Storytelling with a twist (or many twists)

This week we have a post from long term Hands Up Project volunteer, Filip Rakocevic. Filip is an English teacher in Belgrade, Serbia and for a while now he’s been working collaboratively through HUP with Ashraf Kuheil in a boys elementary school in Gaza city. I love the way this activity involves everyone in the storytelling process.

In the world of storytelling it is important to use a range of techniques and approaches. I I’ve just recently entered this world of teaching English through stories but I would like to share an idea which I think might be an excellent tool to further improve the quality of the content we give to our young learners.

It has been a while since I was in touch with my inner child and I guess that all of us stop using our imagination so much as we grow older. One day while I was daydreaming it came to me that our students would also like to tell stories to us, but sadly some of them don’t quite have enough language to be able to do this. Luckily I’ve found  a way to include them even more and give them more and more power over the stories we tell them.

Instead of just me speaking and then them doing some activities I realised that I could create something where they would have complete control over the story. I decided to create an interactive story where they would be given options with carefully planned consequences which could give them valuable lessons.

I am fortunate enough to be teaching a group of 20 boys in a school in Gaza, together with the amazing and helpful Ashraf Kuhail.

filip post 3

I wrote a story from scratch with many various plot twists and options to choose from.
The outline of the story talked about a group of 20 brave warriors who have undertaken an important mission to carry an important religious book to Jerusalem. On their way they were faced with many challenges.

The first one was the giant magical snake that stood in their path. They were given the option to sacrifice their horses and run or stay and fight the snake. They decided to fight the snake and almost managed to kill it. Then the snake offered them three gifts to choose from and in turn they would spare the snake’s life. It offered them a map, water or food. The boys decided to take the map because they believed it would tell them where the nearest water source is, as well as helping them on their journey. I asked them to explain every decision they made to make them aware of the seriousness of their choices. They continued with their journey and managed to find a lake using the map they had previously attained, but unfortunately the lake was guarded by a wizard. He told them that the water inside the lake is poisonous and that it would surely kill them. He offered to help them if they answered one of his riddles. The boys successfully answered the riddle, drank and continued. Next, they stumbled across an army of scorpions and were given the option of again fleeing and sacrificing their horses or fight. They used fire to break through the scorpions surrounding them. In the last desert challenge, they were faced with a relentless sandstorm threatening to blow them away. I asked them to come up with a way to overcome this difficulty and their solution was to tie themselves to one another and use shields to face the wind and move as one so that none of them would be swept by the wind. After several days of a difficult journey, they finally reached the city of Jerusalem where they faced an even greater difficulty, one in the form of a man. The king was dying and his evil son was in charge of the city, a son who had no respect of any tradition. He wanted to take the book from these young 20 warriors but they fought bravely and now controlled the evil prince. They were given the option of killing him but they decided to spare his life and send him from the city. The king learned of this and sent for them. He asked them to let him see the book which they finally did only after checking whether he was a good man. In return he gave them the keys to the city, now they were the ones who would rule. Their first task was to choose a king which they did, while others were appointed as his advisors. The king’s first decision was to banish all the bad people from the city and create a peaceful environment where there would be no judgment, war or cruelty.

Filip post 1

At the end of the class I asked the students to tell me what they learned from this story. They stated: ‘’It is better to use your mind than your muscles’’, ‘’We must be united’’, ‘’We must think before we do something’’ etc. Their classroom teacher, Ashraf was guiding their choices all the way and together we made them aware of how important their actions and decisions are.

They had complete control of the story and I had to change much of my original plan because their creativity and sharpness required more detailed and greater challenges. They challenged my imagination and in turn I fed theirs. I think that this type of storytelling really makes them feel in control, gives them a sense of ownership and therefore engages them much more than during conventional storytelling.

filip post 2

Hands Up, Heads Together: Brainstorming Sessions for Volunteers


Hi, I’m Divya. I volunteer for the Hands Up Project, which is, to me, one of the most salubrious, stimulating, high-impact spaces in the world of language teaching. Like most volunteers, I relish my hour a week of accompanying an English teacher in Gaza, with group of children I’ve grown, needlessly to say, very attached to, and whom I have lots of fun preparing lessons for. I’m rediscovering, after 18 years of teaching, the warm fuzz of designing an activity that gets a child excited about language learning.

This weekend I got together with a few other Hands Up Project volunteers, to launch our first, in a series of, feedback and development sessions for fellow volunteers. We talked about the unique reality of being a virtual presence in a classroom, which some of us are new to; we exchanged ideas on how we manage the dialogue and space. We dished out our tales of individual creativity, intuition and the extra-mile responses that we find ourselves needing to tap into, when we experience the inevitable computer-says-no moment (I found myself mimicking something not dissimilar to the Dream House sequence in Modern Times recently at one such moment). We talked about rhythm in particular and the wholly different ciphers to gauging lesson dynamics as a remote teacher. We shared smiles, stories and little bits of classroom wisdom that these kinds of conversations bring. And we’ve decided to keep going. So the next session will be on March 15th.

Save the date and see you there!



Feedback on the finalists

I’ve collated and condensed some of the many comments from the judges to create a short paragraph about all the winning plays. We very much look forward to awarding all of these plays their trophies, and to seeing their live performances in the West Bank over the next year.  Huge congratulations to you all!

A Stranger Within – Al Rimal Prep Girls School A

“An excellent ensemble play held together strongly by the central actress with passion and conviction, and very well supported by her fellow performers. A very original set and backdrop which is visually very stimulating.  Beautifully written and competently delivered rhyming lines, ending with a powerful message about our indomitable human spirit.”


Don’t Look Back – New Khan Younis Prep Girls School

“A very clever idea to use the screen as the magic mirror to enable powerful close up acting which connects very strongly to the audience. A beautifully produced, enchanting, original fairy tale with a very mature and real theme, conveying a deep and universal message from the human consciousness. Stunning work!”  


Hand in Hand – Abasan Prep Girls School

“Very nicely produced play exploring the dark and light sides of what it is to be human. Passionately acted and sung, and creatively set, the play challenges the idea of dwelling too much on the past, instead declaring that with hope, love and beauty in out hearts we can make a difference to the future.”


Hands Up – Al Aqsa Elementary School B

“Combining great comic acting and timing, with a deadly serious message about the need to stand up for the rights of  oppressed people around the world, this play is excellently produced with some great effects and background music. It makes us smile and cry at the same time, and the song at the end is beautifully and tenderly delivered.”  


Hope – Hajjah Girls Secondary School, Qalqilia

“A highly striking opening with the mother delivering her heart-felt lines right into the eye of the camera but through the bars limiting her freedom. This play shows a snapshot of daily life under occupation. It is very well acted by the entire cast and overcomes the challenges of filming outside extremely well.” 


I Can – Mae’n prep boys school

“A very moving take on how hope and effort can be stronger that the external limitations placed on our innermost dreams. The boys have created an excellent piece of remote theatre, turning the limitations of the fixed camera to their advantage, and delivering a vital but uplifting message through powerful physical theatre.” 


I Can Smell Her – Gaza Elementary Girls ‘B’ School  (More judges voted for this play than any other as their overall favourite. It will therefore be invited to the UK in April)

“Highly innovative and original production, combining shadow theatre with close up, very engaging acting. Extremely imaginative use of the space -especially the transition between the two worlds. This play explores the universal theme of losing a loved one in an unsentimental but deeply moving way and, above all, the incredible resilience of children”  


It’s Your Choice – Beach Prep Girls School C

“A classy story, cleverly combining clear narration, flowing natural English, ‘a play within a play’, and a refection on modern society (with the Cinderella shoes as a brilliant metaphor). It’s very well written and acted with a clear moral that is played out rather than preached to us. An extremely engaging and inspiring performance”


I Will Wait Until They Open The Gate – Beach Elem. Co-ed School (C)

“This hauntingly moving ensemble play symbolically portrays the frustrations, and also the determination and resilience, of children living with the consequences of the blockade. It’s supported by very strong yet simple, cyclical dialogue and excellent acting, and a great set and sound effects. Very well written and very well performed.”   


One World Different Stories – Al Rimal Prep Girls School B

“A tender rendition of yearning for humanitarian values in the face of oppression, this play explores the Palestinian experience but also our universal need as humans to connect and to be understood. It includes excellent close up camera work with playful and committed acting, enabling the audience to feel deeply immersed in the experience.”


Othman the Honest –  Khan Younis prep boys school

“A wonderful parable play with an unexpected twist at the end – clearly delivered and skilfully and sensitively performed by a group of boys. Visually very attractive, this play uses an excellent backdrop, costumes and props to tell a universally relevant story about the value of honesty.”


Success Story  – Japanese Girls School, Aqqaba

“This is a very well structured story, expertly delivered to span several generations, all in the space of five minutes. It was an inspired idea to have the diary entries come to life in front of the audience’s eyes. The English used is fluent and clear and the acting and setting are natural and believable. Great team effort with an uplifting ending.”


The Living Song –  Beit Hanoun Elm. Co-ed “D” School

“A heart warming portrayal of family life, this play provides a very original storyline performed by confident, well-composed actresses and an outstanding delivery by the daughter. The interaction flowed very smoothly and the scene changes and time changes were slickly and professionally managed. Great work!”


The Lord of Show – Tel- Al sultan Elementary school

“Good, clear, confident acting and an excellent connection to the audience in this interesting play about the value of team work. Performing in a circle worked very well – as did their close up camera work. The costumes and set and the overall theme of the play is quirky and highly engaging.” 


The Play of the Play – Al Fukhari Prep. Girls School

“A wonderfully creative and truly innovative play and performance – breaking through conventions of theatre and playing with the concept of remote theatre by making it about the competition itself. The actors were full of wit, charisma, energy and joy and the language was very clear and natural”


The Shadow Girl –  Asma Prep Girls B School

Intelligent, well balanced and professionally produced ensemble play about the dangers of social media addiction. It is beautifully choreographed, incorporating fine acting, enchanting singing, clear well-projected voices and a fantastic backdrop painted by one of the students. A very important message for the modern world.”


The Sky is your Limit – Al Madina Al Monawara Prep Girls

“Nicely produced play about the inner thoughts of children living under occupation with some exciting special effects using sound and lighting and some passionate acting. A great team effort where lots of work has clearly gone on behind the scenes in planning the performance and in creating the fantastic costumes.” 


The Story of a Homeland – Al Madina Al Munawara Girls School, Rafah

“A very creatively planned shadow theatre performance using confident narration and well-rehearsed physical acting to tell the story of Palestine. It was an ingenious idea to combine the shadows with projected images and music. The actors work really well together, becoming not only people of different ages, but also animals, trees and even buildings” 
















The Remote Theatre Finalists 2019

This year there were far more plays submitted than last year and the standard was incredibly high. The huge, international panel of 77 judges have finally reached a very difficult decision and it is as follows :-

There were 180 plays submitted for the competition: 40 performed by younger girls, 20 by younger boys and mixed, 20 by older girls from the West Bank, 80 by older girls from Gaza, and 20 by older boys and mixed. Each of these groups is represented in the final by 10% of the total number of submissions for their category.  They are listed alphabetically in each category below.

Younger girls 

I can smell herGaza Elementary Girls ‘B’ School

I will wait until they open the gateBeach Elem. Co-ed School (C)

The Living Song –  Beit Hanoun Elm. Co-ed “D” School 

The story of a homelandAl Madina Al Munawara Girls School, Rafah


Younger boys and mixed 

Hands UpAl Aqsa Elementary School B

The Lord of Show – Tel- Al sultan Elementary school


Older girls – West Bank

Hope – Hajjah Girls Secondary School, Qalqilia

Success Story  – Japanese Girls School, Aqqaba


Older Girls – Gaza

A Stranger Within – Al Rimal Prep Girls School A

Don’t Look Back – New Khan Younis Prep Girls School

Hand in Hand – Abasan Prep Girls School

It’s Your Choice – Beach Prep Girls School C

One World Different Stories – Al Rimal Prep Girls School B

The Play of the Play – Al Fukhari Prep. Girls School

The Shadow Girl –  Asma Prep Girls B School

The Sky is your Limit – Al Madina Al Monawara Prep Girls


Older boys and mixed

I can – Mae’n prep boys school

Othman the Honest –  Khan Younis prep boys school


On behalf of the judges, the trustees of the Hands Up Project, and all the HUP volunteers around the world, we would like to express our warmest congratulations to all the finalists. All of these plays will be awarded with trophies and will be invited to perform their plays in the West Bank over the next year. One of these plays will be invited to perform at the HUP conference in the UK in April, but this decision will be made later.

Because of the huge number of entries and the very high standard, inevitably some excellent plays have not made it to the final. We would like to also congratulate every single child, teacher and school in Palestine who took part for your creative ideas, your hard work and your commitment to improve your English through making remote theatre. We will be providing detailed feedback to every play over the next month.




Telling our story to the world…

Why do we learn foreign languages? Well, one good reason, perhaps the single most important one, is so that we might more easily be able to tell our story and our stories to the world. And this is important of course because ultimately we want people to understand us, to know who we are and how we live. This point was really brought home to me as the 180 plays started to come in for this year’s remote theatre competition for Palestinian children.

The vast majority of the plays arrived during the last two days before the deadline (many in the last few hours!), and we suddenly needed to find a much larger panel of judges than last year. We were lucky to be able to amass a team of 77 people in 23 different countries around the world; teachers of English, drama teachers, educational drama specialists, actors, storytellers, playwrights, directors, authors and university lecturers and students. They are people who write plays and act in them or direct them, but also people who just appreciate good theatre.

So massive congratulations to every single student, teacher and school in Palestine who took part in the competition by submitting a play. You are all winners! Together you have already told your stories of what it is to be a young person in Palestine to the judges, and these stories will be told again to many, many more people around the world when the videos eventually go public on our youtube channel. Here are some general comments from a few of the judges about the experience of watching your plays. They’d like me to pass them on to you all.

“Thanks again for letting me have the opportunity to look at another tranche of videos. As I’m sure you do, I get quite emotionally overcome watching these brilliant, talented young people and thinking of the danger and deprivation that they have to endure. Quite apart from anything else, I think these films need to be shown to an international audience so people can see what it means to be a child in Palestine”

“That was difficult… so much talent, strong messages, deeply portrayed emotions, imaginative use of costume and scenery, well framed action, strong symbolism, sensitive use of music, passion and belief, taking on and tackling ‘big issues’, expressing mature themes with feelings. It’s quite overwhelming to see young people looking at such deep issues and finding ways of expressing them with heart and soul. Power to you all! Thank you for opening many windows in my life…”

“Once again thank you for asking me to watch these short plays, and for reminding me how powerful drama and telling stories in different ways can be.  It was wonderful to see such a range, and I do so wish I could show them to my own students, and even do this kind of thing where I work. What a stunning level of English these young people have!”

“Thanks very much for inviting us to take part in judging these very powerful plays. A real privilege – we were very moved. Please tell all the young actors and their teachers how much we enjoyed seeing them down here on the other side of the world!”

“I’m so glad to see so many talented young children and also happy to know that they had the opportunity to learn through making a play, to reflect upon their own reality, to interact with each other and through the camera, to use their creativity and imagination. Congratulations to you all!!!”

“Thank you to all the young people for the immense privilege of watching and judging their plays. One criteria for assessing theatre is does the play help us understand the experience of being human. Well together they all do this, tremendously”

We will also be providing specific feedback, based on the judges comments by email to every single play, but please bear with us on this. With 180 plays it’s going to take a while, but we’ll do it as quickly as we can.

I would also like to personally thank and congratulate all participants too for throwing yourselves into, what I believe is, the first Remote Theatre competition to take place anywhere in the world. Doing the competition as Remote Theatre (one take only with a fixed camera position, and no editing) has levelled the playing field a little bit because it means that the actors have to depend much more on their abilities to use English and on their acting skills, rather than on the techniques of the film maker. It’s more challenging but better for English language development, and I’m so pleased to see that you’ve risen to the challenge very well with creativity, commitment and sheer hard work.

Another reason for doing the competition in this way is so that you have some ready made remote theatre pieces which can be performed through zoom at schools, or in theatres, or at conferences around the world. And we will do everything we can to enable this to happen as much as possible, because then, if you perform your plays with clarity and from the heart, and you do it in a way that helps us to see that it could be us in your story, then what may happen is that your story becomes our story. And this really is what our work in the Hands Up Project is all about.

Tomorrow on this blog we will be announcing the names of the 18 plays which have been chosen by the judges as the finalists in this year’s competition.

zaheya - eye contact

A video exchange with Japan?

A few days ago I received an email from Masako Moriwaki,  a teacher of English in Japan.

Masako used to teach English in Brazil and when she was there we arranged several live link ups between her Brazilian teenage students and students of a similar age in Gaza. One of these sessions were coordinated through Zoom by Filip, a long term HUP volunteer, who lives in Serbia. You can read about Filip’s experience of this link up here.

Masako’s studnets went on to do lots of project based learning around the Hands Up Project, and organised several fund raising events including a Palestinian food evening, and a Haloween party. You can read about this here.

Now Masako is interested in linking her younger learners in Japan with children of a similar age in Palestine. By way of an introduction, here are some videos that the Japanese children have already made – about drama, about cookery and and about karate. When the new semester starts in Palestine how about helping your students make some similar videos to send to them. This could also lead to doing a live link up with the children there.  Please let us know if you’d like to be involved and we can start organising it.





From Lima with love..

As a writer of English language teaching materials, I like it when a teacher comes up to me at a conference and tells me that they’ve tried out an activity in one of my books and that it worked really well. It’s particularly fulfilling when I discover that actually they’ve adapted the activity quite a bit to suit their own teaching context, as this means that they haven’t just blindly followed the instructions but have really taken it to heart.

One of the reasons for deciding to publish 30 of the plays from last year’s competition in a book was because we wanted the authors of those plays – the Palestinian young people who created them – to have a similarly satisfying experience. I’m really pleased that the plays are now being performed in various different contexts around the world. For me this is the ultimate acknowledgement of their work and of the power of drama to make connections between people.

In mid-October I received the following email from a lecturer at IPMN (Instituto Pedagógico Nacional Monterrico) a university in Lima Peru.

Dear Nick,

I had the pleasure to be present in one of your presentations in Peru, sponsored by  the British Council   (IATEFL – Peru) 2018. There, you encouraged us to be part of this project and perform some of the plays made by Palestinian young people with our students. Thrilled by the idea of doing something different with my students and – at the same time – making them aware of current issues that the world suffers, I invited them to use their English and go beyond what we normally do in our classes. They gladly accepted and I would like to know how we can participate making the videos you mentioned. I have 22 students willing to be part of Hands up project. I am looking forward to hearing from you.
Xiuxa Ruiz.

I immediately sent Xiuxa a copy of the book for her students to choose some plays to work with, and we’ve been communicating through email ever since. I really like the way they’ve used this as a project, not only to learn the lines of the play, but also to learn about the context in which the plays were written.

On Tuesday evening Xiuxa sent me links to videos of their own interpretations of the five plays that they chose to work with and here they are. They’ve remained true to the original script wherever possible but also adapted them to suit the context where appropriate. Great job everyone and special thanks to Xiuxa for making it happen!

Sa’sa’ and Ma’ma’

Pottery and Rain

Little hypocrites

The fighter

I have a dream

If anyone around the world would like to do something similar with your students then copies of ‘Toothbrush and other plays’ can be ordered here. 

Rehearsing the Palestinian plays in Peru