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 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!

The lying game

Happy New Year everyone! This week we have a guest post from an old friend of mine who I used to work with in Birmingham about 20 years ago. Jon Turner now lives in UAE and has been volunteering once a week with children in Palestine. I really like his take on the traditional 2 truths and a lie activity and have since tried it out myself very successfully with my own groups in Gaza and Zaatari. Over to you Jon!

Ussain Bolt is an inspiration for many, but I was surprised when he turned out to be an inspiration for a fun info gap activity to run with students in Palestine.  I got an advertising video shared onto my Facebook wall, which turned out to be an advert for an online poker site. The interesting thing was it was all about Ussain Bolt keeping a ‘poker face’ while he ‘bluffed’ or told the truth about something he could see but which the guy standing in front of him (a comic I think), couldn’t. Of course Bolt was terrible at the game, he kept cracking up and the comic was able to play loads of mind games to keep him guessing. You can see the video here

It just so happened I was searching around for something to do on Zoom with Atiyyeh and his students and I realized that teleconference is the perfect medium for a game like this. So we watched the video of Bolt, which was a really high language level, but because the task was just to get a sense of the game it did the job. Then we played. I would describe a purple pencil case, that turned out to be a brown mug and so on and so forth.

The students reacted really well to the game and were able to participate with some help from Atiyyeh. Like so many of the classes it turned into a kind of community language learning approach, with Atiyyeh acting as intermediary between me and the students, with some judicious Arabic use. We had to rely on reading each other’s facial expressions a lot and that was what injected the fun into the session. Keeping a poker face is hard work! This activity showed that even lower level students can engage in cognitively stimulating tasks and that the info gap activities may have been around for a long time, but that’s because they work!  

A play in four stages

I’ve written many posts on this blog about the value of drama in second language development and particularly about how helping learners to create their own plays can be a rich learning experience. Here I’d like to look at a specific example of how a play was developed over a number of weeks out of one simple writing exercise with a group of Syrian children in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan.

Stage one – an improvised story

In my regular weekly video conference link up with a group of 11 and 12 year old girls in Zaatari, I tried out the word by word story technique. This is something I learnt from the Macmillan Education ELT youtube channel The basic idea is that the teacher writes the beginning of a story on the board (in this case ‘Once upon a time there was a…’ ) and the students take it in turns to come up to the webcam and tell me just one more word at a time to add. Once we’d established a bit of context and some characters like this (see below) I asked them to try to complete the story for homework.

one word at a time

Stage two – sharing and choosing a story

In the following week’s session the students shared the different ways in which they had completed the story. Their endings were very creative and I quickly saw that they could make a play out of them, and that this was something that they would be motivated to do. I asked them to choose their favourite ending and to try to turn it into a play that they could perform to me the following week. They chose Jena’s version (see below)


Stage 3 – rehearsing and memorising lines

This stage was done between the online sessions and was coordinated entirely by their brilliant teacher in Zaatari – Ala’a. Ala’a assigned roles, helped them with the language and the pronunciation, organised props, costumes and masks and generally helped them to prepare for performance in front of an audience.

Stage 4 – performance

Because of a delay to a previous link up between Gaza and Finland which was supposed to have finished, I ended up inviting both the Gazan group and the Finnish group to see the performance in Zaatari. The girls in Zaatari rose to the challenge of having such a big audience very well and put on an amazing show. Well done to everyone!

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 22.28.01


What makes a good play?

I’ve just been on another visit to Gaza, this time to Beit Hanoun and Rafah areas, where I ran a series of drama workshops with children. I’ve come back invigorated and brimming with ideas, and this is down, in no small part to the incredible energy, the creativity, and the life giving force that so many people have there. In the words of the Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadah, ‘We Palestinians teach the rest of the world life, sir!’

boys Beit Hanoun

I wanted to use these workshops as a way for children to generate some ideas for our five minute playwriting competition. We now have a large international panel of judges who will be assessing the plays after the deadline of 31st December, including some very well known actors and ELT methodology writers, and education specialists from Palestine and around the world. Many people have been asking me about the rules and assessment criteria for the plays. So here is a checklist of key points to remember when writing and performing your play…


  • The written version of the play (the script) and the video of the play must be sent to us by 31st December 2017.
  • The topic of the play is very flexible. It must be an original piece of writing done by students but it could be based on a traditional story, a story about a famous person, a proverb, a reflection on life in Palestine, or anything else really. Teachers may help learners in correcting and reformulating the students’ work.
  • The video of the play must be a maximum of 5 minutes long and it must have a maximum of 5 people acting in it (including narrators if these are used). All the actors must attend UNRWA or Ministry of Education schools and they must be under the age of 16 before the 31st December 2017
  • The main language of the play must be English.


The judges will pick one overall winner, and a number of runners up from those which comply with all the above rules, using the following criteria.

  • The ability to speak clearly and intelligibly in English, bearing in mind the international audience who will be watching the plays.
  • Being close enough to the camera so that other qualities of the play can be easily assessed.
  • The ability to tell a good story (using suspense, voice range, appropriate speed of delivery and pausing etc)
  • The ability to act (use of gesture and physicalisation, emotional engagement, interaction with the camera etc
  • If these other points are achieved then the level of English of the participants does not matter in terms of assessment. Learners with a low level of English could be the overall winners.

So here’s an example which in my view fulfills the performance criteria very well. It was done by Batool Sager, Zaheya Arafa and Salma Shammout in Khan Younis, Gaza and was directed by their teacher, Amal Mukhairez. I should emphasise that this is not an entry for the competition since it was not written by students but by me.

The judging panel are very much looking forward to seeing your plays. Good luck to everyone!

A few of my favourite things


This week we have a post from long term HUP volunteer, Madeeha Manzur. Madeeha is a teacher in a primary school in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and every week she connects to a class of children in a school in Hebron, Palestine. But unlike most of our volunteers who tell stories or teach English by interacting themselves with the children in Palestine, Madeeha does it slightly differently by enabling the children she works with in Pakistan to do so. I think she’s doing a wonderful job and you can see by the faces of the children in the pictures that they are all getting a lot out of the experience. Over to you Madeeha…


Having altogether different mother tongues can give rise to a lot of confusion while communicating but these limitations can be used to the advantage of language learners with limited vocabulary. All they need is a topic they feel motivated about. Children love to talk about their favourite belongings. They also feel curious to know what others find favourite and why. Hence “Favourite Belongings” can be an excellent choice for a speaking lesson topic.


favourite 4

In multilingual classes where English is the only common language, students have no other choice but to negotiate the meanings of unfamiliar words and they can learn a lot from this experience.

In a recent class while connecting my classroom with Palestinian students. I made small teams and challenged students to find out as much information as possible about the favourite belongings of the students on the other side of the computer. Here’s how the negotiation happened:


Student 1: What’s your favourite belonging?

Student 2: It’s this watch.

Student1: It’s beautiful. Who gave it to you?

Student 2: My…umm…my Khala

Student 1: Who’s khala?

Student2: She is my mother’s sister.

Student 1: Oh! Aunt you mean.

Student 2: Yes! Yes!

favourite 6


This is an excellent activity to provide opportunities for language exposure, language activation and critical thinking. Here’s an extract of another conversation that went something like this:

Student 1: My favourite thing is this fidget spinner. It glows in the dark and it spins.

Student 2: Tell me again please. What does it do?

Student 1: When I turn all lights off, it glows in the dark. It becomes bright.

Student 2: Does it have a light?

Student 1: No. It has no light. It just glows. Wait I’ll show you. (Student turns off all lights and holds the glowing spinner at some distance from the computer)

They later spoke about how the spinner spins, the bearings present in the centre, how it can be dismantled and reassembled again and it’s different varieties present in the market.

Since students are writing down the information, they sometimes even ask for spellings.







The power of weeding

olive picking boys

Stephen Krashen’s big idea in ‘The power of reading‘ (1993) was that reading for pleasure, or free voluntary reading (FVR) as he referred to it , was in many cases more conducive to language development than direct teaching alone. He cites lots of research to back up his view. I read the book in the late nineties when I was teaching English to very diverse multilingual groups of adults at the Brasshouse Centre in Birmingham, and it had a huge influence on the way that I conducted by classes. From then on I started encouraging all my learners to consume graded readers as much as possible. I did this by arranging lots of activities to promote reading for pleasure in class. For my Masters degree I researched the role of drama as a way to promote reading for pleasure and I ended up writing my dissertation about that subject too.

As a language learner, I’m also aware of the importance of reading for pleasure in the languages that I know something of, and I’ve tried reading novels in Danish, Portuguese and Spanish. Of these I would say that it’s only in Danish where this has been a pleasurable experience for me however! In the other languages there are just two many words I don’t understand to make it much fun.

But maybe it isn’t all about fun. I’m now wondering whether, if we really want people to absorb the language of the texts they are reading, they probably have to do some work sometimes – certainly in terms of noticing.

I like Brown’s (1994) proposal that learners adopt a Green Cross Code of reading, in order to notice collocations in the texts that they encounter.

“When you see a word, even in particular a word with which you are already familiar, STOP, LOOK LEFT, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT AGAIN, AND, WHEN SATISFIED, PROCEED!’

As a child growing up in 1970’s Britain the Green Cross Code was regularly drummed into us at school as a strategy to get across a road safely. I really like the idea of applying this principle to reading, but maybe even this is not enough for some learners to ensure take away value to the language of texts. Maybe they need some activities which really push them to notice the language.

One such activity that I have recently started using again after a long break is the idea of Text Weeding. Like so many good ideas, I think this one comes from the work of Mario Rinvolucri, but I can’t remember in which of his many books I first read about it. I think it was ‘More Grammar Games’ (CUP 1995).

It works like this. We take a short text. This could be something from the coursebook, from authentic reading material, or a text that we create specifically for this purpose. We then rewrite the text adding in some ‘weeds’ -that is words which are not supposed to be there. Here’s one that I created for a group of children in Palestine a few weeks ago. Can you spot the 10 weeds?

The olive harvest moon takes off place all over cooked Palestine during the month of October every day year. The whole family ticket gets lost involved. It’s hard luck work but also lots of love fun. I wish I could do up it again one day break.

If you’re clever about the choice of words that you insert you can use the activity to raise awareness about some common collocations too (takes off, takes place and hard luck, hard work etc)

Of course a much more common activity with short texts like this is to do the opposite of weeding which is filling the gaps. I think that weeding encourages more processing than gap filling however. In fact I think it pushes the learners to follow the Green Cross Code of reading; to zoom in on every single word and especially to notice what goes on either side of each word.

What do you think about text weeding? Do you, or could you, use it in your classes? What other strategies do you use for encouraging learners to notice the language of texts? Please share your ideas in the comments below.


Brown, Phillip R. (1994): Lexical collocation: A strategy for advanced learners. Modern English Teacher, 3 (2), 24-27.

Krashen, Stephen (1993) The Power of Reading; Libraries Unlimited

Rinvolucri, Mario and Davis, Paul (1995): More Grammar Games ; CUP