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High School Docents

This fail marks the fourth year of an innovative “high school docent program” at The Friends of Photography in San Francisco that empowers young adults by making them leaders in a public setting. Bringing in high school students to serve as an integral part of a museum changes the institutional climate dramatically – in ways positive and wonderful.

A program of this kind takes a large amount of time and commitment on the part of museum personnel. In addition to recruiting and training students, museum staff must phone student-docents to remind them about tour dates, supervise tours, handle payroll, and write letters of recommendation.

In our program, high school docents are paid for their time during training and when giving tours — encouraging and enabling participation by young adults of all economic levels. For many, this position is their first work experience, and a reference could be a valuable resource for future employment opportunities.

What can a museum gain by having high school docents?

  • The museum enfranchises an age group rarely incorporated into leadership roles in the museum field.
  • The museum builds a core of active individuals, who are visually literate, and who may continue some relationship with museums after high school.
  • High school docents can pair with a museum’s regular docent corps, establishing a mentoring relationship. These rich intergenerational relationships can be very beneficial to both groups, and allow experienced adult docents the opportunity to share their expertise with greater depth..

What can high school students gain by being docents?

  • A High school students build self-confidence, improve public speaking skills, and gain valuable work experience.
  • Students learn more about how museums function and come to realize possible career opportunities in museums.

To recruit students for the docent program, a letter outlining the program was sent to art and photography instructors teaching in the public high schools in the area. Included with the letter was a brightly colored flyer for teachers to post in their classrooms. The flyer listed the date for an informal orientation session at the museum and stressed that students needed no prior public speaking experience to participate. It turned out that the students who had no previous art historical knowledge were some of the most effective and engaging docents.

Students who expressed a commitment to attend all training sessions were admitted into the program. They were expected to attend training sessions two Saturdays a month from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for three months to acquire a base knowledge in photography and to learn the techniques of giving tours to the public. Fifteen students from five public schools participated in the program this year.


The training program began with an introduction to the Center and an overview of the program. Our first photographic activity gave students an overview of history, and served as an “ice-breaker” for having students work cooperatively. In teams, students explored photography from its beginnings in the 19th century to the invention of the snapshot, using a game that included vintage examples of daguerreotypes, tintypes, and other early processes combined with clue cards.

The Friends of Photography was founded by Ansel Adams, and many visitors come hoping to learn something of the photographer’s life and work. Therefore, we also spent some of the first sessions giving students a solid background in his life and career. At the end of the first training session, students were sent home with one of three readings on Adams and accompanying questions.

The next time we met, students formed teams, joining with others who were assigned the same reading. Each team prepared a presentation for the rest of the group. They used Adams’s photographs to illustrate their presentations. The emphasis on teamwork helped to build a sense of camaraderie among the students and was a more comfortable way to practice speaking to an audience.

Another group activity was planned in conjunction with Day Without Art, an international day of mourning and response to the AIDS crisis. After answering a series of open-ended, thought-provoking questions, students created banners reflecting their ideas and feelings about AIDS. These powerful banners were exhibited over our gallery entrances.

Now that they had some background information about photography and Ansel Adams, and had practiced working together, students were ready to approach their first exhibit. We began with Wendy Ewald’s Retratos y Sueiios, a collection of images made by children in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Students completed a “Visual Analysis” of two images and shared their responses. The assignment was designed to get students thinking about such basic terms as subject, composition, content, portrait, landscape, diffused, ambient and artificial lighting, in addition to prompting personal responses to the images. Sample questions were:

  • Would you say that this photograph represents an artistic expression or is a straightforward document of a person, place or time? Explain your answer.
  • What type of lighting did the photographer use in this picture, and how does that affect the subject?

After filling in the Visual Analysis individually, students had their first taste of giving tours in the exhibition space by leading each other through the show and sharing their responses. This exercise helped students gain confidence in interpreting photographs and in their public speaking skills.

After students repeated this process using different photographs, we added other elements of leading a tour. Together we created an outline for touring:

  • Greet the public and give them an introduction to the museum (introduce yourself, describe the show you’ll tour, state touring time)
  • Physically and verbally lead group to first selected image
  • Explain each selected work, give time for comments or questions, lead group to next image.
  • Describe the other exhibits in the museum briefly.
  • Invite people to look around and ask questions; thank them for coming.

In subsequent training sessions, the student-docents continued to practice giving tours to each other, incorporating a visual analysis of three or four images to the tour components listed above. This time students toured the newly installed Flesh and Blood exhibition, a collection of “family album” photographs by more than 50 well-known photographers. Students used worksheets that were designed to elicit students’ interpretations of the photographs as family portraits:

  • How does this picture represent the concept of family?
  • What kind of family relationship is portrayed?
  • What makes this picture more powerful than a “standard” snapshot?

During all training sessions, students critiqued each other and offered suggestions for improvements. During one of the final training sessions, the director of the Center gave the students a guided walk-through of the exhibition, answering questions and giving tour advice.

The final training session put all the pieces together. A “dress rehearsal” was held, as student-docents conducted their completed tours. Now, they were ready to go public! High school docents gave their well received tours to the public on Saturday afternoons throughout the school year.


The success of the program can be heard in the students own voices —

“The program has changed the way I think about photography. Before I thought art was art and photography was photography, but now I see that photography has art in it.”

Damon Tanner, 16 years old

“Some of the most positive aspects of the docent training program are that you get paid for something that is interesting and fun, and you provide a service that people are thankful for.”

Rita Mae Habegger, 18 years old

Julia Brashares is the Education and Workshop Coordinator at The Friends of Photography. She assists the Director of Education in the planning and execution of the teen and adult docent program, workshops, and outreach to schools. Her professional credentials include a B.A., Art History and Criticism from the University of California, San Diego, and an M.A., Museum Studies with a specialization in Museum Education, from San Francisco State University (to be completed December 1994.)

Kristi Farnham is an English and photography instructor at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, California. On Saturdays during the school year, she teaches the high school docent training sessions at The Friends of Photography. Her professional credentials include an M.A., English Literature, and Secondary School Credential in English, with supplementary Credential in Photography, all from Mills College, Oakland, California.

Brashares, Julia and Farnham, Kristi. “High School Docents,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 16-17.

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