Happy Birthday Surpr@ise

“A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being



It’s amazing how a metaphor can help you see more clearly what you have always understood to be true. This is what happened to me when I used crayons to form a new word on the poster I was preparing for TESOL France last year. As I took the words surprise and praise and turned them into surpr@ise I saw how this word frames my philosophy about what happens in good classrooms. In the classrooms I enjoy most, teachers surprise their students with interesting tasks and activities. Then they praise them for trying new things and taking risks. This is what I do in my own classroom, too. It’s a simple but very powerful idea and I have been very happy to see that the idea of surpr@ise has begun to resonate with other teachers around the world as well and is now part of their working vocabulary.  Since on it’s first birthday this has become a small organic movement, now might be a good time to share some principles of surpr@ise.


1.     Surpr@ise is for everyone

Every single teacher can work with surpr@ise no matter what method or technique you use, no matter whether or not you like using coursebooks, no matter whether you are an experienced or newer teacher.  No matter what kind of class you teach,  I believe it’s important for both students and teachers to stay motivated and by doing so  to move education forward. You do this by providing students with unexpectedly interesting, even challenging tasks and activities, working with them as a fellow learner, and encouraging and praising them for their efforts and attitudes. That’s surpr@ise.

2.     Surpr@ise starts with your smile

Surpr@ise is not only about activities. It’s also about attitude. Most students have come from traditional classrooms where teachers teach in unsurpr@ising ways. As you introduce more unexpected activities into the classroom, some students might be a bit uneasy. If you have been a more traditional teacher, it might make you feel a bit uneasy at first, too. Take things slow.

Be gentle and encouraging with your students and yourself.  Start with a smile.

 3.  Provide a Map

As you introduce change into the classroom, make sure to explain the reasons for the change to your students. As you choose tasks over exercises, everyone needs to understand why. Of course students will see why when you finish doing a project, for example, and see the results but as they work, students need to see where things are headed. Show students the finished product and then break it down into small steps. This is like a map that leads to treasure. Without it, students are likely to get lost or lose their motivation.

 4.     Surprise should always be positive.

A whole body of research suggests that we learn more deeply when encountering anything surprising, shocking, strange or unique. In the world, it’s true that we tend to remember bad things that happen even more easily than we do ordinary everyday things. It’s also even more true that we not only remember but also hold on to the very good, happy things that happen to us. We want to remember things that made us feel good and happy because by remembering them we get to experience them again. This is why in the classroom we want to always

create positive experiences for our students. Create a meaningful context for what you want to teach. Make everyone feel good about what they are doing. Smile and make others smile as well.

 5.  Praise should be more than just words.

Everyone likes to be praised but simply saying good job or well done is not enough. Praise needs to be accompanied by useful feedback on how to move forward. This is why I like the idea of medal + mission.  Handing out medals is praise. Giving students feedback that allows them to see how they can become even better is the mission. As they work to achieve a goal or complete a project, students will see the results so you don’t really need to say too much — just enough to be encouraging while helping them keep the mission in mind.

 6.     See how surpr@ise works when you step back.

As your students work, step back far enough to allow them room to be creative and do things in their own way.  Don’t worry. You’re not about  to lose control in your classroom. If you include them in the planning and stay involved by empowering and encouraging them, then follow the medal + mission model of providing feedback as students work, they will very likely end up surpr@ising you with results better than you even expected.


This pretty much sums up my basic ideas about surpr@ise one year after I first came upon the idea. So far it’s been a really useful framework for me to think about teaching and learning. Still, like with any idea, it continues to change as I do and as more teachers share their ideas with me about surpr@ise in their own classrooms. If any of this resonates with you, I’d love to know about it and share ideas.

“Stay committed to your decisions,

but stay flexible in your approach.”  

 ps:  In November, I’ll be talking with teachers about surpr@ise at TESOL France and then giving a Pecha Kucha about creating surpr@ising environments in the classroom in Tokyo at the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teachers) Conference.

Halloween projects (for students by students)

Last few months I have been truly impressed by the project that will surely  influence and maybe even change the education of teachers. I know many readers of my blog know exactly what I am talking about and in case you don’t, please visit http://itdi.pro/  and feel free to ask anything else you are interested in as everyone is welcome to join this great community of teachers who care and believe in change and in education.

Anyway, what I would like to write today about is the way this inspired me to change the traditional “holiday” project works and try the similar structure (iTDi is a course for teachers by teachers) with students.

Every single year we are supposed to work on projects with our students before holidays such as Halloween, Christmas or Easter but somehow every year all the resources are more or less the same. Well, of course they are! Is there anything new they could write about those holidays?

I tried something else (though surely not groundbreaking!).

I empowered my students, stepped back and let them choose what could be the best for other students.

Their task was: Here are a bunch of words related to Halloween. How would you teach them to younger students?

They could use colours or just write, they worked in small groups of three and the result was amazing as always when I trust in their abilities and encourage them a bit. Just note – my students are 14-15 and pre-intermediate level so please forgive their mistakes.

If you like their work, feel free to use them with your students . They would be proud to know that!

Happy Halloween! 🙂


My summer school experience or how to be less of a teacher

One of my dreams came true this summer. I always wanted to teach English in English-speaking country and even though I always knew it’s not easy to get a job as an English language teacher for a non-native speaker there, I tried this year (many thanks to my dear friend and a great teacher Ania Kozicka for support and encouragement and David Meddows DOS for trust in me and my abilities) and was thrilled to find out they offered me an interview and later even the position of a teacher in summer school. However, I fully realized what it all means, to teach English in summer school, sometime in the middle of the summer. Honestly, a few weeks before I left for the UK, I was pretty much nervous and even insecure whether I meet their as well as my expectations.

I loved that summer and I learned so much about myself and teaching!

The whole experience was pretty challenging and demanding but I am grateful for it as a teacher as well as a learner.

Before I will share what I learned about teaching and learning during summer, let me introduce my classes a bit. I was teaching 5 lessons a day and had 10-12 students in a class. Students were from different countries (Italy, Spain, Mexico, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, France, Ukraine) and aged between 8 to 17. Of course they were divided into classes according to level and age but as you can imagine it’s not always so easy.

  1.  Is that Dogme teaching? (I am still not sure what it is J)

In fact, it was my very first experience with teaching little kids and with no chance to use their own language for either giving instructions or explanations. With class full of kids from different countries and cultures, you need to be careful with the choice of activities and course of the actions. I learned that some kids love learning and working in groups while others are individuals. I learned that there are kids who love presenting their work to others and kids who are happier with writing their opinions down. I learned that no matter what country or culture they come from, they love sharing with others about the things are know a lot about. So it made me think and I did my best to use that during lessons – their strengths, preferences and previous knowledge.

2.     Take away value – projects

I have never done so many projects with my kids as this summer. There were moments when the project work was planned and perfectly followed what had been learned before as well as moments when I decided to do some project in the middle of the lesson. We worked on newspapers but in fact the content was so various that it could be also called “the portfolio of my time in summer school”. And it gave each project even greater value. However, the best of all was seeing their faces the day before they left and every one of them got a copy of “newspaper”. They talked about it, proudly showed it to their friends or group leaders and realized the purpose and beauty of their works.

I kind of learned what a project work is about – brainstorming, discussion in groups, sharing information, visual presentation, oral presentation, explaining your opinions or asking additional questions and fun! Moreover, as a teacher you can easily include any grammar practice in the project work so help students realize how grammar works in context.


3.     Dynamics – games and breaks

Kids love structure and surprise at the same time. I did that with short 5-10 minute games I used either at the beginning or anytime during the lesson. They loved to play the games again and again once they learned how the game works. They loved easy though challenging word games and were happy when I announced a short game “break” anytime after some more demanding activity. Moreover, the best about all those games was the fact they wanted to be in charge and choose the words for my “wipe-out” game or hangman. Just give them simple rules and it will be fantastic way to recycle vocabulary from the lesson.


4.     Creativity – haiku

One of them most amazing and surpr@ising moments for me was when one day I took the kids outside and we talked about the things around us and finally we decided to create haikus on what they see and feel around themselves. It was the day when a few new students came and it was their first summer school lesson. Kids have such wonderful ideas and working on something like that you realize how much they perceive the world around them and how beautiful and precise those perceptions are.

5.     Empower your students – wipe out game and editors

As I mentioned earlier, kids love being in charge and even in the position of a teacher. What can I add? Give them this opportunity, step back and let them learn even more from it. We, teachers, were taught that by explaining something you learn and understand better so why not use it in the classroom. Use the classroom dynamics, find out about the strengths of your students and encourage them to come to the front. Firstly I played my wipe out game with me in charge. Then I asked students to come and choose the words and “test” the others, they loved it even more. Firstly, I suggested topics for our newspapers. Later I empowered the public person in the class to be an editor and they all enjoyed it even more. I learned that as a teacher I don’t have to be afraid of losing some control over the actions in the classroom.