Talking with Teenagers
The teenagers’ world is a difficult one. Between the advertising wizards of Madison Avenue and the film moguls of Hollywood, teens are given an incredible range of images to contend with. When one adds to this confusion the harsh realities faced by many teenagers, including pregnancies, suicides, substance and physical abuse, and a general lack of adult involvement in their lives, the teen years seem far from the Norman Rockwell-type images we find so comforting.
As a classroom teacher and administrator, I have worked with this age group for many years. During that time, I developed a great appreciation and affection for teaching teenagers. I found that beneath their tough, protective skin, manufactured to survive in a hostile environment, are people eager to connect and embrace new ideas and experiences. Much like peeling an orange to find its fragrant meat, I have discovered the rewards of breaking through their toughened exteriors.
Experience taught me to incorporate three, non-negotiable strategies into my teaching when working with teenagers. These strategies require that I:
- establish a sense of mutual respect;
- recognize that tapping their imagination is key; and
- realize that learning occurs best when personal meaning is ascribed.
RESPECT. Teens respond to respect with respect. To a teenager, respect equates with being treated as an adult. That means teenagers want you to be sincerely interested in them and their ideas and to engage them in “give and take” conversations. Teenagers resent being talked “at’ or “down to.” Conveying interest in your teenaged visitors requires learning who these important people are. Questions such as “Why have you come here today?” and “What do you need/want to accomplish during our tour?” can begin this process, while serving as a barometer of the group’s mood, readiness to participate, and expectations.
Respect also implies that the questioner, or teacher, will share back with the group. Consider offering your opinions or assessments with students after giving them an opportunity to express theirs.
Respect requires valuing their opinions and insights. Let them know you do, and tell them that throughout the tour you will be learning from, and with, each other.
IMAGINATION. While there is no truer home to the spirit of imagination than that of a museum, many teens arrive with preconceived notions of boring exhibits, monotone lectures, and overcrowded, rushed tours. The challenge is to capture their imagination and put it into gear. If you can do this, you’ve got them!
Throughout your tour, shift the focus back and forth ╤ from what you want to teach to an investigation of their insights and ideas through creative questioning. Teenagers need opportunities to demonstrate and discuss their interests, knowledge, and understanding of subject matter.
Also, provide opportunities for teenagers to respond to questions using their own imaginations. Questions such as, “What smells do you associate with this type of setting?” or “How is this like a piece of music?” can serve as ice breakers to productive conversations.
PERSONAL MEANING. To be effective, a museum experience must involve all students personally and meaningfully. Students become most engaged when the instruction is interactive. Teenagers need to be totally immersed in the content, drawing upon all their senses, and linking information to many different subject areas and personal experiences, rather than simply listening.
Questions should focus on the teens’ previous experiences with similar subject matter, as well as relate to issues they are currently discussing. Teenagers relate best if linkage can be made to their world. For example, in an art museum teens might be asked how they have seen “conflict” expressed visually.
Teenagers must be made aware of how your tour relates to them, personally. Remember, making connections between subject matter and the teenagers’ world is your responsibility to suggest as the teacher, not simply their responsibility to discover as the students.
Today’s teens come of age in a society of fast foods and schemes for instant gratification. Museums, gardens, historic homes, and other such institutions demand behaviors that run contrary to these experiences. They require that students and other visitors slow down enough to make careful observations and engage in thoughtful reflection. Helping teenagers practice these behaviors and skills provides them with a great service, presents you with an interesting educational challenge, and offers you one of the most rewarding of teaching experiences.
Susan Feibelman has been a classroom teacher and administrator for the Dallas (TX) Independent School District (DISD) since 1979. She currently seen as as an Instructional Specialist working within DISD ‘s Psychology and Social Sciences Division.
Feibelman, Susan “Talking with Teenagers,” The Docent Educator 1.2, (Winter 1991): 6-7.
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