The Day Nothing Became Everything – a guest post by Cecilia Coelho

I’m really pleased to be able to introduce my first guest to the blog, Cecilia Coelho, a teacher and trainer working in Brazil.   She, too, took the English Raven challenge.  And here’s her “close up” on how she took the plunge.  Thanks, Cecilia! 

The Day Nothing Became Everything 

Since joining Twitter a little over a month ago and starting to build a PLN I have discovered a whole new world. A world of great educators eager to share; of innumerous resources available; interesting discussions related to teaching; new friends and blogs. So many blogs! And I was (still am!) amazed at all the knowledge, questionings, experiences and sharing I find in these blogs. I take great pleasure at reading them, taking them in and especially the reflections they bring – about practices, the meaning of teaching, challenges and life. I don’t feel I am ready to have my own blog, but I wanted to share an experience I had. And thanks to my (new) friend Ceri Jones I can do that. She’s kindly invited me to be a guest here, and I’m taking her up on it. This is my very first time writing in a blog, so I may not do it well, I might write too much. So please, if you’re reading this, bear with me. And tell me what you thought of it.

And here begins the day nothing became everything…

And just as Ceri, I was inspired by Jason Renshaw’s challenge of taking a lesson and doing it “upside down, inside out”. I’d been introduced to the concept of “unplugged” teaching recently and I was curious about how it would work. So I took the challenge and decided I would do that some day. 

Well, that day came a lot sooner than I had expected! For my 5-year-old son, Felipe, caught a virus and spent all night sick, which meant me not sleeping at all. I had already planned most of my classes for the following day – all but one. And since it’s a group I actually organized/wrote the handbook for, I wasn’t worried, because I could easily write down the plan. This was a perfect opportunity for going unplugged! So I decided to take it – and not plan. Before I tell you how the class went, I think it’s important you understand that I am a firm believer in planning. And I plan my lessons thoroughly, I color code them, use references… some people may say I am a bit of a control-freak when it comes to planning. I had never entered a classroom without a written plan – not even at last-minute substitutions. Even when that happens I take 5 minutes, gather all the materials, resources and books available and jolt down ideas, a possible course of action. That is how dependent on planning I am. Being like that doesn’t mean I stick to the plan even when it goes wrong. After 17 years teaching English I’ve learned to be flexible and change things, do something different when the planned goes wrong. But I always had a plan. UNTIL yesterday.

Now, if I really meant to take up the challenge, I had to really go without a plan – not written nor in my mind. I took no materials with me – not even the handbook. I decided to take a chance and hope inspiration would come. (note: I have to admit that I almost lost it 5 minutes before class began. I started panicking about not having a plan and not having thought what I was going to do. But worst comes to worst, it would be a bad lesson, and sometimes even well planned lessons turn out that way. So I entered the classroom and greeted students, asked what they had done over the weekend… the usual chatting. Then one of the students asked what was our Vocab Bank word that day (as a strategy to help my more advanced students improve their vocabulary, we keep a poster where every class I add a new word and the students have to use a certain number of those words throughout the semester). And that’s what inspired me for the first activity, a warmer, using all the words I had added to our vocab bank so far.

please click on the image to see it in more detail

I asked them to get into 2 groups (the class has 14 students, and their ages range from 14 to 17. They’re pretty fluent; many of them already have the University of Michigan ECCE certificate – the equivalent to a CEF B2 level) and arrange the chairs into circles, keeping the two circles close to each other. Then I took some dice I had in my pencil case – my pencil case may resemble Mary Poppin’s bag for all I am able to fit and take out of there!) and we played a game. The groups took turns rolling the dice – the number they rolled corresponded to the number of the word they had to define. When they learned which word they’d have the group had a choice of keeping the word and defining it or passing it on to the other group and letting them define it. I even managed to practice the last grammar point we had reviewed in class by telling them they had to use a relative clause when giving the definition 🙂 . The responsibility of saying whether the definition was right or wrong fell on the students themselves – I said nothing. If there was an impasse on one of the definitions, a group could challenge the other group’s definition and then (and only then) I would interfere and give the final word. A challenged definition was worth 2 points to the group who was right about it. The competition started, and they really got into it, arguing, negotiating, debating… Yes, the warmer took a lot longer than I probably would have planned it for, but they were using the language, having fun, producing and learning from each other, so I let them. I had a lot of fun listening to them as well, and keeping a straight face at all times. They sure had a blast – while reviewing the vocabulary.

Then I collected their homework assignments (a writing piece) and asked students to talk about what they had written. The topic we’d been discussing in class was Consumerism and shopping. And while they talked I listened, and I heard them getting into online shopping – the benefits, problems, the increase in it. And I thought it would be a great idea to have a listening activity there, so I let them continue their discussion and got into the computer, searched NPR ( – a site I frequently use for audio and jackpot! I had a program discussing the increase of online shopping. So I quickly cut some slips of paper, handed to the students and asked them to listen to the account, taking notes while they listened so that after it they could write a paragraph with what they believed were the main ideas of the program, what caught their attention and how it related to consumerism and the ideas we had discussed in class. I have to add here that I am very fortunate to teach at a school where we have great resources at hand, so I do have a 52’ flat screen hooked to a computer in my classroom – which I know is not the reality for many other teachers. So, as I handed them the slips of paper, the students began to act a little restless. They asked where were the questions they had to answer, where was the activity. It was so unusual for them they were insecure about it. I reassured them and told them they just had to tell me what they got from it, what was the essence of what was going to be said in the program. We listened to it twice, they took notes and them I gave them some time to organize their thoughts and write it down.

After that I decided we should prepare for the debate we’re going to have next class. I elicited from them what was a debate, how did people prepare for a debate. We discussed the difference between supporting your arguments with examples, facts, opinions… Which was stronger, more difficult to be taken down by the other team? Then I gave them the theme of the debate (whether it’s the government’s role to interfere/control advertising and consumerism) and they split themselves into 2 groups of 7 students each, one for the government control, one against it. As a homework assignment I asked them to each bring a rule for the debate – next class each will present the rule they came up with and they will establish the rules for their debate.

the retrospective lesson plan - please click on the image to see it in detail


And that was my first experience at teaching unplugged. I have to say it was one of the best classes I have ever taught. TTT was minimum, the students took over, the class took the route they indicated, I gave them responsibility for the activities. They negotiated, used the target language, learned from each other – all of this while having A LOT of fun. Some of them said as much on their way out. It was a very successful lesson. So successful that the best evidence I can give you is that when I sat down to plan a class for a group in the same level I had today, I just wrote down what I had done (the post-teaching planning Jason talked about in his challenge) and I didn’t change anything. By the way, today’s class was a big hit too.
What did I learn from it? I learned going into class unprepared can be scary, but it can also be very rewarding. I learned that the 17 years I’ve been teaching English have provided me with a great collection of ideas and activities in my mind that I can draw from in an instant. I realized the students have become too used to the type of listening tasks they’re usually required to do, and that these tasks do not really reflect what the students are going to use their listening skills in practical situations. That is food for thought, a seed for change. So, I guess I will go unplugged again. Not every class, but every once in a while, finding a balance between the content-oriented handbooks I have to cover during the semester and going with the flow, going unplugged. And I don’t expect all my unplugged lessons are going to go as well. But then again, not every planned lesson goes well either.

So, who else is up for the challenge? I recommend it – a change of scenery can be a good thing once in a while. And the result might surprise and empower you. As it did me.
Thanks for welcoming me (and my HUGE post) into your blog Ceri. It was an honor!

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9 Responses to The Day Nothing Became Everything – a guest post by Cecilia Coelho

  1. I really enjoyed this account of an obviously great lesson. Only comment? ‘fantastic’!!


    Taking the plunge is easier (even if still scary) with 17 years’ experience behind you – that figure leapt out at me when I read what you had written!! There is so much a teacher can draw from with that amount of experience. Much more difficult for a newbie!! So we have to be a bit careful about recommending it for them?

    That’s just a thought. I don’t want to detract from a refreshing, interesting post about a great lesson!


    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Jeremy, sorry for the delay in replying, I was just waiting to see if Cecilia wanted to say something first.

      I agree with you about newbies. I think Jason’s challenge (though I don’t want to speak for him) was aimed at more experienced teachers, teachers who are looking for new challenges to take them beyond the comfort zone. Teachers who are looking for independent personal and professional development within their own classrooms, but with an online, supportive audience who will “push” their reflection and give them an audience for those reflections once put into words.

      Having said that, there are aspects of this experiment that could also benefit novice teachers, and, chatting to a cert trainer at the end of a long summer of training courses, we were wondering whether we shouldn’t be teaching skills like how to deal with emergent language in a discussion, how to use their students as a resource for things like discussion questions and topics, so that they can experiment in short bursts, plan for an unplanned stage in their lesson – and not be tied in always to endless pro formas and worrying over the timing of stages in lesson plans.

      mmm … have gone on for long than I intended. Sorry! Over to you, Cecilia!

  2. Cecilia Coelho says:

    Hi Jeremy!

    Thank you for the ‘fantastic’… (blushing). I really felt it was a great class and am happy about the way it turned out and especially because the students learned and had fun.

    On the issue of how much experience had a role in the success and apparent “smoothness” of the class, of course I can’t disagree with you it played a big part! Of course after years teaching innumerous groups of different age ranges, English levels and learning styles any teacher will have gathered a good-sized “log” of ideas and activities – not to mention a certain level of confidence when making decisions about changing the direction of the lesson and/or activity being worked with at the snap of a finger. And I do agree with Ceri that Jason’s challenge may have been intended for more experienced teachers – although knowing Jason MAY is probably the operative word ;-). But I also believe that novice teachers may benefit from unplugged teaching as well. How?

    Well, novice teachers many times bring “freshness” and lots of enthusiasm to class. They come with their minds filled with new ideas, they draw things from their own experience as learners – which usually hasn’t been so long ago. At the same time esperienced teachers have this larger “pool of ideas” to draw from, new teachers sometimes are more willing to take some risks, to innovate. They may not be as conformed to old practices and beliefs as some experienced teachers allow themselves to become. Am I being too rash? I hope not, and I especially hope nobody who reads this takes offense – as I firmly believe the teachers who I’ve met through Twitter and my PLN, the teachers who will probably read this post/comments, CANNOT be included in this category. I guess what I am trying to say is that newbies can surprise us – I know I have been surprised by some of the new teachers I have observed in my BNC and some of the teachers I have mentored as well.

    That being said, I am not advocating teachers (be them experienced or new to the job) throw their plans aside and go unplugged. Maybe such novice teachers could begin by doing so for part of a lesson. Like Ceri said, use the students, draw from them resources, ideas for discussions and skill practices. This will probably result in activities that are both more meaningful and motivating to students (#eltchat of today is still running around my brain). And then again, they may crash and burn. but how are we going to know if we don’t try it?

    Flexibility and keeping your mind (and eyes/ears) open may be the key.

    Thanks for your comment Jeremy, I greatly value your opinion. And Ceri – you would never go on for too long. But I think I have. I really have to start working on keeping things objective, short. I have this horrible tendency of rambling on things. like I am doing now 😉

  3. Great first post, and I can only echo JH in saying that the experience does sound fantastic.

    I think going unplugged can be tricky, but not impossible, so I agree with you there, Cecilia. After all, I’ve only taught for coming up to 4 years and I had my own unplugged eureka moment last academic year: Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are

    I think I agree most of all that moments like these are to be cherished, and with time they become part of your teaching repertoire – like you mention the games and activities that you collect over time.


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