The Origin of Mr. Trunk, my travel buddy – and a stuffed elephant


It was a hot afternoon – like 300 other in a typical Goiânia year – a little over a year ago and I had just finished a frustrating lesson with my CEFR-B2 group. Nothing had worked as intended that day. I wasn’t particularly motivated, my students were even less and misbehavior and distractions took over. I had to intervene many times and getting the almost 20 teenagers to listen to me simply failed.

“I need to teach them to be more responsible”. Those words echoed in my head as I left for home. The next day of class, a couple of hours before the lesson, I had to go to Lojas Americanas in the mall near my apartment. “I need to teach them to be more responsible” was still ringing in my mind as I walked toward the exit line. That was when I saw it. Fluffy, furry and gray. With its protruding trunk sticking out of an enormous basket. Alongside this fluffy finding of mine, there were tens of other fluffy friends. Giraffes, dogs, cats, a lion, owls, a dolphin and, as usual, bears. But my eyes were drawn to its trunk. I bought it for 12 reais and took it to my classroom.

In the classroom, I kept it a secret until the last ten minutes of the lesson. Then I started an improvised lecture about how responsibility is important and that normally parents give their kids pets when they want to teach them to be more responsible. Well, I wasn’t going to give them a puppy or a kitten, right? I had something slightly different. And finally the revelation: I pulled it out of my bag. A 25cm stuffed elephant. Can you imagine what my students thought when I did that? They were 15-17 years old and, that’s what I think anyway, not particularly fond of stuffed animals anymore. That was for kids, right? However, to my surprise, they immediately clicked with this fluffy and furry little thing.

Our new elephant had yet to be named. One student thought trump meant trunk because it sounds like the Portuguese word “tromba” and that’s the name we gave it: Mr. Trump. In my defense, it came from one of my students and we had no idea the word Trump would bring so many negative emotions then. Anyway, my first student to take Mr. Trump home was Bruna. I asked her to photograph Mr. Trump in pleasant situations and tell me what it had done in the following class. Soon enough everyone wanted to take Mr. Trump home and spend some time with it. Since then, more than 30 students have spent some quality time with this adventurous elephant.

Mr. Trump became popular among my students, colleagues, and friends. I took Mr. Trump on its very first international trip in July last year. Upon our arrival, a friend told me to change its name to avoid hard feelings. Wise advice. Mr. Trump became Mr. Trunk. It became a he. He gained life in my classes and became part of my students’ life. It is truly amazing what a stuffed animal can do when used right. My lessons became more affective. I felt more connected with my students because they took Mr. Trunk home and photographed him with their families, living their lives, having fun with them.

Today, one year later, I couldn’t be more proud of my travel buddy who, by the way, has been to five countries already! Yeah, that’s right. He’s been to the USA, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, and Portugal. He’s also been to a lot of different states in Brazil and he wants to keep going further. He travels with me, my student’s, friends and even my wife. And he enjoys it very much. He told me his favorite place so far was Mexico.

Mr. Trunk is a fun guy who loves a challenge and is always with me, attending conferences, delivering lessons and lectures, training teachers, learning. Many people I meet want to take a picture with him. If you want to find out more about this fearless young elephant, use the hashtag #mrtrunktravels on social media. Thanks, buddy. You rock! To honor you, I’ve made this video:

I hope you like the story of my friend and I’d like to invite you to a challenge. I will ask a couple of questions below about how to use Mr. Trunk in the classroom and I promise I’ll record a video answering them as soon as possible. But before I do, why don’t you give them a shot here:

-how can you use Mr. Trunk with teens?

-how can you use Mr. Trunk with adults?

-how could you teach grammar and vocabulary using Mr. Trunk?

PS: I thought my idea of a traveling puppet was original. Boy/girl,  was I wrong! There are many projects with this concept and a great one to get involved with is iEARN’s The Teddy Bear Project. Also, check out Juan Uribe’s wonderful work with Buddy the Frog and affective learning.

How can we work with differentiation in the classroom? My Jimmy Fallon challenge

So yesterday I had a revision lesson about VERB TO BE in the simple present tense, among other things. I wanted my students to be able to write a letter about themselves stating their names, nationality, age, and something else about their lives. The problem was: my students have varying degrees of skills with the language, and some of them need special attention to be able to complete the task. I have a student with dyslexia and others who are on the average.  One student, though, is very comfortable with the language, which brings me back to high school when I was sitting beside Bruno Tadeu Costa, my old classmate, in a math class.

Bruno and I had the best grades in math. You’re probably asking yourself: How can an English teacher have the best grades in math? Well, somehow I did. But the worst part was that we didn’t feel challenged enough. We would often solve the equations faster than the whole class and get bored. Once, Bruno actually solved an equation on the board because our high school teacher was struggling to find the answer. Seriously, that actually happened! And our teacher simply said that he was not prepared for that particular equation. Unfortunately, that is the only memory I have of that teacher – and also the fact that he had extremely long fingers! We used to talk about them in class.
We had another who was great, though. Nevertheless, we were not challenged enough. I remember Bruno and I used to sit in the front and one day we were trying to create a formula for logarithms after having finished a list of equations faster than anyone else in the class. Our teacher noticed we had finished and approached us whispering: “I wish I could give you something extra. You two are excellent students”.

But she never did…

What if those teachers had read about differentiation? What IS differentiation after all?

According to The Glossary of Education Reform:

Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Differentiation is commonly used in “heterogeneous grouping”—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement are grouped together. In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations

I read about differentiation and tried to apply its principle in my last lesson. As a matter of fact, I’ve been trying to do it for a while now. It’s all about challenge and how you offer different levels of it according to your students’ learning needs. It taps deep into motivation as well. The greatest challenge, I confess, is to create different levels of challenge for the same content. Here’s what we did:

1. I assigned the role of official translator and writer to the student who had more familiarity with the language. I also asked her to be my assistant and help the others with their activities.
2. I graded the list of exercises in a way that there were less challenging activities, moderate activities, and more challenging activities. That meant that the students could move through the exercises according to their needs.
3. I sat with my dyslexic student to make sure things were going well. I tried to assist as much as possible.
4. I asked my official translator to write a letter to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. That made her feel very special and it gave her purpose since she finished her list before everyone else with little difficulty.

See what I did? I set an example and linked it to a real-life purpose. Instead of just asking them to write a letter about themselves to me, I asked them to write it to Jimmy Fallon. I’m pretty sure that makes the activity far more special. Now, my other students will do the same at home to practice. They’ll have to write a letter to Jimmy Fallon. They got excited when I showed them a video of Jimmy reading his Kids Letters.

Want to know more about differentiation in the classroom? Check out Richard Rogers’ blog’s wonderful tips – where I first saw the definition I mentioned above:

Ironically, Richard Rogers is a high school science and, guess what,  MATH teacher! And you know what’s even funnier? My friend Bruno is a math professor at a university. Lack of challenge never stopped him from following the career, luckily, and he’s a great professor. However, if we’re not too careful, it might stop one of our students.

Special thanks to my only British Council Teaching for Success: Learning and Learners course. We’re talking about differentiation this week, and I got the idea for this post from you!

By the way, I’ve already sent the letter to Jimmy Fallon’s staff. Want to help my students’ letter get to Jimmy Fallon or at least be shared all over the world? Save the photo above and share it on your social media with the hashtags:

#pleasereadourletter #ccbeugoiania #edcrocks

Do you have a great story about differentiation? Share it here!

If you don’t, why don’t you check out my other post about Young Learners:

Or my two posts about how to use neuroscience to improve your teaching:

A fun class for Young Learners about the power of friendship, time, and connections


Today was a great day! My blog has been visited by more than 1000 people from 85 different countries. I have plenty of reasons to celebrate just because of that. However, I’m even happier because of a wonderful lesson I had with my group of YLs. To inspire you, my dear teachers, I’d like to share what we did today.

First, you need to know that the lesson was about telling the time in English. My students are 9-10 years old, and I’m pretty sure most of them have had this lesson before. Normally, I’d start with a digital clock on the board and ask them to tell me what time it is. This time we did something completely different, and the outcome was incredible: engaged students, sparking eyes, joy, and lots of fun!

Step 1

I reminded them of the question “What time is it?” on the board. We drilled it a few times to get the pronunciation and intonation right.

Step 2

They completed the activity in their books with a digital watch showing different times. They worked in pairs, and I helped whenever they needed me.

Step 3 (That’s when things got more interesting for them)

About 1 hour before the lesson started, I had arranged with some international friends to answer my WhatsApp call (you can also use Facetime or Skype) during the lesson I would teach. Their mission? Answer my students’ very tricky question “What time is it?”
We managed to ask six different people from completely different time zones. Special thanks to Rachel Amen from Wyoming, USA, Marion Lange from Washington, DC, USA, Waldeir Eterno from Stuttgart, Germany, Lucía Sotomayor from Cusco, Peru, Clayton Crispim from Dublin, Ireland, and Afrah Farhan, from Diwaniya, Iraq. My students were so cute introducing themselves and asking about the time. Some of them were a little shy, but others were very excited! They also had to pay attention to the answers and write them down so that we could establish the time difference between those countries and Brazil.

Step 4


I explained the concept of time difference, and we built a World Time Zones Map (photo above) with card stock, cardboard, colored pens, toothpicks, hot glue, an old eraser, and paper plates. I told them to cut the hands of the clock accordingly (one shorter and thicker). They had a blast! As they were working on the clock, I asked many questions about my wonderful guests’ answers. I made sure to call each guest at a specific time I wanted to practice (2:05, 2:30, 2:45, 2:53, 3:00, and 3:15).

Step 5

When the World Time Zones Map was ready, they had to set the hands of the clocks (there were two) to the correct time in one of the places and in Brazil. I asked them the time difference to practice the term hours.

Step 6

Their homework was to select four more countries and write down their times when it is 8 pm, 8:30 pm, and 8:45 pm in Brazil.

Today my students learned not only about time but also about how the right connections, good friends, and some technology can bring the world together to collaborate on small or big issues. To my friends, it was a tiny part of their day. But to my students, it was a big deal to see that they’re global citizens and that they can have a simple conversation with people hours ahead or behind us in Brazil.

Why don’t you try it with your students?

You can find a similar lesson plan about connecting your students here

Check out my planning for American English File 2nd Edition here