I’ve recently returned from my 3-day professional development conference at Disneyland - Courageous Creativity. I pay for this conference myself every year, because it is just that good. This year, I didn’t get quite as many mind-blowing new ideas (happens when you’ve done something four times), but I still came away with lots of great nuggets. The conference is focused on arts in education, but there are always universal ideas that make it through. Here’s my report!
Keynote Speaker: Steven Anderson, Director - Meet the Robinsons, Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Steven had great stories to tell about a movie I love - Meet the Robinsons. He told his story of how he reached the level of animation director. Like with nearly all the speakers I’ve heard at this conference, it wasn’t his first goal. He had lots of little jobs along the way before becoming a director.
He went on to talk about the skills that made him a successful artist, and those that can do the same for others; confidence & collaboration. For confidence, he said you have to be willing to put yourself out there. Drawing pictures for yourself that no one sees is a hobby. It isn’t being an artist. That’s a nugget that I think (with perhaps some massaging of the wording) may help our often introverted artists. I’m thinking of the kid with the sketch book who is always drawing, but never sharing. We need to encourage confidence in those kids!
Then he spoke on collaboration, which became an ongoing theme throughout the conference. Art isn’t usually thought of as collaborative. He explained collaboration as being able to accept and give feedback. He said the best collaborators are both diplomatic and helpful. Yes, you want to be kind, but what good is that if you are so kind that you are unwilling to speak the truth? An artist can’t be dogmatic that their vision is the right one. I think this is good advice for any student. As he said, we should teach our students to, “take pleasure in the process. The end product is never what you first envisioned; enjoy the ride!”
He then gave some examples of collaboration in his career. He noted that improv is a good example of the creative process. First, you listen to the suggestion, then build on the suggestion,then return to the suggestion. It’s the power of “yes, and…” It’s not about shooting down the ideas of others. It’s about taking those ideas and building on them. I can say that all of my best creative endeavors have come from bouncing ideas off of colleagues. Even when the work is “mine” and their ideas don’t make it in, I’m often left with the new ideas that build off of their ideas. One of my main struggles the last 3 years has come from lack of collaboration. First, due to the COVID lockdowns and for the last 2 years from a department that has no interest in collaborative creation. It’s tough to keep creating in such an environment.
I want my “yes, and…” colleagues back!
Speaking of, Steven then talked us through a scene in Winnie the Pooh that came about from this “yes, and…” style of collaboration. While storyboarding, he had an idea about Pooh dressed in an old-style swimming suit colored like a bee. In this scene, Pooh had gone a long time without honey and was beginning to hallucinate as a result. That was all Steven had. The idea passed through numerous artists who added their own unique ideas, all building off that idea of swimming in honey. The result? Quite a scene!
This segued into a brief talk about leadership. Steven pointed out that as the director, he could have done pretty much whatever he wanted with this scene. He didn’t have to take the input of those working under him. Steven gave us this quote from Simon Sinek, “Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.” Put that on a T-shirt. I’ve sure worked for a fair amount of people at this point who outrank me who have not shown leadership. It has bugged me for well over a decade at this point. Ugh.
We closed with a Q & A where I asked what it was like to work on the only Disney film built around a Walt Disney quote. Meet the Robinsons ends with, “Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Steve had explained how the theme of “keep moving forward” was the driving force of the film. It turns out, it wasn’t based on the quote. He discovered the quote about 2/3rds of the way through the project and knew it had to be included somehow. Serendipitous!
Speaker: Jennifer Something, Live Entertainment Executive at Disneyland Resort
Jennifer continued on the theme of “yes, and…” She mentioned a scene in Soul (which I’ve seen probably half a dozen times) where the musicians do this very thing. I’ll need to clip that to share with students. She then talked about designing World of Color at Disney California Adventure. They knew they wanted a fountain show. As they brainstormed, different Imagineers kept “yes, and…”ing, adding lights, then lasers, and heck, why not animation projected on water? Yes, and!
She also discussed what Disney wants in an employee. She said she looks for passion. In her words that means, “Show up, raise your hand!” As a teacher, let me just say, yes. That’s what I want from my students. Show up, raise your hand! Be part of the show!
I asked her about the difficulties with new, young hires at Disney. She mentioned recently reading about “funemployment.” I’ve played a card game with the name, but hadn’t heard it in any other context. It is the idea that Gen Z isn’t bothered by unemployment. They see it as “free time” to do something fun. That is something she, and Disney in general, has had to come to terms with. They have had to make significant adjustments for their new hires. If a company as institutionally entrenched as Disney is dealing with lack of workplace passion and dedication, no wonder we are seeing it so painfully in the classroom. Yikes.
AI and the Arts
My next session was a teacher-led (read: not Disney) discussion on AI and the arts. It was just over a month ago that I apologized to my seniors on behalf of my previous students whom I had told for years that as long as they sought out a career built on creating their jobs would be secure. Given recent AI advancements, I just can’t make that statement any longer. I was intrigued at the opportunity to talk this over with art teachers.
They opened the session by explaining that this wouldn’t be about pro/con but about enhancements/disturbances. It is pointless to look at it from a pro/con lens. AI is here. It isn’t going away. Instead, we need to look at how it enhances some things and disturbs others. Our discussions surely led to far more disturbances, but the enhancements (like allowing untalented artists like me create beautiful artwork) does offer some excitement.
What I took away most, however, was that we, as a profession, are already waaaay behind on AI. Nearly a 1/3rd of the educators in the session weren’t familiar with ChatGPT and only about 10% had ever used it. Far fewer were aware of Midjourney, Lightroom or Leonardo. Honestly, if you aren’t looking into this stuff, you need to. It is already causing significant disruptions in all aspects of teaching, and it isn’t going away.
World of Color Tech Tour
For my ticketed event of the conference I chose a backstage tour of World of Color. I chose wisely. It was amazing. Any time I get to go “behind the curtain” at Disneyland is a gift. World of Color operates from a large warehouse behind Pixar Pier in DCA. The warehouse isn’t for WoC though. It’s for storing parade floats. WoC is run from a small office inside the warehouse. The room is about 8 x 12 and looks like a NASA terminal. There are multiple screens, servers and workstations. I sat at one. I felt like a king. It took all of my willpower not to push any buttons. I’m proud to say, I pulled it off.
I didn’t learn much about education here, except that college degrees don’t matter much at Disney. None of the operators, nor the team lead, had degrees. Interestingly though, many were now working on them. Experience matters much more to the company.
Speaker: Marvel Exec in Charge of Licensing and Experiences, Brian Crosby
Brian told his story of reaching his incredible position of basically getting to play with toys all day. He offered four steps that I will surely be sharing with my students.
WORK: “I knew I couldn’t be the best artist, but I could control how hard I worked.
SACRIFICE: Start small. “Nobody was gonna knock on my door with my dream job.” What he meant here was that young people have to be willing to take entry level jobs and work their way up. He noted that few seem to be these days.
RECOGNIZE OPPORTUNITY: Not only did Brian outwork his colleagues, but he out-opportunitied them. When an offer came up to work on a project, even if it was in Shanghai, he took it. So many young people today wait to be told what to do and when to do it. Those who see an opportunity and actively pursue it on their own are those who will move ahead.
ADAPT: Brian never expected to be a licensing executive. He was an artist. He learned how to do many other things and kept advancing as a result.
He then talked about some of his Marvel projects and their challenges. He spoke first about the rides. Marvel-themed attractions had to make you the hero, the exact opposite of comics/movies where you passively read about the actions of the heroes. My thoughts immediately went to the classroom. If it works for rides, why not lessons? I’ve used narrative-based lessons for a long time now where I place students in a role. I never really considered that I was designing these lessons with students as the protagonist, but that’s absolutely what I was doing. Now, with Brian’s example in mind, I’ll do it much more intentionally and effectively.
And then, speaking of a-ha moments for teaching, Brian told us about “Arena of Heroes.” The NBA came to Marvel and asked them for help in holding the attention of young audience members. Marvel created an augmented reality system where essentially Marvel animation was layered on top of a live NBA game.
It was weird, but cool. You can see a clip of it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRAryd9s4v0 .
Marvel characters and animation have little do with a game of basketball. Who cares? The goal was to increase engagement with the audience. If unrelated characters could do that, why not? (If you’ve never seen Nickelodeon coverage of the Super Bowl, it is very similar.)
What does this have to do with education?
When we inject known characters, music, entertainment, comedy or pop culture into our lessons, they may not add to the learning, but they can improve engagement. I’ve long argued that we teachers should, in fact, be entertainers - no matter how many times I hear teachers say we aren’t. So, stick Doc McStuffins in a lesson on economic health or build an election simulation around superheroes. Engagement is the goal.
Brian discussed how story can make any experience more engaging. He pointed out that story is not just linear. In a ride, for example, it is the whole experience. It is the sights, sounds, smells, etc. I’ve been talking a lot for the last few years about using story to organize our lessons. Glad to know Brian would agree!
Brian ended his talk with this quote from Marty Sklar. “We [imagineers] love to think outside the box, but first we need to know what the box is.” Our box is always changing in education, but we have a pretty good idea of it. Let’s get outside of it.
I then asked him when we’d see Marvel characters in our textbooks like we did in the NBA. We need help with engagement. He said he’d love to see it. So, if you’re a textbook publisher, give him a call. Or, better yet, call me and I’ll call him!
We started the day with a ride on Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway before the park opened. I have nothing profound to say about this. I’m mostly just bragging. If you haven’t ridden it, I do recommend it. The ride is fairly straightforward, but the line and preshow are among the best Disney has ever done. As someone who loves Disney history, the line is a true treat as it takes you through Mickey’s history in animation and beyond.
The conference closed with the annual Imagineering panel. Six Imagineers told us their stories of how they go to their positions. Though all were unique, they all shared thing in common - a strong work ethic. Many also mentioned at least one teacher who inspired them to aim high and think bigger than they would have otherwise. I worry for our students coming out of school right now. I just am not seeing that same drive. I try to give them a vision and they return straight to the tiny window in their pockets. I don’t blame them. I blame us. We let them get away with doing very little for far too long. We're the ones who allow them to carry around an addictive device in their pockets. That’s not grace. That’s enabling. I'm over it.
A couple closing thoughts. First, once again, the food provided during the conference was top notch. I can safely say I was never hungry!
Lastly, I almost didn’t go this year. It isn’t cheap. With the hotel, my 3 day trip was well over $1,000. I’ve always been very frugal and having just gone on a Disney cruise in November, I was having trouble justifying the cost. I went back and forth before deciding to sign up. And, I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say as soon as I hit “submit” I felt a powerful sense of regret.
That was back in April. I wish I could go back and tell April me that May would be one of the most frustrating months of your career and you will need all the joy and inspiration you can get so you can have enough in you to go back to work in late July.
There was no need to regret, no need to consider the money. I would have paid twice the amount to get that sense of joy and hope the conference gave me this year. It was incredible, yet again. I’m already looking forward to agonizing over the cost next April!