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For Your Consideration 8.3

A Funny Thing Happened…

As a former high school teacher and as a docent now at the Terra Museum of American Art, I should not be surprised by the fact that what you give children is not necessarily what they take away.

For instance, it is always encouraging to find that what you have been discussing for 30 minutes has struck a spark. So I was delighted at the end of an Art Smart tour emphasizing types of paintings—portraits, landscapes, still life, and genre— when a fourth grade girl confided to me, “My mother has a landscape. It’s got palm trees and animals in it.

“How nice,” I replied and asked,

“Where does she hang it?”

“Oh, it’s on her shoulder. There’s a tiger, too!” she said.

I made a note to add tattoo to the next Art Smart tour which would be on media, and to use this example of a portable Peaceable Kingdom.

On another occasion, a very attentive group of third graders were completing what seemed a very successful introductory tour. We had played a game, learned about colors, lines, and shapes, and had some fun making up stories about paintings. One boy, who had looked a bit disappointed for the last half of the tour, finally raised his hand. His question: “Why do you call it the Terra Museum? You don’t have any scary pictures here.”

Martin McGowan, docent, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, IL

Teen Angels?

When our small, staid historical museum began offering a tour designed for eighth graders, the docents spent a year preparing, but nonetheless we were all wary of these new visitors. As is so often the case with teaching, we are learning a lot from our students.

The following are some of the lessons I have learned from thirteen year olds:

1) You don’t always show what you know. Young teenagers are often reticent with adults, especially in an unfamiliar setting such as a museum. Although our tour encourages them to make choices and to develop opinions on issues, we realize that those opinions may not be expressed during the museum visit. Follow-up classroom activities often provide a more comfortable opportunity for discussion.

Likewise, docents shouldn’t feel obligated to explain everything in an exhibit when focusing on selected concepts better allows for student input. Nor should a docent hasten to provide ready answers to questions intended to provoke student exploration and contemplation.

2) Admit it, we’re human. When we docents set ourselves up as experts, we risk teetering off the edge of that narrow pedestal. And, with some teenagers, that stance invites tipping the pedestal! We need, instead, to build on what we share in common with our fellow learners whom we encourage to join us in an exploration to which everyone can contribute.

3) We are in this together. Eighth graders can be so tall, so heavy, and so numerous that even the most experienced docent has second thoughts about trying to lead them, let alone teach them in a fragile museum environment. All the more reason to enlist them as our colleagues in a mutual endeavor. To do so successfully, we need to know their developmental level, interests, and instructional experience, as well as to engage a variety of learning styles typical of any group.

4) Keep it moving. Though they can feign collapse at the second flight of stairs and seem unable to sit without slouching, thirteen year olds need a well paced tour that never misses a beat. Keeping them interested requires skillful transitions from one area or concept to another so that they experience a variety of positions and movements as well as types of thinking and responding.

5) Relax, this may be fun. The playful attitude that young people this age still have toward something new can motivate docents to enjoy working with them and to try something new ourselves. As we all know, no two tours or groups are quite the same, and this can be a source of renewal for our own enjoyment, which brought us to touring in the first place.

Susan Miner, education director, Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, Wichita, Kansas

Miner, Susan. “For Your Consideration,” The Docent Educator 8.3 (Spring 1999): 5.

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