One Little Spark

posted Feb 15, 2016, 6:56 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Jun 9, 2016, 11:23 AM ]
Of late I've been reading a bunch about Disney Imagineering. My favorite book so far is One Little Spark by 
Disney legend Martin Sklar. It is easy to read, inspirational and has a ton to teach us about how to turn out classroom into an experience. While that is absolutely not the focus of the book (Martin once explains Walt's philosophy that it is okay to educate people a little bit as long as you are entertaining them) there are certainly lessons we can take away.

I could pull a thousand random quotes but the one that stuck out most to me is:

John grew more and more irritated as the argument raged on about what would be "good enough." ...The reason key attractions like the Adventureland Jungle Cruise are still entertaining guests is that no one settled for "good enough" in the design phase.

Teachers often ask me how long I spend putting together my lessons and presentations. I've defaulted to telling them "a very long time." That question, honestly, is just someone seeking an excuse not to do it. I'm not going to lie and say that never settling for "good enough" is easy - it isn't. I'm not going to lie and say I never settle for "good enough" either - I do. Sometimes the school bell rings and you have 35 kids ready for you to teach them something. You can't tell them to put their heads down and nap since your lesson isn't quite "good enough" yet. You can, however, give yourself a mindset that you are always striving to make it better. 

If you're stuck on how to do that, maybe Mickey's 10 Commandments can help. These are explained in greater depth in the book but I'll do so from a teacher's perspective.

1. Know your audience

I, very admittedly, don't know my audience's current interests as well as I did 10 years ago. I can't handle the constant nonsense that is modern pop music. I rarely watch TV or movies. I think the only thing stupider than Instagram is Vine.

However, I do know what 7th graders are capable of learning. I know what topics in history will spark them to have discussions and put forth their best effort. I know which teaching strategies work well and those that don't (::cough:: jigsaw) for most learners. I know that my class is often not in their top 10 list of most important things to happen in a given day. Teach to the kids in your room - not to some ideal group of kids you've imagined, or worse, to yourself.

2. Wear your guests shoes

Figuratively we ask ourselves "Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?" Disney requires it of their Imagineers. They must spend time in the park waiting in lines, going on rides, using the restrooms and experiencing all their guests do. Do you complete your own lessons to get down in the weeds? Not interested in doing a worksheet? Guess what... your students probably aren't either. 

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas

This includes the idea of telling good stories. Disney attractions guide you logically from point A where you enter the line to point B when you leave the ride (or gift shop that the ride dumps you into at the end.) Do you lecture or do you present? Do you give information or tell stories? A collection of information is trivia. It isn't organized and it isn't history. 

4. Create a "weenie"

A "weenie" is a guiding object that leads people where you want them to go. The Matterhorn at Disneyland is the ultimate weenie drawing you in from the local freeway. Sleeping Beauty's castle welcoming you to Fantasyland is another great example. What tentpole events and objects are driving your students where you want them to go?

5. Communicate with visual literacy

Shapes, art and color often tell more of a good story than any words do. If you are going to use Powerpoint, please learn to use it well. 

6. Avoid overload

This one is the hardest for me to follow. We are expected to teach so many things in 7th grade World History (and with even more to soon be added thanks to the awful new California Social Studies framework) so it is tempting to just add in one more fact, one more story each day. When we (I) do so we're not actually gaining anything other than the ability to say "but I taught that!" when we see their test scores. We do it for us, not for them. That's wrong.

7. Tell one story at a time

This is another reason why traditional lecture is just a bad idea. They become info dumps and student's cross their information all the time. I just, for example, taught the explorers and Mayans in back to back units. My students saw it as one story and kept trying to tell me that Columbus met the Mayans. That's not their fault, it is mine for telling two stories at once.  Good thing we have Spring Break between China and Japan...

8. Avoid contradiction

Do we try to teach our kids a growth mindset and then not give them opportunities to retake tests? Do we work hard to make our class unique to our personality and then fall into the trap of just doing things because other teachers do them? Who are you? What is your classroom? Answer those questions and make sure everything supports the answers.

9. For every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of fun

We are competing with a pretty amazing world. I may think Vine is the worst thing to ever happen in the history of mankind (Teachers pay teachers is a close second) but those 6-second videos are playing on an endless loop in the heads of your students. Your fact about the Mayan math system using the number zero just can't compete. We have to draw kids into our world if they are going to learn. Providing fun is the best way to do that.

10. Keep it up

This is about physical environment and, admittedly, another of my weak points. On the first day of school my classroom is meticulously prepared. Everything is clean and in the exact space and orientation I want it. By like day three it is a wreck. Stuff is stacked, the floor is a mess and I've probably already lost at least three things. I know that isn't good for my kids. I need to work on it.

This also applies to our technology. While often out of our hands there is nothing worse for an audience than a technology fail. Think of the times when you've sat in on a workshop and the Powerpoint that already looks boring crashes. It pulls you out of the moment completely. We can't avoid technology failing from time to time but we can test and test and test the parts we do control. Do all your animations work properly? Are your transitions in place? Is the text a readable size? All those things are in our hands.


If these ideas sound interesting (and even if they don't) I recommend checking out the book. It gives great insight into the best experience designing organization in the world and gave me plenty of ideas on where to take my classroom from here.

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