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Time to Change an Object-Based Tour…Now What?

One of the most difficult jobs for those involved with student programs in cultural organizations is the process of change. Reassessing and critically evaluating a long-standing children’s tour, convincing some of the need tor change, and ultimately deciding to revise the format can be a daunting task. Although docents may have become comfortable with an established tour they have given for years, listening closely and asking their opinions often reveals their frustrations. Supplying solutions for these frustrations helps ease the process of change. More importantly, hearing from the teachers and students you are serving can provide the guiding direction to improve the tour.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) is dedicated to advancing public interest and education in architecture and related design. Approximately 400 docents volunteer their time and energy to conduct tours by foot, boat, bus, bike, and train. Using the motto “The City is Our Museum,” we offer more than 70 different tours for children and adults. Last year, close to 2000 elementary school students took a walking tour with a CAF docent.

For students in grades 5-8, we offer a program called the Children’s Loop Tour. (“The Loop” describes the train tracks that circle the downtown business district where most of the skyscrapers are located.) The primary purpose of this 90-minute walking tour of downtown Chicago is to introduce students to ten important concepts of architecture and illustrate the development of the city’s architectural history.

The Problems and Challenges of the Old Tour

CAF originally began this walking tour in 1980 and, although the number of students we serve grew each year, the method of instruction on the tour remained unchanged until the 1999-2000 school year. In the summer of 1999, the Children’s Loop Tour was significantly updated and revised to its present form. During those summer months of evaluating and revising the tour, five main problems and challenges were identified with the original tour’s format and materials:

  1. There was a lack of consistency in the buildings (our objects) along the route docents chose to cover and in the message they conveyed to the students.
  2. Many docents felt overwhelmed with the massive amounts of information they knew and believed they were expected to share with the students in 90 minutes. As a result, students finished the tour inundated with facts and dates swimming in their heads but without a way to tie the information to a bigger picture.
  3. Other than covering a fewer number of buildings along the route, the original tour for middle school students was essentially a watered-down version of the material presented to adults.
  4. The original tour contained no accompanying teacher or student materials. 5. Teachers expressed a desire that our tour and programs incorporate and adhere to the state and city academic standards they are required to comply with.

Our Solution for a New Tour

  1. New consistency in the message. In revising the original tour, we did not change any of the 10 buildings on the tour route. Instead, we reorganized the message and the method of interpretation, reinforcing the need for a common voice presented by docents and heard by teachers and students. Many of our teachers bring their classes downtown to CAF each year and these educators value the opportunity to improve their own knowledge of architecture and enjoy knowing what to expect from the program. Standardizing the tour also helped to ensure that the docents’ words complement the information in the teacher and student books of pre- and post-visit activities. Exactly how the docents cover each building and associated theme is up to them, but the goal is to introduce a particular architecture theme and reinforce it using a specific building.
  2. Each building now has a theme. Rather than thinking about each of the ten buildings as an isolated architectural and historical object, tour buildings are now used to illustrate a larger concept or theme. The theme associated with each (such as design, building technology, historic preservation, materials and ornamentation, structure, style, and art) gives the students a framework to anchor their newfound knowledge.

It’s hard for children (and adults!) to remember long lists of facts, figures, names, and dates. For a new learner of architecture, these don’t provide any context of how the building relates to the bigger picture. Teaching with thematic concepts allows students to attach meaning to the new architecture they will see on their tour and then translate those same important ideas, inherent in all buildings, to any structure they encounter.

Typically in giving adult tours, docents are trained to share as much information as possible over a broad range of topics. Tours for students are strikingly different. With the Children’s Loop Tour, docents need to clearly focus and limit the type of information they give their group, and then repeat it again in new and different ways. This was the most difficult new concept for docents who had been leading this tour previously. Many docents initially feared that if they didn’t share all their knowledge, they weren’t giving the students their money’s worth. It is true that each building could be studied from the point of view of all ten themes. However, choosing to focus the students’ attention on one strong idea helps to illustrate each building’s unique qualities. Docents no longer feel burdened with the task of sharing the entire history of each building.

  1. Helpful methods of engaging and interacting. As with learners of all ages, students require interaction to fully grasp concepts and information. By encouraging the student groups to become involved in the tour, the docent shifts from being a “fount of knowledge” to a facilitator in their learning. Docent interaction with the students and the buildings is much more exciting for everyone.

Most of our docents now use ten Theme Sticks on their tours. Theme Sticks are simply wooden tongue depressors that we pre-printed with the name of one of the ten buildings and the corresponding theme. At the start of the tour, the docent hands out one of the ten Theme Sticks to each student (or pair of students). The docent then explains that at the end of the tour each student will be responsible for sharing several important aspects relating to their building’s theme. A few reminders about this process along the way encourage the group to keep their eyes and ears open. The use of this teaching tool throughout the tour encourages the students to listen carefully, become involved in the learning process, and remain accountable for what they have learned.

This method also creatively involves each person in the group and allows even the quiet students a chance to shine. The students are not surprised and threatened at the end of the tour when the docent launches review questions. In addition, they also don’t feel responsible for remembering absolutely every detail from the 90-minute tour.

  1. Docent, student, and teacher support materials. Unlike a typical adult tour, this student tour and the time the docent spends on the street are part of a larger curriculum framework. It is important that docents occasionally review these materials so they can see how all three components (pre- and post-visit lessons and tour) must work together. Although the tour is the highlight of the student’s learning, it must plug into a larger framework. The new docent manual for the tour lists the themes for each building, building information, historical information, and possible questions to use on the tour. The Teacher Prep Pack and 10 color slides of the buildings are sent to teachers in the weeks before they arrive. The teacher book features pre- and post-visit activities and a map for preparing students in advance and for further study in the classroom after the tour.

Student booklets are given to the teacher on the day of the tour to take back to the classroom. (Using the books while students walk on the tour is too difficult and distracting.) These booklets contain a map of the route for review, information on the buildings’ architect, year of completion, and address. A drawing, new vocabulary, and some additional text help to supplement what the docent has already said. Each building also features an activity connected to a primary source, such as: an architect’s obituary, census data, a historical photograph, a postcard, or an advertisement.

  1. Academic standards. At the request of Chicago teachers, the tour and accompanying student pre- and post-visit activities incorporate and adhere to the Illinois State Goals and Chicago Academic Standards for Social Sciences in 5* through 8* grades. Each lesson and activity idea in the teacher book names the corresponding standard number and the entire list is reprinted in the back. Academic standards for your area are not difficult to obtain. Contact your state or city board of education office for a printed copy. Most are also posted on their websites. Check out those of the Chicago Public Schools as an example: www.cps. kl2. il. us/ Instructional/CAS. Rather than viewing them as a burden, we’ve used the standards as a tool to weave together a series of requirements into meaningful real-world learning experiences. They also aid teachers in defending their rationale and expense of taking students away from school. Finally, including academic standards gives the tour a life beyond the time the students spend with the docent on the street.

Final Thoughts

Changing an established tour and asking docents to revise how they presented information and approached “object-based” activities in the Children’s Loop Tour was not an easy task. However, taking the leap has proven to be beneficial for docents, teachers, and, most importantly, students. Involving the docents from the start of the revision process was an important factor. Asking their thoughts about the original tour allowed us to target their frustrations and create solutions to make their job easier and more exciting. Listening to the teachers’ needs helped point us in new directions to serve them better with support materials. Finally, seeing and hearing the students interact more with docents and the buildings has shown us how they can wrap their brains around new concepts and then apply that knowledge in their own environments.

Jennifer Masengrab is Education Programs Specialist at the Chicago Architectural Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. She is also the author and illustrator of the Children’s Loop Tour.

Masengrab, Jennifer. “Time to Change an Object-Based Tour…Now What?,” The Docent Educator 11.4 (Summer 2002): 10-12.


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