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Constructing School Programs

History museum docents, like those in other types of museums, are increasingly offering participatory tours that encourage visitors to think creatively about the objects they encounter. Docents challenge their groups to look closely at objects, accurately describe what they see, answer open-ended questions that allow information to be interpreted meaningfully, and find connections between the past and their own lives today.

Docents who conduct such tours are often both qualified and willing to design tours that bring out the lively stories that objects are waiting to tell. At the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, our docents have recently developed a new, local history tour for eighth graders based on the theme of “contrasts” that is designed to engage students in participatory and informative object encounters.

While the planning for such a tour included teachers, administrators, and museum educators, the pre-tour resource packet and the tour itself were researched and prepared by volunteer docents who then presented the tours to students. Though every locale has its own, unique stories to tell, most of the steps completed during the Wichita project are appropriate for developing tours for school groups anywhere.

Start with the Curriculum

When planning programs for students, it is best to begin with the school curriculum so that the goals of the tour and those of teachers are complementary. The more connections teachers can make between the curricular requirements and a visit to the museum, the more likely a visit can be justified.

We began by identifying as many mandated outcomes (those stated objectives for learning set by the school system) in as many disciplines as a history tour in the museum might meet. In the case of the new Wichita tour, we continued by focusing on the Kansas history unit required in eighth grade. We designed our materials so that the outcomes can be almost entirely taught using our tour resource packet.

Construct a Theme

The strength of the museum’s collection will usually dictate the topics, information, personalities, and events around which a tour can be built. These variables provide a domain for identifying the theme, or “big idea,” of the tour.

The Wichita docents used historic photos, published histories, label text, and artifacts in the local history exhibition to refine our theme. The tour title, Wichita: City of Contrasts, reflects the chosen idea of making comparisons – – comparisons between early and contemporary Wichita, and within the early town itself.

Target an Audience

Correlations between the museum’s collections, its thematic potential, and the school curriculum, begin to define your target audience. Identifying the grade level at which the selected theme and learning activities can most appropriately meet student and teacher needs further refines the audience.

For the Wichita project, the eighth grade Kansas history requirement and the rich historical resources of the local history exhibition meshed with the museum’s desire to extend its reach and serve a new audience at the middle school level.

Assemble Advisors

In most school systems, administrators and teachers will respond programs are developed properly, both teachers are “satisfied customers.” photo: Susan Miner positively to an invitation to work together with the museum on a new program designed for students. Consulting with these professionals should help to ensure that the content is appropriate, and that the manner of presentation is consistent with age and background of the target audience. It also provides the school system with a sense of ownership and a stake in the program’s ultimate success.

Administrators can be expected to contribute a limited amount of their time to this endeavor; teachers ought to be compensated (even if nominally) for their efforts. Upon consultation with the middle school program director for the local public school system, three eighth grade teachers were selected to consult for a maximum of 12 hours during the year, and were paid $10 per hour for the time spent in meetings and reviewing materials.

Draw Upon Community Resources

Universities, libraries, collectors clubs, genealogical societies, senior citizens, other museums, as well as the public and private schools in the area can be of great help in providing assistance. Any and all are potential contributors of background information, knowledge about the targeted age group, tips on presentation, and even financial support for the project itself.

In our case, The Junior League of Wichita provided both volunteer docents and funding for tour development. The Wichita Public Schools contributed the time of two administrators and a videographer. A local Native American musician gave permission for the use of his authentic flute music, and a Kansas historian allowed us use of his recordings. These contributions made it possible for our museum to produce a 10-minute introductory video tape contrasting photos of early Wichita with modern scenes (for example, a calico-clad pioneer woman at her washtub versus one of the docents carrying plastic covered dry-cleaning to her car).

Do the Research

Research the topic based on the objects to be toured. Also, research the audience. Both need to be understood before the tour is designed. Docents at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum selected areas of early Wichita history to explore via books, label text, curriculum guides, and photos provided by the museum. Each became the project “expert” on a particular facet.

In addition, school administrators and teachers and a museum education consultant coached the docents on the developmental needs of eighth graders, as well as the most appropriate means of working with them in the museum setting. Among the things we learned was that eighth graders are very concerned about embarrassing themselves in front of their peers. To overcome this potential obstacle to student participation, the docents decided to make their tour “safer” for students to speak up by having all of them assume the persona and perspective of particular individuals living in Wichita in 1874, rather than to speak as themselves.

Develop Teacher Resource Materials

Assemble a variety of learning activities for teachers to use both before and after the tour so that students know what to expect from, and how to build upon, the museum experience. The City of Contrasts packet grew to over 100 pages of historical background, pre- and post-tour activities, and teacher suggestions and instructions. Contrary to docent concerns that the size of the packet would be intimidating, the teachers unanimously praised its variety and depth, and that it allowed them a wide latitude of choices.

Plan, Practice, and Cross Your Fingers

After 10 months of research, tour development, and training, the 12 pilot tours were still a heady mix of nervousness, success, and learning on the job. The docents had their areas of expertise to rely upon during the discussion-based tours, and they practiced, and grew increasingly more comfortable with, asking open-ended questions.


Conduct student surveys, teacher evaluations, docent debriefing sessions, and hold a wrap-up meeting of the advisory committee. Review the tour, the style of interaction, and the materials — all are important to evaluate the effectiveness of the effort.

Revise and Regroup

Utilize the evaluations. Make changes. Do not be so invested in the product that you are not willing to incorporate suggestions into all aspects of the project.

The docents who created Wichita: City of Contrasts did all this. They are justifiably proud of their efforts. And the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum has strengthened it service to schools while reinforcing its commitment to involving volunteers in the development of its tours.

Susan Miner is Education Director at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, where she has been responsible for tour development and docent training for 18 years. She serves on the Council of the American Association for State and Local History, and is the Missouri Valley regional representative for the AASLH awards program. In 1992, she was one off our recipients of a Fellowship in Museum Practice awarded by the Smithsonian Institution ‘s Office of Museum Programs.

Miner, Susan. “Constructing School Programs,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 4-5.

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