docent blogpost

Left to right: Students on the Archaeology of the Near East school tour; thank-you notes written to Byrna by students after their visit to the Skirball.

Some of the most exciting happenings at the Skirball take place in the mornings before it even opens to the public. Nearly every Tuesday through Friday during the academic year, at least one school tour is taking place. The Skirball has an entire curriculum of tours for every grade level, all geared to California State Standards. The most popular of the school tours is the sixth-grade Archaeology of the Near East tour, which focuses on the shared needs of peoples, past and present. In sixth grade, students study ancient civilizations, so a visit to the Skirball’s simulated dig ties in nicely.

The tours are run by docents, and I’m privileged to be one of them. Becoming a docent isn’t easy. It’s like finding a job: you have to apply and you have to make it through an interview. Why do you want to be a docent? What qualifications do you have? Docents work in teams. What would you do if a docent wanted to do something differently than you? What would you do if a kid throws up?!

I first applied to be a docent a couple of years ago, but my timing was off. I filed the idea away and did other things. To my surprise, last May I received a phone call: A new class of Skirball docents was starting up, to be trained specifically to lead the archaeology tour. Was I still interested?

Training began this past July. A week here, a week there. Three days a week each time. It’s a bit overwhelming at first. Just the terminology was a challenge: ostraconstratigraphybalk (and no, not the baseball kind). There was so much to learn!

Nonetheless, what I Iove most about the rigorous training is that it never ends. The Skirball staff is big on keeping its docents educated and up to speed. We’ve heard lectures by Israeli archaeologists on new trends and discoveries in archaeology, and by educators on best practices in team teaching. We’ve engaged with activists, too, on women’s issues relating to the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. We’re always learning.

I’ve also been impressed by how welcoming the other docents have been. Each of us “baby” docents has been mentored by a more experienced docent. These veterans have generously shared their expertise and passed along their practice-proven techniques. After spending time shadowing them, we in the class of 2011 finally got ready to tour. Our mentors encouraged us, cheered us on, and, after we passed our evaluations, welcomed us warmly as part of the docent team.

In the end, the best part is working with the kids, who come from across Los Angeles. It’s fulfilling to make a connection with them and facilitate their learning. If they dig up the spear point in the sand, some students imagine themselves as soldiers attacking the “city” in which the dig is set. Others love figuring out what all those weirdly shaped jugs are in the first place. Still others are fascinated when they see the ancient mortar and pestle that looks just like ones used today to grind corn for tortillas. It’s nice when they make that connection between cultures. Every group of kids is different, and that makes every tour new and exciting for us docents.

After facilitating a few tours, I began receiving my first thank-you notes from students. In many of them, students share what they liked best and talk about wanting to come back to the Skirball. One student wrote that she wanted me to meet her parents. To that sixth grader, I say, You bring your parents to the Skirball, and I will be there to meet them. I’ll even take them on a dig.

—Bryna Fischer