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A BIG Change Requires A BIG Plan

In almost every thing we do there is some element of a plan. Even if you are embarking on an adventure of total discovery and the plan is very loose, there is still a reason for where you are going and why you are headed there. A major restructure of a program that depends upon many people to implement requires a more complete plan. The more complete the master plan the easier it will be to implement and the more predictable the results.

The BIG Change –

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ, decided to offer guided tour experiences to school students five days a week October through May, expanding the twice a week, tour program already in place. A restructure of the tour was also a part of the plan in order to better meet the Arizona State Education Standards and ensure that the messages about desert plants were consistent for all students.

Increasing the number of tours also meant recruiting, training and integrating more guides as well as recruiting and retraining the guides that have been doing a different tour for several years. Every step of the change in the overall program was included in the planning. Here we will focus on developing the new tours and the training.

The Challenge —

Develop two new student tours that focus on particular aspects of desert plants and meet the Arizona Education Standards for grades K -6. Each tour will accommodate 60 – 90 students and will be conducted on a themed side trail to relieve congestion on the busy main trail.

The tour plan includes the following:

Investigate the Arizona State Standards for grades K – 6 Identify the major messages to be conveyed by each of the two tours and develop a theme to tell the story and carry the messages. Identify the concepts and teaching points that will deliver the messages. Identify the specific objects that will demonstrate the concepts and teaching points, and for each teaching point assign a designated stop on the tour. Develop an activity for each stop that helps students discover and understand the specific concept (teaching point) and meets the state standards. (All our tours are structured to help people understand conceptual ideas not just plant I.D.s). Develop an introduction to the tour’s theme, to be presented to the entire student group, that reiterates the pre-visit lesson. Develop a concluding activity that will summarize and help students remember the teaching points from the tour. Develop and implement training for volunteers and staff One example from this plan: Major Message – For one of the tours the major message is that plants living in the harsh desert conditions have specially adapted features in their stems, roots, leaves and seeds that help them to live in that environment. The theme for this tour is the Secrets of Desert Plants. Teaching Points and related objects

At each stop the teaching point shows students the specially adapted “secret” of the individual plant example. For instance:

Stop 1 – the “secret” of the cactus (object 1) is that cactus can store water (when it rains) in special cells in its stem to use during the long periods when there is no rain (concept 1).

Stop 2 – the “secret” is that some plants, like mesquite trees (object 2), have specialized roots for finding and collecting water (concept 2).

Stop 3 – many desert plants like shrubs (object 3) have leaves that are small, light colored and often have various types of coatings to protect them from intense sun and water loss (concept 3).

Stop 4 – Some plants, like wildflowers, only live a short time while conditions are just right and their plentiful seeds (object 4) hide in protected seed-coats in the soil for the next year that the conditions are good for them to grow (concept 4).

Activities – For the cactus stop – the “secret” of storing water in its stem, the activities include: looking at and touching the cross section of a succulent stem of a cactus using a sponge and water to physically see the concept of how the tissues absorb water and hold it. comparing water conserving ability between 1 cloth with a waxy coating, and one cloth without to demonstrate how the skin of the cactus with its wax-like coating helps the plant hold and store water. forming a circle with the children holding hands and stretching way out as “water” is added to the “stem” of the cactus they are pretending to be. As the water is used by the plant and removed from the stem they move close together arms stretched inward like an accordion. This helps them understand how the pleated skin on the cactus works to expand and contract without bursting. discussing with the guide how all these activities relate to the cross section of the cactus the students were able to see and touch.

Each of the stops has one or more activities that demonstrate the teaching point. Five groups rotate through five stops.

Introduction and Conclusion –

The group introduction reiterates (or in some cases introduces) the concepts from the pre-visit lesson/ activity about what are the challenges for plants that live in the harsh conditions of the desert.

The concluding activity asks students to choose and draw their favorite plant and its desert “secret.” This activity is meant to have students review in their minds the teaching points/concepts of desert plant survival, which helps them to remember.

The planning also required designating the stops on the trails and any landscape modifications necessary to make the area usable for the activities, and getting these areas approved and created by the institution.

Delivering the Training —

Training includes modeling the entire tour on the trail using all activities as well as strategies for enticing students to observe specific parts of the plants for each stop, make comparisons and come up with their own questions and discoveries about the plants and their secrets. The trick is to pique students’ curiosity and stimulate them to ask the questions that lead to finding out the answers to the “secrets.”

Guides are well equipped to answer the students’ questions after 32 hours of training in content about the desert and desert plant adaptations. This content class is also interactive including labs, discussions and outside reading that gives a fairly decent background of knowledge to answer questions.

Guide training also includes several activities that demonstrate the value of learning in an experiential manner. This helps guides use the hands-on items and questioning strategies rather than just lectures, making it fan for everyone.

Delivering the tour –

The student tours are “guided discovery tours”. The specified stops and activities give the guides a framework and the tools they need to convey the teaching points and meet the state standards. However, since you can never plan for all contingencies, instead of giving a canned or memorized script, we have planned in the flexibility to let the guides as individuals use their knowledge and preferred styles to help students make the discoveries outlined in the plan.

Concluding –

Formal conclusions are often forgotten or glossed over, but they are very important. Summarizing helps individuals recall and reconsider the elements of the presentation or activity. By reconsidering those elements they become more firmly planted in the mind. The concluding drawing activity does just this with the students. It also asks them to make a judgment of their favorite plant or “secret”, and gives them a take home memento to discuss with a friend, parent, teacher and/or the guide, further enhancing their experience.

A program change of this dimension required a great deal of careful planning in order to bring all the existing guides into the new program and show them that these tours would be easier to do and give more consistent information to the groups of students. Many meetings were held giving everyone an opportunity to voice their thoughts and suggestions. And then the training began. The next phase of the plan is the evaluation of the program and (hopefully minor) modifications to make it the best it can be.

Nancy Cutler is the interpretive coordinator at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ. She has been training interpreters and managing the docent program therefor 11 years.

Cutler, Nancy. “A BIG Change Requires A BIG Plan,” The Docent Educator 13.2 (Winter 2003-04): 6-9.

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