Touring with Middle School Students

Susan Engelhart, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL - Facilitator

Mary Calvin, Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR

Fran Flaherty, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA

Kay Hanlin, Birmingham Museum of Art, North Birmingham, AL

Cindy Harrison, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN

Ruth G. Johnson, Monona Terrace, Madison, WI

Diane Marcris, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT

Cathy McDonald, Birmingham Museum of Art, North Birmingham, AL

Sharon Rouse, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO

Cathy Ryan, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, recorder

Ellen Zarrow-Nissenbaum, Museum of Find Arts, Boston, MA

I. Introductions between the participants and the needs to be addressed:

  • At risk students and ways to engage them
  • Getting involved with teenagers
  • Getting students to participate.

II. Docents then commented on what it takes to create a successful tour:

  • Middle school students do not want to be embarrassed in front of their peers. Make them feel comfortable by chatting with them before the tour begins. If you can win over middle school kids, you are golden.....have a rapport with them.
  • Be warm, friendly, self-deprecating. Try not to criticize – it shuts them down.
  • Remember, it's not about the docent or the museum. A good tour or a bad tour may have nothing to do with the docent.
  • Have no expectations!
  • It's only about the children – we want them to come back to a museum.
  • Being physically close to the disruptive student helps improve the situation.
  • Sit with the students on the floor, at their eye level. If the docent stands, the student stands.
  • Most of the docents do not use stools.
  • Some students need an entrée. An individual activity may draw shy or reticent into the discussion.
  • Some docents are only allowed to engage the students with the art works. They are never allowed to use activities.
  • Docents have to use intuition to bring students into the discussion. You never know the dynamic of the teacher/student.
  • Be open to current affairs and contemporary culture that relates to their lives.


We need to take our lead from Middle School teachers, who participated with this discussion. Relax and enjoy the tours. Don't push the students who are not participating – they are absorbing more than the docent realizes. INTUITION should lead the actions of docents/guides.

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