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Keeping It Fresh

A number of years ago, one of my sixth grade students asked me, “Mrs. Littleton, don’t you get tired of being in the sixth grade forever?” I was able to answer, quite truthfully, “No, I love being in the sixth grade because it’s different every year.” Some of the ways I answered the challenge of keeping sixth grade interesting for myself and my students for almost 30 years may be of use to docents trying to keep their teaching fresh.

Teach People, Not Subjects

Of course I taught subjects. During my classroom career, I taught every subject in elementary and middle school except music. But, one of the keys to successful teaching is to start with the students, not the curriculum. Curriculum is mandated by state edicts; shaping and delivering that prescribed curriculum to fit the needs of a classroom of children is the primary job of each individual teacher. In my case, this meant understanding the developmental stages of children in general and of each child in particular. It meant giving children the process skills, as well as the academic knowledge, they would need to succeed.

What does this mean to a museum docent who only has 45 minutes or so with each group of visitors? She cannot possibly know each child or adult in that brief time. She can, however, have a basic knowledge of the developmental stages through which children move. She can have some information about generational theory to understand how the expectations of the Boomers in her audience will differ from those of the GenX’ers. She can use this information to shape her tours —which artifact to focus on, which techniques to use, which questions to ask— to be most effective. And, she can ask each new audience questions that will give her a glimpse of their interests, backgrounds, and needs. Most importantly, she will understand that “one size doesn’t fit all” and that people, not artifacts or specimens, should be the focus of the visit.

Learn about Everything

It’s no surprise to people who know me to find that “Jeopardy” is my favorite television program and “Trivial Pursuit” is my favorite game. I know an incredible amount of “stuff” I’ve been accused of having a mind like a grocery cart — I pick up a little bit of this and little bit of that wherever I go. Most of what I know is probably pretty useless except when I watch my favorite television show or play my favorite game. But, some of it actually comes in handy when teaching.

For instance, when I sent my science students to find the derivation of the word “gymnosperms” while studying plants, they learned that the word came from the Greek for “naked,” or plants whose seeds are not enclosed in an ovary, i.e. – conifers. Later, when we studied ancient Rome, they remembered the root word and dug around under they discovered the connection between the word “naked” and the way that Romans exercised. (Nothing like a little titillation to interest a sixth grader!) Sometimes, knowing a lot of “stuff” helps you to help others make connections between seemingly unrelated items and events.

As a docent, then, be willing to go beyond the information you’re given about a collection. Put what you’re interpreting in its social, political, and historical context. This can be through exhaustive study, or simply via a brief visit to an encyclopedia. Become a mini-expert on all aspects of the collection. (According to my personal definition, a mini-expert knows a little bit about a lot of things!) How was it created? Who used it? How was it used? Where did it come from? What purpose did it serve? What else was going on when it was created? Did its creation cause a “stir?”

Then, don’t be satisfied to focus your learning on the collection you’re interpreting. Read widely in a variety of print media. Attend lectures, films, and discussions on subjects that seem to have little or no relevance to your museum work. Be open to insights from your visitors, and don’t hesitate to use them in subsequent tours if they are valid. Use the experiences you’ve already had, and the knowledge you already bring, to see each object in new ways. Don’t be afraid to put a familiar object in an unfamiliar juxtaposition and see what happens.

Of course, the danger of knowing everything is the desire to share it all with your visitors. They don’t really want to know everything you know or have learned. They want you to help them make their own discoveries, themselves. Don’t cheat them out of having that experience. Guide them toward discovery and facilitate it!

Learn from Everywhere

Because my undergraduate degree was in journalism, with minors in English and history, I had a broad base of knowledge in the humanities before I started graduate work in education. I specialized in math education at the graduate level and tried to expand my science knowledge on my own. Elementary teachers in the early 1960’s, when I started my education career, had to be generalists. I never became and an expert at anything, but I could hold my own in any classroom on any elementary subject matter.

Teachers are required to attend a specified number of in-service programs and/or courses and to continue to upgrade their education. In addition to allowing me to keep up with cutting-edge research in education, rules in some of the districts where I taught allowed me to “count” classes in any subject and to include travel to meet the requirements. Because I was not required to always take “education” classes, or “reading” or “math” I was able to broaden my base of knowledge into areas that, at first glance, might not have seemed relevant to my teaching. Somehow, however. they always were, and new insights helped me keep my classroom activities fresh and exciting both for my students and me.

Docents, too, can keep their teaching fresh by learning from everyone and every place. A factory tour might offer new insights into how to engage an adult audience, or how to meet the challenge of a less-than-perfect auditory environment. An art museum docent might learn a lot about hands-on experiences in a science center. A visit to a botanical garden might explain the size and shape of certain tools in the collection of a historic site or history museum.

Change Something Everyday

I taught for 8 years with an excellent teacher whose modus operendi, nevertheless, would have driven me crazy with boredom in short order. She taught exactly the same thing every year . . . right down to the same bulletin boards, the same books, the same field trips, the same seating arrangement. Although she wrote “new” lesson plans each year, every year’s plan book looked exactly like every other year.

On the other hand, my students and I used to play a sort of “accidental” game . . . they often spent the first few minutes before classes began guessing what I’d changed in the room since the day before. It might be something obvious, like a new arrangement of their desks or the addition of a strange object for us to write about, or something more mundane such as a pencil holder on top of the bookcase instead of on my desk. Such “silliness” taught them to be good observers and helped keep us from getting into ruts.

My lessons, too, changed each year and, often, from day to day. While goals and objectives were usually fairly constant, ways of achieving those objectives varied with the needs of each new group of students, with what I’d discovered over the summer, and, sometimes, with what was happening outside on any given day. I may not have been as organized as my teaching friend, but I had a whole lot more fun.

Change is a very effective tool for docents, too. A new path, different artifacts, and untried teaching techniques should become part of a docent’s response to the challenge of keeping tours fresh. Try to replace at least one object in your tour each year with one you’ve never used before. Add at least one new technique each year . . . tell a story, ask a new question, add a prop, or try something recommended in one of your docent training sessions or from a totally different venue. Borrow a technique from a fellow docent whose work you admire, and let her have one of yours.


Teaching is serious business, so one of the most important ways I found to keep “at it” for thirty years was to look for humor every day. Sometimes I found it in my own foibles (laugher was more useflil than anger when I got to the workroom without the test I had come to duplicate) and mistakes (I should have never shouted “There they are” when I spotted the escaped gerbils). I often found it in the students’ reactions (you should have been there when the frogs we ordered burst out of their packing box) and observations (when I remarked that it was such a beautiful day I hadn’t wanted to come to work, one student said she didn’t know I had a job).

Docents, too, need to look for fun in their job. Don’t think the art on the walls or the documents in the cases are so important that laughter isn’t sometimes the most appropriate response. Giggling at a nude painting may just be nerves, but it may also be an honest reaction to an overly dramatic scene that appears ludicrous to 12-year-olds. Laughing along with them may be the best way to help them develop an understanding of a different time with different values.

Every day won’t be fun and games, and there will be mornings (even in a volunteer job) when bed sounds better than work. There will be more of the good times, however, if you do your best to keep your teaching fresh.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Keeping It Fresh,” The Docent Educator 12.3 (Summer 2003): 18-20.


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