Friday, October 18, 2013

We're having fun (and learning at the same time!)

About fifteen years ago I lived and worked in Japan teaching in an 'English Kindergarten'. The students in my group were 4 and 5 years old. The children basically spoke no English and it was my job to teach them, even though at the time I wasn't a qualified teacher. I was fortunate that an Australian teacher was working with the 2-3 year old group and I learned so much from her, but I still had to make a lot up as I went along (it was pre widespread internet in Japan).

What I most vividly remember from that time was that on Wednesday mornings I often used to do cooking or art activities - a full-blown messy morning of hands-on experience. Without a doubt, this was the time all the children enjoyed most and I'm sure this is where they learned the most English. We painted, made pizzas, fruit salad and other simple things like that and I distinctly remember the students mimicking the new language I was using: 'mix' 'stir' 'chop' for the processes as well as the English names of all the ingredients.

So, I try to incorporate experiences like this in my teaching here in Bhutan. Luckily I feel the freedom to go beyond the local curriculum in ways I know will really benefit my students. I feel that when I explain a new art activity for example, I am using a lot of new vocabulary for the children, and listening to the instructions in English and then following them is an important skill in itself. These activities particularly appeal to my kinaesthetic learners and those who are 'art smart'. I love seeing the children who may not excel academically produce beautiful, thoughtful work.

I often write a procedure for the children to read as I explain, thus introducing this new written genre, not to mention different sentence structures, new vocabulary and spelling. Lately we've been following up our activities with children writing their own procedure after the event. Our curriculum actually introduced procedures recently and suggested some local examples: 'how to make rice', 'how to make suja', 'how to make ema-datsi', but did not encourage the actual making, just the writing of something well known to students (but not to me!). So, I don't feel that I am veering off on a tangent at all, but rather bringing rich and real experience for them to write about, in line with curriculum expectations.

I love how excited the students get during these activities - they have come to love Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings as they can be fairly sure Mrs Andrea will have something up her sleeve. It has sparked a 'crafting' revolution here - the children found a series of art and craft ideas books and they have been hot property for library borrowing the last couple of months. I love that they make little projects and bring them in for me. Projects that are more difficult they show me and suggest 'Can we make this on Friday?' and it is wonderful to have the freedom to say 'Yes!'. Again, I couldn't do this without the stash of art and craft supplies I received from friends all around the world - a bottle of glitter here, some streamers and sparkly stickers there - make all the difference.

Aside from all the language students are learning I can really see how much more confident they are becoming. At first many felt embarrassed by the drawing they did 'It's not good enough', 'I'm no good', 'Mine is ugly'. Partly this is cultural I think: a very strong sense of modesty in one's skills and talents is valued here. But from a western psychology perspective, I'm happy to see my students' self esteem and confidence flourish through making simple things. I can tell how happy they are and they all want their photo taken with the finished product.

Another benefit is that children have come to trust that no-one will miss out. For the first 6 months or more whenever I handed out paper or pencils there was honestly a mad cat-fight of children grasping for the item, like starving children after the last few morsels. Now they can sit and wait their turn, secure that everyone will get the item on offer. They can also share resources like pens and gluesticks at the table without having to hoard their own handful. These are lifeskills to learn and I hope they take them forward.

For those working with ESL students, I  encourage you  to try something a little messy in your class and watch the children soak up all the new language, build confidence and most of all HAVE FUN!

The photos below a selection of what we've done - nothing is ground breaking in anyway, but in this environment learning like this is unusual and I wanted to show how much fun we have while learning with limited resources.

An old favourite, paper weaving was a useful way to extend knowledge of patterning in maths. Weaving taps into local knowledge of weaving (most children's mothers and some of the students already weave yathras and kiras).

A fun and social way to end the week. We ended up inviting most of the rest of the junior school to join us after school.

We took weaving and 'reusing' a step further with UNESCO club and made colourful containers with empty plastic bottles and weaving yarn.

The girls had a natural flair for colour and patterns and needed little instruction - most can weave kiras or yathra. These were displayed at a presentation night with other 'upcycled' craft.

We read a book about a girl who made a cardboard crown and immediately after the Class 2s asked if we could also make crowns - Why not?

In a country that loves their many kings and queens, it was not a surprise students loved this craft.

Eventually every class from PP - 5 made a crown - even 14 and 15 year olds were thoroughly engaged and proudly wore their crown home down the main street.

Gotta love these guys!

Sangay named his people after all his friends.

Even a simple task like this involved lots of fun conversation. We were in hysterics over normally demure Dechen's bikini wearing person! Not something one sees in Bhutan very often!

 Teaching measurement - students brought in scales from home and we predicted and estimated and measured - so many rich language opportunities!

Ed Emberley fingerprint art - another activity that attracted a crowd of friends from other classes after school.


The Gruffalo is a favourite story. After reading with Class 1 and 2 we drew our own scary monsters. For Class 1, with limited English it was hard to understand that their monsters could be unique and they didn't have to copy my example.


We made air-propelled rockets on Friday afternoon and then had a competition on Saturday morning to measure how far they could fly. Measuring and recording scores was a chance to include some maths.

Kinga is a student of mine who struggles with both English and Maths, but he has talent and a passion for art - his work is always neat, colour coordinated and beautifully presented. I love seeing students have the chance to shine.

Students were so proud of their simple creations. Many made further models at home with improvements and innovations on the basic design. Win Win!

 Measuring and mixing icing and making 'freckle biscuits' (icing sugar, food colour and sprinkles are not available locally) was a special treat for a Saturday morning. We followed up with writing a recipe on the Monday.

Students got to make a few and all took some home to share with siblings and parents.

Can't beat a smile like that!

Class 2 and UNESCO Club tried out 'Continuous Line' portraits. A challenge, but fun.


Lots of work exploring symmetry lately - which lends itself perfectly to art.
Jumping frogs - a project from a craft book that the students wanted to make - there was quite a bit of measurement involved so fun and learning at the same time.
I thought kids would love to explore symmetry by trying these owls. Would you believe that to get photocopies I travelled 1.5 hours away (we were there for the weekend anyway).
I planned to keep these frogs for the following week, but the kids begged me to do them the next day. The only worksheets we've had all year!
Frogs were harder, but kids relished the activity.

Early finishers had a go at drawing symmetrical Christmas trees which has sparked a huge fascination for Christmas.
Neat work boys.
Symmetrical sparkly butterflies.

With only three teaching weeks left, the fun is far from over. We will be busy revising for the end of year exams, but also including some fun in the form of making Christmas decorations for the tree I am going to have in the library in preparation for our end of year Christmas party (on November 15th). I'm sure there'll be a blog post about it at some point!
And tomorrow we are going to make a mess making playdough - measuring ingredients, following a recipe, so much fun and they won't even realising we're ticking boxes for maths and English.
Postscript: Had to share the photos of the playdough making. At times I wonder if I'm a bit crazy but yesterday I knew for sure - all that mess in the LIBRARY! But amazingly it all turned out fine!


  1. you're warming my heart with these activities ... who'd have thought that the kids could have fun, be creative AND learn stuff at the same time!! ;)
    Love it! enjoy your last weeks - keep going xx

    1. I thought you'd love the 'craft revolution' - these kids are obsessed with making htings now! Everyday I get a little cardboard bee or paper and pencil rocket or something else they've made from a book. They are the only class in the school obsessed with craft so I'm pretty sure it has something to do with Friday afternoon 'art' - who knows where it might take them in life?

  2. The enjoyment just oozes from your writing and the photos. You will take such memories away with you and I'm sure you've learnt as mych as the children have done from you.

    1. Thanks Bridget, it is a pleasure to bring this type of happiness to these kids, I feel closer with them than any kids I've ever taught, you're right ive learned a lot from them as well.