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.

Screenshot 2020-02-19 at 17.45.34

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?

Mantle of the expert in Gaza

I first heard about Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert approach in educational drama about 20 years ago when I was doing my Masters degree at the University of Central England. It’s heartening to see it being used to such great effect in UNRWA schools in Gaza. Here, one of the Hands Up Project’s most creative and committed volunteers in Gaza, Haneen Jadalla talks about how she used it with teenage girls in a training session for teachers. Over to you Haneen…

Imagine and fly with your English over the horizon…

I really feel that I was very lucky to be chosen by my supervisor to deliver a Mantle of the expert training course for teachers. In the course we used real learners of English and the teachers observed how we were working together.  It really adds a lot to me as a person and as a teacher to have these kinds of experiences. I am writing here to share this experience with other teachers around the world.

The Mantle of expert approach was developed by the English Drama in Education specialist, Dorothy Heathcote. It uses a fictional context to generate purposeful activities and meaningful learning. As a language teacher, I don’t always keep my plate full . I mean , there is always space to add more for the sake of making my teaching practices really motivating and engaging and this is what the Mantle of the Expert approach can really do.

haneen a

In the session , we all gathered together under the umbrella of drama . I got the idea for this from Tim Taylor’s “Animal Park” Mantle of the expert session, to enable the students to give advice and suggestion in a very motivating – fictional context.

This is how I adapted it for the training session in my UNRWA school in Gaza. You can read my full lesson plan here..Haneen’s Mantle of the Expert Plan

  1. First I divided the student into groups and asked them to brainstorm the importance of animals in the world and how to protect them.
  2. Then I gave them this text to read and asked them to guess the meaning of any words they didn’t know and to help each other with understanding it.

Once upon a time , there was a lovely zoo for different kinds of animals, but this zoo was forced to close due to lack of funds. The zoo’s owner is concerned that the animals are properly cared for and are not hurt in the move.Therefore , a very rich man saw this in the newspaper and decided to build an Animal Park and bring rangers to look after the animals.

3) Then I took on the role of the owner of the park and gave them the role of rangers. In groups they had to decide how they would organise the park.

haneen i

4) Then each group was asked to create a poster for what should and shouldn’t be done by anyone visiting the park so that the animals welfare was taken care of.

haneen g

5) Finally they wrote an invitation to the opening of the park for the old owner and other visitors. The observing teachers in role as visitors received the invitation and came to visit the park. The rangers presented their posters to the visitors.

haneen j

In fact, me and my students were fully immersed in this situation. We read the story together , narrated it , collaborated , put our hands together to build the embodied animal park and created posters for presenting about their experience as animal park rangers. This covers all the aspects of learning the language , I think  and helps the students to move forward with their fluency .

haneen f

Moreover , I think this approach helps the students to act beyond the classroom walls ( as animal park rangers). It provides them with a fully –imaginative context of learning a language where everyone feels the importance of his / her presence and celebrates his role in her own way.

Finally , if I have the chance to do this more and more, I am going to give my students wings to make their imagination fly over the horizon and tell everyone how creative they are ! More drama means more learning opportunities and this will make the world a better place.

haneen c



Intercultural Show and Tell

I first heard of ‘Show and Tell’ when my eldest son, who’s now 24, told me he needed to get ready for it at his primary school in the UK.  The basic idea is that children take in an object which has some personal significance to them. It could be one of their favourite possessions, a picture of one of their favourite people or a place they’ve been to, or something related to one of their hobbies. They then are given some time to show the object to the rest of the class, and to tell everyone why it is important for them.

Given the obsession with targets, curriculum and exams in UK primary schools in recent years I’ve always felt that this was a very welcome break from all that for children – a rare moment of personalisation and an opportunity to develop their confidence by actually talking about something that matters to them. Of course Show and Tell isn’t a new idea; here’s the classic moment in the Film ‘Kes’ by Ken Loach where the main character, Caspar gets to stand in front of the class and talk about his pet kestrel.

I also think that Show and Tell is a great thing to do in the online sessions that we do with young people in Palestine – either with their HUP volunteer, or when linking to a class of similar age young people somewhere in the world.

Last Autumn I spend a month travelling around the Balkans to establish links between schools in Palestine and schools there and we did this activity with schools in Croatia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

So here’s 15 year old Mislav, in a state grammar school in Split, Croatia connecting to a group of similar age in Rafah, Gaza. He’s telling the story of how he got his first Lego set when he was a little boy by persuading his granny to buy it for him.




And here’s Amal in Rafah talking about the ring that her best friend gave to her and which she’ll always treasure.


And this is Katja showing her Beatles badge and talking about how this band has had a big influence on her life. The girls in Gaza didn’t know the Beatles so we ended up sharing the song ‘Yesterday’ on youtube with them and this led to a discussion about well known Palestinian singers, eventually leading to the girls in Gaza all coming up to the webcam and singing a song by the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, Mohammad Assaf.

Screenshot 2019-10-24 at 10.35.49

I’ve started to think that the online version of ‘Show and tell’ might actually be even more motivating than the face to face version. For a start, there’s something very powerful about holding the object right up to the webcam so that it can be seen really clearly. It’s also perhaps more meaningful, and certainly more moving, when students who live in completely different contexts discover that perhaps they have more in common than they might previously have thought.

And here’s one such moment when Maram, a 13 year old student in an UNRWA school in Gaza, and Eva a 13 year old student in a state school in Montenegro, discuss their shared hobby, horse riding.

This semester we’d like to encourage even more of these intercultural student to student connections so, wherever you are in the world, please get in touch with us if you’d like to arrange something similar in your school and Haya, our new administrator based in Gaza will sort it out.

What have we learnt?

When I run online training courses for new volunteers (as I’m about to do again today) I always try to emphasise that what we do in the Hands Up Project isn’t really teaching.

It’s not teaching for two reasons..

Firstly, because the young people who we work with online in Palestine and Jordan already have English teachers in the room with them, and these teachers don’t need people like us to try to do their jobs for them.

In fact these teachers are in a much better position to teach English than we are as remote volunteers; they know the curriculum inside out (what’s in the coursebook, what may come up in the exam, what the learners have already explored and where they might be trying to get to), they know the first language of the learners very well (which means they can more accurately predict the level  of challenge of linguistic input and can more easily use translation as a teaching tool) and, perhaps most importantly, they know the learners very well (their needs, their strengths, their personalities, their learning preferences etc).

Secondly, an online session probably isn’t the best format for the teaching of language anyway; it’s often hard for us to hear each other comfortably so models of language get lost somehow and need to be reinforced again by the classroom teacher.

This is not to say of course that there isn’t learning happening and that what we are doing in the Hands Up Project isn’t useful. In fact, from the feedback we’ve had from teachers and learners in Palestine who’ve done sessions with us, it seems that for many people these online connections in HUP are some of the most powerful learning experiences they’ve ever had.

Here’s what one of our most experienced volunteers, a classroom teacher in Gaza, Amal Mukhairez, said about it.

“I think these sessions open up a new world of learning English. A world where students are not burdened with linguistic rules and exams which is, I believe, the key to getting more excited and effectively involved in the process of learning. The most interesting part about these online meetings is that students are introduced to the language more authentically and much more smoothly.”

And Hands Up Project sessions can also be a rich source of learning for the classroom teachers and remote volunteers themselves. Another long standing volunteer with us in Gaza – Sahar Salha, presented about this at last year’s Hands Up Project conference and at the IATEFL conference in Liverpool. Here’s what she wrote in her article for IATEFL Conference Selections (due to be published very soon)

“Being an English teacher can be a very lonely job, especially in a place like Gaza. We don’t have many opportunities for teacher development sessions and sometimes we have no idea about what other teachers are doing in their classes. It has been a real privilege for me to see another teacher from a completely different context, suggesting, explaining and implementing activities to do with my own learners here in Gaza. Sometimes I then try these activities out in my other face to face classes and they work really well. Maybe one of the most important things is that it’s made me realise the potential of my own students to use English naturally and communicatively with people outside of Gaza. So, I think I have higher expectations of them now and that is a very good thing”

Sahar feels that the online link ups have also helped with her own language development…

“Doing these sessions has also helped me with my own English. Until I came to the IATEFL conference in Liverpool, I had never been outside of Palestine and I’ve had very few opportunities in my life to interact in English with anyone who isn’t Palestinian. I can feel that my own English level has improved a lot by having this chance to communicate regularly with Alex”

And the feeling of learning is something that may happen to both the classroom teacher and the remote volunteer…

“Alex has also told me how she feels she has developed as a teacher through working with me. She always tells me that I have a great way of working with the girls, pushing them to do their best and managing things so that everyone feels involved. This is not easy in a class of 45 students with very few resources and where many of the learners are suffering from trauma. But this is one thing that we teachers in Gaza have learnt how to do to, and it feels good to be able to pass on these skills to Alex”

So over to you now….

Remote volunteers, Palestine based volunteers, students..What have you learnt by doing sessions with the Hands Up Project? Please write something in the comments below.

dogme 5
Lots of learning happening in this session with classroom teacher Atiyyeh and remote volunteer, Michael 


Technical tips for making remote theatre through Zoom

There are just two weeks to go until the deadline for the remote theatre competition and we’ve already had some great plays submitted using the online form here

A few people have been asking me about the technical side of making remote theatre through zoom so I’ve made a little video to show you some of the things to keep in mind. Please remember that there is no obligation to make the play through zoom – you could do it through a mobile phone like last year. Just make sure you follow the guidelines of remote theatre.

PS, The full guidelines are available here and if you’re having trouble making the subtitle file Tim has made a very nice video here to help with that.

We hope it helps and the very best of luck to you all. Break a leg!