Freddie had such a wonderful time today,” she gushes, her arms entwining her squirming son. “I know you teachers must love field trips as much as the children do. I think it’s so nice that you all can get a day off from school like this every now and then.”
Years of professional training and knowledge of the penalties for mayhem in my State stay my hand. I merely smile sweetly at the mother before me and assure her that, given a field trip per week, I could probably forego summer vacations.
Just as this not-so-imaginary parent had a distorted view of field trips, those necessary excursions out into the real world with school children, docents are occasionally misinformed about the goals of the teachers and children they guide. Three disparate groups on a collision course of diverse expectations can combine to create “the field trip from Hell” for everyone. An awareness and sensitivity to the agenda of their audience, however, can help docents provide the kinds of tours they envisioned when they volunteered.
The stated goals of docents, teachers, and children are remarkably similar — an enjoyable learning experience. Docents want to make the museum’s collection accessible to a new audience; teachers want to expand the limits of classroom instruction; and children want to learn something amazing. What hidden, or unstated, goals should the docents also be aware of as they plan tours?
Teachers want their students to experience things which are not possible in the classroom. They want the information presented to reinforce and not to contradict what they are teaching. They pray no one will be hurt and hope no one will be embarrassed. They expect their children to behave appropriately. Children want to have fun. They want to sit by their best friend on the bus. They want the teacher to forget the math test assigned yesterday. In a science museum, they hope to see something explode. In a history museum’, they would like to try on old clothes. Animals at the zoo may do something embarrassing, and, of course, the art museum has nudes. Students don’t want to get in trouble. They also don’t want to worry about going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water if they need to.
Teachers invest a great deal in a field trip, and they want value for the time and money spent. Administrative approval (often through at least two levels in the chain of command), transportation arrangements, funding, chaperones, and parental permission all must be obtained.
Placement within the lesson plan has to be considered. Does the tour introduce a lesson, motivate within a lesson, or summarize a lesson’s concepts at the end? Timing needs to be decided. When can the museum accommodate us? Mondays and Fridays aren’t good tour days; preholiday tours are only for masochists. If it snows in January, the tour will have to be cancelled. What else is on the school calendar? With all this investment, teachers have great expectations. What, then, makes the trip worthwhile?
Three basic areas of concern — presentation, content, and behavior— if dealt with properly, make a museum visit a joy to all three participating groups.
Presentation — The tour should supplement class instruction, not mimic it. Lectures, videos, worksheets, and such classroom techniques are a disappointment to teachers and children who hoped to see and experience the “real” thing. There is no substitute for “hands-on” or “participatory” activities for expanding the learning and enjoyment both teachers and students anticipate in a museum tour.
Content — Tour content should be factual. This rather simplistic truism demands that docents be informed of current information in their field. Folklore, or personal opinions, should be clearly identified. Additionally, content must be appropriate for the age and interest level of the audience.
Behavior— Neither teachers nor students want the tour disturbed by misbehavior. Docents who understand child development well enough to define and enforce appropriate limits keep learning focused.
Docents who are aware of the “hidden” goals of their audience are better able to meet them. And, a tour that meets its audience’s goals goes a long way toward meeting the hidden agenda of the docent — satisfaction with a job well done!
Jackie Littleton is the Associate Editor of this newsletter and a sixth grade classroom teacher at Clarksville Academy, in Clarksville. Tennessee. In addition to her years as a classroom teacher, she has served as a museum docent and museum staff member at both the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Clarksville.
LIttleton, Jackie, “Subjectivity and Inquiry Teaching,” The Docent Educator 1.1 (Autumn 1991): 4-5.