Bringing language to life through drama

I’ve just got back from 3 weeks in Palestine, running drama club leader training courses for around 120 UNRWA teachers in five different locations: Southern Gaza, Northern Gaza, Jerusalem area, Hebron area and Nablus area. The plan is that these teachers will set up English drama clubs in their schools when the new semester starts in September, and that these clubs will feed into the online weekly link ups that the Hands Up Project organises.

still image gaza

But the courses weren’t just about promoting drama as an extra curricular activity. I also wanted to share some simple drama activities which could be easily integrated into the teachers’ normal English classes, and which could complement their work with the coursebook, English for Palestine.

Here’s a nice activity for practising a dialogue from the coursebook in a motivating way. The dialogue goes down the line and is repeated by each person, but each line is said in a very angry way. It can be very engaging to perform and to watch and, in my opinion, it’s a great way to make the language that they are practising very memorable. It could be done with practically any short dialogue using the target language from the coursebook.

And here’s another, this one involving a volunteer coming to the front to be interviewed by the rest of the class.  The idea is that this student at the front creates a character by answering the questions not as him or herself but by spontaneously answering with invented answers. Here the volunteer is wearing a mask and a hat and has become a pirate. The questions that came up (and his answers) were very interesting, and focussed around what made him choose a life of crime and how he could live with himself for doing it.

When the activity is done with students with limited English it can be just as engaging even though linguistically it may be very simple (What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have children etc?). Here’s the same activity being used in an online link up session at Mamounia girls UNRWA school in Gaza city. After creating several characters in this way the students decided that it would be interesting to see what would happen if some of the characters met.

I first learnt both of these activities from ELT author and founder of the English Teaching Theatre, Ken Wilson, when he demonstrated them more than 10 years ago at a drama and language learning day that I organised at SOAS in London. Ken also included them in his brilliant book, Drama and Improvisation (OUP 2008). Thanks a lot Ken!


Live your life, live your dreams

By David Heathfield

‘We always have our dreams’ 13-year-old Shaza in Gaza tells 73-year-old Japanese Hiroshi who, along with Eunji and KC from South Korea are in one of the classes I teach in Exeter, UK. The Internet connection is weak at both ends so we huddle around my mobile in the classroom. Video is impossible so we are straining to understand the erratic audio. But not to worry, the message comes across loud and clear. ‘Thanks to The Hands Up Project, we can communicate with people all over the world through the Internet,’ adds Razan.

Shaza, Razan, Sally, Malak and Marwa from Beit Hanoun prep girls school A Gaza, with the support of their teachers Manal Ismail and Rinan Al Muzanin, devised, scripted, rehearsed, performed and video-recorded a five-minute play which they entered in the 2017 Hands Up Project playwriting and performing competition. They have been doing online storytelling classes with Nick BiIbrough for a couple of years and are used to creative and playful English learning. I had the privilege of being one of the judges and was totally blown away by all the entries I watched in early January. Live Your Life stuck in my memory because of the simple and powerful message that families need to support their daughters’ desire to follow their dreams, and also because of the sheer dynamism and commitment of the five girls’ performances. So when Nick Bilbrough published his article and the script of Live Your Life in the IATEFL Young Learners SIG magazine , I couldn’t wait to show it to my class of five adult Japanese and South Korean students. They were amazed to read and learn about The Hands Up Project and liked the script so much, especially when they watched the girls’ vibrant performance on youtube.

Hiro, Eunji and KC closely related to the storyline and characters in Live Your Life and talked about the universality of the theme, particularly referring to changing attitudes in Japan and South Korea. They were eager to rehearse and perform the play themselves in the following day’s two-hour lesson so that they could show their version to the girls in Gaza who had created it. The five students cast themselves in the five roles and I suggested that they start learning their lines for the next day.

At the start of the next day’s class the students did their first read-through and we focused on pronunciation and emotion. Then, to my amazement, they put their scripts down and did it all over again. They had memorised the lines overnight, such was their enthusiasm. Learning by heart appears to be a skill many Japanese and South Korean people develop when they are young. We turned the classroom into a simple set and the students tried out a few bits of costume and props I had brought in. Immediately these students, who, with the exception of Eunji in the role of the controlling mother, had never done any theatre in their lives, threw themselves into rehearsal and, with a little direction, they were ready to do their final video-recorded performance five minutes before the end of the class.

Their performance had quite a different feel from what the girls in Gaza had achieved. The energy was gentler and the pace was slower, but the sincerity was beautiful to witness. The simple explanation is that they were performing for an audience they cared about. Immediately after they finished they recorded a spontaneous message for the girls in Gaza.

The next time I saw my class a week later, they had been reading about the situation in Gaza. They watched their own performance which I had uploaded to youtube on a private setting and were glad to make it public. After reading more about Gaza from the UNRWA site , they decided they wanted to write an email to the girls and their teacher, Manal (see below). KC, who played the daughter with dreams of being a writer, chose an uplifting poem to accompany the message. In the next lesson they worked on their pronunciation and made a recording of the poem to send the girls.

And then yesterday we made the phone call. Each of the five girls in Gaza expressed themselves powerfully, each addressing the student in Exeter who played the same role she herself had played.

Nothing is more powerful in language learning than theatre when there is a desire to communicate as best you can with an audience. Thanks to The Hands Up Project for making this possible. The procedure described here is easy, natural, motivating and can be adapted to just about any teaching context. Let’s get students around the world performing the plays created by these amazing young people in Palestine.


Hello Manal, Malak, Shaza, Razan, Sally and Marwa

Congratulations on your amazing play ‘Live Your Life’. I teach English to international adult students at INTO University of Exeter in SW England. I was honoured to be one of the judges for the HUP playwriting competition and I fell in love with your creation. A class of international students who I am teaching, in response to watching your play, wanted to stage it themselves and send it as a tribute to you. Here is their own version of Live Your Life along with a video appreciating your creation Yesterday they read about Gaza on the UNRWA website and today they have written you messages here below. Hiro, Ryotaro and Ayana are from Japan and Eunji and KC are from South Korea. Ryotaro who played the role of father, like Malak, finished his course last Friday so there is no message from him here – before he left, he told me that he really enjoyed the experience.

Many best wishes to you all


Dear Shaza Hamad,

 I am writing this e-mail to thank you for your play, “LIVE YOUR LIFE”. Our teacher David Heathfield was kind enough to let us see a nice video of your play last week in his class. We were so impressed that we laughed one minute, sympathized the next. I, as a grandfather of two boys myself, was truly convinced that family issues, especially the relationships between the generations, are so common beyond countries, races and cultures.

To your surprise, we, five students, two Korean, three Japanese played your script. Naturally ours is poor given that we only had just two hours rehearsal.

But after we knew more about the extraordinary situation you were in, my simple thanks have changed to my sincere admiration for you. As I have never been to Gaza, I even cannot imagine the real life there, but it should be a very tough one. 

I hope you live strong and brisk as ever and I pray you get peace and independence back as soon as possible.

Hiro Aoto from Exeter UK

Dear Razan Hweihi and your friends,

Thank you for sharing your great video with us. I really enjoyed watching it and I was really impressed.

I acted the role of younger sister like you! The younger sister has a great dream and she tries to persuade her mother. Because I couldn’t act very well like you, I respect you. I think your acting makes people cheer up.

If you enjoy our play, I will be happy.

I read an article about the situation in Gaza and I was so shocked about it and also I felt so guilty for you because I didn’t know about that.

I really admire you guys because even in a very difficult situation, you never give up having dreams and receiving education.

I hope your dreams come true and the situation will get better.

Yours sincerely,

Ayana Murai (the Japanese woman who acted the role of younger sister)


Dear Sally & your friends

Hi, Sally! I’m Eunji from South Korea. I’m studying in the UK. Because my teacher showed us your video, we tried to act it out! And I acted the role of mother like you. It was a little difficult to play because of many lines! How did you remember them? Finally I memorized them all, but I couldn’t focus on my facial expression and accent. However your performance was strong.

Especially I like the scene where the mother walked around the calendar. It was a good expression of the passing of time. I was impressed. You acted the characteristics of the mother really well and it was a very nice delivery of words. So I really respect you. Of course, I liked the acting of other friends too. Haha. After acting, I was interested in Gaza. So I searched some information through the internet. Also I could learn what I didn’t know about Gaza.

Thank you for creating the video and the fantastic acting! I really enjoyed it and had a good time. I hope your dreams become true!

Best wishes,



Hi Marwa Hamad!

My name is HyonJu Ham(KC).

I am the person who took the same role which you acted in the play “Live your life”.

Now, I am studying English in the UK and I will go back to my hometown in South Korea next month. During our English class, our teacher David introduced us your play and I really enjoyed it.

When David proposed that we just tried to perform the play which you guys did, I felt nervous, because I am a passive and introverted person.

I had never thought about myself as an actress in my life and whenever I saw plays, I thought that actors and actresses came from another world.

Anyway, after several rehearsals, we performed the play and we were able to watch the film which we made.

And the thing I felt after watching our film was how difficult it is for people who perform plays to express themselves and how talented they are.

Performing plays is totally different from watching plays.

So, now I know that you have a talent, especially, I looked at your strong voice, gestures and confidence in admiration.

I am really looking forward to seeing your great future.

Here is a poem for you:


Believe in Yourself

Set your standards high

You deserve the best.

Try for what you want

And never settle for less.

Believe in yourself

No matter what you choose.

Keep a winning attitude

And you can never lose.

Think about your destination

But don’t worry if you stray

Because the most important thing

Is what you’ve learned along the way.

Take all that you’ve become

To be all that you can be.

Soar above the clouds

And let your dreams set you free.

-Jillian K. Hunt-

I wish you live as you want and achieve whatever you want. Thank you for sharing your video and I hope to see your video again.^^

HyonJu Ham (KC)


Thinking outside the box

One of the things that I’ve been doing lately with my online groups in Palestine is telling puzzle stories. By this I mean stories which end with a question where the students have to work out the solution.

There are a number of reasons why I like this kind of story :-

  1. They push the learners to listen to the story in a lot of detail.
  2. They encourage the learners to ask a lot of questions. Often it’s teachers who ask all the questions in class but turning things around can give learners a stronger sense of control over their own learning.
  3. As these questions come out they involve a lot of retelling and revisiting of the story which I think is often necessary if any new language items are going to be retained by learners.
  4. They develop imagination and promote critical thinking – what we often term ‘thinking outside the box’

Sometimes these puzzles carry on between sessions and I ask them to try to work out the answer before the next session. And sometimes the students tell me their own puzzle stories and give me this homework task. The other day I was sharing some of the Palestinian kids’ puzzle stories over dinner and my 11 year old nephew, Zac, told us his own one.  It’s probably the hardest puzzle story I’ve ever heard.


In the video below you’ll see Zac’s puzzle story being used with a group at Mamounia girls UNRWA school in Gaza city. (you’ll see that this one is quite literally ‘thinking outside the box’ !) My challenge for you is to watch the video and try to work out the solution. The first person to write the correct solution in the comments here on the blog will win a copy of my second book Memory Activities for Language Learning (CUP 2011)

I’ll post a video of the solution, explained with the same class, next week. (see the solution in the comments below)

Astute followers of the Hands Up project’s work will notice that some of the girls in this video were also the runners up in the HUP playwriting competition, with their play ‘Window onto the outside‘. If you haven’t already seen it, you should. It’s a great piece of theatre and I imagine it involved a lot of thinking outside the box to make.


Team teaching in the Hands Up Project

We are Sahar, a teacher in Gaza, Palestine, and Alex, a Hands Up Project volunteer in Krasnador, Russia. We have been working together for two years. During this time we have built a strong bond between each other and the girls from Sahar’s school. Here we would like to share our experience of our team work within the Hands Up Project.

Is Distance an Obstacle?

Sahar: A great question in this era of fast communication. I’m in Gaza but we are in touch all the time. Our voices arrive there in Russia, our videos and photos are alive there. My students can ask, answer, give opinions and perform plays. Alex’s nice smile is also here in Gaza. Her voice and her interaction with the girls is so clear. This is why the internet is so great. Distance is not an obstacle at all.

Before the sessions

Sahar: Alex and I ask what we need to carry out the sessions. Sometimes we have activities like picture dictation, so I prepare colour pencils and A3 paper. On other occasions we need to perform plays , so we prepare masks. 

masks 1

masks 2

Alex: Throughout the whole process Sahar and I stay in touch over FB messenger. We discuss what is doable given the circumstances and conditions.

To begin my preparation I always keep in mind Sahar’s expectation of our sessions which is ‘lots of language practice, with an emphasis on speaking’ and involving in the action as many girls as possible. We might have from 20 to 40 girls in one session. 

sahar's students

Then I think of a story. My belief here is to expand the girls’ view of the world, so we try to include stories from all over the world. These could be either funny ones or those with a moral lesson. But the main request from the girls, as Sahar always reminds me, is to have the stories illustrated. I often use stories from Andrew Wright and David Heathfield.  

We do not often have time for everything we discuss and the main reason is connection. Over to Sahar!’


Sahar: As you might already know, we suffer from power cuts in Gaza , so sometimes we have cuts during the session or disconnection to the internet. In my room, I have to keep the situation focussed and calm when the power goes off. The girls try to do a kind of dialogue of what they did with Alex, or try to prepare questions for Alex. Sometimes they discuss what they learnt from the stories. I do my best to keep the girls motivated, enthusiastic and looking forward to completing the session. So, it’s a kind of challenge for me.

During the session

Alex: As soon as the session starts we spring into action. Sahar manages the girls while my work is to give instructions and listen attentively and react to the girls responses. Sahar doesn’t usually know what exactly is going to happen in the session, but she is quite good at adjusting any classroom situation to each activity we do, e.g. repeating my instructions if the sounds disappears. If something is impossible to do for any reason then I try to adjust such activities to new conditions, e.g. lack of time or the activity is not appropriate to the level of the students. (We often have different classes, so sometimes the level might be higher or lower)

Sahar:  There is always time for a game. The entire process is learner-centred. In our everyday teaching situation our main focus is to prepare the children for the future, therefore there’s exam preparation and a lot of curriculum-based work taking place. But the sessions within the Hands Up Project provide extra-curricular activities, which our learners enjoy so much. Below is a video of a moment from a session – these little teachers giving instructions to Alex for an activity.

After the session

Alex: After the session we usually have a short Facebook chat on what worked well and not very well, and possible ideas for the next week. Sahar tells me what the girls’ reaction to the session’s content was.

Sahar: After each session, we discuss what to consider for the next time . Sometimes it is easier to bring stories with pictures. Alex asks me what kind of games the girls like during the session. We also discuss how their speaking abilities are improving.

What the girls say

It is important for us to know what students liked or didn’t like. We are always very keen to do what meets their needs. I always like to get feedback after sessions to see what we can improve. Here what the girls say…

Remote theatre for children in challenging circumstances

At the IATEFL conference in Brighton last week, and again at the Hands Up Project conference at Westminster University which immediately followed it, Rida Thabet and I gave a talk about the special type of drama that The Hands Up Project is enabling Palestinian and Syrian children to perform through Zoom to audiences around the world. We have termed this form of drama Remote Theatre.

Why remote theatre?

If theatre is being used to tell a story to the outside world, then a basic requirement is an audience. But if you live in a place like Gaza, or the Occupied West Bank, or Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where movement out or in (or even within) is extremely limited, then an audience made up of anyone who comes from anywhere apart from your immediate surroundings is very difficult to come by.

Performing theatre through simple video-conferencing tools like Zoom enables children in these contexts to reach audiences in my diverse contexts around the world – to HUP volunteers in South America, Europe and the Far East, but also to classes of school children or conference delegates almost anywhere in the world.

What are the features of remote theatre?

Remote theatre is rather different of course from normal theatre where both the actors and the audience occupy the same space.  Remote theatre is one dimensional, in that the only view the audience have is what can been seen through the lens of the webcam. However this doesn’t mean that it can’t be engaging, and moving for the audience and the actors, providing that certain features are there. These may include:-

  1. The actors being as close as possible to the webcam.
  2. Speaking more slowly and clearly than is necessary in face-to-face theatre.
  3. Making eye contact with the audience by looking directly into the green light of the webcam wherever possible.
  4. Physicalising what is said wherever possible.
  5. Having very clear entrances and exits. When actors aren’t involved in a scene they should generally be out of the field of view of the webcam. There are interesting ways however in which they can make an entrance (for example appearing from underneath).

Many of these features can be seen in the snippet of video below, where a group of girls in Gaza are rehearsing (through Zoom) their interpretation of a story from English for Palestine called The wolf’s shoes

And they can also be seen in this great play written and performed by Dana Nawas, Rawan El Bahnasawi, Batool Mohsen, Nada El Khatib, and Raghad El Na’ami from Nuseirat Prep. A Girls School, Gaza with support from their teacher Mariam Abu Seifan. This play was performed live to great effect to everyone who came to our talk in Brighton.

There are many other great plays that were created by children in Palestine, which they would love to perform remotely to a class of kids of a similar age somewhere else in the world. You can access a video of many of these plays in this youtube playlist. If there is a particular theme that you are exploring with your students you may well find a play that relates to it. For instance..

-human rights  – Window onto the outside or When will the sun rise?

-family relationships  – Live your life   or My mother in law is a troublemaker

-plans for the future –    I have a dream or Stolen dreams

Please get in touch if you’d like to arrange something in your school.

Teachers’ Interaction During Videoconferencing – mediated Co-teaching

One of the things that I find most moving about the work of the Hands Up project is the relationship that develops between the remote teacher and the classroom teacher. Alex Guzik in Russia and Sahar Salha in Gaza have been working together for well over two years now, planning online sessions together, feeding back to each other after the online session has taken place – even negotiating together what will happen next while the session is going on.

I’m particularly looking forward to their joint talk at the Hands Up Project conference on the 14th April entitled, “Enhanced teacher performance through remote team-teaching”, where they’ll be sharing some ways in which their classroom practice has been improved through working together online. 

The interaction between this team teaching pair, and between others, has also been the subject of a Masters dissertation by Hornby scholar from Venezuela, Maricarmen Gamero, studying at the university of Warwick, and the following blog post, looking at some of her findings was kindly written by her.

Over to you MariCarmen….

alex screen


Videoconferencing- mediated co-teaching in the context of the Hands up Project is carried out by two instructors, who are in different geographical spaces, working collaboratively to enhance English language learning. The main purpose of applying such practice in an online setting is to give learners the opportunity to improve their language skills, and to have contact with other cultures, people and varieties of English. Obviously, the successful outcomes of the process rely mainly on the relationship dynamics between the classroom teacher (CT) and the remote teacher (RT). The former is the one who, at the time of the live session, shares the same space as the students in Palestine. The latter is the volunteer teacher in another country, for example Russia, England, Chile, Belgium, among others.

The common principles that sustain the relationship between the teachers are: 1. their social responsibility of contributing to the progress of communities in need; and 2. the value they give to innovation in their teaching practice, promoting change through the integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) to the classroom. Depending on those beliefs, and considering the purpose and moment of the process, each pair of teachers in the Hands up Project adopts a co-teaching model. This coincides with what Heo and Mann (2015) mention about co-teaching models, claiming that the adoption of a particular style depends on many contextual and personal factors. So, it is impossible to assert that there is a fixed model within a particular context or even within a particular teaching team for a prolonged time.

The relation between the CT and the RT becomes stronger or weaker depending on the time length and frequency of communication with each other, as well as the distribution of tasks between them. Commonly, they communicate in an asynchronous way during the planning and evaluation stages, and in a synchronous way mainly during the implementation stage. Hence, the mechanics of the relationship between teachers rely on the use of different ICT tools. For instance, emails and Facebook chats to agree upon logistic aspects of the videoconferencing-mediated sessions; and Google Docs to write reports about the activities carried out during them. This shows how co-teaching gives place to informal collaboration, as mentioned by Honigsfeld and Dove (2010), who highlight that such exchange of information can be done “via teacher mailboxes or designated folders, school e-boards, e-mail correspondence, blogs, and wikis” (p. 63).

During the planning stage, collaboration comprises feedback between the teachers who agree on how to enhance language learning for a specific group of students. The RT requires the help of the CT to verify the appropriateness of the content to the learners’ level and culture, as well as to arrange time, date and materials for the videoconferencing session. Owing to planning procedures, RTs have an opportunity for professional development when learning about cultural matters and putting into practice their skills for content adaptability.

During the implementation stage, the RT acts as the leader and the CT as support. The former delivers content through story-telling and the application of activities that promote critical thinking skills, and in which students experience intake and perform output. The CT is the one who sets the conditions for the videoconferencing, checking internet connection and the necessary devices for communication. The CT is also responsible for classroom management, monitoring and scaffolding. The RT depends on the CT´s help to clarify meaning, whether through translation or gestures, to check if instructions are being understood and to help learners answer questions.

Generally, in the days after the videoconferencing sessions, the CT teaches alternative information, since the content given in those sessions is seen as the introduction to the ones included in the formal curriculum. So, the CT develops the formal content using the vocabulary, phrases and story taught by the RT. On the other hand, when sessions are not completed owing to any external or technical interruption, the RT establishes follow-up activities with the CT. In this particular case, learners and the CT become a team preparing a performance for the RT. Owing to this; the teachers learn to trust their students’ skills, their relationship improves, and a climate of collaboration happens to be a key feature of the classrooms. Such benefits are analysed in the evaluation stage of videoconferencing- mediated co-teaching, which corresponds to the CT’s views about their students’ progress and their perceptions of the sessions.

The success of videoconferencing-mediated co-teaching depends not only on the tool itself, but on the interaction established between the RT and CT. The relation between teachers is reinforced through their interpersonal skills, and the use of other ICT tools that allow regular asynchronous communication. In that way, the rapport between teachers can give place to a community of practice that grows beyond teaching and includes researching, creating and implementing other classroom projects.

Likewise, the use of videoconferencing-mediated co-teaching brings opportunities of professional development for teachers, since the recordings of the sessions can be used to review the performance of the learners and as a self-reflection tool for teachers about their methodology and style. In fact, this is supported by the ideas of Tripp and Rich (2012) and Mann and Walsh (2017) who consider that reflecting on recorded class sessions can be beneficial for in-service teachers to make pedagogical decisions.



Heo, J., & Mann, S. (2015). Exploring team teaching and team teachers in Korean primary schools. English Language Teacher Education and Development Journal, 17(3). Retrieved from:

Honigsfeld, A. & Dove, M. G. (2010). Collaboration and co-teaching: Strategies for english learners. Doi: 10.4135/9781452219516.

Tripp, T., & Rich, P. (2012). Using video to analyze one’s own teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(4), 678-704. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01234.x.

Mann, S. & Walsh, S. Reflective practice in English language teaching. Research-based principles and practices. New York: Routledge.


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.