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“Thank You” Can be More Than Good Manners

We’ve composed them. We’ve received them. We’ve probably even coerced our children into writing them. However, many of us in the museum field may have overlooked the educational possibilities of thank you notes. For docents, they can be a reality check. For classroom teachers, student-written thank you letters can reinforce important language skills and help evaluate objectives.

Share Them

Thank you for a wonderful morning of learning. It was such a treat for our children to participate in your programs.

One of the best uses of thank you letters is as a morale booster. There’s nothing quite like the unfeigned gratitude of an enthusiastic visitor to bring a smile to a docent’s face. Everyone likes to be thanked for a job well done. Most student letters are so sincere in their delight that it is impossible not to feel good when you helped to create their enjoyable fieldtrip experience. Some letters are addressed to a specific docent and should, of course, be given to that docent. Others can be posted on a bulletin board in the education department offices or docent workroom.

Thank you letters can also be shared as a “public relations” tool. Room should be made to include some of the “best” in the museum publications that are sent to members or on the museum’s web site. In addition to sharing the good news of successful education programs, such letters also may serve to enlist new volunteers and reinforce for board members and others the importance and impact of educational programming. Of course, for the sake of children’s safety, when letters are published or exhibited in public areas, care should be taken to conceal the identity of the writer and the writer’s school.

A bulletin board or similar space at a gallery exit can provide a vehicle for visitors to write instant thank you notes (or critiques) of an exhibit or tour. In a children’s museum I visited recently, for example, visitors were offered small “sticky notes,” a writing space, and a box of pencils and encouraged to respond to an exhibit about family holidays. The notes were displayed on blank walls surrounding the exhibit exit. It was almost as interesting to read about others’ family holiday memories (some, unfortunately, quite painful) and to share their thank you messages as it was to visit the exhibit. At any rate, it added a new dimension to the experience.

Learn from Them

Dear Bill,Thank you for teaching Me the way to remember the colors of the spectrum.

Do you remember me? My name is Roy!

When reading thank you letters, look for patterns that may offer useful information for planning or refining tours. Are some docents mentioned by name? This could indicate that a personal connection has been made between that docent and her audience. It takes more than a nametag to inspire children to remember an adult’s name! What does that docent do that makes children respond to her? Is it her inherent personality, her friendliness, or is it the way she makes children feel comfortable when interacting with her during the tour? Whatever her “secret,” it could be worth sharing with the rest of the group.

Are particular activities, artifacts, or exhibits mentioned more often than others in the thank you letters? What makes that activity, artifact, or exhibit so memorable? Was it the inherent curiosity of the object, or do the docents use some special techniques in allowing their visitors to “discover” that particular object? Conversely, are there important aspects of the tour lesson that are never mentioned in letters? Perhaps visitors aren’t “learning” what we’re “teaching.”

Respond to Them

Please tell your students how much all the docents here at the zoo enjoyed their questions. They really made us think!

For years, my sixth graders and I enjoyed plays at a children’s theater among our annual field trips. When we returned to the classroom, our first assignment was a thank you letter. Because we each had copies of the playbill, the students and I were able to write quite specific letters. Having seen many of the actors in the repertory theater in other roles, the students often compared their current performance to previous characters they played. The class was always thrilled to receive, a few weeks later, a poster from the play on which each of the actors had written a response to the letters. Museums, zoos, parks, aquariums, and gardens, too, can respond to thank you letters in some intriguing way.

If, in the course of a tour or thank you letter, children have asked questions that require further research on the part of the docents, those questions should be answered in a follow-up letter.

Museums and other facilities that publish exhibit posters could send a poster signed by the docents. Some institutions follow up thank you letters by sending a free admission ticket inviting students to return with their parents. In one museum in which I worked, the local ice cream parlor gave us coupons for a free milkshake that we sent in response to thank you letters. Of course, children don’t need a “reward” for having sent a thank you letter, but an acknowledgement from the hosting institution that the letters were appreciated can serve to reinforce their importance.

Encourage Them

Mrs. Smith’s class is a credit to your school. Their behavior and their obvious interest in the exhibits during their visit yesterday make the experience a pleasure for all of us. We look forward to having them at the museum again.

Thank you letters, like some other niceties of manners, are making a comeback, but still need to be encouraged. It is perfectly acceptable to include thank you letters among the suggested follow-up activities for teachers to use in their classrooms. Class time used in preparing to write letters provides an opportunity for children to discuss what they learned from the tour. Such discussions allow teachers to correct misunderstandings and reinforce important information. Letters are also places to practice good writing skills — spelling, punctuation, handwriting, grammar, and composition. All these basic language skills are an important part of most states’ standards of learning, and teachers are ever on the lookout for authentic ways to incorporate their use in classroom lessons.

Considering how difficult it is for many teachers to arrange field trips in these days of tighter school budgets and greater concern for student safety, a thank you letter to a teacher and/or principal who uses your educational resource is also appropriate. Like volunteers, teachers enjoy the “compensation” of knowing their work is appreciated. Writing and using thank you letters is a simple, but effective, way for museum educators to enhance the learning experience in their institutions.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “‘Thank You’ Can be More Than Good Manners,” The Docent Educator 10.2 (Winter 2000-01): 18-19.

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