I was asked this summer to teach a five-session minicourse for a group of Jewish education students from Latin America, spending 10 months on an intensive program at Oranim teachers college. The title of the course was to be Site as Text, and the purposes were both to provide educational visits to sites around the Galilee, and to study the philosophy and methodology of educational tourism - using excursions to historical and/or natural sites as educational experiences. Although this is a topic I have thought about many times, I have never thought about it on the theoretical level, but rather on the practical level of planning a specific excursion. Thus, this was an interesting opportunity and a challenge. And the title itself, Site as Text, raised interesting questions.
It occurred to me that thinking of a site as a text offered the opportunity to go beyond the traditional model of the tour guide telling his/her tour group what they are to look at, what they are seeing, and why it is important. If the site is a text, then the visitor should have the opportunity to read it for him/herself. Fortunately, this group of eleven students were bright, enthusiastic, and open, perfect guinea pigs for my experiments.
At the first site, Bet Shearim, I sent them out in groups to explore the excavations cold, with no prior information at all. When they all reconvened, we exchanged knowledge, and I was able to fill in the gaps and provide the general context in the course of answering the many questions that they asked. This was an easy site for this exercise, as it is a national park and has a lot of information available on printed signs amd a video presentation. They reported afterwards that it had been a very successful tour, and that they really felt involved and challenged. The next week we did a similar exercise at Yodfat, the difference being that Yodfat is a very bare excavation, with almost no interpretive material. We divided into two groups: one group was told absolutely nothing about the site; the other was told only that it was connected to the Great Revolt against the Romans. When we compared notes, both groups turned out to have figured out a good deal about what they had seen, just using common sense and their general knowledge of archaeology. After reviewing information about the site, they were delighted by a visit by Josephus, who appeared in costume to discuss his experience at Yodfat.
Both of these excursions - and two more, to Zippori and Amud canyon - confirmed my suspicions that this model of trying to relate to a site as a text can be a fruitful approach, breaking the frontal guiding pattern and challenging the participants to observe closely and actively. The metaphor can be carried farther: what language do you need to read a site? How important is knowing the context? How much is open to intepretation? What are the layers of meaning? How important is getting every bit of information? etc.
Our last excursion was to the Pioneer Museum at Kibbutz Yifat, a huge barn with a rich collection of artifacts from different aspects and historical milestones of early kibbutz life, organized as a sort of reconstructed community - dining room, infirmary, showers, workshops, agriculture, etc. We ordered the standard guided tour. The guide recited his shpiel almost without taking a breath, herding us from exhibit to exhibit, telling historical anecdotes, impressing upon us the courage and idealism of the pioneers. When he left us alone, the students commented that it was not obvious from his presentation that he was aware of our presence... Since we had time, and the museum was empty, I suggested that they go back in and explore it on their own. They literally ran in, and proceeded to have a wonderful time examining the various rooms and tools, showing and explaining things to each other.
I wonder if there is a more general lesson here, about letting go as teachers.