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Making It Real; Making It Relevant

The “three R’s” of old have been replaced in the modern middle school. Reading has become literacy; writing is now called composition, and ‘rithmetic is, more often than not, pre-algebra. Nevertheless, four “R’s” are still available to help museum and classroom teachers make learning real and relevant for these “tweenagers.”

Reinforce Something They Already Know

Parents and teachers who bring eleven to fourteen-year-olds to your institution would appreciate it if you could reinforce something they’re trying to teach. They believe that a pre-teen is more likely to relate to and remember facts, opinions, and values that come from “another” adult. While this isn’t entirely true, there is a grain of truth imbedded in that belief One of the struggles of early adolescence is the struggle to become one’s own authority. In doing this, preteens like to “try on” different opinions and hear from different voices. They are interested in people, and they will be curious about you, your volunteer position, and the other people in the museum, as well as the collection you are going to discuss.

It’s relatively easy to discover what middle schools are trying to teach. Textbooks and curricula are generally available for public examination. A quick call to your local Board of Education should lead you to these materials. A pre-visit discussion with the classroom teacher who has arranged the tour can fill you in on the specifics she’d like to have covered. Paying attention to the books, movies, and television shows that are popular with 6th, 7th 8th, and 9th graders is another way to find out what this age group knows, or at least, has been exposed to. Be careful, however, in how you use this information. Fads and favorites change rapidly, and using last-week’s slang or yesterday’s out-of-style reference can be deadly. Students in this age group are not interested in having you be “one of them.”

So, how do you find out what your middle-school visitors really know? Try this. As you enter a gallery or approach an exhibit, ask the kinds of questions that will give students a chance to tell you what they already know without putting them on the spot.

“Have you studied the Westward Movement yet? What was the most unusual thing you learned about the period?”

“Your teacher mentioned that you are studying cell division. Have you been following the controversy about cloning? Complicated, isn’t it?”

“Do you have regular art classes in your school? Which type of art do you find more interesting to create, realistic or abstract?”

As you walk from exhibit to exhibit, make it a point to walk with the group, not ahead of it. Engage different group members in conversation as you walk, trying to meet a different student during the interlude. “Have you been here before?” is okay, but better questions arise from carefully listening to students during each tour stop. If one student seems particularly interested in some aspect of the exhibit, or asks an especially provocative question, use this “walk” time to follow up. If you learn something you think the group should know, ask if you may share it with the group. One of the things parents and classroom teachers would also appreciate is your helping them enhance the fragile self-image many middle schoolers carry. Treating them as intelligent, knowledgeable visitors is a good way to do that.

Reveal Something They Don’t Know

An interviewer once asked filmmaker Steven Spielberg to comment on his movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“Your mother was a musician,” the interviewer began, “and your father was a computer programmer. When the two species meet in the key sequence, they make music with their computers and learn to speak to each other.”

Spielberg smiled broadly, nodded vigorous agreement, and said, “I wish I could say I meant that, but it just now occurred to me!”

There are two remarkable facts to be gleaned from this encounter between artist and interpreter that docents working with middle school students need to remember.

  1. The viewer of the “art” brought his own interpretation to the event, based on his own frame-of-reference; and
  2. The viewer’s interpretation gave even the artist new insights into his work.

When touring middle school students, docents are able to make their museum’s collection both real and relevant when they allow students to bring their own interpretation to the event. And, their interpretation may give the docents new insights if they are open to the experience.

This does not mean, however, that middle school visitors can or should interpret your collection without guidance. Context is vital for meaningful interaction with art, historic artifacts, natural history specimens, or any other collection. In a historic house from the turn of the century, for example, a docent might remind her visitors that the owners were only one generation away from immigrant or pioneer background. “Let’s find some things in this room that might help this family’s new friends forget that they came from humble beginnings.”

“What are some ways teenagers today try to impress their friends?”

“Do you think this is dishonest?”

Giving pre-teen visitors a “hook” on which to hang their new learning gives them freedom to explore many possible interpretations. Providing information that will enable their discovery of connections between your collection and their own lives validates their contributions to the discussion. And, as Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.”

Realize Where They Are

Your youngest middle school visitors were born in 1991. Most have never know a time without cell phones, computers, CD’s, DVD’s, and the internet. They’ve only been aware of two presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They’ve never had prayer in school, and many of them have never recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. They haven’t owned records. Their parents have always thrown away unwrapped Trick-or-Treat candy, and many of them have always had to pass through a metal detector to get to class. The year they entered first grade was the year both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died. The Vietnam War ended 27 years before they were born, and the Civil Rights Movement started 15 years before that. In comparison, 27 years before I was in junior high (not middle school). Buster Keaton was still making silent movies and my mother was dancing the Charleston. When I ask middle schoolers to consider the Civil Rights Movement, it’s as if someone asked my pre-teen self to relate personally to Jane Addams’ work at Hull House.

Why is it important to know the generational position, the demographics, and the culture of these young visitors? The more you know about any visitor, the better able you are to find areas of connection. Knowing what is relevant in your visitors’ lives helps you show them relevant aspects of your collection. Be careful, though, to avoid stereotyping by remembering that each member of the class on your middle school tour is a special individual still searching for his or her identity. Call them by name, if possible. Avoid “group” names . . . “okay, kids” or “Let’s move along, girls.” They will enjoy being treated like adults; they will not enjoy being “lumped” together as members of a particular age, gender, culture, ethnic group, etc.

Remember Where You Were

All of you reading this were once teenagers. Most of us faced the same kinds of challenges that today’s teenagers face. No one understood us. No one had such a difficult life. No one struggled so with relationships. Putting yourself back into those years in your imagination (realizing that you did survive and, actually, turned out quite well) may give you an extra bit of patience, sense of humor, and curiosity that will make you an excellent docent choice to work with this special age group caught between childhood and adulthood.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Making It Real; Making it Relevant,” The Docent Educator 11.3 (Spring 2002): 14-15.

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