Museum Education Programs: The Challenges of Having Chaperones Be Effective Participants

Originally published on Medium and Student Voices, January 27, 2017.

I think many museum educators agree that from time to time we all have chaperones accompanying school groups that do not engage with the program and not participate in encouraging kids involvement in the programs. I recently had a conversation on Twitter about this subject which began with this question to the online discussion group, #MuseumEdChat: “how do you engage chaperones to be effective partners in your programs? Without losing kid interest or pandering”. Not many people on Twitter have found solutions to this posted question but we attempted to answer this question by coming up with our own answers. I thought it would be best to create a program that would encourage chaperone participation by allowing them to collaborate with the students so that way kids are not discouraged from participating and chaperones can set a good example for kids to become active learners. Also, chaperones are therefore seen as more than “crowd control”. The conversation on Twitter made me think about my own experiences with school field trips and chaperones.

As a museum educator, I have had mixed experiences with chaperones. Some of the chaperones encouraged kids to participate in the school program activities while others passively sit there not engaging with kids or the educators. Chaperones who have not interacted with the program have either text or talk amongst themselves. These museums I have taught school programs taught me various lessons on how to handle these mixed experiences. At the Old State House in Hartford, for instance, I taught the “I Spy” program for kindergarten students on my very first day of my museum education internship. The “I Spy” program is an activity in which students created their own spy glasses made from paper towel rolls and decorated various stickers, crayons, and color paper; then once their spy glasses were finished, the educators, chaperones, and myself took the group of kids around the Old State House using the spy glasses to make observations about what they saw. While they were being made, chaperones and teachers not only brought kids around with Old State House staff to participate in the activity together but they also assisted me and the Old State House staff helping students decorate their spy glasses as well as made sure they could understand the instructions. After the first day of my internship at the Old State House, I learned that students and teachers can participate together on the activity and can encourage students to participate in the activity. Another experience taught me how to handle challenging situations while teaching programs.

When I was at the Stanley-Whitman House, I taught various programs including a life in eighteenth century Connecticut program for kids aimed at fourth and fifth grade levels that included a cooking lesson assisted by myself and another museum educator. One of the fifth-grade groups were a rowdy bunch that were rough housing and not listening to a word one museum educator and myself were instructing the students about the cooking lesson on making Irish-style mashed potatoes and apple pie. The group was so rowdy that because of the rough housing and not paying attention, the recipes came out poorly and one student cut his finger with the knife used to cut potatoes. The museum educator and myself followed protocol to get first aid to clean and put a band aid on his finger. Then I called the rest of the group to sit down in silence until the program was finished. Meanwhile, the teacher who was with this group sat by and did nothing to help discipline the group nor showed interest in what we were teaching this group throughout the whole cooking lesson. What I kept thinking was: If the teacher was not willing to engage with the session, then why should the students? This experience has taught me to figure out how to handle tough groups, and showed me one of the early examples of what it is like to be around inactive teachers and chaperones. Another example of mixed experiences I have had with school groups and chaperones revealed that each visiting school chaperones behave differently and museum educators prepare for various situations.

At the Noah Webster House, I have had various teachers and chaperones that had different levels of involvement in the programs. Some chaperones were willing to assist the groups in making sure the students were paying attention as well as assisting with activities. Others were either passively sitting by as I teach the session or were destructive in the students learning process. For instance, there is a program called Living History in which museum teachers and students assume 18th century identities and pretend to be living in that period in West Hartford (or West Division as the town was called in the 18th century) learning different ways the Webster family performed chores i.e. cooking and cleaning. Some teachers and chaperones would continuously refer to 21st century items and ideas which distracts the students and encourages the students to do the same thing even though the pre-visit materials they received before the field trip warned against doing so. Then at the Long Island Museum, one of my most recent experiences, I taught a program that took place in the museum’s 19th century School House to teach students about what school and life was like on Long Island during the 19th century.

The program starts with a comparison on what school is like back then and now by asking students about their school and informing them about the 19th century rural community. I asked the students what their schools was like, and then asked inquiry-based questions about what they think it is like in the School House; for instance, I ask how many rooms are in this school house as well as how many grade levels are inside and after hearing their answers I inform them there is one classroom with eight or nine grade levels. After the short introduction, I informed the students we are pretending to be traveling back in time and share that they will be participating in reading, writing (using scratch pens, or pen and inkwells), and arithmetic (math) activities as well as behave how 19th century students would have in school. After the students participates in the lessons and the recess using toys students back then used, we pretended to travel back to the 21st century so they can go back on the bus to go back to school. There were different reactions chaperones had to the program and different ways chaperones interacted with the students. Some assist with the activities and even asked to also participate in the activities such as working on penmanship using scratch pens and inkwells. Other chaperones had a less active approach including sitting back and chatting with other chaperones. All experiences showed me that each chaperone had different expectations about what the chaperones’ roles should be.

I decided to take a closer look at any research and published works written about chaperones to see how museum educators can answer the question about chaperones being effective partners in school programs. I found an article from Volume 28 of the Journal of Museum Education by Maija Sedzielarz called “Watching the Chaperones: An Ethnographic Study of Adult-Child Interactions in School Field Trips”. Sedzielarz, at the time of the article, was the School Visits Coordinator at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul where the research for the article took place. This article was a synthesis from her master’s thesis research at the University of Minnesota; it was a study of the types of chaperones that participate in school field trips to museums by using ethnography to record observations between adults and children. This study was conducted at the Science Museum of Minnesota where they began to design materials that tap into the chaperone’s expectations of field trip outcomes, directly addressing chaperone needs as well as assumptions then share these findings with the teachers planning trips to the museum. According to Sedzielarz, she stated that she found in the recent study of the chaperones’ behavior in elementary school field trips, in which she observed and interviewed almost thirty chaperones at the museum and additional five chaperones at three other local museums, she “heard comments that revealed what each chaperone felt was important about the trip and what kinds of outcomes they expected and consequently experienced” (Sedzielarz, 21). The article went into detail about how the chaperones Sedzielarz observed felt they had multiple roles to fill: guide, learning leader, teacher, role model, security guard, learner, group facilitator, and timekeeper. She explained chaperones frustrations on what roles they should be focusing more on during their visits with school groups.

From my own experience, chaperones are not necessarily included in most of the programs taught and this causes them to think the programs are only for the students; therefore, it leads to most chaperones taking inactive roles in the field trips. What I understood from the article is that we as museum educators need to remind chaperones that the most important role that they are there to learn as well. Sedzielarz stated that “If we believe that school field trips are valuable learning experiences, we also need to regard all members of the field trip as learners” (24). Each museum has their own materials and ways of presenting this material to the school groups, and it is up to museum educators to make sure the chaperones’ role have a part in being learning partners with the students and museum educators.

How are your museum(s) or cultural institutions handle working with teachers and chaperones? Do you have ideas on how chaperones can be learning partners in your programs? What are your experiences working with chaperones like in the past?

Maija Sedzielarz (2003) Watching the Chaperones, Journal of Museum Education, 28:2, 20–24, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2003.11510478

https://mystudentvoices.com/museum-education-programs-the-challenges-of-having-chaperones-be-effective-participants-96cced3d449c

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