Thursday, July 15, 2010

From overbearing chaperones to touring solo!

Jen and I had quite the interesting tour this afternoon. Our group consisted of 4th through 8th graders, but a majority of the students were in the 6th to 7th grade range. They were a particularly smart group, but for the first half of the tour, while Jen and I were asking what we thought were interesting and engaging questions, we were met with crickets! They looked interested in what we were saying, but the students seemed intimidated to say anything at all. This was particularly evident when we got to Seurat's Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Not only is this painting one of our most famous pieces, but the teacher/lead chaperone of the group also told us before the tour that the kids were very excited to see the pointilist piece that they had discussed in class.

Jen & I used the same "Technology & Innovation" tour that we blogged about before, and we noticed that the lead chaperone began to hijack our tour towards the end of our discussion of Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day. We're on a fairly tight 1 hour schedule for student tours, and we normally plan to talk about 6 pieces for about 10 minutes each. When we got to the end of the Caillebotte, and Jen was about to tell the kids to pick up their stools to move on to the Monet painting, the chaperone stepped in with, "I just want to say a few more things about this piece before we move on." My first thought was, "Sure! Why not. Maybe they're learning about something in particular in class." About three minutes later, after a *riveting* discussion of repetitive shapes, we moved on.

When we got to the Seurat piece, all of the kids got excited and took their seats. They sat patiently and listened to Jen talk about Pointilism and innovations in optics during the late 19th century. The students all seemed a bit too intimidated to say much about the piece, even though they had already discussed it in class. I began to notice that the chaperone was looking impatiently at the kids, and leading some of their answers to Jen's questions. Finally, Jen got the kids to open up by talking about the different animals in the painting, namely the monkey on a leash in the front right corner, which a few of the kids had made curious comments about. Toward the end of the discussion, yet again, the chaperone said that she wanted to say a little something. She stood up and asked the kids, "Where does your eye go first when you look at this painting?" One little boy said enthusiastically, "the monkey!" and a few other students nodded. The chaperone then said, "No! Look at the little girl in the white dress. That's where your eye should go first."

Watching this lady tell her students that they were experiencing Seurat's iconic painting incorrectly really upset me. The last thing that we want to do on our tours is tell kids that there is a right and a wrong way to talk about and experience art. Everyone should be allowed to look at things differently, and our discussion of each piece allows the students to listen to each other's different points of view. A little girl next to me turned and whispered in a downtrodden tone, "My eye went to the monkey..." I reassured her (fairly loudly) that everyone sees different things, and that it was perfectly fine that she saw the monkey first. I tried not to belittle the chaperone's comment, so I asked the little girl what she thought about the girl in the painting, and got her to talk a bit about that. The chaperone then proceeded to tell the kids "facts" about the painting that were just plain wrong (ie: "The little girl in the white dress is the only figure painted not in a pointilist style." ...excuse me?). Jen and I looked at each other and mutually understood that we had had enough.

We quickly moved on to the Modern Wing, and discussed the Bonticou and Richter pieces. Since the chaperone didn't seem to know much about either of these objects, she sat back and let the kids talk more. These two pieces, by *far*, were our two most successful pieces of the day. We got the kids to talk about the different materials in the Bonticou, and how its context within the Vietnam and Cold Wars added to its symbolic meaning. We talked about photography and painting in Richter's Woman Descending the Staircase, and got the kids excited about glamorous celebrities and digital photography's role in pop culture today. It's amazing how far these kids pushed these pieces' meanings on their own, without needing much help from the chaperones (or us!).

In these past five weeks, I've learned some valuable lessons. Here are a few of the things that I would like to pass on to future interns about school group tours:
  • When you prepare a tour for a group of thirty 5th-8th graders, don't be shocked when a group of forty 3rd-6th graders show up. Flexibility and improvisation are invaluable skills in this job, but they also make it much more fun.
  • Be prepared to lengthen or shorten your tour at will. Not only do groups rarely show up on time (sometimes half an hour early, sometimes half an hour late), but you also may end up spending 15 minutes having kids pose as characters from the Seurat painting, and end up with minimal time to spend talking about O'Keefe.
  • Note the attention span of the group and go with it. Sometimes kids will think that every word coming out of your mouth is pure gold, and other times, you may as well be speaking Latin. If they look engaged, stick with it. If they look bored, either spice it up or move on.
  • When invited to happy hour with the staff....go!
  • Make your intern team a collaborative one. I can't tell you how helpful it is to have a group of 7 people to bounce ideas off of!
  • Don't let the first two weeks of training scare the crap (and fun) out of you. Touring with real kids (as opposed to your peers and supervisors pretending to be kids) is much less nerve-racking and intense.
  • Use your lesson plan as a loose guide. Don't be upset if you've created a series of elaborate open ended questions meant to uncover the great ideological mystery behind Hinoki's tree...and you just don't get to it. Adjusting to the types of things that seem to interest the group and making sure that they take something valuable away from it is much more important.
Now that we all have our 2 weeks of training and 3 weeks of partnered touring under our belts, I think that I can speak for all of the interns when I say that we are all equally nervous and excited to start touring solo. It's been pretty nice having a right-hand-(wo)man who can keep track of time, help corral the little ones and, of course, make sure to jot down the ever-entertaining comments from the kids.

Here are some photos of the interns from the past few weeks:

David, Maya, Meghan, Adrienne & I at the Taste of Chicago

Natalie, Sandy & David at lunch in the Lurie Garden

Jen & Maya enjoying lunch in the Lurie Garden

The "lazy river"/"best place to eat lunch ever" in the Lurie Garden.

Maya getting comfy and researching in the docent room

Jen & I hamming it up for the camera

Sandy, Me & Natalie at a Caribou concert @ Pritzker Pavillion

1 comment:

  1. I assume the B on your badges stands for badass.