On Churro Carts

I've started working on my second book. 

So, let's talk about Churro Carts. More specifically, let's talk about this Churro Cart:

This cart sits in the Grizzly Peak area of Disney California Adventure, near the entrance to the Redwood Trail play area. The cart has been in that location for years (and was once home to the best Disney churro I've ever had, the chocolate peppermint churro.) It was redesigned in 2024. It now looks like a classic pop-up camper trailer complete with the stereotypical branding on the side. Of course, the brand is "Cinnamon" because this a churro stand. The license plate reads "CHU RRO" and the windows have cardboard curtains that look like real fabric from a distance. In fact, from distance, you recognize this as a camper long before you realize it is a churro stand.

Here's what it used to look like (courtesy of Disneyland News Today):

This one, interestingly, is clearly a churro cart from far away. There isn't much design to it though once you get close. It kind of has a picnic motif... I guess? I'm not really sure what the pattern and color scheme were going for. 

So, who cares and what does this have to do with you writing a new book?

12 years ago I was contacted by my local chapter of the California Council for the Social Studies. They had found me through my website, which was then just a shell of what it is now, and asked if I'd be interested in keynote speaking at their social studies conference. They said they loved what I was doing with student engagement and thought it would be an excellent message to share with other teachers. Engagement has always been my focus in the classroom, and, for much of my career, that focus has been shared with most others in education.

An engaged mind is a learning mind after all!

But, I've seen that change in the last few years, especially here in California. Since our students have returned from their lengthy COVID lockout, our focus has greatly shifted from engagement for all to targets groups. Why is group A not coming to school? Let's focus on that. Why is group B struggling to read? Let's focus on that. 

Engagement? Pssh, that's sooo 2016. 

Wrong. The reason group A isn't coming to school and the reason group B is struggling to read is because they are wildly disengaged from their learning. If we're honest, our virtual instruction during COVID was not particularly engaging. I worked very hard to make mine so and had very limited success at best. It was just me talking to a screen with little interaction. I'm not blaming teachers, this was the reality.

But, this lack of engaging learning truly broke many of our students and yet, that is not the conversation we're having. 

So, who cares and what does this have to do with you writing a new book?

Simple, I want to return our focus to engaging all of our students and nobody does that better than Disney. 

Disneyland exists to immerse guests in story-driven worlds. Grizzly Peak is a land that represents the national parks of California like Yosemite and Sequoia National Forest. The centerpiece of the land is a massive stone mountain carved into the shape of a grizzly bear. Huge pine trees line the roughly paved pathways.  Every detail adds to the story of a visit to a national park.

Except that old churro cart. It was just kind of there. 

While you would almost certainly not find a diamond-patterned churro cart in the middle of Yosemite, you would definitely find some pop-up tent trailers. Hence, the redesign. The new cart is now part of the story of the land. Obviously, it is still a churro cart. Obviously, you will still see the very modern cash register. It doesn't have to be perfect - it just has to better fit the story. Every layer you add contributes to the immersion and ultimately the engagement in the experience.

My plan is that my new book will be about creating story-driven experiences in the classroom. The first objection most teachers will have is that it just isn't possible for them. I admit, we don't have the budgets, time or expertise to create full sized mountains for our lessons. I don't have room to plant trees along the paths in my room. Shoot, there's barely room for the paths themselves! I can't make a fully immersive story-driven world like the Disney Imagineers can.

But I can redesign my churro carts!

Here's another example of immersive story-telling at work. These are pictures of the queue line for Ariel's Undersea Adventure.

You can see that the usually straight wrought-iron fencing has been bent into a wavy pattern and injected with some circular "bubbles" in various spots. The plants they've chosen to for the area look like coral or seaweed. Instead of typical garden soil, they've filled the gardens with rougher sand that looks like it would be at home on any beach. Further, the pathway is sprinkled with sea shells embedded in the concrete. There's no question what the story you are about to experience is all about. 

These things aren't key to the experience, they just add to it. Every little bit of immersion adds further to engagement. Some people may not notice it, but as Walt Disney once explained to famed imagineer John Hench, they will feel it. We can take this lesson directly to our classrooms. We can create narrative-based, experiential lessons and then decorate our rooms to help immerse our students. And, of course, we can decorate our churro carts.

My churro cart might be the bellwork question for the activity, the font I use on the worksheet or the song I have playing when students enter class. It could be the color of LED lights I turn on or the decorations I put up on the walls. It could be my desks or the image I project on the classroom screen. There are tons of "churro carts" in our lessons that we often don't even think about. But, just like in Disneyland, they all contribute to the immersion. It's one thing to tell your students to imagine they are in a certain setting or playing a certain role, but if you can add those thematic story elements to the physical space they inhabit, it will help them get into that mindset and stay in it.

And the best part is that your efforts don't have to happen all at once. That original cart sat there for years before some I=imagineer picked up the assignment to redesign it and convinced their bosses that it was worth spending the money to do. Your story-driven lessons might start small with just a short narrative hook. Then maybe you add a soundtrack. Then, the next year, you add some wall decorations. Eventually, your lesson will help take students to another world. A world where they are the hero, where they have a key role to play. 

And, most importantly, to a world where they are engaged in their learning because they are experiencing the lesson not just passively seeing it happen in front of them.

You can expect to hear a lot more about creating story-driven experiences from me over the next year as I work on the new book. (You sadly will not hear it from me at the big state education conferences as both rejected me this year because engagement just isn't on the menu apparently.) It is still a long way off, but it is coming together much more quickly than the first and, hopefully, won't be disrupted by a global pandemic in the middle of the publishing process!