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Disney as Text: The Power of Story

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

The most impactful learning experiences are those that use powerful stories to motivate and inspire students toward taking action that can make a difference in the lives of not only themselves, but others as well. What stories are you telling?

This is Part 3 in an ongoing series of articles exploring lessons that can be learned from studying the space design and experiences that occur at Disney theme parks.

In our last installment, we discussed the importance that Imagineers place on creating exciting and meaningful experiences for their guests, and how those same principles can be used in classrooms and schools as well. Walt Disney once noted that, “Our guests should feel better because of their experiences in a Disney theme park.” Why, then, should the same not be said of our schools? What are students experiencing in your classroom?

Noted teacher and child psychologist Haim Ginott once famously remarked, “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.” While we are definitely the stewards of classroom or school-wide experiences, what's really important is stewarding a healthy and meaningful relationship with those we teach.

At Disney parks, the Imagineers utilize the latest and greatest technology to help create a magical experience. Star Wars Galaxy's Edge is a terrific example of this, with its cutting edge attractions, Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. But at the end of the day, it’s the people, the cast members, that make the magic real, through their kindness, their service and their willingness to always go the extra mile.

Like Imagineers, we can create the most elaborate experience for our students, but if it doesn’t connect with their heart, then, in the long run, what good is it? I once had a very wise professor tell me that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” How are you seeking to make those connections? How are you pouring into building those relationships?

One very powerful way in which we can connect our students with experiences is through engaging them with stories.

The Power of Story

As noted in our last article, the primary goal of an Imagineer is to create experiences, “…experiences that stimulate all five senses and completely immerse our guests into the stories they love with the characters that they love.” The experiences they create are a byproduct of what happens as the stories are told. Story is the heart of the experience. That's why they are the most important element of every attraction.

Imagineers understand that we’re wired for stories. Stories engage us, they teach us, and they challenge us to action. Disneyland was created as a way to bring Walt’s stories to life, to move them from the silver screen and into our living, breathing world. Each ride, or attraction, has its own story and the spaces surrounding that ride are designed to support the story through engaging all of your senses.

Legendary Imagineer John Hench used to say that, “All thinking is conceptual and begins with seeing, hearing, touching and sense perception.” If this is the case, then our thoughts can be shaped through engaging the senses. Walk through any attraction at a Disney park and you’ll see what I mean.

For example, have you ever experienced the Haunted Mansion? That ride freaked me out as a kid. The level of detail is amazing! You pass these tombstones as you wait in line (which, to me as a kid was a clear message that there were dead people up ahead) and when you get inside, it feels cold damp; it smells musty, there are cobwebs everywhere and the attendants definitely don’t smile. Then, you hear it...that creepy organ music. Well, you see what I mean. Space such as these are designed in such a way that every element contributes to the telling of the story. Color, music, even smells are used to create a feeling that you’ve been transported from the everyday world to a special place. If you’ve baked cookies before showing a house that you’re trying to sell, you definitely understand what we’re talking about.

The more I studied the level of design that goes into every aspect of creating immersive experiences that Disney parks are famous for, I realized that the Imagineering process gave language to what I, as a veteran classroom teacher, knew to intuitively work. Everything in and related to the school, or any learning space, is a design element that can be carefully crafted to support the teaching and learning that occurs within that space: furniture, lighting, colors, even sound. Each element should be crafted to set the tone, enhance the mood, and impart a story.

For instance, many years as a classroom teacher, I intentionally designed my room to be a safe-haven for learning, not only about history, but also about life. The student artwork, the movie posters, the toys, the music we listened to each day, the apple cinnamon air freshener used for covering the musty smell of a portable classroom, all worked together to create the feeling that this was a special place.

I also understood the power of stories and the importance of making learning relevant to the lives of my students. So, to engage them in a rather unique way, I taught history and mythology through using Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The connections that both franchises have to these subjects are numerous: Ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, the American West, and of course, the stages of The Hero’s Journey. My students absolutely loved it. Those lessons demonstrated that powerful stories, told well, can engage the senses and elicit emotional responses that results in learning that lasts. (To learn more about these lessons and resources, visit Star Wars in the Classroom and Adventures in Learning with Indiana Jones)

Teaching with stories like Star Wars is fun, exciting, and produces results; yet the most impactful learning experiences are those that use powerful stories to motivate and inspire students toward taking action that can make a change in the lives of not only themselves, but others as well.

The Pallet House Project

And that’s exactly what we did at a school where I served as principal when I led a two-week crash course in human-centered design. Inspired by the work of Stanford University’s d.School as well as Auburn University’s Rural Studio, I challenged the students to engage with the real-world problem of homelessness in our community and develop solutions that could help improve their lives. As part of the course that we called SFCSxDesign, students were given a series of design challenges that helped them grow in their ability to interview, empathize, prototype, iterate, and create authentic solutions for a multitude of users.

In order to facilitate this work, we invited to our school several individuals who were currently or had once been impacted by homelessness as well as those who provide services to assist them. Listening to their stories and having a chance to ask questions was a powerful experience that made a tremendous impact on our students and greatly assisted them as they worked toward the culmination of the project: the construction of a 250 sq. ft. house build from shipping pallets that was designed to serve as a model for transitional housing for the homeless. To learn more about the impact of this incredible program, as well as the specifics as to how we did it, check out Empowering Students with Design Thinking, the article that I originally wrote for Edutopia that details the experience.

As we neared completion of the pallet house, one of my students, a 7th grader named Luca, looked at me as we were working on a wall and said, "Never in my life did I think that I'd be building a house, Mr. Riddle, especially one that can be used to help the homeless. And we're just kids! This is amazing!" Such is the power of meaningful stories, especially when they are told within the context of a larger, immersive experience.

While the work our students were undertaking dealt with serious, complicated, real-world issues and not the light-hearted fare served up at most theme parks, the fundamental principles used by Imagineers to engage the senses and emotions of their guests were on full display in our project.

So, what stories are you telling? What experiences are you creating to support them? More importantly, how are you using both to intentionally motivate learning and promote change, within your students, your school and your community? If you're not tapping into the power of story, there's no better time than the present to begin.

In our next installment of Disney as Text, we’ll continue our exploration of the importance of stories and examine the ways in which the place or space in which they are told can greatly impact their effectiveness.


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