Project Work – Dina

Dina Dobrou

Jazzing Up Project Work With Technology 
Dina Dobrou


 “Tell me and I will forget

Show me and I may remember, 

Involve me and I will learn”

(Attributed to Confucius)


“I never teach my students.

I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”

(Attributed to Albert Einstein)

The key concepts deriving from these two quotes regarding education are ‘involvement’ and ‘autonomy’ and Project Based Learning (PBL) can provide these in more ways than one.

Over the years I have worked on projects in my classes, sometimes reluctantly, as I only had 3-4 hours of contact per week with my students, on average. I felt that working on projects was a luxury I couldn’t afford but all that changed four years ago when I started working in summer school with multicultural students.

In summer school project work is an integral part of the curriculum, as is emphasis on oral communication. However, I soon realized (since I could spend more time per week with my students) that there is a profound difference between PBL and simply designing a poster, for instance, as part of the so-called ‘project work’ hour.

The whole point of PBL is to put learners into ‘make believe’ situations and let them explore, and in so doing ‘provide them with the conditions in which they can learn’ autonomously, as Einstein suggested. Projects can revolve around a theme and can run over a period of time, a whole term even, which allows learners to collaborate and interact, picking up useful academic and life skills along the way such as negotiating and presenting, to name but a few.

One of the challenges I’ve had to consider was keeping a balance between the learners’ contact with ‘the 3D world’ and the use of technology (firstly because I am a proponent of educational technologies and secondly because learners themselves can be highly ‘techy’ and often resort to their smartphones when looking for information or inspiration or out of sheer addiction AKA ‘the smartphone trance’). Having said that, I have had learners in the past who protested when I suggested opting for a digital poster as opposed to a paper one and that has taught me a lot about the significance of that balance.

An opportunity to combine the two soon presented itself: June 2013, London. Summer school at Brunel University begins.  We have the usual mix of YLs, Teens and Young Adults (rare but still there).  All classes are a great mix of nationalities. Students make new friends from other cultures and practice the language both in class and during activities such as sports, casino nights, disco nights even! A closed group of 10 teenage Turkish girls however, is not allowed to take part in any activities other than afternoon excursions and some sports because their parents have specifically requested they have intensive lessons (on top of the 3 hour lessons a day they were having already)!

Imagine everyone out having fun and playing games while they had to be in class! Morning classes were not an issue because they were among different people, but during afternoon classes they were very uncooperative and negative. Indeed when I first met them at the end of week 1, they were lethargic and disinterested. What I noticed, though, on that first meeting was that they were all really into fashion, dressed in designer clothes head to toe and all of them had smartphones!

So, I suggested the option of project work to their Group Leader – project work that would somehow be fun but also able to provide proof of progress so that the parents would remain satisfied. And a fashion magazine project was born! But this was a project by the end of which you would be able to see the students’ progress as they had been working on it.

As soon as we entered the class, learners were presented with fashion magazines they could flip through in order to get ideas of what might go into such a magazine and then ideas were brainstormed about what should be included. A company was set up, the various jobs/positions were defined and discussed and roles were delegated accordingly (we had 10 students, so 10 Directors in our magazine).

Over the next two weeks, the Directors worked in groups in different working stations, collaborating and building up the magazine. Selecting images, writing up interviews, creating podcasts and videos, summarizing articles found in paper magazines, preparing for presentations, running meetings to discuss what had been covered and what we should be focusing on the following day as well as who should collaborate with whom was all in a day’s work.

All of the videos and podcasts created were turned into QR codes which were printed out, cut out and placed on the pages of the magazine. Since we relied quite a lot on technology for the curation/creation of the magazine, Internet safety was also discussed and I was pleased to see that the learners had picked up some digital literacy skills along the way.

When the magazine was finalized, the Directors prepared a poster to advertise a networking event, during which their work would formally be presented to the summer school’s Centre Management Team and their Group Leader. They had to collaborate for the event as well in order to decide how to organize it, where to host it and how to set up the room as well as what to offer guests, which meant a field trip to the supermarket to buy food and drinks. Once each of the Directors had presented their work, the visitors were invited to walk around, scan the QR codes and explore the contents of the magazine.

The feedback from ‘the audience’ was nothing less than extremely positive, the look of pure accomplishment and self-confidence in the learners’ faces is something I will never forget and the experience of running such a project is something I hope will act as my guide for future ones.

And since a picture is worth a thousand words please watch this  …


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Voices from the iTDi Community 3 – Dina

Dina Dobrou is an EFL teacher and freelance translator from Athens, Greece who has been working for over 16 years in language institutes in Athens, both as a teacher and a Director of Studies. She currently works for an educational organisation in Athens, Greece and spends her summer teaching multicultural classes in the UK. She is as passionate about teaching as she is about learning foreign languages and Argentine Tango. She believes that with a little luck and a lot of hard work you do not need a little luck.

What are you passionate about Dina?

I’m passionate about change, development, and taking things to the next level. For example, I firmly believe that one idea is enough to change the world so it should be shared. Even if that idea seems silly, it may inspire someone else to develop it, adapt it, change it and take it to the next level — a level that’s going to make a difference to all.

On the same note, an Italian proverb says: He who leaves an old route for a new one, knows what he’s leaving but knows not what he will find. So, exploring new routes also fascinates me. I think one of the reasons I became a teacher is because I have the student syndrome myself and don’t want to be far from a classroom. I love this childlike sense of wonder and always want to learn more and explore the world around me.

How and why did you become a teacher?

My story of how I started teaching English goes back to 1995 when I took a turn from sitting for the University Entrance exams at Athens Polytechnic to taking a CertTEFL course. In those days my main aim was to add an extra qualification to my Cambridge Proficiency Certificate so that I could teach during my studies at University, but I soon fell in love with ELT and decided to postpone my aspirations of becoming a Mechanical Engineer.

I was hired by the central branch of a big chain of language schools here in Greece. This school focused on adults and I had to spend the first week of my contract just observing other teachers and discussing any notes I’d taken with my DoS. The week after, I was asked to teach a group of Elementary students and remember being absolutely terrified.  My DoS said something that put me at ease, though. She said  “Don’t worry. You know more than they do. And you know how to guide them and help them learn.” To this day, whenever I feel stressed about entering a new class, I keep these words in mind.

Upon entering that first class, I felt a sense of belonging in this profession. Everything just fell into place and though I never returned to my old dream, my somewhat technical background assisted in my Diploma in Translation exams where I got a Science and Technology specialization. It  has also kept me highly motivated to use technology in my current profession. I do work as a translator on and off and I do enjoy the peace and quiet this job provides, but I cannot live without the everyday hustle and bustle in a school for more than two daysTo sum up, I feel that whatever I’d chosen to study, I’d still have ended up teaching it…

What are you most interested in right now?

I’m particularly interested in Web2.0 tools and CPD through social networking. Two years ago I was introduced to the world of PLNs and technology in education. Connecting with like-minded educators from around the world has opened a whole new world for me and my students that I didn’t even know existed and I intend to explore that more. I’d like to do an MA in Educational Technologies in the hopefully not so distant future and find out more about how technology can be used so that it can be of more educational value to learners. Also, being part of a PLN, an online community of teachers and sharing ideas with them is just so stimulating and leaves you feeling that you are actually, literally helping shape the world of ELT that you’re a part of.

What things do you do to help you get better at being a teacher, Dina?

I try to do a little bit of everything, time permitting. I attend conferences (local, international and online ones), seminars, webinars, participate in #ELTchat, read books, journals and blogs. I have also started a blog to reflect on my teaching but it’s been inactive for a couple of months due to too much work, really. My next step is to do a DELTA course soon.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a teacher?

One of the biggest challenges for me has always been balancing the time I need to devote to teacher development with the time I need to work and sustain myself. What I do is take notes, lots of notes, of all the things I want to do, and then I prioritise. If something changes along the way, I re-prioritise and try to assign time for both. Most of the times it’s more work than development, but I have created a path and I try to keep on track as much as possible. I’m also trying to have a better work-life balance. I don’t have time to do all of the things I like but I try to make that time because I need to be away from work too. There’s a fine line between taking your work seriously and taking yourself seriously and we should not cross it.

What advice would you give to a teacher just starting out on a journey of professional development?

Take one step at a time, but make sure it takes you to where you want to go. Create a structured career path, picture yourself in where you want to be weeks, months or years from now and work towards it. Also, try to put into practice everything you learn as soon as possible. Any new teaching ideas you find exciting may soon be forgotten if not put to practice.

Dina, is there any blog or online link you’d like to recommend?

My favourite blog is Shelly Terrell’s blog. I find it’s a hub of all things Web2.0, which I’m currently interested in. I also like her 30 Goals challenge series.

Other sites I find useful as a teacher include.

It’s helped me a lot in training myself on how to use technology.

This is an exhaustive list of resources and THE place to build your PLN on Twitter. The site has recently moved to a new domain:

The journey to building your PLN need not be a lonely one. Get free mentoring.

What’s your favorite quotation about being a teacher? 

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost.  That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. – Henry David Thoreau

When I started teaching many years ago, I felt that my initial training was not enough as I hadn’t studied English Literature like you would expect an English Teacher to have done (at least in Greece) and I always felt there was something missing and there was always something more I should have learnt to be better at what I had chosen to do. After a while, I embraced the fact that learning need not be linear. In other words, I didn’t destroy my ‘castle in the air’ but strived and am still striving to create sound foundations under it.