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Staying A Step Ahead

For those of us in museums, “back-to-school” means yellow school buses moving into formation in our parking lots with battalions of enthusiastic young passengers mounting a benevolent assault on our institutional “front line” – – the docents. The following thoughts are just a few ideas with which to prepare for the onslaught.

Diverted Attention

Children will be curious about things you do not intend them to notice, and NOT necessarily curious about things you have selected for their tour. For example, in our auditorium, a burning question is why there are names on brass plaques attached to the seats. In a gallery, a detail of exhibit design or of environmental control might create the same level of inquisitiveness.

Questions that may arise — to the extent that they relate to a child’s curiosity about the way the world works — should be accommodated. In their enthusiasm, children often make inquires without regard to the subject under discussion. Try building time into the beginning and/or end of your tour to deal with these questions to prevent them from being disruptive.

Variety is the Spice of Life

It is fallacious to assume that your tour will have enough variety to keep young minds interested and focused just because you look at more than one object. If every object is approached in precisely the same way at every stop on the tour, students may tire quickly, become bored, and lose interest.

People, young and old, become lulled by a predictable or repetitive pattern of inquiry. Try punctuating your tour with an age-appropriate memory game, a storytelling component, dramatic interpretation, or small group activity. Children become more engrossed, and have far less difficulty maintaining appropriate behavior, when the tour offers some variety.

A related issue is how many students should be allowed to respond to a given question. Elementary students usually respond with eagerness, and it is not uncommon for every hand in a group to shoot up when a question is asked. While it is important to seek a range of responses and allow all children an opportunity to answer questions during a tour, allowing too many children to answer each question becomes tiresome for everyone.

A Laugh a Minute

Recently, on a tour with a class of first graders, I asked them how a Franz Marc painting of a yellow cow in a brightly colored landscape made them feel. I pointed to a little boy with his hand raised, who sang out in his best James Brown imitation, “I feel good …” All the adults present burst into laughter and the children followed suit. It is important to acknowledge humor when it is in good taste (and to put a stop to it when it is inappropriate). However, an overwhelmingly positive response from adults or children will likely result in “copy-cat” answers. (Actually, this is true whether humor is involved or not.) I received four more “I feel good” responses from this child’s classmates.

Young children do not understand that something which is funny the first time loses its impact to older people in the repetition. What they do understand is that a certain answer yielded attention from their peers and adults, and they want to garner it for themselves. To break the cycle, try using a gentle reminder that, while John Doe’s answer was funny, we are seeking a range of different responses.

Testing Boundaries

Humor is related to the sometimes irrepressible urge people of all ages feel to test boundaries. In its most positive sense, questioning authority is a healthy function of an independent, thinking person. However, on tour, some boundary-testing tactics can be harmful, annoying, disruptive, and an impediment to learning.

The use of inappropriate language is one boundary young children often feel the need to test. What my mother used to refer to as “bathroom” humor, or “potty” language, may crop up in a group discussion. Young people are just learning the effect of that kind of humor on their classmates, and enjoy their peers’ enthusiastic appreciation even at the risk of disapproval and punishment from their teachers. It may be necessary to remind students to “keep it nice.”

My general rule-of-thumb is to use one summary statement about appropriate responses and behaviors at the beginning of a tour or activity. Enumerating specific unwanted behaviors or responses can have the unwanted effect of “planting the seeds” of misbehavior. By cautioning students in detail, before anything has occurred, you may cause the boundary-testers in a group to see just how serious you are.

Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education at the Virginia Beach Center for the Arts in Virginia Beach, VA. Ms. Gough- DiJulio received an M. A. degree in art history from Vanderbilt University. She has authored several other articles for The Docent Educator, including “Docent Training – Do We Practice What We Preach?” which appeared in the Spring 1994 issue.

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Staying A Step Ahead,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 7.

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