What Comes Out of Unsuspecting Students + Wandrous Board Challenge

 Last week Jason Renshaw (aka English Raven) wrote about his experience on teaching a lesson (unplugged)  starting with a blank white board and putting the marker on the students’ hands, without giving them any directions, without saying anything. He then proceeded to have some speaking practice (free conversation) drawing from what his students had written on the board. He also seized many opportunities for teaching that came out of the conversation. He then proposed a new challenge (having a hard time keeping up with so many great challenges these days!) for teachers to do the same and share what happened in their classes. If you’re not familiar with the challenge and would like to learn more about ir, read his post here.



So I went in, put some music on and waited a bit for them to come in. Once the first few students took their seats I picked a marker and gave it to one of the boys, pointing towards the board and indicating I wanted him to write something. When he asked what was he supposed to do/write, I shrugged and gestured (or at least tried to) that it was up to him. At this moment I feared it wouldn’t be as easy as I could have thought. Never having done this and being very used to being directed and controlled in their classes everywhere, they just froze, like animals looking at the headlights of the car which is about to run over them. Didn’t like the metaphor? Well, that’s how the first student looked like, standing in front of the board, marker in hand, looking at me, pleading for instructions. He just stood there. After a little incentive from me (mimicking) and the others (shouting ideas of what he should do) he finally drew the smiley face and the speech bubble that read: “I’m beautiful”. I motioned for him to hand the marker to another student and they went on until all 6 had written something. That took about 15 minutes total. I have to admit that after the first one the others were faster at deciding what to write. The first step is usually the hardest – knowing that, the choice of that student for the first up was not random. He’s a very bright, outspoken member of the group, always volunteering his opinion. I wonder what would’ve happened had I given the marker to one of the others… They’d probably have surprised me, as they always do. :-)

What the board looked like.... Yes, I like markers in different colors!


This is what they wrote, in the order they did it (I’m writing it here because I don’t know whether it will be readable on the photo”:

1- Smiley face with speech bubble “I’m beautiful”

 2 – I’ve just woke up.

 3 – Sport is the best! PST

4 – And there’s no song that I could sing, and there’s no combination of words that I could say. But I’ll still tell you one thing. We are better together. J.J.

5 – Party all the time!

6 – I need music in my life – all the time!


The first three sentences were written by boys (and the other three obviously by the girls). At this time, with everyone back on their seats (they got excited halfway through the activity, got up, stood by the board while others were writing, etc), I asked them to change the positioning of the chairs a bit and sit in a circle so that we could have less of a “teaching moment” setting. And I went on drawing conversation from what they had written. For #1 Igot them talking about the importance of beauty in a person’s life, their personal opinion and how society in general saw beauty. Some things that were mentioned in the conversation that followed were first impressions we make of people, attractiveness and good looks on job interviews and self-esteem. At one point one of the girls asked how she would say “Quem ama o feio bonito lhe parece”, to which I replied the most adequate saying I thought for that would be “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. I then took that opportunity to elicit from them sayings they knew in English, how most times you don’t literally translate the saying, etc… We wrote some of those on the board, they said some, asked about others.




Too tired to study?? Or of studying?

When we moved on to #2, another girl asked if the sentence wasn’t incorrect, if it shouldn’t be “woken”. I told her she was right and asked her to explain why, which she did. Issues approached for that sentence were sleeping after lunch and the benefits from it (increase of study capacity), the ratio between numbers of hours slept X productivity, sleep being a waste of time – my personal feeling on the topic, to which a student promptly informed me that less sleep would make me die sooner, and another let me know that little sleep increases the probability of heart problems. I guess I’m doomed then! While talking about this students asked how you’d say “abusado”, how some of them felt if the nap was too short. I taught them “cranky” and elicited other sleep related vocabulary. Everyone contributed with something (siesta, nap, numb, etc), and as they said something I asked them to write the words on the board.

 #3 is related to soccer – Sport is a big local soccer team here, and I don’t think I have to explain how most Brazilians are crazy about soccer, very passionate really. The PST acronym stands for “Pelo Sport Tudo”, or “We give everything for Sport”. So we talked about sports and how some people take rooting for their teams to extremes. Sentences #4, 5 and 6 are all related to music: the first is a verse from a Jack Johnson song (Better Together), the second is a song by the Black Eye Peas (who had had a concert here in Recife the night before – 2 of the students had gone to it) and the last is a student’s feelings. We discussed the importance of music in their lives, studying and concentrating while listening to music, kinds of music for different types of tasks, etc. When we got to the last of it, we only had 10 minutes to go, so I collected their homework and assigned some homework for next class (an oral comment about the activity through vocaroo sent to my email).


My assessment of the activity? It went well, it made students motivated and eager to talk. They learned new things (mostly vocabulary) that they felt the need for (emergent learning?) and they learned from each other as well as from me. They had a good time and said they’d like to do it again – which we probably will. The other 2 classes/groups where it worked were similar stories, different topics. On the one that it didn’t go well, I believe the problem was that the students just didn’t buy it. I really enjoyed taking up the challenge, learned a lot from the experience. One consideration I’d like to make regarding it is that the effectiveness of it depends on students being willing to do it and also on the teacher’s ability of seeing beyond the literal meaning of words written and coming up with interesting issues from anything – a true exercise for a teacher’s creativity and knowing your students (and therefore what they’d be interested in talking about).  So, that’s the result of my first attempt at the IWB unplugged. Do you think it was worth it? I do. :-)

14 comments on “What Comes Out of Unsuspecting Students + Wandrous Board Challenge

  1. Ceri says:

    Hi Cecilia,
    What a great window on your class, and on your home town of Recife, and on teenagers :). It’s interesting what you say about the first student’s reluctance to write anything, it echoes a couple of comments (and blog posts) recently in the blogosphere about spoonfed teenagers being hesitant – or even scared – to take the initiative when it’s given to them. Looking forward to picking up the challenge with my students too this week.

  2. David Warr says:

    Hi Cecilia
    It was very worth it! It sounds like you all got a lot from it, and it seems as though this could open up many possible activities that require little or no planning. Leaving you more time to devote to your blog ;-)

  3. DavidD says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    It’s interesting how this develops into a lesson literally from nothing! I think the students all feel involved and this helps catch their interest, both in the topics that arise and the language points you end up focusing on.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • My pleasure Dave!

      Actually, inspired by you and Sabrina, who did the interactive board with YLs, I decided to do it (today) with the only group of youngER learners I have – a Teen 3, with ages ranging from 10 to 13. I had been reluctant at doing it with them because of their maturity levels and especially because of thei language levels. I wasn’t sure I would be able to draw a lot of conversation from what they wrote or themselves. It worked really well and afterwards I asked the students what they thought of the activity and they gave me wonderful feedback, saying it had been great, they practiced their speaking a lot and talking about what they wanted. I left the classroom feeling great. So thanks for sharing right back at you! :-)

  4. leozeh says:

    Hi there Cecilia,

    This is my first time checking your blog and I’m really impressed with what I have seen so far.

    I really liked the challenge and would love to do the same in my class and see what is going to happen.

    Keep it up.


    • Thank you Leo! I’m really glad you enjoyed the blog… I was skeptical and very afraid of starting it but it’s been amazing. I’ve met wonderful people, been able to connect and share, reflect… I greatly recommend any teacher to start his/her own blog. Great PD tool! As for the challenge you should really consider doing it. And then don’t forget to let me know how it went. It’s all about relaxing and drawing things from the students…lots of questions! :-)

  5. Andrea says:

    Another great & inspiring post! I love how you describe for us exactly what happened. As a newish teacher it is great to know how these ideas worked when used in the classroom.
    Thank you!

    • Thank you Andrea! As an “oldish” teacher I am really happy my experiences and experiments can be of any help :-) I learn from everyone, older and new. We all have something to add. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. […] is the best.” That’s what a teenage boy wrote in Cecilia’s class at Boxes of Chocolates in response to English Raven’s Wondrous Whiteboard […]

  7. Well, may I say that I wasn’t surprised to see that this worked for you in particular, but also that I wasn’t surprised to see such an elegant and thorough explanation of how things unfolded from there? :-)

    Something that did catch my attention here, however, is that this group appears to be of a reasonably high level, and they chose to wrote sentences. This is a bit different to what I have noticed with other people’s (and my) experiments with the wandrous whiteboard, where lower levels tended to write full(ish) statements, while higher levels seemed more content to stick to a concept.

    So now you have me intrigued… which is the main point of sharing these experiences to start with, so thanks!

    Nice work, young lady!

    – J

    • Thank you for your kind words Jason… Feeding the monster, are you? :-) You think too highly of me…

      I really liked the point you raised here, the contrast between what we’d expect from lower and higher levels and what the activity shows us. I can’t say I hadn’t thought of it, for this week I did the WWBC with the only lower level I have (a teen 3), and the result I had corroborates to this. My young learners wrote full sentences too… Do you think it could be because the lower levels are eager to show what they know, to do their best, whilst the higher levels don’t feel that urge to prove they know anymore? Could it be a case of confidence of their own language level? What do you think?

      Thanks for the young lady bit…can now go to bed happy ;-) I’m glad the experiment pleased the brains behind it.
      – Cecilia

  8. […] They learned new words and most importantly they learned from each other.  When one of them wrote something wrong the other students would spot the mistake and even explained the error – this was great to see.  In my case, having a pre-intermediate group, the session also worked as a review of the tenses, specially past and future.  The students saw that they can go beyond the current boundaries if they want, they just need to be willing – as Cecilia mentioned on her post.  […]

  9. Hi Cecilia,

    I missed this last week and am so glad I came back to it! It’s a really excellent lesson and such fun, methinks you’re dogme forever now…

    • Hi Karenne,

      That’s the grestest things about blogs, it’s never gone (I mean, given WP works properly!). It really was fun… And another group I used it too heard about the upside down and inside out lesson and said they wanted to have one of those too ;-) Methinks I’m infected too ;-)

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