Robert Harrell…more notes!

From Robert: The book that gave me ideas and help was “Move Your Students to a Virtual City” by Sue Fenton. It’s available from Teacher’s Discovery. The book is in English and is intended for teachers of any language.

I’m working on a new website: – a couple of things are on it, but I need to do some real work soon.

From Michele: The rest of the notes are a jumble of answers he has sent me…not his fault they are disorganized but mine.

Thanks to Robert for letting me share!

Robert on Virtual City

The A year we do Vienna – Poesie – Märchen
I use the second-to-last chapter of Sabine und Michael to help introduce the city, and I have various materials I have prepared to set up a “virtual move” to the city. During the second semester when we do poetry, students write a “poetry book” using highly scaffolded templates for poems. One day we have a “Vienna Coffeehouse” where we sit around drinking tea or coffee or hot chocolate and eating pastry (I get Apfelstrudel from Costco), then students stand to read one of their poems. It’s a great setting for students to do an oral presentation – very low affective filters.

The B year we do Berlin – Middle Ages
Berlin provides an opportunity to look at the modern Germany, Reunification, Cold War and Inter-war years. We read Emil und die Detektive, among other things. For the Middle Ages I have developed my own semester plan, based around my book Ritter von heute.

I chose not to do Munich because we cover the city with Sabine und Michael.

Michele’s note to Robert
Could you be a little more specific about the “various materials” to set up a virtual move to a city? I have been thinking that first kids would read about hostels, then room rentals, then jobs, and after that (and after having reported or argued about which ones are better or worse, or maybe having written e-mails to their teacher about their success as opposed to the reality) they would start checking out reviews of restaurants and clubs and dry-cleaning establishments and so on. I’m not really sure what to have them read as an entry into the city, but I have friends I can ask.

From Robert
One of the things I do for the set-up is create a “passport*” for each student. I created a template that I use. Students fill in the blanks, and I take their picture to past or staple into the booklet. Information does not have to be true. Then I stamp the entry and exit visa spaces when we start the year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and at the end of the semester. By the end they will have about six stamps in their “passports”.

Last year I added another aspect of role-playing to the project. Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons? Using the same idea, I had students roll dice and create older versions of themselves. They were all graduate students enrolled at the University of Vienna and working for the UN at UNO-City in Vienna. The dice rolls determined the following:
Major at the university
Number of classes per week
Job at UNO-City
Number of work hours per week
With that information they determined what kinds of things they would do based on amount of free time and funds available. Most formed groups to share an apartment and then traveled together. They had to take a couple of trips during the year – most went to Oktoberfest because it wasn’t that far away – and report later about it. Each week when we talked about plans for the weekend or what they had done on the previous weekend, students had to talk about their activities as if they were in Vienna.

Students had to look up prices for hotels/hostels to stay in upon arrival and apartments for long-term living. One group wound up camping while another stayed in a luxury hotel. (Difference in money available.) They also checked out restaurants, and we talked about typical Viennese foods. A couple of supermarket chains have websites, so we compared prices and offers between the US and Vienna. Students had to visit some of the big tourist attractions in the city but also decided what they would do in their free time during a normal week – lots of skateboarding, bicycle riding, going to cafes, playing sports, going to Danube Island for swimming, etc. We talked about where they could do that. We also looked at the layout of the city. Next time I might have them look at the Austrian soccer league. I didn’t do anything with laundry or dry cleaning, but that would be a good thing to do – do they have laundromats? What does it cost to do wash?

My idea was to have students be old enough to go and do things on their own, have them be self-sufficient (jobs), but at the same time have some responsibilities (jobs, classes) so they had to figure out how to manage their time. I also wanted them to imagine what they would talk about as older versions of themselves – school dances became club nights, school sports became club sports, concerts took place in Vienna, etc.

At the start of the project we read and discussed a vignette from Michael Miller’s Sabine und Michael in which Michael goes to Vienna and has a nightmare experience. I also showed slides of Vienna that I have taken. Students learned their way around the city. We explored the transportation system and did an activity in which students looked up what films are playing in Vienna and where they are playing, then made a “date” (not necessarily romantic) with another student to see the film

We also read a short story about a robbery in the Art History Museum that I adapted and translated from a story created by the COACH group I work with. After we read the story we looked at articles about a real theft that took place in 2003 and discussed similarities and differences.

A lot of what we were doing involved output, but by level 3-4 students are ready for it. I structured the assignments so that students could do a lot or a little output and graded on what I knew about their ability.

The “culminating event” was a presentation about what they had done during their year in Vienna. It was a group project, which allowed students to take roles that supported their abilities. As part of the evaluation, each member of the group had to sign a statement about whether each member of the group shared fairly (not equally) in the work. The presentations were very creative, and we enjoyed them a lot. The language was also good. I believe I mentioned in another post that one group had some grammar errors on their PowerPoint slides, but when I engaged them in a conversation about their trip, they corrected all of the errors in their spontaneous speech. Another group had a member who works late at night and has a hard time staying awake in class. We of course give him a bad time and do things to help him stay awake. In the presentation he kept falling asleep and having things happen to him, like waking up at the end of the streetcar line and not knowing where he was.

Second semester we continued with the Vienna idea but shifted focus from the city to literature. We looked at German poetry of various sorts, then did the project that finished with a “Viennese Coffee House”.

*I use card stock for the outside of the “passport” and regular paper for the inside. The cover has the Great Seal of the United States and looks like a real passport. The inside is designed to look like a passport as well (though I think I need to update this – just got a new passport). For anyone who doesn’t know it, all publications by an agency of the federal government are public domain. You do not need permission to reproduce them – 0f course, you can be prosecuted for using them for fraud or other illegal activities, but we aren’t doing that. NASA photos are also public domain.

I hope this answers some of your questions. My intention is to get all of this collected and publish a how-to manual. The basic idea is the same, no matter where you go, but it would be great to have materials and guidelines for specific cities from various target cultures.

I originally posted this in Variety Pack 4, but here it is again:
I do a two-year rotating curriculum for my combined 3-4-AP class. For it I do the following
Year One
-First semester is a virtual move to Vienna: learn about Austrian culture, students role-play older versions of themselves at the University of Vienna and UNO City*, readings based on Vienna, get to know the city. (*for example, Monday chats revolve around where they went and what they did in Austria over the weekend; did you take the train to Munich and visit Oktoberfest? Did you go skiing? Did you go to Danube Park with friends?)
-Second semester study fairy tales and poetry; enjoy a “Viennese coffeehouse” experience

Year Two
-First semester is a virtual move to Berlin: talk about modern Germany, Re-unification, Cold War, interwar years. Similarly to Vienna, students talk about where they went and what they did “in Berlin”.
-Second semester is a trip back to the Middle Ages; my medieval book is the organizing principle for the semester, and we use it for jumping-off points to explore medieval history and culture 


5 responses to “Robert Harrell…more notes!

  1. I just have to comment…wish I’d re-read these notes more carefully before starting… I might discuss re-starting with the kids and saying that they were interning in these jobs, so that they get the “college experience.” Have to decide before period 4. I really like the “rolling the dice” idea. But then I also liked giving them homework that meant that not finishing it gave them whatever I had…Maybe we’ll just start on the back story!

    Again…have to say that Robert has been providing an incredible resource for me here!


    • I think either way works fine. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. One advantage of the way you did it is that it shows students you give them homework that is meaningful, and there are consequences for not doing it. On the other hand, you have to think about jobs for anyone who doesn’t do the work. When I set up the amounts for stipends, I had access to information about cost of living in Vienna. Two numbers were close to the median income; two were below median income – and one of those was bare minimum for survival; two were above median income – and one of those was extremely generous.

      Rolling the dice can create real inequities, but that’s part of life. Last year one student worked minimal hours, had minimal classes and made a huge amount of money, while another student worked long hours, had a lot of classes and made the minimal amount. Real life works that way; wealth distribution doesn’t always look fair or equitable in the least. This year year I think I will lower the top wage so that everyone has to think about how much things are costing them. Also, you can give students some options, such as making all of the dice rolls and then deciding what each roll counts for or re-rolling a limited number of times.


  2. Thanks for posting this here, Robert. I was looking on Ben’s blog where I thought I had seen it and was having no luck finding it, but I did enjoy reading some of your golden oldies in the process!


  3. Right after we’d done a “Circling With Balls” type poster and the kids had answered all my questions about when they’d graduated from school and college, where they’d gone to college, why they’d moved, and how they got the jobs, I mentioned that there was an alternative way of going about this. The kids definitely didn’t want to change. They own the process. And it really did work well to have just a few backups for the non-homework-doers. The rest of the kids were SO smug. I am sure that this will ensure better compliance! (But I will remember this the next time!) There is going to be a little issue with the money, since one top earner makes 150,000 rubles a month, and the low end of the scale is 30,000. That’s a big difference! (30 rubles to the dollar.) I think that there might be a lesson in there about generosity at some point.

    And Carol, I was searching Ben’s blog like crazy too, and then I found my notes on my very own iPad. Amazing how helpful it is to save things!


  4. Thanks for posting this Michelle. I have a better picture now. I think the dice idea is great.


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