I love my job, but one of the very best parts is getting to teach kids on a semi-regular basis. There are many ways that I do this, but recently I’ve been presenting information at a cart out on the floor of the museum where I work or teaching classes of elementary students who come out to the museum’s field station for field trips. Regardless, there are several things I try to keep in mind. I thought they might be of use to some of you, or maybe you might like to take a look into my odd little brain and see how I think, so here they are:
One of the best compliments I got recently was being told that a class of 4th graders liked the lesson I taught them because I treated them like adults and not like kids. In my experience, kids love to have fun and they do genuinely act like kids most of the time. However, they don’t like to be spoken down to and they don’t like being treated like they’re stupid because they’re not. I expect the kids I work with to act as maturely as they can for their age and in return I don’t treat them like babies. It seems to work well, at least most of the time.
I feel it bears repeating: kids aren’t stupid. They’re just less experienced than older people. That means that they (usually) don’t understand things at the same level that adults do and that you need to adapt how you explain things so that they understand. I personally believe that you can teach almost anyone anything if you explain it in the right language. That doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb it down,” just that you need to choose your words carefully so that the kids are sure to understand. Yes, you can try to teach kids big words and use them as you teach, but I find that it’s much more successful for me to adapt to their level of vocabulary than the other way around. If I’m going to teach kids big words, I only use a few, three at the very most (I usually stick to one or none), and then repeat them over and over and over again so the kids get them by the time we’re done. Even then, I wonder how long they remember…
It’s hard to really be prepared for anything, but I’ve seen kids do amazingly shocking things that I never would have expected them to do. I try to mentally prepare myself for crazy things, and roll with them as much as I can when those crazy things happen. I do, however, answer all of those little deeply probing personal questions kids like to ask. I think I do it because I like watching the parents cringe and fret over their children when they ask horribly personal, insulting, and/or inappropriate questions. :)
By now, you have probably figured out that I like bugs. (Are any of you out there thinking, “Wait… The Dragonfly Woman likes insects? Why didn’t I know about this before?!”) Kids pick up on your enthusiasm and can get super excited about the subject if you show them how excited you are about it. I bounce up and down a lot on my toes as I walk. I talk loudly and excitedly. I wave my hands all over everywhere. I just can’t hide the fact that I think insects are the most amazing things on the planet. Kids respond SO well to that sort of energy and enthusiasm. Plus, when I invariably smack my hand into a book or a wall or something mid-wild gesticulation, they think it is hilarious. Yep, adults acting like giddy little kids – kids can get behind that.
Let me tell you a story about my childhood that illustrates why I think this is so important. I had a nasty experience with electricity when I was 8 or 9 (I was essentially electrocuted by a vacuum cleaner). Because of it, I absolutely dreaded the yearly presentation by the power company aimed at teaching kids how dangerous power lines are. Retired electrical line workers would bring in this little diorama of a neighborhood, plug it into the wall, ramp up the voltage, and run 50,000 volts through the diorama’s power lines. Then they’d show you what would happen if you were stupid enough to touch a power line by touching this little plastic doll to a kite string dangling off the lines. The doll would melt. One time it caught on fire. Giant arcs of electricity shots out of that horrendous thing. It was TORTUROUS to me. I started having nightmares about being electrocuted after the third of six times I saw that presentation. I still have those nightmares. I know that damned electrified diorama is largely to blame. So, having had this experience, I am hyperaware of the fact that some kids are really scared of insects. I am respectful of that. I can try to make a child feel more comfortable about the animal by explaining as much as I can about it, but if he/she doesn’t ever want to touch/hold it, that’s their choice. Never, ever, ever make a kid have an experience that they think is scary or overly gross or otherwise disturbing. Giving them a few gentle nudges to help them overcome their fears is one thing. Shoving a large insect in their face and ridiculing them for not wanting to get near it… That is completely unacceptable and you might scar them for life.
So those are the things I like to keep tucked away in the back of my mind. Anyone else have some great suggestions to add? I know a lot of you work with kids, so I welcome any further suggestions and/or insights into working with kids!