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Transitions…The Workhorse of a Tour

The image of a draft horse comes to mind when I think of the role transitions play in a tour. They do a great deal of the work, even though their content may not appear to be extraordinary. Transitions pull the tour along, providing continuity as new examples are presented or new ideas are introduced. And, they work on behalf of both the docent and the audience. For docents, transitions are like a rein, holding the line of thought to the theme. In settings such as a botanical conservatory, where 2,000 uniquely different plants are on display for multiple reasons, the temptation to wax encyclopedic about each plant is great. To do so, however, would defeat the goals of the tour.

Transitions can garner the audience’s attention and prepare them for learning facts by focusing their interest. Consider, for example, a visit to the chocolate tree on a tour relating the value of plants to humans. A docent could talk about: the part of the plant from which chocolate comes; the process by which chocolate is made; who “discovered” chocolate; how it was used by native peoples in Mexico; where it originated and is now in cultivation; the structure of its pods; the shape and color of its flowers; its natural habitat; and so on. A transition statement, such as, “It is amazing to think that some of our most commonly available spices and confection flavors were once highly prized as money. Perhaps, after seeing the chocolate tree, we can understand why this was so.” prepares visitors’ by directing their attention, and relating the information conveyed to the tour’s theme. By focusing with a transition, the chocolate tree remains an example of an idea (its proper role) rather than becoming a symbol of a series of isolated facts and interesting trivia.

Transitions are not tools for the docent’ s benefit only. They work for the audience, too. Well planned transitions create anticipation for the next stop. They offer visitors reasons to remain interested. For instance: “With the ant acacia, we have seen how ants and plants develop symbiotic relationships, where the ants protect the plant and the plant provides a home and food for the ants. Now, let’s look at a situation where ants “work” for plants in a different way — as farmers might, by providing supplementary fertilizer.” Another example might be: “When we get to the next plant, the Bougainvillea, I want you to figure out which plant structures are used to help this vine climb.”

When a new point or concept is to be introduced on a tour, transitions can give visitors linkage. During conservatory tours on the topic of color in plants, for instance, the color red is usually a focus of attention. Red is typically the color found in hummingbird-pollinated flowers. It serves as an attractant for these birds. We often explore the conservatory spotting different red flowers, taking a close look at each.

“Are the flowers all the same shape? What part of the flower is red?” Through this process, the audience becomes quite comfortable with the concept that pigment in flowers serves as a flag for particular types of pollinators.

Then, I may say, “As we move on to the next plant, here’s something to think about. Is red pigment only found in flowers?” Perhaps visitors have seen plants with red leaves. Their experiences would be confirmed and the ensuing discussion would examine the reasons for red leaves. A transition such as this gives the visitor time to project his own experiences into the tour, while creating a foundation on which new ideas can be built.

Docents who make sure that each stop on the tour is relevant to the theme of their tour will have an easy time coming up with interesting transitions. Presumably, docents choose particular features during a tour in order to illustrate something about the tour’s theme. Transitions apply to the theme, not to the plant or object. “Let’s go see the banana,” is not a good transition. True, I’ve told you the name of the next plant we will see, but so what? In contrast, “Let’s go look at the banana to see how it reproduces, because h does not have seeds” points us in a definite direction where the theme is about reproduction in plants. Transitions hint at the reason for the next stop. They begin to answer the unspoken question, “so what?”

Transition statements need not be complicated. Long-winded transitions risk distracting their audience, or losing them entirely. “The next plant we will look at is a major tropical crop. This plant has been in cultivation for so long, no one really knows its origins. There are many different varieties of it; however, we only see one or two of them in the stores. Let’s go see how the cultivated banana reproduces because it does not have seeds.” What was the point? An effective transition requires only a sentence or two to get its point across.

As seen with the examples above, provocative statements, questions, summaries, directives, introductions, and contrasts all make for good transitions if concise and to the point. Comments from the audience can be another source for transitions. Docents need to be open and flexible with their tour plan to take advantage of such opportunities, however. Suppose someone offers you an answer that wasn’t quite correct in one situation, but it would apply to another point in the tour. You might use that answer as a transition. “A few minutes ago, Mrs. French mentioned that some plants develop tiny plantlets along the edge of the leaves. As we move into the arid house, think about why some plants might do that. We will be looking at several examples of this phenomenon.”

Transitions need not be entirely verbal to be effective. On a tour with fourth graders, I discovered that I could emphasize the difference between two habitats through actions rather than words. The transitions did all of the work for me. We had been walking for nearly a half mile along the banks of a creek. The vegetation in this area is that of riverine floodplain. The youngsters were quickly picking up the repetition of plant species that grow in this area. It was getting a bit monotonous for them. While the Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located at the edge of a glacial moraine, there is little evidence of the moraine on the trail. Only one small hump of upland woods appears in the middle of the floodplain. You would not notice it until you came upon it.

Before we arrived at this spot, I told the students that we were about to enter a different world, but that we needed to use all of our senses in order to see it. I had each of them put on blindfolds (no peeking allowed) and place their hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. As we proceeded slowly up the hill, the kids comments became very descriptive. “Hey, the ground is crunchy” (gravely as opposed to soft or “spongy”). They noticed the increased effort required as we walked up the hill. They could hear the water flowing, so they knew we were still creek-side. They knew something was different, but just how different had to wait a minute. When we got to the top of the hill, I carefully led them onto a side trail. Their silence spoke volumes when they removed their blindfolds to find themselves in a sea of white trillium under towering oaks. The answer to the question, “what is it” was hardly important. They had arrived in a new habitat which they already knew through the use of their five senses. Each child could honestly say, “I was there.”

Because of the complexity of material covered in our docent training course, I have found it easiest to introduce the technique of using transitions towards the end of training. By participating in cumulative practice tours, docents-in-training at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens build on their skills. With time, the value of each skill becomes more obvious to them. Initial practice tours focus on selecting and relaying information about plants, adjusting to time constraints, mastering voice projection, eye contact, and other presentation techniques. The next level emphasizes questioning techniques so that the audience becomes a vital, participatory member of the tour and the docent no longer is in the “tell it all” role.

Subsequent practice tours focus on themes. Docents first learn how to develop a theme tour, to select the points they wish to make about the theme, and to select which plants will best highlight a given point. Their first efforts with theme tours, while appearing coherent on paper, sometimes come across as fractured. Their tendency is to go to a selected plant, work to make a point and then move on to another plant to make another point, and so forth. For the practice that follows this stage, I assign the use of transitions in tours. Through the resulting contrast, docents learn that their tours hang together better. Once docents experience the difference transitions make to the process of giving tours, they make a point of working them into their plan.

Many docents think of transitions as bridges. This is an appropriate analogy. They help link the various points of the tour. A tour that ignores transitions shatters into bits and pieces. Whether we are conscious of it or not, transitions do a lot more for tours than make connections. That is why I like to think of them as workhorses. They heighten awareness of the points being made; they provide sustenance for the audience between experiences; and, they help the listener relate to prior experiences. They help set the stage for surprise.

Regardless of the source or type of transition, each should relate directly to a central idea, rather than to an object itself. When you use transitions effectively, you will find that the draft horse of the tour will carry much of your load.

Kathy French is the Interpretive Botanist and the Docent Instructor/Coordinator for the Matthaei Botanical Gardens at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ml. Ms. French earned a M.S. in Biology from the University of Michigan, and began her career in 1979 as a volunteer tour guide with the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ Environmental Education Program. She became a volunteer tour guide at the Gardens the same year. Ms. French founded the formal docent training program for the Gardens and is responsible for the Garden ‘s interpretation, interpretive writing, and for the teaching of interpretive techniques.

French, Kathy. “Transitions…The Workhorse of a Tour,” The Docent Educator 5.1 (Autumn 1995): 8-9.

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