Teach Play Love: The Hands Up Project Belfast Conference 2022 – Why teach play love? / Things that make me…

Not enough conferencing this week 🙂 I had a free day in Belfast and found out that The Hands Up Project were running their online conference, so decided to attend. There will be separate posts for each talk to be kind to my iPad – I’ll add links here next week.

If you’ve never heard of The Hands Up Project, take a look at their website. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Nick Bilbrough set up a project to work with teachers in the Gaza Strip, Palestine. It’s designed to amplify the voices of young people in Palestine, and around the world. They run many innovative projects, including writing plays

Why Teach Play Love? – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury, a trustee of The Hands Up Project, suggested the theme ‘Teach Play Love’ for this year.

Teach: Not just about the delivery of information, but it takes place in a particular place with particular people.

While other classes in the curriculum activate mostly the brain, the language class engages the whole body, its… [I missed the end of this]

Clare Kramsch

Play: language play is good for learners, because they can experiment with language and functions.

A person who can play with a language in creative and socially-effective ways – to tell a joke or a story – could certainly also buy an airline ticket. The reverse is not necessarily true.

Guy Cook

Drama is inherently good for language because it’s participatory, co-constructed, aural and oral, expressive, creative, transformative. Plays, like ‘Toothbrush’ and the rest of The Hands Up Project book, are a great way to learn.

Love: emotion is a very important vehicle for practising and learning language.

Things that made me go [emoji!] – Chris Sowton

In support of emojis

  • Powerful communicative tool, especially in challenging circumstances
  • Bridge gaps between teachers and students – a kind of inter language
  • Allow students the opportunity to express themselves in a way they might not otherwise

Blob trees are also a useful tool for this.

Teaching in Challenging Circumstances [https://tinyurl.com/TeachinginCC] is an open access book from Cambridge to support teachers with practical ideas.

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

Paulo Freire

Here’s are some extracts from the book:

Countering dominant narratives about teachers

We need a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

Ukraine: teachers as frontline workers

This was Chris’s first experience of working with teachers in a conflict area. They were webinars run by Cambridge – to have people in the same place at the same time talking about the same issues. Questions from teachers included:

  • What is the purpose of learning English right now? It speaks to a possible future, a brighter tomorrow. It gives parents respite from the situation they’re in.
  • How do I assess my students in a conflict situation? Moving away from traditional areas, thinking about progress in different ways. Just the act of being in class was a triumph.
  • What do I do when I hear an air raid siren going off in class?

What he learnt:

  • The challenge to think quickly and adapt
  • The value of collegiality and being in the same place at the same time
  • The importance of specialist skills and knowledge (e.g. drama, well-being, conflict) as teachers are on the frontline
  • The impact which making materials open source can have (thank you Cambridge) – we need to get great quality stuff out there so teachers can use it, and there’s so much great stuff which is sitting there not being used
  • It shouldn’t take a crisis to challenge widespread, systemic educational failure

Jordan: teachers as safe spaces

There is an emotional and psychological value place on learning language.

There is a strong motivation of students in refugee situations.

There is a difference in the way boys and girls are taught. In the girls class, there was much more engagement and a positive atmosphere. In the boys class, the teaching was much more teacher-centred.

Here are three extracts from a British Council report touching on these three issues:

What Chris learnt

  • The classroom can be a space for imagining different futures, which can reflect positively on the present
  • How talking about trauma in a second language can provide therapeutic benefit
  • Multilingualism should be valued more – and certified where possible (not just focussing on English). How can we create a certification process which values skills in multiple languages?
  • Languages are crucial for increasing all forms of capital, but the system doesn’t always support this: NGOs work in silos (due to funding), certification is hard to obtain, and tech-first/tech-only solutions (apps/websites will be the only answer – but it’s much more sophisticated than this)

Palestine: teachers as enablers of latent skills and knowledge

The extraordinary desire and demand for development.

When Chris does training, he has a 20/ 60 / 20 model in his head – 20% of participants will love everything, 20% will not be interested, and 60% will be in the middle. In Palestine, he had a 5 / 55 / 40 model – 40% were very engaged.

Teachers are agents of social change.

What Chris learnt

  • Even in highly challenging circumstances, teachers are willing to – and benefit from – play (e.g. a snowball fight)
  • There is a repository of latent creativity and skills which need – demand – an outlet.
  • Teachers can make the present palatable and the future desirable [I love this quote!]
  • The virtual world provides opportunities which the physical world isn’t always able to – and language is what can facilitate that. It allows for further support after face-to-face training, along with many other opportunities.

General: teachers as deskilled, disempowered, disregarded pawns

Individual constraints: a teacher who had been given training, but when she went back to her school her headteacher stopped her from implementing the training, even though she was keen and interested and wanted to do so. If other stakeholders are dragging you back, then your training can be more frustrating – you know what you want to do, but aren’t in a position to do it.

Stakeholder constraints: teachers in Nepal regularly feedback back about parental view on student-led learning = chaos and lack of discipline. We need to adopt a whole-school approach, and train everybody, not just the teachers.

Systemic constraints: emphasis on quantity rather than quality, we measure training in number of trainings run rather than impact they have. Start with the impact: what’s the change we want to see, and work back from that. This is particularly an issue with funding, including how frequently the funding happen – what change can you realistically make on a one / two year cycle? We end up with conservative approaches because the cycle is too short for experimentation.

National constraints: language policy in South Sudan (Chris’s EdD research), there is the choice of English as the Medium of Instruction for political reasons, but there are very few people in the country who speak it. This has an impact on people across the education system.

Geopolitical constraints: Somaliland – teachers are targets, and schools can be the locus of political violence. The school is often the only recognisable part of the state in a particular area.

Lebanon: teachers as humans with histories

People’s instinct is always to teach as they were taught. Breaking those habits is extremely difficult, especially in challenging circumstances.

Teachers greatly value the opportunity to share how they are feeling – but need prompting. Storytelling is one way to do this.

An activity Chris did:

  • Groups of 6
  • A piece of paper with 6 boxes per person: each teacher write a title
  • Next person: carry the story on – who are the characters in the story
  • Next person: draw a picture which represents that story
  • Next: write the first paragraph of the story

This is a way to explore how you feel through the cloak of anonymity. If you just gave a piece of blank paper to a teacher and said ‘write a story’, they would be unlikely to do this.

Another activity to link emotions to learning the alphabet:

This helps young students to realise that they can have a positive impact on somebody’s life. It’s a simple, but powerful approach.

What Chris learnt

  • The value of puppets – linguistically, pedagogically, psychologically – children make puppets, and teach them things, and learn hugely in the process
  • How learning materials can have positive psychosocial messages embedded – how important this is when other services are unavailable or severely constrained
  • Decontextualised research which has no clear practical impact and which is driven by outside interests is valueless. We have to engage with the people we’re researching

Indonesia: teachers as trusted guides

At a university: 60-70 people, arms folded, why are you here, resistant to change

At a language school: as soon as you walk into the school, there is an atmosphere of play. Children and teachers in the photos as you entered the school – what happens as you enter this space.

What Chris learnt

  • Teaching hierarchies based on longevity are complete and utter nonsense
  • Also true based on where you teach

Nigeria: teachers as professionals who need ongoing support

Little has changed in methodology over the past 20 years. This programme is new: TARL = Teaching at the right level. Mixing up 3 years at the school so that they’re split by level, not age, especially when there are very large classes.

However, lack of support in the field for teachers.

Multi-tiered cascades present challenges in the quality of delivery.

What Chris learnt

  • Radical thinking can help unlock ‘insolvable’ problems.
  • Delivering large programmes needs strong admin and structures – without this, it’s irrelevant how good the materials are
  • Materials can be a way of delivering support and CPD to teachers – the training is embedded
This was a lesson plan Chris created, which was translated into the local language. There was a lot of guidance for the teacher, but also the opportunity to do things their own way. The footnotes give training information.

Promote realistic, accurate images of teachers


For all of the slides and other resources from Chris, go to http://tinyurl.com/teachplaylove

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