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A Pocketful Of Games

October 19 2008
ETJ Expo, Hiroshima
Machi Zukuri City Plaza

Aimed at: Teachers of Children
Topic Area: Learning Together
Materials Promoted: None

Outline: Ever get tired of carting bags of materials around or putting them away? I have! So, this presentation will focus on games and activities using little or no equipment, the kind that fits comfortably in a pocket. Come and learn a hat full of activities you can do on the spot!


When I was in the first year of Secondary school one of the compulsory classes I took (actually they were all compulsory) was woodwork. I still remember the lesson when I was having difficulty with a plane and told the teacher so. He said, "It's a poor workman that blames his tools". I guess if I had been wiser than my years I could have retorted, "Yes, and it's a poor teacher that blames his pupils" but I was felled by the remark and said nothing. It was many years ago, but the lack of empathy still strikes me. Having said this, I realise that this is asomewhat roundabout way of getting to my theme. Without tools a woodwork teacher really is stuck, but what about a language teacher? How far can language teachers go using no equipment at all?

I have done classes at kindergartens using nothing more than a CD and one class where I used nothing at all except a goodbye song. But each time I had a big bag of stuff nearby. I've never had the nerve to walk in the door with just the clothes on my back and that includes presentations I've given. I usually bring more than I can carry and then proceed to use a fraction of it. Having lots of props is a kind of insurance, whomever we are working with. Without materials we are like the freestyle rock climber without a rope or the trapese artist without a net. We are but a step away from crashing into disaster.

But, having a boat load of supplies is more than insurance. It can help us to respond to situations as they arise. I'm a great believer in writing a lesson plan after a lesson rather than before. Over planning a lesson stifles creativity and puts us nearer to the roll of dog-trainers rather than language teachers. I even hesitate to use the word teacher as I think that learners, especially children can acquire language faster if they are empowered to learn it for themselves rather than taught it. Over the years I've noticed that the words and phrases children pick up and use the quickest are always the ones that capture their imagination or help them to express what they want. It's those carefully structured phrases, the usual target language of text books and lesson plans that seem to require constant repetition and re-enfocrement. It's as if the more we teach, the more barriers we throw up in the way of the learners. Could it be that learners make true progress despite teaching rather than because if it?

What I'm trying to get at (in a roundabout way again), is that the true art of teaching is to empower and stimulate passion in the learner for the subject and the determination to acquire skills required to do it. I think the teacher can illuminate the way, build bridges and clear obstacles but it is the learners themselves that do the learning. So, I reject the theory that learners are like blank slates awaiting inscriptions or mere empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. And, if I reject such theories, that means I should also reject any teaching practises that go with them.

So, for me, having a mountain of things at my disposal was a way of being able to respond instantly to perceived inclinations of the learners. I would always have something of my own in mind, but I would always be ready to abandon it in favour of genuine interest in something, and who could know what the spur of the moment might bring. Hence the big bag.

Recently, however, I have been questioning my philosophy. Rather than being a sign post with gentle encradling arms to nudge children towards learning English, have I perhaps been a doormat for them to rub their dirty shoes on? Have I been too accomodating? The premise of following the lead of the learner is based on the assumption that the learner wants to learn what the teacher is offering. But in our over-controlled world we face too many situations where we meet children who haven been poisoned by discipline and so act without it.

How many children do we meet who are genuinely intrigued by the language we hawk? How far are teachers of children like sideshow magicians bent on capturing the attention of their marks with one cheap trick after another?

I'm coming to believe that one way for language teachers to find out is to leave the equipment at home, or at least parr it down past the bone to the marrow. If all we use is the language we want to teach itself, then we can have no illusions about the results. If the children respond to us positively then we know we have genuine interest. If they respond with disinterest or disdain then perhaps we should question the economic circumstances that led to the meeting in the first place.

The problem with the argument above is that it is based on a snapshot. Life is process. Interest and passion do not crystalise instantly but rather flourish, blossom, wilt and wither with time. The argument above stands outside time rather than in it. We can be ambivalent to something at first and given enough exposure come to love it later.

What I am sure about, is that if we can do engaging lessons with little or no equipment then that will make us more able, more confident and more relaxed. If, rather than relying on materials to help us teach, we have a core of equipment free activities at our disposal we will be that much more powerful. We will also be more flexible.

Who we are is much more important than what we have at our disposal. Or it should be.

The Presentation

I don't think I've ever done a presentation without forgetting something. And even though I was only going to take what I could fit in my pockets this presentation proved to be no exception. Perhaps someday I should deliberately decide what I'm going to forget and leave it behind as a way to remember everything else.

On the day I slipped out of the house before breakfast to pick up a couple of things from Wise Hat English. As I turned into the road I saw a man some distance ahead carrying two large bags. It was like looking at myself. It was weird and it was exhilerating. I had all my materials with me and I had no heavy bags, no heavy bags, no heavy bags! Oh joy! I did however, have a couple of pouches with me that I had used to collect what I was taking. So, on getting to the Wise Hat trailer I decided to transfer the bits and pieces in the pouch into my actual pockets, and in doing so managed to forget why I had gone to the trailer in the first place.

It was only on the tram into Hiroshima that I thought I found what I had left behind. I had intended to show some Command Cards but left them in a drawer. I also seemed to be magnetless so before walking into the Convention space I stopped off at a convenience store and bought some double-sided tape. As it happened I never used the game pieces I had brought and did no white board games at all.

For the first activity we started out with Passport Control. We used a dice to randomise the number of questions each passport control officer asked. Then we discussed line games and noted the diffference between a Line Up activity where the focus is on making a line and a more traditional activity like Chinese Whispers where the line is first made and then used. As part of this process we played Down The Line.

Something else we looked at was different kinds of One Step Forward Activities. Mr Kangaroo requires no equipment and Dragon can be done with a slip of paper and pencil or a mini-whiteboard.

By now time had all but sprinted away. We did a couple of activities for young children: Happy Or Sad using a hankerchief and a variation of Which One using some counters I had brought with me. I finished by showing some What Cards and in the process introduced You You Me

It was only when I got home that I realised that the magnets I thought I had forgotten were actually tucked into the lining of one pocket.

Points To Consider

  1. Organise your pockets. small bags (see through or otherwise) can be used to separate materials.
  2. Watch out for pocket corners and linings. Small objects like magnets can get hidden.
  3. Big pockets are better than small tight ones. At least have a pocket big enough for the most essential piece of equipment - a timer.

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