How to Rule with Impunity! (or just have a Productive Museum Class with Visiting Students)

Guest post by Katherine Hoppe

Romania 2010 070

Katie Hoppe in Budapest, on her way to an archaeological dig in Romania.

One of the most rewarding things about working in the museum field is seeing a person’s eyes light up as they discover something new for the first time. However, everything doesn’t always go smoothly in the transfer of knowledge, as any seasoned museum educator can tell you. We all love our jobs and became addicted to our fields because we want the joy of passing on what we have learned. But nothing can derail a carefully thought-out lesson faster than the unexpected, whether in the form of an over-eager student or of an entire class that wasn’t as prepared as you expected!

With these facts in mind, I would like to submit a streamlined lesson plan focused on how to engage attention and structure a lesson for the average public elementary school student. This plan takes into account standard techniques for getting and keeping class attention, structuring a lesson for maximum results, and making lasting connections in a short amount of time.

[Please note: this lesson will feature Responsive Classroom techniques since this strategy is currently taught in the state of Virginia.]

1) Do Your Homework

Do your best to gather all the information you can about the class you will be working with before they get there.

  • What are the physical ages of the children?
  • What are the mental ages?
  • Are there any physical handicaps?
  • What is the teacher hoping to get out of their visit?
  • Are there any Special Education kids in the class; if so, are there any special adaptations which you should be aware of?
  • What is the average attention span for this class as a group?

The more you know, the better prepared you will be, and that always yields better results.

2) Setting the Stage

The first step is to gain and keep attention. Many students now are taught on the Responsive Classroom system, which I have found good success with for both Special Ed and mainstream students.

  • Use a quick clapping pattern to let the class know that you are ready to begin, or to call them back to order after they have split into groups, perhaps for a project. Such clapping patterns include the following:
    • bum, ba dadada [Kids should echo these patterns back to you]
    • bum, dada bum
    • Shave-and-a-haircut rhythm
    • “1, 2, 3, Eyes on me!” [Kids respond, “1, 2, Eyes on you”]
    • “Hands on top.” [Kids respond, “That means stop!”]
    • Ask the teacher to bring the classroom chime with you. Most of our kids are conditioned to stop what they are doing and look up when they hear the chime.
  • Welcome the students and let them know that they have just embarked on a new adventure with you. This can be as simple as addressing them by a new title, such as Adventurers, Explorers, Investigators, etc.
  • Give a basic outline of what is going to happen during their time with you. For example:

Good morning, fellow investigators! Today we will be investigating what it takes to turn a body into a mummy in preparation for the afterlife! By the time we part, you too will know how to prepare even the Pharaoh himself for eternal life with Osiris! We will learn why this is a preferred method of burial in a hot, dry climate, what the necessary supplies are, and why the Egyptians thought this preparation was so important. Come, let’s embark!

3) Laying the Groundwork

Find common ground with your students. The key is linking this lesson to something they understand and can relate to from the very beginning. By doing this you help them recognize that what you are about to teach them is important and that it also has some meaning beyond this one moment in their education. The following is one example of how you could approach this:

Now, everyone loves a good zombie story, right? Well, today we are learning about the original zombie story. The Egyptians believed that everything from their mortal lives made the journey with them into the afterlife, including their bodies. When they practiced mummification and their elaborate burial rituals, they were making sure that they did the best packing job of all time. I mean, modern zombies don’t even bring a change of clothes, much less servants and food!

4) Baiting the Hook

Never be afraid to get excited in front of children. One of the natural brilliances of children is that they have not yet completely learned to govern their emotions. As a result, what they feel is readily apparent on the surface.

While this may seem alarming to some, this can actually be a very good insider peek into how the students are feeling about your lesson. Being able to gauge the reaction of your students can help you to bring the lesson back on track or give you the opportunity to expand on your previous plans. This is the moment where you can find those hidden gems in teaching!

Let the kids know what it was that excited you about your chosen field in the first place. What do you love that keeps you interested? Why do you see yourself working in this field for many years to come? For example:

I remember my first time learning about mummies. I was totally grossed out and excited at the same time. And I was actually a little scared. But once I started learning more, I realized that none of these mummies would ever be capable of coming back to life – the science doesn’t make that possible. But I also learned what was important to the Egyptians. They spent so much time getting their loved ones ready for the afterlife that I started thinking about how much time we take to get ready for a party or for a dance at school. This journey was just as important to them.

5) Leading the Pack

Education and entertainment should go hand in hand for the best experience for your students. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a regular at the local dinner theatre to make an impact. But as was just said, don’t be afraid to show the kids your excitement. Instead of leading the kids to the next room on the tour, tell them that we are proceeding to the next stage of our archaeological journey, or however you choose to phrase it. Invite the kids to take part in this journey, not just tag along behind you.

Encouragement is just as important. There are some Responsive Classroom techniques that I have found to be very effective in both encouraging the students’ work and affirming their thought processes.

  • I like the way you’re thinking
  • I can understand how you came to that conclusion
  • What I hear you saying is…
  • [For a student who is constantly raising his hand] I love that you are so excited about this lesson, but I want to make sure some of our other travelers have a chance to comment. 

Last Tips:

  • Read as much as possible about as many things as possible. This includes pop culture magazines, children’s books, movie reviews, and clothing trends. When you can relate to your students, they recognize that and will reward you with a longer attention span.
  • Take a bottle of water with you. Stopping to take a sip gives you a minute to slow down and collect your thoughts.
  • Schedule in a treat for yourself after your tour and/or work day is done. You did something great! Go get that iced coffee! Cupcakes in the break-room? Heck yeah!
  • Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. You have no idea what seeds you planted or what those kids were really thinking. Stay positive and remember that tomorrow is a brand new day.
  • Try not to carry over feelings from one school to the next. You have no idea what happened to that child before they walked into your museum. Give them the benefit of the doubt and remember that most of the time a smile will do more than a stern look. This is especially true of Special Ed kids.
  • Listen to what the child is saying and what the underlying message is. The child who says that he’s trying while start to break down and cry might really be telling you that no one has ever given him a chance. Challenge this child by putting them in charge of a problem and watch a leader emerge.

I wish you all the best for your adventures!


Katie Hoppe with the remains of Hadrian’s Wall at Vindolanda in Great Britain.

Katherine Hoppe has a Masters in Anthropology and a Professional degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University. She has been working in both Special Ed and mainstream education for Fairfax County Public Schools for 3 years. She also works as the Youth Programs Coordinator for the Children’s Science Center. She blogs at Digging the Life. Katherine can be reached at