Simple Wienies through Writing

Today we're talking about Mickey's 4th Commandment: Use a Wienie! again. Anyone want to guess what chapter of my book I've been working on?

Disney Imagineers use all sorts of media as wienies such as simple text, two-dimensional art, which makes sense for a company founded on animation, and sculptures .

The easiest of these for us to use in our classrooms is simple text. Disney Imagineers in describing an attraction always focus on the experience the guest will have - not the outcome - which is key. On the attractions page of the Disney website ( you can find these attraction descriptions. One such description reads “Cast off on a guided tour of the world’s most remote rivers - where dangerous beasts and dry wit abound.” Nowhere in Disneyland does one literally travel to the world’s most remote rivers. In fact, one doesn’t ever travel to a river at all (well, the Rivers of Americas I suppose…). There are also, in fact, no “dangerous beasts” on any attraction at the parks unless you count the feral cats that live in the trees between Soarin’ and Grizzly River Run and even those are more adorable than dangerous.

The attraction, of course, is the world famous Jungle Cruise. In the attraction’s narrative you begin your voyage in India, continue on to the Nile in Africa then wrap up in South America’s Amazon - all in just under six minutes. You do travel the world’s most remote rivers! Along the journey guests encounter terrifying Bengal Tigers that can jump up to 20 feet (but luckily the boat is 15 feet away so he’ll just jump right over you), deadly hippos that show their intent to attack by blowing bubbles and wiggling their ears (which they just started doing), and a man-eating python (that is 3.14 meters long). You’ll also see some of nature’s most glorious offerings from walls of pure limestone (though many take it for granite) and the rarely seen backside of water (which, if you try to see at home will cause you to bang your head on the sink.)

Okay, so the dry wit part is there. One out of three on that description isn’t bad!

Ignoring the narrative, what the guest actually does is get led like cattle to their seat on the boat. If they are placed in the middle row they will suffer a lesser experience as their knees have no place to go. The skipper will open with a joke that 80% of the boat won’t hear or pay attention to, 19% will ignore, and will cause me alone to laugh. Guests will see the first animatronic, a bengal tiger that barely moves and clearly is plastic. Then there’s some elephants followed by a scene in the veldt with some more clearly plastic looking animals that barely move (or don’t at all.) Up comes the hippopotamus attack, which the skipper bravely fights off by firing a cap gun into the air, followed by more animatronics. Guests then see the 8th wonder of the world, the backside of water, pass by a few skulls, a snake, and Trader Sam (all again barely moving) before reaching the dock and leaving the attraction.

When explained that way it sounds awful but The Jungle Cruise was Disneyland’s most popular attraction in it’s opening years and remains largely unchanged to this day. It is among my, and many enthusiasts favorite attractions. My bucket list has only one item on it - lead the Jungle Cruise as a skipper. It is narrative and fantasy that matters, not the reality. If the attraction description were written accurately it could read “Guests pack into a slow-moving, track-guided boat with little to no leg room to see a bunch of animatronic animals while they pretend to travel around the world. By the end of the attraction guests will have heard many puns and jokes and have seen the backside of water.” That is somewhat interesting, at least if offers jokes, but generally does not sound like an experience anyone would want to engage in.

Sadly, that is pretty typical of the descriptions our students get of our classroom lessons. Often the only description they get are when we are mandated to write the learning standard and objective on the board.

Here’s an example of a standard I’ve been required to post on my board:

Describe the establishment by Constantine of the new capital in Constantinople and the development of the Byzantine Empire, with an emphasis on the consequences of the development of two distinct European civilizations, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, and their two distinct views on church-state relations.

My greatest hope when I post something like that is that my students see the boring text, quickly look away and never, ever read it. No good could come for a 7th grader trying to decipher that. It would likely turn them off from the subject with great malice. I felt awful just writing it!

Realizing these standards were rather ridiculous for students many schools started adding the objective to the board. This led to such powerful goals as “Students will be able to define key terms about the Roman Empire.” which I used in my class or “I can make inferences and draw conclusions about Greek and Roman artifacts from a primary source powerpoint.” which was found on a website for an unidentified middle school. Many of us found this tedious and rather pointless as well which led to the birth of SWBAT - the acronym for “students will be able to.” I’ve walked in to many classes where I’ve seen printed pages with SWBAT taped to a white board where the rest of the objective could easily be written. Those five words were so pointless that essentially eliminated them. Were the rest of the words in a learning objective any better? Only slightly. They were quite often very low-level, comprehension-based verbs like define, locate or identify. None of which are particularly interesting mental challenges nor are they the least bit fun. I’ve sat through plenty of PDs and trainings and have personally not cared the slightest bit for the opening few minutes when the day’s objectives are laid out. They are boring.

That said, I understand the reasoning behind sharing learning goals with students. As with many things in education the idea was good the implementation was just well… not. It is good for students to have a road map of where a particular lesson is going and a way to measure if they received what they should have from it. However, is that so important that we’re willing to risk their interest in the lesson for it? I’m not. Not when it is so easy to do it in a much more exciting manner.

Look back at the description of the Jungle Cruise that Disney uses. It is active, involved and experiential. It sets up a narrative and provides an opening to a fantasy that makes the experience greater than what it really is. It is done in just a couple lines of text. Any of us can do the same. So, wherever you list your assignment objectives whether it be on a class wall or on your class webpage do it like the imagineers.

When you do you end up with lesson descriptions like “Explore the mountains of South America and discover the largest empire in Latin America” or “Investigate a mysterious document recently discovered in a dusty attic in Mexico. Who might have made it and what secrets does it contain?” These are examples of two assignment descriptions from my Latin America unit. The first activity is a lecture on the origins of the Inca. I could have written “SWBAT list geographic factors that influenced the early settlement of the Inca.” Yawn. Exploring sounds way more interesting than listing and discovery is always fun. The second is a primary-source analysis of an Aztec Codex which could have “SWBAT determine the meaning of an Aztec primary source.” as its learning objective. Yawn. Where are the remote rivers and dangerous animals? Where is the wienie?

This technique is remarkably easy and can be used with any lesson. Just start your description with an exciting verb and add fun and flavor from there. Even assessments can be made to sound interesting. They become a call to arms! “Battle against your biggest foe yet using all the skills and tactics you’ve gathered in the last month exploring Rome. Are you up to the challenge?” In math learning integers becomes “manipulate the forces of good and evil to determine the outcome of exciting conflicts.” In English a poetry unit becomes “Judge a rap battle featuring some of history’s sickest rhymes.” Running laps? No, your students are going to “Challenge yourself to overcome physical challenges to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.”

So, here's your homework assignment. Start with your best lessons and write some exciting descriptions. It's easiest with your best lessons and once you've got some practice you can start moving down the ranks. It's easy and well worth it!

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