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December 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

“The Danube Story”: Drama as a Tool to Teach Cultural Heritage in a Second Language Class

Olja Milosevic is a teacher at the International School of Belgrade. She is interested in developing intercultural communication skills. She enjoys working with children and young people. Emai:



Cultural heritage refers to different areas of human ingenuity throughout history as it “encompasses landscapes, historical places, sites, and environments, as well as biodiversity, collections, past and continuing cultural practices, knowledge and living experiences” (ICOMOS, 1999). Incorporating culture in second language learning, is usually associated with lessons related to food, traditional costumes, or national holidays. However, there are many other elements of cultural heritage that could be incorporated in language learning. First, discovering values and related practices of a certain culture could lead to engaging conversations. Studying culture and cultural heritage may mean including complex historical aspects or discussing some unpalatable issues. Second, studying culture is often related to the culture of the people who speak the language. Although that is certainly important, it may lead us to overlook the importance of discussing with students their own culture or cultural heritage or culture of the host country if they are enrolled in a school that is not in their own country.

This paper records the unit that was developed as a part of the VIA Culture: European Cultural Heritage for Vocabulary in Action: Erasmus+ project and presents one lesson from the unit. The aim of the project was to encourage students to learn about the host country’s heritage through the use of drama. The project was carried out in an international school in Serbia with a group of six non-Serbian students who explored the cultural heritage of Serbia. The project lasted from September 2018 to June 2021. All students moved to Serbia approximately six months before the project started, they were already familiar with certain customs and cultural practices of Serbia. They also knew about some historical places.


“The Danube Story” Unit

The unit “The Danube Story” was created during the implementation phase of the VIA Culture project. The implementation phase consisted of three stages: (1) exploration of cultural assets; (2) designing and teaching lessons and (3) reflection on learning.


Stage 1: Exploration of cultural assets

During the first stage, students were asked to identify cultural assets from Serbia that they considered important. They had to provide information about four to five assets that could be either tangible (“physical artifacts produced, maintained and transmitted intergenerationally in a society” Riches, 2014) or intangible (“traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants” UNESCO 2003). Students submitted their responses via google forms. After completing the forms, the teacher shared the responses with the class and together as a group, they identified five assets that they would like to study in detail. All the sites that students wanted to explore were historical locations on the Danube river: the Belgrade Fortress, the quarantine hospital in Zemun; the Smederevo fortress, Viminacium, and the stone age site of Lepenski Vir.

After the five sites were chosen, students were asked to research the places and find information about what life was like when they were built. The project provided students with the opportunity to visit the five historical sites and during those visits, they also gathered information. After the visit, students shared their observations. The teacher would often ask, “What else did you notice?” and “What might that mean?” to encourage students to dig deeper and offer their interpretations. As a result of their reflection, the name of the unit emerged. Since all the places were located on the Danube, the unit was named “The Danube Story”. The name of the unit was an attempt to capture the importance of the river that brings together different cultures and also to capture the lives of people who were on the move for a variety of reasons.


Stage 2: Designing and implementing lessons

After visiting the places and discussing their location and importance, the teacher created five lessons. The Danube area has always been related to the continuous migration of various groups of people and the teacher chose migration to be the theme of the unit. The unit consisted of five lessons and was taught for five weeks. Each lesson dealt with one aspect of migration and was explored during one 90-minute period.

The lessons were taught in this sequence:

Lesson 1: Kalemegdan, the Belgrade Fortress (The Witness of Continuous Migration)

Lesson 2: Zemun, the quarantine hospital (On the Trade Route)

Lesson 3 - Smederevo, the cursed queen (The Migration of the Serbian Medieval Capital)

Lesson 4: Viminacium, the Roman limes (Migration of the Roman Soldiers)

Lesson 5: Lepenski Vir, Stone age site (Migration Towards the River).

Each lesson had three phases: pre-drama, drama, and post-drama. The focus of the pre-drama phase was on eliciting vocabulary and language activities. During the drama phase, students explored the topic through movement and engaged in negotiating the meaning. During the post-drama, they worked on the class logbook.  The logbook was named “The Danube Stories”. It contained a short description of the asset and their illustrations.


Stage 3:  Reflection on learning

At the end of each lesson, students were asked to reflect, write their insights on learning, and comment on drama strategies. The feedback was very valuable for the teacher because students offered suggestions for improvement.


Description of the lesson plan

Lesson 3: Smederevo, the cursed queen (The Migration of the Serbian Medieval Capital), was the third one in the unit (see Appendix). The reasons for choosing the Smederevo fortress were twofold. First, Smederevo played an important role in the history of the region. It was built at the beginning of the 15th century as the new Serbian capital. Second, there are a number of stories that are linked to the building of the fortress. Some of them developed into legends and it was hoped that the stories would be interesting to students. The linguistic objective was practicing the simple past tense. Students had previously learned its formation and throughout the lesson, they practiced using it to explain the purpose of the asset and describing events in the past.

The lesson is described in detail because, during the reflection time, students identified it as the most interesting. The original name of the lesson was: The Smederevo Fortress, but later students nicknamed it “The Cursed Queen”. Through the exploration of the historical site, the lesson dealt with the feeling of isolation of a foreigner. Students were foreigners themselves, living in a foreign country and they found a connection with the character of the Greek princess who married the Serbian ruler and had difficulties adjusting to the new environment.

The lesson followed the established layout and was divided into three phases: pre-drama, drama, and post-drama. Students had already experienced drama activities during the previous two lessons. At that point, they were comfortable with participating in drama activities.

The pre-drama stage of the lesson began with the teacher eliciting vocabulary (carpenter, a stonemason, blame, conquer, ordinary, impossible). All the new words were related to the topic and necessary for the students to understand the situation.  The list of new words was projected on the screen together with the images. Once the meaning of the words was explained, the students were asked to connect the word with the corresponding image. The next task was to guess the connection between the new words and the asset. Then the teacher shared the PowerPoint presentation named “Who was blamed?”. There were no words and students were instructed to ask questions to guess the story. The teacher often repeated the question “Who was blamed?” and wrote guesses on the board. After they had all offered their guesses, students were given the text about the Smederevo Fortress. After they read the text, the teacher checked if they were surprised and why they thought that person was blamed by ordinary people.

The drama phase consisted of two parts. It started with the visualization that created the setting for the second part: tableaux and thought tracking. The teacher led students through the visualization by reading the following script, “Close your eyes and imagine you are on a magic carpet… the carpet moves … and goes high up in the air… As you soar through the sky, you enjoy the sunshine and fresh air…. You look below and you see rivers and mountains. … There is a mighty river… As you approach the river, you see a building site… You love what you see…. It is going to be a big fortress... You breathe in and the carpet starts landing…. It lands on the building site: the work on Smederevo fortress is in progress”. 

The next activity was creating tableaux. The students were invited to make still images with their bodies to represent a scene. Each student was a different character from the Smederevo history: the King who was doing his best to build a fortress that would defend his people from the enemy, Yerina was a foreigner, nobody understands her, a farmer was working hard to build the castle but needed to go home and work in the field (he was worried about his family), the king’s son, a carpenter, a stonemason. Once students made an image, the teacher would tap a student on the shoulder, they would speak the thoughts or feelings of their character aloud.

The building of the fortress was remembered as a long and costly process, many lives were lost and it created a lot of discontent. When designing the lesson, the teacher wanted students to imagine what it was like for people to work hard for years and not to be paid and given very little food in return. When students were in a role, the teacher encouraged them to think about why their character felt unhappy and how their state of mind affected other characters. To achieve this, during the tableaux and thought tracking activity, students had to think about how different characters felt, to express their feelings with their bodies, and later to explain the reasons for their discontent. It was hoped that students would use their imagination to recreate the lives of people who were forced to work on the building site and those of the ruler and his family who had to think about the wellbeing of the people in their care.

For the post-drama part, each student made a coat of arms for one of the following people: king, queen, king’s son, farmer, stonemason, or carpenter.  The following information had to be included in the coat-of-arms: origin, profession, fears, and hopes.  When the students finished their shields, they displayed them and offered explanations. After students completed the coat-of-arms for their characters, they displayed them on the walls for a gallery walk. When designing coat-of-arms for their characters, students were reminded to include information on characters that they created during the drama activity. Students wrote a short biography to show how well they understood their character.


Reflection on the unit

At the end of the unit, students were asked to complete a questionnaire and the teacher conducted a whole class discussion about the benefits of VIA classes. The discussion provided opportunities to explore and reflect on language. Responses to the questionnaire were very positive. They expressed positive feelings, found lessons amusing, and indicated that drama activities helped them to remember words.

During drama classes, the teacher facilitated the process but also tried to observe student participation in group work and to record language points that would need to be explained later. She also tried to encourage students to use vocabulary that had been introduced at the beginning of the lesson. Reminding students to use specific words impacted the conversation and from time to time interaction was less authentic. 



VIA Culture: European Cultural Heritage for Vocabulary in Action” project helped students to learn a new language and gain knowledge of the local history and cultural assets. The combination of host country cultural heritage expiration and foreign language learning had a positive impact on the learning process and it showed the educational value of cultural heritage. Drama as a key teaching method enabled the teacher to create a context for second language learning and by doing so to inform students about its history, culture, and traditions and in general, to experience the host country favorably.

Drama tasks were challenging and motivating language learning activities. They helped students to gain confidence with words they have not met before and encouraged them to use both verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication. Students were encouraged to use gestures and body language to express meaning and not to close the ways of communication for the lack of the right word. They showed understanding through the use of body language and by appropriate facial expressions. When preparing the lessons drama strategies helped to sequence the lesson in an engaging way. It was important to choose a strategy that would encourage students both to explore cultural assets and to produce a new language. Drama activities and stories about the historical sites increased cognitive challenge and student engagement.

The “VIA Culture: European Cultural Heritage for Vocabulary in Action” project is one of many possibilities of incorporating cultural heritage and language learning. However, appropriate learning tasks and relevant aspects of cultural heritage could certainly form a framework for language learning. Structuring activities in a way that would prompt students to practice using new vocabulary and to learn about cultural heritage would mean that the focus is on meaning and not on form, with the expectation that knowing about other people’s way of life would develop acceptance of the different cultures.



ICOMOS, International Cultural Tourism Charter. Managing Tourism At Places Of Cultural And Heritage Significance. ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Committee. 1999. Available at

UNESCO (2003) Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible Cultural Heritage. Paris: UNESCO.

Riches (2014). Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage.



Lesson plan

Smederevo, the cursed queen (The Migration of the Serbian Medieval Capital)


  • Discovering the asset: Introducing new vocabulary and predicting how it is related to the historical site.
  • Solving the mystery - 20 min

Students see the PowerPoint. There are no words and they have to ask questions to guess what the story is. Who was blamed? As they offer their guesses, they need to say why this person is to be blamed.

The teacher writes their guesses on the board. After they have all offered their guesses, give students the text about the Smederevo Fortress.

After students have read the text, the teacher checks if they are surprised and why they think that person was blamed by ordinary people.



  • Visualization: The teacher guides students in the visualization by reading the script.
  • Tableaux

Students make still images with their bodies to represent a scene: you are:

  1. The king - you are doing your best to build a fortress that would defend you from the enemy.
  2. Yerina - you are a foreigner, nobody understands you
  3. Farmer - you are working hard to build the castle but you need to go home and work in the field. You are worried about your family.
  4. King’s son - you want to help your father and you do not understand why people hate your mother
  5. Carpenter - you are overworked and penniless
  6. Stonemason - you are overworked and penniless
  • Thought tracking

Once students have made an image, explain that when you tap them on the shoulder you would like them to speak the thoughts or feelings of their character aloud.



  • Making a coat-of-arms for one of the following people: king, queen, king’s son, farmer, stonemason, or carpenter.  The following information had to be included in the coat-of-arms: origin, profession, fears, and hopes. 
  • Displaying coat-of-arms for a gallery walk.
  • Writing a short paragraph about the character.


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