When the Museum of Natural History, in Albuquerque, put out a request for docents I thought, “Why not?” I sure didn’t know anything about natural history, but I could learn. So off I went to begin my training. As soon as they started the overview and people began asking questions however, I knew I was in over my head.
Did that stop me? No! I went back. I was sure that somewhere along the line I would begin to understand something. I knew this information (whatever I understood) would help me with my children. I teach with Head Start on an Indian Reservation between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Every Monday evening I had my training and every Tuesday morning something I learned I shared with my children. They learned about dinosaurs the day after I did. The same thing happened with volcanoes, earth quakes, and the formation of caverns, such as Carlsbad.
Finally, the sixteen weeks of training were over and the Museum opened its doors to the public. The first weeks I was more of a traffic director than anything, but I listened as parents and children talked about what they saw. As I listened, I found out how much the children already knew (and this was years before Jurassic Park). I also learned how excited they were to talk about what they saw.
I found that using open ended questions helped the children put their information together. I learned to ask questions like, “What can you tell me about this dinosaur?” How can anything the child says be wrong? “He is big.” “He has sharp teeth.” “He has little arms.” These are all correct answers. The child has had a success. Now the next question could be, “If the dinosaur has sharp teeth, what do you think he would eat?”
All of us like to be right and young children are no exception. If children experience success, they are much more likely to try again, but if they fail (and you say “no, that isn’t right”) the child might not try again.
Back in my classroom, it was now March and we were going to go on our field trip to the museum. Our classroom was full of dinosaurs — pictures, puzzles, plastic model dinosaurs, books, etc. We even made volcanoes with vinegar, baking soda, and poster paint. The day was here and we arrived in Albuquerque. Seventeen five-year-old children who had never seen anything like this before, and I, of course, was going to show them everything. As we amved in the atrium, I looked up at the large pterosaur and said “Children look! There is . . .” and I went blank. Sixteen weeks of training and three months on the floor went out the window. Little Laura looked up and said “Look, Miss Ramponi, it’s Questzalcoatlus.” Pretty good for someone who had never seen the creature before.
As we went through the museum this happened more than once. I realized that the reason I had signed up to be a docent was to learn more, which I did, and to share it with my children and the general public. I have learned far more than I ever thought I could, but most of all, I have learned that my job is not to tell people everything about everything, but rather to be there to answer the questions I can, and to help children and adults apply what they already know to the exhibitions we have in the museums.
JoAnne Ramponi, docent, Museum of Natural History, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Ramponi, JoAnne, “It Works for Me…Sharing successful techniques and ideas.,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1993): 14.