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New School Year’s Resolutions

Although the fireworks explode on January 1st, for most of us it is Labor Day and the opening of school that truly signal a new beginning each year. Museum education departments are beehives of activity in September. School teachers are calling or writing, anxious to make sure their students don’t miss out on a visit to the local museum as part of their school year. Docent councils are reconvening, preparing for the onslaught of tours soon to burst into their galleries.

It is in this spirit of renewed vigor and enthusiasm for all that schools, museums and learning have to offer, that I annually make my “New Year’s” docent resolutions. Like all New Year’s resolutions, these will not be slavishly followed. Instead they will be the basic structure around which to individualize each tour experience. I offer them here in the hopes that they will be useful to you, my fellow travelers down the complex and exciting path of museum touring.

1. I will be an ally to the classroom teacher. School groups visit museums because teachers want them to. Often the teacher has a very specific idea of what he or she hopes students will experience. Always try to find out just before you begin your tour whether what you understand to be the goal of the tour, e.g. animal habitats, is in fact correct, and whether, to continue the example, there are any special animals the students have been or will be studying. This will ensure the best experience for everyone, and the best use of your museum’s resources.

Sometimes the goals of the teacher seem in direct conflict with the stated goals of the tour and museum. How should the docent respond when, in a gallery of contemporary art the teacher says, “This not real art! I do not want my students to waste their time in here,” or when they say, “I think you’ve talked enough about this object. Can we please move a little more quickly?” or “I know we signed up for the invertebrates tour, but we really want to see the pandas.”

After 20 years experience giving museum tours, I have decided that in virtually every case, a docent should attempt to honor a teacher’s wishes, even when she thinks the teacher is wrong or misguided. We docents are only with the students for an hour. Teachers need to protect and maintain a year-long relationship with their students in order to try to maximize the classroom learning that can occur.

If the teacher asks to see the pandas, and you do not know about pandas, you might just admit that, and offer to take the group there and let the teacher lead the discussion. If she doesn’t want to see contemporary art, try to find another spot you both can feel good about. An open conflict between the teacher and docent will not only make students uncomfortable, it may undermine the teacher’s authority in the classroom. If subjugating your own goals is hard, think instead of how you will be supporting the important work of the classroom teacher.

2. I will ask first, then tell. Curators hope that visitors will be “engaged” by objects in the collections. Our job as docents is to facilitate that process, to foster a kind of inquisitiveness about objects among our visitors. While the interest of curious adults is often piqued by just the right piece of information, school children are much more likely to have an “Ah ha!” experience when asked to make discoveries on their own. One could tell children that, “This is the largest gem in the collection” or that “Pablo Picasso painted every picture in this room,” but children will be more engaged (and more enthusiastic about the resultant discussion) if they are asked to find the largest gem in the collection, or figure out what is the same about every picture in the room.

3. I will ask questions that are fun or interesting to answer. I am often asked just what kind of questions to ask children on a tour. My answer is that they should be questions that require students to examine objects, and that they should be questions that the docent thinks would be interesting to answer. Remember, we are settings of informal learning. We don’t have to test kids, and we should take advantage of that.

“Who knows where Abraham Lincoln was born?” is probably not a good museum tour question. It’s only fun if you already know the answer, and even then it requires no observation or thought. Children cannot find the answer by being in the museum. If, however, you have a map of Illinois on the wall with Lincoln’s birthplace clearly marked, then “Who can find Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace marked on this map?” is a much more fun question to answer. It’s like solving a puzzle; you know you can do it if you just try hard enough.

4. I will ask questions that make students feel successful. Everybody loves being right. My favorite opening question is one I am certain the kids will get right, an easy question. “Do you think the person who owned this house (a mansion) was rich, medium or poor?” When students respond, “Rich!” I can say, “You’re right! A+!” Then comes my favorite second question “How did you know?” Being right, even when answering a simple question, motivates kids to want to think about the second, much more complex question. What are the trappings of wealth? What makes something valuable or expensive? Size? Materials? Craftsmanship? Time? How did I know??? Through this kind of critical thinking students make connections between museum visits and the rest of their lives.

5. I will remember the rule of “Do, See, Hear.” Imagine telling elementary school-aged students that they are going to go to a museum and that, while there, they will do some things, and hear some things, and see some things. Which of these three activities will they look forward to the most? Which next? Which least?

Elementary students most look forward to doing something, then seeing something, and last hearing something. All three of these activities are integral to a good tour, but a preponderance of your talking and their listening will not be well received. They want to be challenged and involved. Sometimes I use the word “job” to describe what I want students to do. I might show students bamboo growing in a garden and then tell them their job is to find at least five places that bamboo has been used to build the Japanese Tea House that sits in the garden. This leads to a discussion about the use of natural colors and materials in the Tea House. Another job might be to find all the dragons in the Chinese Palace Hall. Our discussion then centers on dragons as symbols. The kids are invested in the discussion, because it is based on what they did.

6. I will not criticize children, only their behavior. All children misbehave. The ways in which they choose to act out change depending on their ages, and certainly some children demand more attention than others. We have every right to expect appropriate behavior on a tour, and to correct students who do not comply. However, when correcting a child, make clear that it is the behavior that is unacceptable, and not the child. Criticizing children for being who they are — liking to run, being loud, or joking with friends — is really unfair. On the other hand, with a clear explanation of what is expected, it is fair to tell students you expect them to comply with the rules of being in a museum, no matter how limiting they may seem. A brief explanation of why certain rules exist often makes students more willing to cooperate.

Another kind of behavior problem is rudeness. If students are rude to you, it is not a personal attack, they don’t even know you. They are acting out for their friends or because they resent authority of any kind. You can choose to ignore side comments, or to ask the person please not to talk that way around you. Many of the students who behave the worst have very low self esteem. You may find that if you can draw that child into answering a question correctly, you will go a long way toward improving the behavior. One last thing to remember, if all the students are getting fidgety, they may no longer be interested in the discussion or activity. Move on to something different.

7. I will keep my sense of humor! Giving tours to visitors in museums involves a delicate balancing of the needs and desires of a great many individuals. Keeping a good sense of humor both about the students and yourself will allow you to roll with the punches and celebrate your successes. Allow yourself to see the humor in the dumb jokes kids make, even if you wish they were more serious. If a tour goes poorly, try to think of things you could have done to improve it, or talk about with your colleagues. Then, forget it and remember that the next one will probably be better. If you can communicate your enthusiasm for the objects in your collections, and your genuine interest in the students, you will have a lot more hits than misses.

Maria K. Shoemaker is the Associate Curator of Education for Youth and Family Programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She is the author of numerous articles on museum education and is a lecturer/presenter at museums and conferences throughout the country. Ms. Shoemaker has contributed two previous articles to The Docent Educator, “A Guide to Childhood Development” (Vol. 2, No. 1) and “The Naked Truth” (Vol. 2, No. 3).

Shoemaker, Maria K. “New School Year’s Resolutions,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 8-9.

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