Please note: This is the second post in an on-going series by Alli Hartley who is sharing what it is like to set up a Teen Docent program.  We hope this inspires conversations so please feel free to leave comments or tweet @nmafateens or us at @teensinmuseums

A few weeks ago, I wrote my first guest post for the Teens in Museums blog, outlining my experience coordinating an emerging teen volunteer program at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA). As a refresher, the Teen Ambassador Program at NMAfA is a volunteer program that trains students to be docents. Today, we are two weeks into a six-week training curriculum, and even just two weeks in, the interests of this group of teens and the cohesion of the students is already shaping and changing the program.

Reflection timeOur first session was a general introduction to the museum, along with a curator tour of the Conversations exhibit. We started off with an object-based introduction. This gave us a chance to learn a little bit more about what drives these kids, and followed up with a broad introduction to the museum. After that, our curator gave the students a tour of the exhibit that they will be facilitating tours through, and we ended with a reflection activity. For our second training, we gave the kids a broad introduction to the subject of African Art through a presentation by Deborah Stokes, Curator for Education, and a tour led by an adult docent. We further introduced the students to the museum by having a representative from the editorial department sit down with the students and discuss her department’s role in the museum. Before the session began, we had an optional social media scavenger hunt for women’s history month; the attendance numbers were not as high as I had hoped for this optional event, but as I’ll explain later, the kids who did participate were super engaged and produced awesome work.

There are many “lessons learned” already. The first one may seem obvious: reflection can be a real game-changer in programming. About midway through our first session, I realized that there was not nearly enough time to achieve everything we needed to in a two-hour period. However, since many of the kids were able to stay late the first day, we had time at the end to reflect through writing and then share these reflections. When planning our second session, I took reflection off the schedule, thinking that removing reflection wouldn’t too adversely impact the program. However, leaving the museum the second Saturday, I felt off—I knew that the session had been a success, but I felt that it had ended very openly. It had been a particularly didactic session where the kids had to absorb large chunks of information in a short period of time, and because we didn’t give them a chance to share their thoughts and feelings at the end, I wasn’t able to get a sense of where they were at the end of the day and how they were processing the information. Lessons learned, but luckily we have another session this week—one that WILL end with reflection!

The fact that we have another session this week brings me to another “lesson learned”—program fatigue is real! It was a gallop to the finish line to have our program guidelines and regulations complete, our handbook finished, other speakers from within the museum secured, and our training modules drafted by the first training session. After we had our first training session, I barely had time to breathe before I was finalizing worksheets and materials for the second session, and it has been another marathon week gearing up for the third Saturday in a row spent doing a training. I am not entirely sure how the kids are faring with program fatigue either—attendance has been high session to session, although there are the unavoidable family and school conflicts (and SATS! Don’t forget about SATs if you are doing teen programming, like I did!). I’m thinking about incorporating a check-in on how the kids are doing with the quick pace of the programming into reflection next week. In any case, over the next few weeks, our sessions will be biweekly rather than weekly, which will offer the students a bit of down time and also allow me to catch my breath!

My advice to anyone running similar programs is to give yourself more planning time than you anticipate needing before the program starts, because once it’s up and running, you are going to be more tired than you think. I purposely only wrote out rough outlines of each training session during the program planning stage because I knew my lesson plans would change once I worked with the kids more and got a sense of what works and what doesn’t work with each individual group. It’s a tough balance—my lesson plan for this week’s training session was strongly influenced by the session last week, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated at the start. While this has allowed me to really cater each session to my teens and make sure they are getting the most out of each training, planning training sessions in such close succession to each other has put me behind on other work. How you personally achieve balance is something you will want to keep in mind when doing teen programs.

My third lesson learned so far is that while it is great to research trends with teens, every group of kids is so vastly different and their specific needs must be taken into account when programming. I had anticipated that social media would be a strong component of our program, and designed a “social media scavenger hunt” for International Women’s Day before meeting with the teens. After the first meeting, however, I learned that very few of the kids in my program interacted with social media. I was surprised; I knew kids didn’t use Facebook anymore because we old people had taken overJ, but I had thought they would definitely be on Twitter and Instagram! The students had various reasons for not being on social media; my kids are particularly academic and involved in other after-school programs, which makes them awesome participants, but leaves them little time for socializing online. As I had already spent time developing a social media scavenger hunt, I kept it as an optional event and did the event with three participants.

Sage and BreAlthough the event wasn’t as well-attended as I would have liked, the kids were super engaged. I was Tweeting and Instagramming (can I call it ‘Instagramming’??) through the program account (@NMAfATeens), although I wasn’t as active as I would have liked (my phone battery overheated halfway through) it was still a really great event. My teens were tagging the program account with wonderful and insightful posts, and (this was what was most exciting part) their friends, who would have never engaged in the museum otherwise, were liking their posts and began following my posts as well. For any future social media scavenger events, I definitely want to expand on this more, and maybe instruct the students to Tweet more questions and other posts that would encourage a response from their friends not participating in the event.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that this whole program was an exercise in “letting go” of authority, and the social media scavenger hunt definitely confirmed that. As a museum educator, it is my reoccurring nightmare that I look up and see kids glued to their phones, and I really had to let go in this program. Visitors in the gallery did give us some judgmental looks, and I found myself explaining to visitors what the kids were doing, to defend the kids. However, I did let go, letting the kids pick items from the scavenger hunt off a sheet I had prepared, and based on the Tweets the kids posted as well as the feedback from the few that attended, the event was a huge success. I’d like to do something similar in the future, but I don’t know if I will with this particular cohort of teens, which brings me to my fourth lesson learned: don’t assume. All my research and all my assumptions had led me to believe that these would be plugged-in kids; however, once I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with these kids, I realized this was not the case at all. As a result, I had to shift my programming

As tired as I am,   I am feeling really pleased with the program so far. The kids seem super engaged, especially as they’re starting to do their own research on artworks in the exhibit that they selected. I am really excited with how the program is shaping itself and how much the kids are learning from us and I am learning from them.