Pen and paper and Put Out The Lights

I was at the Wired In or Out conference at Yildiz Technical University Istanbul the first weekend of December. Işıl Boy, the organiser, was one of the Young Turks I featured in a blog earlier this year. I guess inviting me to her techy conference was her way of saying ‘thank you’ for featuring her! 🙂

I told Işıl when she contacted me that I didn’t think I had anything of value to say to people attending a tech-based conference, and she said that I could be the anti-tech guy. I said I didn’t want to be the anti-tech guy because I’m not anti-tech. We discussed it and decided I would be the NO-tech guy.

After thinking about what I would do, I came up with three other ideas…

(1) I would be the no-BOOKS guy, too

(2) I would present some engaging classroom activities that can only be done using bits of paper – sometimes for the student to write something, sometimes for them to read something

(3)      I would call the talk Put Out The Lights – and put out all the lights in the room when it took place

What on earth made me think of (3)??

The Oyster Band
The Oyster Band

A couple of years ago, I saw an electric folk band called The Oyster Band. Their music sounds quite Irish but they are actually from Canterbury in Kent. They became associated with the coastal town of Whitstable, famous for its oysters, which is how they got their name.

They ended their set, as I gather they often do, with a song called Put Out The Lights. They turned out most of the lights in the auditorium, and turned off their electric equipment, including microphones. Vocalist John Jones sang the song to the accompaniment of acoustic instruments.

The audience peered through the darkness and I think some of them struggled with the reduced sound. However, for most people, me included, it was an intense and enjoyable experience.

So, I sent off the abstract for my talk at Wired In or Out. When I read it again the next day, I realised I was committed to a no-tech, lights-off talk, but also one where I would be asking people to do a lot of reading and writing. In the dark. D’oh!

Had I made a monumental error of judgment? Well, in for a penny, in for a Turkish lira – it was there in black and white now, so I had to prepare for it.

When you’re choosing material for a conference workshop presentation, you have to think about the possible number of people who will be attending. If there are a hundred people in the room, and you’re doing an activity which only involves one or two, will the other ninety-odd find it interesting to watch? This is of course a consideration in the classroom, too, but the problem is exacerbated by the sometimes large numbers of people in a conference workshop, plus the fact that they don’t know each other in the way that students in a class do.

I had a rummage through my twentieth-century drama and music files to come up with activities for a paper-based presentation along these lines. I have to say this part of the preparation was a lot of fun.

And so the day came.

With Isil trying to get a wifi connection, which was surprisingly difficult, given the name of the conference!

When the participants started filing in, they all looked a bit surprised that the room was in semi-darkness. Several of them asked if I wanted them to turn on the lights, and I said no. The early ones engaged in quiet conversation.

Participants sitting in the dark waiting for the workshop to start

Ann Loseva, a teacher who had come from Russia for the conference, tweeted this:

Anna tweet

By the time we started, the darkness wasn’t important.

One of my activities that is always a surefire hit at any drama workshop (I know, it will probably bomb next time now that I’ve said that) is called Actions and Locations, and it goes like this.

 1         Everyone writes a LOCATION on a piece of paper – eg on the table. I encourage the students to be more imaginative than that, and to think of some other location words they know – under, between, behind etc.

2         The teacher collects all the pieces of paper and puts them in a box marked with the letter L.

3         Everyone now writes an ACTION on another piece of paper – eg I’m eating spaghetti. A now action starting with ‘I’.

4         The teacher collects all the pieces of paper and puts them in a box marked with the letter A.

5         The teacher asks for two volunteers and gives them an old mobile phone each. This is to prevent them using their own – it’s possible that one of them has a much fancier phone than the other, and in my experience, this puts the less fancy phone-owner off.

6         The two students have a conversation, which culminates in them asking each other first ‘Where are you?‘ and then ‘What are you doing?’

7         When they are asked these questions, they take a piece of paper from the appropriate box and read the contents. The juxtaposition of the place and the action is usually quite funny.

8         Continue for as long as you want! The only problem with this activity is that the class don’t want it to end until both boxes are empty.

I don’t think this activity can be done without using bits of paper that people have written things on. And it completely works as a spectator event for the rest of the class.

But the activity which really brought the house down was a song-based activity which I call Line by Line.

Giving instructions at the start of the activity
Giving instructions at the start of the activity

It works like this:

1         Choose a song, or a part of a song, with (about) as many lines as there are students in the class.

2         Print out the words of the song and cut it into individual lines and give each student a line.

3         Ask the students to read out their lines. If possible, put them in a circle when they do this.

4         After hearing the lines in a random fashion, ask the class what they think the song is about. Tell them not to worry if they can’t see a strong theme, and that it doesn’t matter if they get it completely wrong.

5         Let the class mingle and try to decide if there are lines which they think connect with theirs. Then ask the whole class to form a line or circle that they think is the right order of the words. Remind them that at this stage it DOESN’T MATTER if it isn’t the right order.

6         Play the song. Ask the students to get into the right order. Caution: there will be running about, collisions and a lot of laughter at this point.

7         Play the song again. Ask the students to wave their piece of paper if they’re in the right order.

Final playing of the song, and the dancing starts..
Final playing of the song, and the dancing starts..

When I did this in Istanbul, something rather wonderful happened. As the teachers waved their pieces of paper during the second playing of the song, some of them danced. The dancing got more ambitious as the song moved from line to line. Turks are great dancers, and this made it a wonderful spectacle for the 60-odd people who had been watching this activity unfold.

None of the activities in the workshop could be done without little bits of paper and some of them also involved writing.

So what’s the message? Whatever the level of technology we have, I think it’s good to occasionally get back to basics in class. The most basic thing you can do is switch off all the machinery (and the lights) and just talk. And the second most basic thing you can do is ask people to write things down on paper, which then form the basis of an activity that engages and amuses the whole class. Or to provide them with a piece of paper that starts off an activity. 

You can see a video of the Oyster Band singing Put Out The Lights here:


22 thoughts on “Pen and paper and Put Out The Lights

  1. I love the song activity (though that isn’t meant to suggest the opposite about the other one). I’ve had the run into the right order part before, with massive confusion and bumps, but all in good fun.

    Some day, we’ll have to have you over to Toronto. 🙂

    1. Adam, I’m really sorry about the noise – disturbing neighbouring teachers (in a real school situation as well as a conference) is the single worst problem of all these ‘fun’ activities.

  2. Thank you, Ken. This was enjoyable to read, and I was planning to check out the band as soon as you mentioned them so thanks for the link. Love the activities and can’t wait to make them part of my practice. Really good listening and humor in the first one, and really good listening, comprehension, critical thinking, communication, humor, and kinesthetic style in the second one.

  3. Dear Ken,
    I loved the creativity and the way you conducted your session in a tech-based conference. Dim light always helps people to concentrate and when accompanied with music, its utmost fun. Yes, I would like to use this activity in one of my classes as a fanatic lover of music and rythmn and thanks for the link you shared 🙂

    1. Thanks, as always, Gita, for your positive support. If you want to use the song that I used – which was a perfect length and had enough interesting lines to make people think about the theme – you can find it on my blog in the song file section. It’s called It Makes Me Mad.

  4. Hi Ken – saudades de Fortaleza

    Lovely to see you have again gone back to basics with this workshop in Istambul. It was also interesting to check the Oyster Band performing acoustic and with lights off. Thanks for the link.

    See you and Dede in Recife in November 2013??? Will write to you soon to talk about it.

    1. Hi Evandro – yes, I think it helps to occasionally go back to basics, especially when talking to young teachers, who may benefit from some no-tech activities.

      Recife November 2013! Yes! 😛

  5. Hi Ken,
    That all sounds fun, teaching in the dark is certainly ambitious. I do have a question though, at which stage in the ‘Line by Line’ activity do you need a pen or paper. From my understanding you printed out the lines of the song and then cut them up. From that stage on, there didn’t seem to be any writing, the students were listening and mingling. Great way to get students to listen closely to lyrics.
    This sounds similar to the technique that David Bowie copied from William S Burroughs:

    1. Well spotted, Luke! 🙂

      The point i was making was that there are some engaging paper-based activities, with value beyond mere ‘fun’. You’re correct to point out that the students didn’t do any writing in that one. There were five activities in all, they wrote something in three of them.

  6. Hi Ken

    I used your Actions and Locations activity a few weeks ago with an ESOL group. We had such a laugh as the learners made every effort to explain why they were doing what they were doing in that particular location! As well as being hilarious, it was good for their language development. There was a chance to focus on language as they wrote their pieces of paper. Then, the learners were so keen to get the most out of each situation, they stretched themselves to find the language needed to ask questions and gave explanations.

    So, many thanks for that activity – the laugh did us good that night – and thanks for this new one too.


    1. Hi Carol, thanks for mentioning the ‘why?’ part of Actions and Locations. I keep forgetting to say that, apart from being very funny, A&L becomes a genuine improv activity simply by asking people WHY they are, for example, dancing tango under the sofa. 🙂

  7. Ken,

    So glad you went with the idea of “no-tech” guy – as you say, it is a “choice” we can and should make use of “what works” (or has worked well for years) and “what’s new” (when it is doing more that just being used as a toy) – afterall, the most engaging lessons are about “what matters” 😉

    I missed the session – but loved the way you described it here – clearly others “got” it and that these things “matter” to us TEACHers, too.

    Take care,


    1. Hi Tony,

      another thanks for mentioning something important that I forgot to say. The unstoppable wave of educational technology (that isn’t meant to be a negative) also means that older teachers are being asked to question the value of some of the basic activities that they have found useful in the past. The message to them is – don’t stop if it works. But most of the people who come to conferences, especially in Turkey, look about 19 years old now, so I’m trying to offer a more balanced view of what they can do in the classroom.

  8. Dear Ken,

    Thank you for your splendid contribution to our symposium. I decided to invite you on the same day I decided to organize a symposium. 😉 It was a real honor to have you at YTU, and thanks again for who you are!

    All the best,


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