I’ve been asked in a few interviews which type of visitor or grade level of students is my favorite to work with. Every age and group type has its own charms and challenges, but, if I have to choose, middle schoolers are my favorite.
The looks I get when I say that are priceless.
To be fair, middle schoolers have a bit of a reputation. While the younger kids may be in awe of the uniform (especially those with a silly hat), middle schoolers are well past the “because the ranger said so” stage. They’re also often trying to prove how cool they are by not caring about things, especially nerdy things like school. While a lot of visitors come to museums, parks, and historic sites with a sense of reverence for the subject and, maybe, respect and admiration for the guide, middle schoolers often don’t want to be there and don’t care what you know.
But that’s actually part of their charm.
I hope by the end of this post you will … maybe agreeing with me is too much to hope for, but I hope, at least, you no longer think I’m suffering from heat stroke.
With middle schoolers, you can use a touch–but only a touch–of sarcasm. You can’t be sarcastic at them or about their answers, but you can make little jokes about how we would all definitely still go to school every single day if it was only a three-mile walk there and another three-mile walk back *shakes head*.
Humor, done well, has this amazing way of bringing people closer to what they’re talking about and who they’re talking to. Kids at this age are also just starting to understand and embrace sarcasm (and boy do they embrace it). It’s a new joke form for them and they feel clever for recognizing it.
If they’re not going to arrive in awe of the resource–and they’re probably not–you can still pull them in with a more relaxed feel to the program and by setting them up to feel clever in the discussion.
Middle school kids also bring their own jokes. Whether you want them to or not. And with little understanding of when it’s enough. You could seriously spend half your program drowning in snide comments and corny puns and miss the actual substance if you’re not careful.
At the same time, who wants a tour with a boring fuddy-duddy who won’t even let you make jokes? No point in even paying attention, really.
In the interest of both making the teacher happy (curriculum goals!) and making the kids happy (fun!), I have found the following rule to be invaluable.
Keep the SMART in Smart Alec
If you’re going to take up class time with a joke, it had better be on topic, clever, and funny.
I have found that this rule saves valuable class time by weeding out 90% of joking–no one wants to look foolish in front of their classmates by making a lame joke, after all. It also helps with focus. If your jokes have to be witty and topical, you have to listen and think.
And the jokes that are made are hilarious.
Yes, I’ve stolen a joke from a 13-year-old to add to my public programs. And I stand by that theft. It was a great joke.
Asking the Real Questions
Now I love talking to people and helping them discover the park. And Stump the Tour Guide is my absolute favorite game. But, your average visitor does have an awful tendency to ask the same 12 or so questions that everyone else asks.
All the time.
And that’s cool. They don’t know they’re the umpteenth person to ask what that weird tool on the wall is and it’s not even lunchtime (it is far more boring than it looks and I’m sorry). So you hold in the sigh and curse the person who chose that location for something so mundane and you answer it like no one ever thought to ask you that before.
Please accept this picture with my sincerest apologies. Image courtesy of the NPS.
But middle schoolers? They’ll come up with some off-the-wall questions. And they’re dedicated to it. Often, they’re testing you–that authority thing again–to see how much you actually know and if you deserve their attention. They’re also showing off their intelligence and creativity to their classmates and their teacher (and hopefully their tour guide!). While younger students also strive to ask questions that gain your approval, they aren’t quite able to match middle schoolers in depth.
These things combine into a perfect storm of unusual, thought-provoking, just warm-your-soul Grade A questions.
In short: Middle schoolers know how to play–really play–Stump the Tour Guide.
Winning Them Over Is Everything
Elementary school kids are so sweet and deeply excited about learning. High school class trips are rarer and usually tied to a club the kids belong to or an upper level elective: if they’re there for it, they are there for it. Middle schoolers don’t really care about being there and don’t care if you know it.
But if you do your job well? If you win them over? There is no greater feeling.
I will never forget this one kid in a 6th grade tour a few years ago. He started off, before I’d even started the tour, by saying how boring history was and how he hated old houses.
Challenge accepted, my dude.
He cracked a sarcastic joke about an artifact in the first room from his place at the very back. “Nice.” A bit of shock and then a smirk. It became his mission to make at least one good joke in every room. And with each room, he positioned himself closer and closer to the front. He would hurriedly scan each new room, looking for something to make a joke about, then smile and look to me when he’d chosen–waiting, listening for me to mention it.
In the last (and best) room, I pulled one of my favorite artifacts and told its story. He leaned in closer, in awe of this small, complicated tool. “Cool.” He hadn’t meant to say it. He startled himself, even. He never meant to show interest in school, in learning, in history.
And I have never been so proud.
So as the semester winds down and you start courting teachers as they do their summer planning, don’t forget the middle schoolers.