together to make the drama club experience highly enjoyable and incredibly rich. They work as a team to act, to reflect and to draw their wishes.

They travel by heart and by souls, away from borders and restrictions , through their online sessions with different HUP volunteers . Drama club students work like in a bee hive, ‘remoting‘ their own stories. They work in groups to come up with ideas, brainstorm those ideas , create characters, imagine events , write the scripts and finally do their best to make the acting believable and natural. Our drama club creates great writers and gorgeous actors .

In the end, I can say that there are no words to describe how great it is to be part of this stunning project. All I can say is thank you to everyone who spends day and night to make this project see the light.

haneen 5

Remote theatre workshop

My talks in 2017 and 2108 at the annual IATEFL conference in the UK included live remote plays performed through Zoom by children in Palestine. This year we did something different. The participants in my workshop – teachers, teacher trainers and ELT authors from around the world -were organised into groups and given an excerpt from a script from one of three plays that were submitted for last year’s competition.

Their task (and they only had about 10 minutes to do this) was to prepare a performance of the excerpt they’d been given, and then perform it through zoom to the children who had originally created and performed it. The children and their teachers then gave the teachers feedback on their performances. Here’s the recording of the performance and feedback stage..

I think it’s clear that this is a lot of fun and also a valuable experience for everyone involved. How about arranging something similar in one of your English classes somewhere in the world?  The plays in this book could be a very good starting point for this.