Thinking About Theme

posted May 19, 2016, 4:00 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated May 19, 2016, 4:10 PM ]
Our social studies team has been rewriting our scope and sequence all year long to align with the new California framework and to attempt to integrate the C3 to at least some degree. This is our first full revamp since I started 13 years ago. We've put together an outline that we are very happy with and now the real work begins.

Whenever one builds a new framework like this he is left asking where his old stuff fits in. Some of the labs and lessons I've designed in the past just don't seem to apply particularly well any longer. While we are teaching the same cultures we are doing so with, in some cases at least, a very different focus. This means that things like my Culture Shocks don't have nearly as much of a place as they once did.

So, I've been considering what to keep and what to toss. It hasn't been fun.

Then, as I often do, I thought about Disneyland.

When California Adventure opened some years ago it was a pretty big deal. I was a season pass holder at the time and the promise of a whole new park was quite exciting. California Adventure is, however, an example of everything that can go wrong when one lets theme dictate everything. 

No one can deny that the park had a theme and stuck to it. It was designed to allow tourists to experience all of California in a single day. It had lands based on the Redwood Forests, Hollywood, Napa Wine Country, and the beach boardwalks. It had thrilling attractions like a bunch of agricultural equipment, a sourdough bakery, and a 10 minute-ish long documentary on the history of California. Even the food areas were California themed with a great area based on the San Francisco wharf and a snack station named San Andreas Shakes. Everything was California and almost nothing was Disney. 

And it was really, really boring.

There were constant complaints that there just wasn't anything to do there. My personal routine whenever I visited was:

1) get a Fast Past for Soarin' over California and eat a huge cinnamon role from the bakery shaped liked a modern passenger train
2) Play Who Wants to be a Millionaire Play It!
3) Watch the improv troupe D.U.H.
4) Watch D.U.H. again.
5) Eat at Award Weiners
6) Play Millionaire again.
7) Use Fast Past for Soarin'.
8) Cross back over to Disneyland proper for the next 4 hours since Adventure closed at like 6 PM because, once again, there was nothing to do.

Additionally, the park wasn't particularly kid-friendly. The best example of this was the Hollywood Limo Ride in the Hollywood Backlot area. This was a traditional dark ride where you sat in a car and went through a tunnel experiencing various scenes. It has tons of weird jokes about celebrities and strange caricatures of them in place of the usual Disney characters. It was quite surreal. 

It was also closed almost all the time. I think I only ever went on it twice. I don't know if it was constantly closed because it broke down or because celebrity lawyers were complaining. The ride was certainly interesting but kids would get no enjoyment out of it despite it's appearance. It was a trick - though I imagine an unintentional one.

Since that first year Adventure has undergone not one but TWO billion + dollar renovation projects. (The original Disneyland cost $17 million in 1955 for reference.) The first wave overhauled much of the park. Disney characters were added to many of the locations. A theater opened showing first the Lion King musical and then Aladdin. The agricultural area became A Bug's Land. The Hollywood Limo ride disappeared from memory and is now a Monster's Inc. ride that has nothing to do with Hollywood whatsoever. The Buzz Lightyear ride opened up on the Boardwalk and a Little Mermaid dark ride opened up in the middle of nowhere.  The second wave added the incredibly popular Cars Land to the park.

As a result, Adventure today bears little resemblance to the park that opened in 2001. It is completely Disney and much truer to Walt's original vision of a place where families could play and all have a good time. Still, it has kept it's distinct feel. It isn't a mini-Disneyland. It is a California-themed park that has all the touches of Disney magic that make us willing to pay $100 a day just to experience it. 

I don't want to create a 2,001 California Adventure in my classroom. While I do want to stay true to our new framework I do not want to lose the little bits of magic that make my class what it is. I've decided that when an activity doesn't fit with the new structure, I'll do it anyway. Sure, I may have a Monster's Inc. ride in my Hollywood Backlot or a Little Mermaid ride in the middle of nowhere, but it will be engaging. As we move forward in this new era of social studies we can't forget what made us love it ourselves. It wasn't doing constant DBQs and finding evidence to support claims. It was getting down in the weeds and experiencing the excitement of the stories from the past. Lets make sure we don't lose that.

The truth is, 2,001 California Adventure was actually pretty cool. For 21-year old me it was a great hang out. It was relaxed and I secretly loved the 10 minute history documentary. I could have watched (and did) D.U.H. perform 4 or 5 times in a row and laughed every single time. I was absolutely addicted to the Who Wants to be a Millionaire game (I made it to the hot seat 4 times with my best performance getting me to the 250,000 point question.) It had great things to offer any guests - even little ones - it was just not clearly apparent. DBQs are pretty cool too. They just aren't cool all the time. Our classes can, and I think should, be based heavily on document analysis and citing evidence. We just shouldn't drop the fun along the way. I recommend really thinking hard about your themes going forward and when it is appropriate to let them go.

Lastly, as I said, we are very proud of the outline we have put together. I feel like we managed to take the ridiculous new framework (which I really hate by the way) and make it into a coherent series of stories that will appeal to students. We've still got some work to do on it but I'll share it within the next couple weeks assuming all goes to plan.
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