Preparing for School Workshops: The Challenge of a Volunteer

My hands are shaking, out of control. If I open my mouth, I know I will squawk like a duck and everyone will laugh. Sweat trickles down my forehead.

I stand frozen in front of the class until the teacher says, “Let’s go, we won’t learn anything here”. The group of over 30 students and parents troop out, shaking their heads. I have failed!

Then I wake up!

Two adults stand facing many children seated on the floor in front of a mammal diorama.

You know you have been engaged after spending a morning with 50 or 60 students in the Mammal Gallery! Image: Neil Valois © Canadian Museum of Nature

It is already September, and in a few short days, I will be facing the first autumn workshop groups of the season as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I have not even started reviewing the handout materials! I was planning to do that during the long summer days. Instead, I went camping. I will have to work hard to catch up.

I can remember some of the nomenclature from last year’s workshops before the holiday: structural adaptations, mammalian mothers breastfeed their offspring, specialized dinosaur teeth…

These concepts are part of the narratives we volunteers weave together in the gallery workshops, in English or French.

Four children stand in a line in front of a mammal diorama.

Children attending a workshop at the museum. The workshops are based on interpretation and complement in-class learning. Image: Neil Valois © Canadian Museum of Nature

The workshops are neither pure teaching nor unstructured exploration. They are “interpretation” designed to complement classroom learning.

How do bison protect their young against marauding wolves of the Western Plains? What do the teeth, round stones and fossilized poop that the dinosaurs left behind signify? Which animals depicted in the Mammal Gallery live in nearby Gatineau Park?

There are about 40 volunteers. In small teams, we conduct the gallery workshops. We set up and dismantle the equipment and props, and make the presentations. The museum staff support the volunteer workshops and are available on short notice to substitute for us, but that does not happen frequently!

We divide the 50-minute presentations. Some of us like doing the introductions; others like dinosaur extinction or caribou migration.

An adult and a child talk together in front of a mammal diorama.

A volunteer and a student discuss the characteristics of a moose. Image: Neil Valois © Canadian Museum of Nature

You know you have been engaged after spending a morning with 50 or 60 students in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery or the Mammal Gallery!

In studying the sheets that the museum hands out at the volunteer training sessions, I will note the changes from the previous year and look through last year’s cheat sheets. Those are the personal notes that you cannot use because you are too busy speaking.

I have seen veteran volunteers of 10+ years studying their sheets just before workshops. You would expect them to have memorized the material by now. However, we all strive to know the subject so well that we can concentrate on the audience. We do not want to be searching our brain for the next thing to say.

Do the faces in front of you show interest or are they staring into space? Have you remembered to introduce the other volunteers on the team? Did you cover all of the features that distinguish mammals?

A man hands a mammal skull to a child amid a cluster of children.

During a workshop, students can touch fossils, animal skulls and other specimens. Image: Neil Valois © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the galleries, the kids hold fossils and examine animal skulls and muskox skins. The more questions the better. In the Habitats Under Investigation workshop, microphone in hand, the students read their imaginative stories to classmates.

In the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery, the kids (and the parents too, if they want) can slither like reptiles and walk like dinosaurs. In the Mammal Gallery, they lie on their stomach and try to figure out from the track mats which animals were there and what they were doing.

The volunteers are there to make nature and the museum’s materials relevant to the kids. We try to light up the subjects for them with enthusiasm and facts. We speak of finding Canadian dinosaur fossils in the badlands of Alberta and of the animals whose habitat is Canada’s wondrous Far North.

A woman shows something in a picture frame to several children.

Guided by a volunteer, students examine a lichen specimen up close. Image: Neil Valois © Canadian Museum of Nature

Why do we volunteer at the Canadian Museum of Nature every year, even though it means study and occasional performance anxiety?

I do it because it lets me connect with groups of enthusiastic kids; some are new Canadians and all are the faces of Canada’s future. Participating also allows me to step out of the serious authoritative role I had at work for so many years. I can be someone a bit different now, lively and interested.

Sometimes we are amazed at the kids’ knowledge. One first-grader told me that “viviparous” means an animal that gives birth to live young. Another named many of the prehistoric geological periods.

Now, I had better get back to the information that I have to know for the workshops…

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