Nick Bilbrough – Hands Up Project: Storytelling Around the Globe
Busy training teachers in Palestine right now, Totnes resident Nick Bilbrough is the founder of the innovative and inspirational Hands Up Project – now an official charity – which helps children in deprived situations learn English by telling and performing stories to each other collaborating with kids in other countries and with the team of volunteer teachers involved using a video conferencing programme. He lives in Totnes with his family, and is a highly-respected English language teacher, teacher trainer, and author of a number of books for students and teachers.
Q: So Nick, before we hear properly about the Hands Up Project, can you tell us something of your career over the last twenty years or so? Where has it taken you and what have been some of the highlights for you?
NB: I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language for twenty five years and training teachers for fifteen. I’ve worked in many different countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. I’ve written three resource books for language teachers – two published by Cambridge University Press and one by the British Council. I feel very lucky to have fallen into this field and there have been many highlights – teaching street kids in Brazil, working with groups of refugees in Birmingham, setting up my own teacher training operation in Totnes (http://www.horizonlanguagetraining.co.uk/), training teachers in Pakistan etc. I’d say I’m pretty happy to be doing what I’m doing right now, running a training programme for teacher trainers in Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine.
Q: What was it over that time which led you to come up with the ideas for this project?
NB: In recent years I’ve done a lot of work in Occupied Palestine, training teachers and doing storytelling with kids. I also visited the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan and did some storytelling with the children there. Despite their generally low levels of English, I noticed that children in both contexts are really motivated by listening to and performing stories. Particularly in Gaza, the face to face contact with the outside world is almost non-existent, so I wanted to set something up where I could teach them English using the power of the internet as well as provide them with an outlet to interact and share stories with people in other countries. This is how the Hands Up Project got started.
Q: Can you give us some specific examples of what kids actually do?
NB: I tell them stories, we play vocabulary games, they share their drawings and perform stories, and they interact with children in other contexts around the world. All this is done through the simple video-conferencing tool, Zoom, which is a bit like Skype but with a few extra features. In this short video you can get an idea of the range of things that we do.
From September, along with Gaza and Jordan, I’ll also be starting to work with new groups in the West Bank, Angola, and Pakistan. I only work with kids who are in need because of social, political or economic reasons. Many of them are refugees.
Q: You’re in the process of becoming a charity as I understand. How can people learn more, hear updates about and get involved with and support your work?
NB: Each week in term time I publish a new post on my blog about what we’ve been doing and this has become a space for teacher development for teachers working on the ground in these contexts. You can access this here..
Yes, I’m very hopeful about getting a positive result from the charities commission soon. Up until now I’ve run it all on an entirely voluntary basis, but it’s become a full time job and becoming a charity will enable me to access funding, both from organisations and individuals. I will be setting up a system shortly where people will be able to make regular donations if they wish to. I’ll also be starting to train people to do what I’ve been doing: if anyone is interested in doing a weekly voluntary storytelling session for children through the Hands Up Project please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, here’s Nick telling us what he’s up to in Manger Square, Bethlehem in occupied Palestine with the sound of the call to prayer on one side of him and church bells on the other: