Christmas ELT Appeal: Worst Case Scenario Survival Toolkit

Toolkit - courtesy of Wikimedia commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I got an email a few days ago from a teacher in Australia called Rufus. She works with teachers in parts of the world where resources that many of us take for granted can be scarce, and where others that we may occasionally get our hands on are pure pipe dream.

She asked me to contribute to some upcoming training she would be leading in Cambodia, with teachers whose local resources were limited and whose confidence in their own English proficiency may also be limited, and who may not have been fortunate enough to have received much in the way of formal teacher education in the recent past.

In particular, she asked me what I considered my essential teachers’ toolkit: what, as a teacher, I considered a bare minimum of resources with which I could imagine working effectively with groups of students more or less anywhere.

Bare-naked teaching?

I recall that Jeremy Harmer tweeted out basically the same question earlier this year (it was something like: “what is the minimum you need to teach in terms of resources?“); at the time, I flippantly replied: “students“. While I still stand behind the sentiment, when push comes to shove,  I can’t imagine working with no materials or resources to facilitate, if not mediate, learning work for any protracted period of time.

And it seems I am in good company: even Scott Thornbury, not one who needs to rely on materials to do his teaching for him – even when on his home turf – doesn’t bowl up empty-handed to class…

Always know where your post-its are
This hoopy frood always knows where his post-its are…

I’d bet we all go into class with much more available to us than we realise, and, like Scott, most of us also always go in with something – even if it’s just a board-pen – or a post-it.

Now the attraction of teaching unplugged is, at least in part, for me the important job it does of refocusing us as teachers on the richness of that potential in the resources around us even before we reach for a coursebook or switch on an IWB or insert a multiROM…

But, as Madonna said, “we are living in a Material world” – and while I am not a Material Girl, I can’t ignore the reality that some raw materials are not only useful, but actually essential.  After all, even Adrian Underhill’s impressive countermovement against published materials is predicated on having some blank canvas on which learners can paint their own masterpieces.

Be Prepared

So Rufus’ request offers me a chance to make good on my earlier sleight of hand while replying to Jeremy Harmer. it also offers me the chance to relive a childhood passion: creating emergency survival kits that fitted in a matchbox was something I used to love doing, and this is a natural professional extension of that. Naturally, I won’t get my toolkit into a matchbox, but it will still fit in there in spirit.

Yer not on the list, yer not gettin’ in…

Before I describe my toolkit, though, I should lay out some criteria for inclusion. I’m aiming for extreme minimalism here – and to be clear, I have never taught under circumstances where I would have neededto have such a kit with me.  So for me at the moment, this is a thought experiment, but hopefully it may be of som epractical value to some teachers doing admirable work under more challenging conditions than I normally face.

The toolkit should be small so I’m setting myself a maximum of 5 items (you could have more or less if you wish). In addition, anything in my toolkit needs to be:

By this I mean small, easy to transport and light. It also means that you won’t get stopped at airports or by security because of it.

(relatively) cheap
Teachers aren’t exactly rich, and if you are worried about a toolkit like this, you probably can’t rely on a school or third party replacing stuff for you when it runs out or gets lost. This also suggests that most of the contents of the toolkit should be locally sourceable. All of my tools will be, with one possible exception.

hard-wearing or long-lasting
Teaching needs to be sustainable. and in part this means getting a lot of use out of limited resources. For teaching unplugged, this means squeezing every conversation, every text, every moment in class dry; for an unplugged teaching toolkit, this means recyclability and durability. Nothing disposable makes it in – or at least, just because it’s designed to be disposable doesn’t mean it will be treated as such!

How many uses can you think of for a paperclip, for example? It’s designed to be a single function device, but with imagination it can serve a range of purposes. So should everything else in the toolkit.

OK sir, empty your pockets…

OK. Those are the benchmarks. Here is my suggested toolkit, in no particular order:

  • pencils (2B or softer) & chalk
  • a dictionary
  • safety pins
  • a BIG ball of string
  • a small photo album

pencils (2B or softer) & chalk
OK, cheating a bit here by counting these as one item, but a couple of pencils or pieces of chalk are small, light, handy, and extremely versatile. If I don’t have a board to write on, I might have paper, and failing paper, I could use either soft-lead pencil or chalk on most walls or flat surfaces. If push came to shove, I could use the pencils to write and draw in the earth!

But writing is only one function, you may say, so what other functions can chalk and pencils serve? If you know Cuisinaire rods, you know how flexible variously coloured sticks can be. A few colouring pencils or chalk can serve at a pinch for the same kind of purposes.

a dictionary
Dictionaries are worth their weight in gold. A good learners’ dictionary (such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, my current favorite) provides me with a vast range of support: a core lexicon, corpus-sourced examples of the langauge in use, definitions, grammatical information including collocation and colligation, picture support, style guides – in fact, good learner dictionaries almost make a reference grammar redundant. I would love to have space in my toolkit for a basic reference grammar, but something had to give and the dictionary won.

But apart from research language, what can you do with a dictionary? It can serve as a screen, a stand, or (in large classrooms) as a useful way for me to gain a few inches height to be seen in the back row!

safety pins
I’d pack about 50 of these, in 5 sets of 10, sorted by colour. You can do a lot with these.

For example, they would help manage grouping in large classes, so people could quickly identify their team-mates or the people they should seek out in mingle activities: just look for the person wearing the same colour safety pin.

Or you could use them as place markers in board games. I know, I have not packed any board games, but you can make those yourself.

You can also use them to pin up examples of students’ work – but for that, you might also need…

a BIG ball of string
Organise a washing line with some twine or string and you can use the safety pins to hang up student work in art gallery fashion. The students could unhang the work easily and go to talk about it with other people who have work with the same colour pin attached, or form pin-colour buzz goups with representatives from each colour group, as you wish.

You can also use string to create designated areas in whatever space you have available, by laying ot out on the floor or by cordoning off. This could be useful for creating little “performance spaces” or for recreating other locations (for example, laying out a students’ bedroom or office, which then could be filled with other props in place of their furniture – other students act as delivery people while the learner describes where the things should be put (over an imaginary phone to make it trickier ).

Speaking of phones, do you remember having “phone calls” when you were a kid by stringing two plant pots or plastic cups together with a length of string?  While at the moment I exploit skype, flatrates and ubiquitous mobile devices to make telephone skills lessons more authentic, I could replicate the same sense of distance with these – and the connection might even be better!

a small photo album

Photos may more generally live inside people’s phones and laptops these days, but that’s no help when the juice runs out.  A few photos from home (apart from staving off homesickness) can be used for all kinds of class activity, such as:

  • visual stimulus for teacher input (live listening, generative situations, introducing or eliciting words…)
  • raw material for production tasks (students describe what they see, form questions, hypotheses, opinions etc about what they see; they can talk about this, write it down, or both)
  • additional “classmates” during 121 lessons, giving the learner other “people” in the room to address than the teacher
  • and so on…

So that’s it – my suggested minimalist teaching toolkit.  I’m sure I haven’t even begun to find out what could be done with even these poor tools, so now it’s over to you to help Rufus further.

The appeal is to make the following donations by way of comment or link:

  1. What other teaching uses for the items I’ve packed can you think of?
  2. What would you pack in your own survival toolkit, and why?
  3. Do you know of any other “teacher Toolkit” discussions like this online?  If so, where are they?

When you reply (as I hope you will!), please contribute practical ideas as well as having fun with the appeal (a teaching toolkit is for life, not just for Christmas 😉 ), and also please allow Rufus to share your ideas with her colleagues in Cambodia when she gets there in February (perhaps by including your suggestions in any handouts she gives them – with you properly acknowledged, of course 🙂

Go On, Be Generous – It’s Christmas!


  • I’m totally with you regarding a tool for writing, a dictionary and the photos.
    Your delightful suggestions regarding safety pins (and the ball of string) would never have occured to me. I don’t think I’ve seen safety pins in use anywhere but on some clothes at the mall (for the tags)! And they come in colors?!
    The other two things I would suggest are:
    a world map – a lot can be done with that, beyond locating places mentioned in class. Prepositions, comparatives and even colors (maps are usually colorful!) and many more activities.
    an egg timer, a small one with sand. ANYTHING (almost) can be turned into a game when you measure time.

    Enjoyed thinking abou this! Thanks!

    • Glad you liked it!

      Good point about the versatility of maps: and a great point about colour. Also your point about time: you are right, and Penny Ur agrees with you, incidentally, that adding a time element to a practice activity is one way of making it game-like and interesting. I was willing to run the risk that learners had watches, though (probably a big, dangerous assumption!)

  • Some really useful, functional ideas that really made me think – thank you for that! I would have to say that I would take (based on what I advised students to take when doing placements in Namibia and India):
    1) ‘some’ A5 pieces of laminated cardboard in different colours (useful for a show of hands in the class, voting on topics, organising groups etc)
    2) ‘some’ whiteboard markers (to write answers, word webs, draw pictures etc on the laminated cardboard mini whiteboards)
    3) some dice (turn taking, name ‘x’ number of words starting with etc etc)
    4) a bag of balloons (if teaching young kids they make a great prize, stick/draw on faces to make characters for role plays, put surprise ‘situations’ into balloons then blow them up and let kids burst them to see what they have to do, and so on and so forth)
    5) ‘some’ blank postcards and local stamps so that the pupils can send a letter and maybe receive a reply (in reply to article in paper, to a school, to their hero, etc)
    In my mind it makes sense but I don’t know if others will understand this…. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Glad you liked it, Louise – and thanks for stopping by.

      I think your ideas are great. The idea of laminating some colour card and then re-purposing them as modern-day way tablets is very cool. As is the idea of making balloons into role-card delivery systems 😉

      Hope the ideas keep coming – please invite any colleagues you have to stop by and contribute too!

  • Thanks, Anthony, and the other contributors, for these ideas. Coloured safety pins, eh? Must think about that! Photos definitely! As you know I’ve written several posts regarding use of images – a thousand things you can do with them. I like Naomi’s map, too. I would have liked Swan’s in my bag, but you’re right – given one choice only, the dictionary wins. I like dice, too. I haven’t really thought about my personal bag, but coming into my mind as I write is a coloured abacus…wonder if that can combine colours, dice, etc in one…

    • I had to think long and hard before rejecting a guitar from my list, David: much as I love mine, it seemed too single-function (though I am prepared to be schooled on that!) and too bulky – I’ve never liked schlepping it around, I have to say. I think a guitar would be a great thing to have around, though, so thank you for mentioning it.

      However, two other instruments I own that would qualify would be:

      My harmonica – fits in a pocket, acts as a useful attention getter in loud classrooms (see me using it during our IATEFL 2010 talk, for example!) and doubles as a paperweight…

      My Jew’s Harp – mine is a Vietnamese model called a Dan Moi, very small and elegant, and can actually double as a page holder!

  • Hi Anthony,

    I think that the reflecting on what we need to survive in the classroom gets us to the nitty gritty of who we are as teachers.

    Have just linked to your post on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Have you aslo seen Rob Lewis’ take on the same theme

    Please feel free to post on the TE facebook page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



  • I have a little tin box that is ALWAYS in my handbag. In it, there is:
    -a set of 6 dice for board games, questionrevision ( a number =a question word), comparatives (each number can be sthg in a category to be compared), etc.

    -a small hourglass of 3 minutes ( good for variations of speed dating) and the other uses mentioned above)

    -a few coins from the US (game markers, a great dogme excercise from ‘Teaching Unplugged’

    -an inexpensive voice recorder (great for reporting back on what someone said and then checking against the original recording), getting students to listen to themselves, and bringing music into the classroom if you have a very small group.

    I think that’s it–oh, AAA batteries for the rcorder

    • Thank you for contributing, Christina! I thought long and hard about an hourglass (I just saw a very small and robust one on sale with three different timers built in to a metal cage, which was sorely tempting after reading your comment!) And the idea of a voice recorder is great – though I hoped to get away with using my “personal” mobile phone or MP3 player for that purpose 😉

      Thanks again.

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