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City as Text™, the experiential learning program developed by the NCHC Honors Semesters Committee, has been adopted and adapted by hundreds if not thousands of educational institutions throughout the United States and beyond. Having served on the Honors Semesters Committee, I exported this learning strategy to Switzerland when I took a teaching position in the International Baccalaureate Program of the Collège du Léman in Geneva. I adapted City as Text™ for multi-disciplinary college preparatory students in Europe, and that adaptation might now serve in turn as a model for experiential learning in honors programs and colleges back in the United States. The focus and link between the City as Text™ experiences on two different continents and at two different levels of education will be what I call “Self as Text.” The experiential learning experience that is the extension of and variation on NCHC’s City as Text™ involved an educational trip from Geneva to Zürich taken by eighty-five International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge students accompanied by eight multi-disciplinary teachers. The Theory of Knowledge course serves to encourage eleventh- and twelfth-grade students, through an interdisciplinary inquiry into “what it means to know,” to gain both a summative and forward-looking perspective on their education and on themselves as knowers. The course is most effectively taught by means of active learning, exploring essential questions that challenge students to discover and analyze the major ways in which we know and to make interconnections between these modes of knowing and the subject areas they have been studying.
The trip served the purpose of initiating the eleventh-graders into the course. The students had been told that they would be going to two exhibits. The first was Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, an exhibit of artfully displayed plasticized human cadavers, skinned to reveal (as the exhibit brochure announced) their “interior faces” of skeleton, muscles, nerves, and organs. The second was Buddha’s Paradise at the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, displaying two-thousand-year-old Buddhist art. The students also knew that most of us would be eating dinner at a restaurant in Zürich where you eat in the dark. Finally, the students knew that they would be required to produce a criteriabased, graded, reflective essay on the trip activities.
The students, generally between sixteen and seventeen years old, were a multi-lingual and multi-cultural group, and for the most part they were used to that context. All spoke English but in many cases not as their mother tongue and generally in addition to several other languages. As IB students, they were an academically select group. The challenge for us teachers in planning the trip curriculum was to determine what kinds of tasks would engage students already well-versed in diversity and difference. What kinds of activities would challenge them to step even further outside of themselves and gain a yet wider perspective on self/other/world? Martha Nussbaum has expressed this challenge eloquently in her concept of “narrative imagination” or “the invitation to become, to a certain extent, philosophical exiles from our own ways of life, seeing them from the vantage point of the outsiders and asking the questions an outsider is likely to ask about their meaning and function” (Gillison 34). I see this questioning of self, what I call “Self as Text,” as also the end goal of the mapping done in NCHC’s City as Text™.