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Letting Teens be Themselves

Teenagers! Just the thought of teaching this age group can makes some people cringe. Teens don’t pay attention and all they want to do is socialize with each other!

Channeling their Hormonal Energy
Their interest in each other can be channeled in an educational and positive manner. The docents at the Denver Museum of Natural History have developed a tour for teenagers that allows them to talk with, and learn from, EACH OTHER. The tour, The Global Environment: A Geography Tour, focuses on environmental problems in three exhibit halls: Africa, Australia, and North America. Playing the roles of anthropologists, geographers, and biologists, the students observe each of the halls’ dioramas and assess how a hypothetical urbanization project could affect the plants, animals, people, and landscape of each of the three continents.

To make the exercise more challenging and interesting, the group is further divided into two groups: pro-developers” and ‘con-developers.'” The pro group determines how the urbanization project could benefit the plants, animals, people, and landscape. The con group determines how the project will be detrimental. After a 10 minute introduction, the students are split into three groups and assigned a hall to visit. One docent goes with each group and acts as a facilitator to help the students look at the dioramas from the different scientists’ perspectives. Unlike traditional museum tours, this activity encourages students to talk to each other and discuss the pros and cons of urbanization. After 25 minutes, the students congregate to share their findings.

Creative Thinking Put to the Test
This is when the real fun and education begin. The students physically divide themselves into two groups, pros and cons, arranging themselves on opposite sides of the room. In debate style, they argue for and against the project. Inevitably, the discussion becomes heated! To keep the discussion from getting out of hand, docents use an adaptation of the classic rules for brainstorming:

  • there are no right or wrong answers;
  • there are no “stupid” comments or questions;
  • each person has a time limit (in our case, it is 2 minutes) to present his/her thoughts;
  • all comments must be defended by elaboration; and
  • everyone should have a say (to avoid having a few people dominate the entire discussion).

If the discussion is slow, docents play “devil’s advocate” to encourage students to look at the situation in a different light.

Making the Tour Relevant
The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate that there truly are no right or wrong answers. Urbanization and other development projects are often complicated and entail many points of view and factors for consideration.

If time allows, the docents bring up local projects and issues (e.g. – building dams, highways, and so forth) to encourage students to think about what is happening in their own communities and what they can do to promote or hinder projects.

Although The Global Environment: A Geography Tour was developed three years ago, it is undergoing constant revision. The current tour is what we have found to work best because it allows the students to socialize in an educational manner. We encourage other museums that are trying to reach the junior/senior high school level to develop activities that are intellectually challenging, relevant to students’ lives, and allow them to talk to each other.

Peggy Zemach is the Environmental Education Specialist at the Denver Museum of Natural History. Prior to working at this museum, she was an Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution. She, along with a group of docents, developed this tour specifically to meet the social and intellectual needs of teenagers.

Zemach, Peggy. “Letting Teens be Themselves,” The Docent Educator 2.1 (Autumn 1992): 16.

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