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A Museum-School Partnership A Venture Into “Community Service”

This fall marks the third collaborative partnership of the Temple City High School and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The “Dovetail Docents Program” empowers young adults, through service learning, to become student teachers who expertly share their knowledge of the current exhibits with elementary students using the inquiry method of teaching. The program clearly actualizes the intent of the National and Community Service Trust Act signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.

Begun as a dream, this collaboration established a partnership with the Huntington Library. Naively, we requested a meeting with the Huntington Library education staff We asked if they would consider having a group of our students serve as docents at the Library. The timing was right; they were expanding their educational outreach and for the first time they were interested in this type of partnership. After presenting the idea to our students, our principal, and superintendent, all of whom were encouraging, our partnership with the Huntington Library and our venture into service learning through docent education, began.

As the selection and training components of the program emerged, we realized what a huge undertaking we had begun. In countless arenas, there was a need for constant vigilance including the coordination of people, dates, and transportation. Anticipating emergencies and remaining flexible was a must. We quickly discovered that having emergency phone numbers, documenting the students’ service hours for accountability, and coordinating school schedules was an absolute necessity. We also needed to educate our student docents in the proper etiquette for such a venerable institution.

The student docents’ preparation for each exhibit entailed a rigorous selection and training process over many months, which included: attending lectures by experts in the field and curators of the exhibits; studying voluminous research materials; learning and practicing inquiry pedagogy as well as other teaching and touring techniques; collaborating with senior docents; and participating in tour simulations. The Huntington staff proved to be invaluable in training and guidance, particularly by always treating the student docents with dignity.

The reasons that students joined the Dovetail Docent Program were many and varied. Some had an interest in history and art. Others were interested in teaching and working with youth. And still others anticipated the benefits that participation in this program would have on their resumes and college applications. Whatever their reason, students received a new appreciation for the subject matter of the exhibits and for the hard work of volunteers who docent at institutions throughout the world.

Our student docents have toured such exhibitions as The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America; The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic; and The Land of the Golden Dreams: California and the Gold Rush Decade. As a result. many of the Dovetail docents are now interested in pursuing careers in museum work: docenting, research, history, and teaching.

During our partnership with the Huntington, their staff has always been gracious and consistent with their support. Additionally, they have continually provided focused leadership and inspiration. They helped resolve a liability issue by providing bus transportation for the Dovetail docents for the Wednesday morning tours because our school district, like many others, cannot allow students to drive to school sponsored events.

Key to the basic design of the Dovetail project are the elements necessary for effective service learning that includes the conscious integration with the curriculum and the following components: collaboration, student voice, integrated learning, civic responsibility, high quality service, reflection, and evaluation.

As General Cohn Powell said, “Young people tell me that helping others makes them feel good about themselves. Often, they tell me that it does much more than that — it boosts their self-confidence; it offers them the chance to pick up useful skills; and it lets them exercise real responsibility and leadership at an early age. Young people have actually found their life’s work through a give-back experience.”

The audience for the Dovetail tours continues to be diverse. Home schoolers, English Language Learners (LEP) students, economically and culturally disadvantaged students, gifted students, private school and academy students have all been served. Such groups of student visitors are also accompanied by their teachers, parents, grandparents, and scout leaders. These chaperones, too, gained something of value from the tours they received from our student docents.

Susan Lafferty, manager of education and volunteer services for the Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Gardens, states, “The Dovetails have proved to be among some of our very best docents. Their teaching techniques in the exhibit hall are lively, fun, informative, and relevant to our fifth grade visitors. They hold the children in the palms of their hands, and make them laugh, exclaim in wonder, but most importantly, to think in new^ ways about George Washington. The Dovetails are a vital component to the Huntington’s education program.

The benefits for the student docents participating in the Dovetail program are many. They include: learning time management, acquiring leadership skills, developing speaking skills, and increasing self-confidence. They also learn to synthesize a lot of information into a focused oral presentation.

Student docents internalize the value of developing a service ethic and begin to understand how they can impact their own community. They experience the unique opportunity of cross-age peering as they share thoughts, ideas, and techniques with senior docents, as well as with young visitors. They learn that along with the privilege of working in a setting such as a museum, garden, or library comes adult responsibilities.

As the Dovetail docents, themselves, have said:

“The most gratifying part of being a docent was knowing that I was the link connecting George Washington and the students we taught.” – Cynthia Tsai, 10th grade.

“Of all the service learning activities that I have been involved in, I would have to say this was the most morally and educationally rewarding. I have improved my speaking skills and ability to be interesting and eloquent at the same time.” Jennifer Kwan, 12th grade.

“To me, the most important part is understanding who I am as an American and passing on this precious knowledge to the children I tour.” – Jenny Hung, 11th grade.

The partnership between the Huntington and Temple City High School has been an amazing adventure in personal growth and pride. The dovetailing between so many elements has been seamless because of what this collaboration offers young people. We remain in awe and are moved every time we work with our students at the Huntington, and know that we are a small part in the perpetuation of the vision of great minds.

Shirley Rosenkranz is an English teacher at Temple City High School. She received her B.S. in English and history from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. in Literature from California State University at Los Angeles. She served as the California State Teacher of the Year in 1987. Ms. Rosenkranz has been an advocate for student docenting and service learning at the Huntington Library since 1992.

June Thurber is an English teacher at Temple City High School. She received her B.A. in English And American studies and her M.A. in literature from California State University at Los Angeles. Ms. Thurber has been an advocate Of service learning and student docenting at the Huntington Library since 1992. She is also an educational consultant and a grant writer.

Rosenkranz, Shirley & June Thurber. “A Museum-School Partnership: A Venture Into “Community Service,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 8-9.

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