Berlin Wall
June 23, 2017

Notes From the Field: Berlin Week

Nine students practice their language skills and connect what they have learned to the richness of present-day Berlin
by Jenny Corke

The Learning in the World program, Berlin Week, which took place from June 8 to 15, 2017, transported nine students across the ocean to practice their language skills, while connecting what they have learned about German history to the richness of present-day Berlin. The program is designed to dovetail with “Berlin: From Imperial Capital to Weltstadt,” a collaboration between the German and History departments. Following are “Notes from the Field,” written by program director Lisa Johnson Svec, and a student, Maxwell Vale ’18, which document and offer reflections upon some of the experiences as students developed communication skills and cultural awareness. Several students stayed on longer in Berlin to participate in a three-week homestay and school experience, run by AATG (American Association of Teachers of German).


When we first arrived in Berlin, I was surprised at how it was laid out. Though it is a bustling city of over three million residents, it is very spaced out. Much like how cities such as New York and Boston suffocate you with buildings everywhere, most of Berlin is comprised of low-rise buildings that are somewhat separated from one another. It’s very green, there are parks all over the city, and almost every street is lined with trees.

Our opening activities in the city were walking across the street from our hotel to Alexanderplatz and seeing Marienkirche, or St. Mary’s Church, with a statue of Martin Luther out front. We then walked to a nice fountain in the same plaza and saw the TV Tower that is located there as well. We later walked down to the Brandenburger Tor, or the Brandenburg Gate, and saw where the Berlin wall had been. From there, we walked to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and talked about how the memorial was designed, as the memorial itself is a collection of concrete blocks of different heights placed in rows along an uneven ground. After dinner that night, we went to the top of the TV Tower and saw a nice panoramic view of the whole city. –Max Vale ’18


Just a brief note as we are all headed to bed early tonight!

Great first day–weather and the kids could not have been nicer. We kept the kids moving after hotel check in and short naps. Walked down Unter den Linden to Brandenburg Gate, then Field of Stelae, dinner together (lots of Schnitzel and sausage), up to the top of the TV tower and ice cream for dessert before calling it a day. They are all pros at ordering their own food and tipping now! Cold War Bike tour is our all-day event tomorrow.

What a great group!

–Lisa, Mary, and Ben


Cold War Bike Tour with our guide, Kieran, was fabulous. Berlin is completely flat, bikes are comfy cruisers, and the weather was perfect. We biked more than 11 miles (kids don’t know this–they’re going to guess tomorrow–winner gets chocolate). Highlights were a section of the Berlin Wall, Treptower Park Soviet War Memorial, East Berlin Guard Tower, Karl-Max Boulevard, Checkpoint Charlie, and the cobblestones marking where the Berlin Wall once stood. It is still easy to tell identify which side was east and which west even without the cobblestones to guide us. Lunch was at a fabulous Lebanese restaurant (Rissani) in the district of Kreuzberg. We returned our bikes to Alexanderplatz at 4:30 p.m., enjoyed a short break, and then had a one hour early evening cruise on the river Spree. The views of Museum Island and the Reichtstag were fabulous. Kids then went off to have dinner on their own.

Tomorrow’s plan: A visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the morning. Afternoon is (much) lighter fare, including Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in German!

–Lisa, Mary, and Ben


We’ve had a great couple of days. The above photo was taken near our hotel with Marx sporting a PA crew hat. As you might guess, our hotel near Alexanderplatz was formally part of East Berlin.Yesterday we visited the Berliner Dom, followed by visits to Museum Island. Highlights were the Gate of Ishtar and the Bust of Nefertiti. Museum Island itself could occupy the entire week. The afternoon yesterday revolved around the center of former West Berlin: Kaiser–Wilhelm Memorial Church, Ku’Damm Boulevard, and the Berlin Zoo. This morning we visited the Topography of Terror Exhibition, Potsdamer Platz, and the Reichstag. At 5:30 p.m.we are headed to the Phil and Tammy Murphy’s home in Berlin for a cookout.

Everyone seems to be enjoying their time in Berlin. –Lisa, Mary, and Ben


We’re starting to repeat ourselves, but can’t help it–we’ve had another wonderful day. Dinner at the Murphy’s last evening was really a treat. On the way we visited the Track 17 memorial commemorating the deportation of Jewish citizens by the Deutsche Reichsbahn during the Nazi era. I find it to be one of the most moving memorials in Berlin.

Our final day today was an all day tour with Fat Tire Bikes, this time to the nearby city of Potsdam. We biked through the Dutch quarter and the grounds of Frederick the Great’s palace Sanssoucci. This was followed by a tour of Cecilienhof where Churchill, Truman, and Stalin met to discuss how to partition Germany at the end of World War II. We finished by crossing over the Glienicke Bridge. This bridge was the site of exchanges of spies during the cold war–you may know the reference from the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies.

We’ve had a wonderful week with just about everything running like butter–at least from our perspective. There were some unplanned adventures involving missing train stops–ask the kids, if they haven’t told you already!

Tomorrow morning (Thursday), Ben will be flying back to Boston with the students returning to Boston, and I will deliver the students staying for the homestay to their families. I suspect those who are returning home are sad to be leaving Berlin and those who are staying might be anxious about the transition tomorrow. We have really enjoyed these kids. Very thoughtful, fun, interested in what we are doing and seeing, and just a pleasure to tour with.

Thanks for making it possible for them to come! We suspect many are already plotting their return to Germany–be prepared!

–Lisa, Mary, and Ben


Big day for the kids. We had no troubles finding the school this morning–the German teacher who teaches at Robert Blum Gymnasium and arranges the host families and all the excursions (Lydia) and the American chaperone (Kim) could not have been nicer. I think the kids really lucked out. Lydia launched right into German with them, gave them the itinerary for the next three weeks, and gathered the host brothers to come meet the American students. As you can imagine, everyone felt a bit awkward, but all the kids were super sweet. In fact, we arrived early and so the German host brothers missed holding up these signs they had made welcoming the kids.

After introductions the kids left with their hosts with the first assignment–to get public transit passes which will be valid for the entire stay. The program covers that cost which is nice.

Tomorrow they will meet the other American students–one boy and seven girls–and have a tour of the school. They will likely also visit some classes. This weekend they will have time to settle in with their host families. And the next adventure begins!

Mary and I head back to Boston tomorrow. Sad to leave, but really glad everything has worked out so well.

–Lisa, Mary, and Ben


As we were leaving the city a week later, I reflected on what I learned from my time there. Something funny we learned was how the potato, a food item that one could argue is the backbone of German cuisine, was brought to the nation by Frederick the Great using reverse psychology. After failing to wow the nation’s elite while unveiling the potato, he had them planted in a private garden and told the guards to look the other way when people tried to steal them. After people stole and ate the potatoes, they realized the food’s potential and it became an essential part of their food. We also learned a lot about the differences between East and West Germany–specifically, East and West Berlin. We had talked about it in German class before, but seeing all of it while taking a bike tour through the city was really cool. One thing that struck me while exploring East Berlin was the differences in architecture between the East and the West. When they were built, the East’s buildings were designed to be modern, yet emulate the communist ideals that were going on within the nation. All of the buildings emulated the “equality” that East Germany tried to attain, while also trying to separate East Germany and East Berlin and recognize itself as the future and center of the world. To me, the program’s value was that Berlin is constantly changing. Even though it has had a troubled past, including but not limited to WWI, WWII, and the division of the city between East and West, it has learned from its past and become a city of the world. It’s incredibly diverse and a great city to be in. The trip has only scratched the surface of what Berlin has to offer, and I would love to visit the city again in the future. –Max Vale ’18


Final handoff!

We had a FABULOUS trip and have had really positive feedback from the kids and their families.

Thanks to the Tang Institute for making this happen.

–Lisa, Mary, and Ben

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