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Familiar Strangers

Perhaps you might salute a group of arriving eighth-graders with the same slogan I’d use, “Hail mighty contrarians!” These awkward, yet occasionally articulate, fourteen and fifteen-year-olds reflect the many challenges and dichotomies inherent when transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Young people in this age range are full of a restless energy that contrasts starkly with the orderly silence of most museum galleries. Their adolescent pre-occupation with each other seems incongruous when contrasted against their physical size and adult appearance. Their self-conscious reticence often foils their highly developed verbal skills and ability to express sentiment. And, their desire for recognition and status as adults seems constantly undermined by their diffident or even defiant demeanors.

Students in grades six and up are enigmatic and yet completely known to us. After all, who hasn’t been a teenager? Odd how these “familiar strangers,” simply by being themselves, can as easily intimidate or frustrate us as they can delight or energize us.

Shifting Your Focus

If you are wondering how you can control teenagers long enough to impart some information, you are traveling down the wrong track! You can no more dissuade teenagers from being themselves than you can hold back the flow of a river. Better to go with the flow! Use who they are, what they need, and how they interact to get them involved and learning. Change your thinking because in the brief time you have with them, you won’t change theirs. The first step is to shift your focus from watching their behaviors to examining your own. Rather than thinking of ways to “control” teenagers, find ways to “engage” them.

Most efforts to control other people fail and, in the case of teenagers, can have the unfortunate consequence of sending them spiraling off in the opposite direction. People learn in museums, zoos, gardens, and parks because their interests have been piqued and they are intrigued.

You must find ways of presenting your collection or resources in ways that will interest this age group. You can not get teenagers to learn simply because you, as the group leader, have requested their orderly and quiet attention.

Similarly, if you are trying to “impart” information to teenaged visitors — forget it! Let’s face it, even under the best of circumstances it’s tough to “impart” anything to teenagers. (I believe the expression “learning the hard way” was originally used to describe this age group.) Casting one’s self in the pivotal role of information provider is counterproductive anyway. Teens are on a quest to make their own sense of things. So don’t even try to be a purveyor of information.

Establish activities that will “direct” their attention and request their involvement with an object, specimen, or artifact, and that allow them to make discoveries for themselves. For instance, instead of entering a gallery and taking students to the object you have chosen, try permitting the students to make their own selection. Tell your students to look around and give them a few moments to do so. Then, have them tell you which of the objects they find most intriguing. Begin your discussion by asking them why they think that particular artwork, specimen, or artifact “spoke” louder than the others did.

Going With the Flow

Young people in grades 6 through 9 are experiencing their most creative and most conformist time of life. While they are rebelling against convention and their perceived view of adults, they often seek adult approval. Though they can appear to be exceptionally tough, they are actually quite vulnerable to criticism and particularly concerned with acceptance by their peers.

Their preoccupation with peer and adult approval makes teens better candidates for participating within group activities than for positing ideas and responses individually. Working within groups of three or more permits teenagers to enjoy a measure of anonymity from the critical eyes of their peers, and allows them to strive for the approval of adults without seeming to “kiss up.”

Teenagers are extremely sensitive to the attitudes conveyed by adults. Any hint that you think of them, or will be treating them, as children vital send them into a protective or antagonistic stance. Teens should be approached with respect and with appreciation for their maturing abilities. Because of their personal vulnerabilities, teens should not be singled out for their behavior or appearance. If you are gracious and good natured, the pressure brought by peers to act or participate appropriately will be far more effective than anything you can accomplish by isolating, cajoling, threatening, or ridiculing.

Teenagers are going about the difficult work of “creating” their own identities, constructing their own ideas, and sorting through the values, ideas, and attitudes presented by parents, guardians, teachers, and other adults. Because of these efforts, they are particularly familiar with such mental activities as comparing and critiquing or evaluating and judging. By finding ways to use these “skills” (yes, when properly directed these mental activities are adults), you win be going with the flow rather than against it.

Encouraging Teens to Make Discoveries

Have groups of students in grades 6 through 9 investigate your historic site or collection by challenging them to make a list of reasons why life would be “radically different” if they were living in that time period rather than in contemporary times. Have them reference these differences directly to the objects or evidence surrounding them.

Inspect a work of art by asking groups of students to make a list of its particular attributes, such as its appearance, subject matter, style, palate, etc. Tell them to use this work as a “standard by which all other works will be measured.” Then, have them critique other works by contrasting them to the “standard.” How have other artists followed or broken the rules by conveying images similarly or differently than their predecessor?

After introducing your facility and its collection, have groups of students brainstorm criteria for selecting one work of art, scientific specimen, plant, animal, object, or artifact that would make the most appropriate symbol or trademark for your institution. Then, have each group find and identify the work of art, scientific specimen, plant, animal, object, or artifact they feel best fills their criteria. Following this, have each group discuss how it made its determination and selection. What impact would the loss of a type of bird, insect, fish, or plant species have if it were to become extinct? Have your visitors make a list of the potential impact. Then, investigate how the loss of other species has changed ecosystems.

Making It Work

No matter who your audience is, you cannot simply insist upon their undivided attention. You must earn it. There is no audience for whom this is truer than one composed of students in grades 6 through 9. Garner the attention of these eager, able, and challenging visitors by engaging them in conversations and presenting them with activities that are thought-provoking, interesting, and that will give them an opportunity to “do it for themselves.”

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Familiar Strangers,” The Docent Educator 11.3 (Spring 2002): 2-3.


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