10 Things I Learned This Summer at Disneyland (and one at Universal Studios)

With people returning to school soon (tomorrow for me!), I guess it is finally time to write up what I learned this Summer at my incredible Disney conference. I need all the inspiration I can get so, here's 10 things I learned at Disneyland this summer, and 1 I learned at Universal Studios!

  1. "The opposite of courage is lowered expectations." David Miller, Director of Live Entertainment at Disney

Right out of the gate at the opening keynote I was slammed by this quote. I struggled mightily last year with the incredibly low expectations on our students. The pressure to pass seniors who could barely read a newspaper article with a 7th grade reading level really beat me down by the end of the year. I have always held my students to high expectations (far higher than those of my district in general) and have been rewarded by them with incredible performance. I didn't have it in me to keep up the fight last year. While I still believe my expectations were higher than most, they weren't high enough for me. I left in May feeling defeated and I still feel it today. It's why I'm not eager to go back tomorrow.

Disney makes (or historically has made at least... we'll leave any Chapek talk out of this blog for now.) incredible experiences because the Imagineers are courageous. They try new things and don't accept mediocrity. I want to be brave this year.

  1. Admitting Ignorance is hard, but necessary. David Miller

David told us the story of creating the Rivers of Light show at Animal Kingdom. He explained that it took over a year to solve basic problems because different teams were blaming one another. He had to get each group to admit (and accept!) what they didn't know. These are highly trained, highly skilled creators, so the pressure to know everything is high. This year, I want my students to be willing to admit what that there are things they don't know, and that is okay! Last year was so hard for them socially and I hope this year is an improvement.

  1. There are two reasons you choose to work with someone: the work they do or the person they are. Garrett Lambert, Trailer Producer, Universal Pictures

A simple, but powerful message to teach our students trying to re-socialize. If you want to be liked, do work that inspires other or be a good person. Shoot, maybe aim for both!

  1. "Everything has a reason." -Cast Member With a Name I didn't Catch

I did a workshop on immersive storytelling. We were taken to Cars Land and did a few exercises about details in the setting that made it feel real and alive. I've read (and written) a ton about this concept from a Disney perspective, but have never heard it put so simply. How many things do we do in our classrooms that don't really have a good reason? I know, for example, that I just posted 11 pages of information on my wall that no student will ever read. My reason: required by law. Seems like a terrible reason to make my room look ugly to me.

Everything in my classroom should exist for one goal: to teach my students. Anything else is a distraction and should be removed.

  1. Specific Praise Matters

At the end of our storytelling workshop we broke into small groups and created vision boards for a new theme park land. A couple were great. Some (like admittedly mine) weren't so great. However, our two hosts make specific, positive comments on every single board. It made me feel good and left me wishing I had done more and done better. Often as a teacher we just get generic platitudes, (If I hear, "we know you're all working so hard!" again, I'm going to lose it.) but rarely specific praise. I often forget how important positive feedback is for all people, and especially students. It was good to experience it again.

  1. Set Up Matters - Disney Grand California Convention Staff

When we talked into the main hall for the opening keynote all of the chairs around the tables were turned to face the stage. When we walked in for dinner, the chairs were turned in to face the tables. That small shift mattered. This is focus time. This is eating time. How we set up our rooms matters. This is so often completely ignored. "I'll just have the students arrange the desks when they come in." What message does that send? Everything has a reason!

  1. When you put your boots on the ground, you learn what guests care about and what they don't. Kirstin Makela, Imagineer

I write about this in my book - participate in your own lessons! You will learn more about the effectiveness of a lesson by doing it alongside your students than you ever will through detached analysis. Kirstin talked about how the imagineers are expected to spend time in the parks they have created constantly. Survey feedback is great, but is nothing compared to being part of the experience yourself.

  1. "Your Next Idea is Your Best Idea." Amy Young, Imagineer.

A simple thought that ensures two things. First, you don't get hung up on perfection. If my next lesson is going to be better than the current one anyway, why should I stress over making this one perfect? Second, keep creating! I know that I have, at many times, created a lesson and felt like that was it. I'll never top it. I end up stuck with no ideas, sometimes for a long time. Inevitably though I end up creating something new and loving it even more. I need to keep creating and remember the best idea is still to come!

  1. ABC: Always Be Curious. Luc Mayrand, Imagineer

I easily could have written this blog as 10 things I learned from Luc Mayrand This Summer. Luc is an Imagineer, but also a teacher so he has tons of insights. I boil most of them down into his message to always be curious. He noted that every time he took on a new project at Disney he'd force himself to learn a new skill. We should not just imitate the past - even if it is our past! There's nothing wrong with using lesson frames like EduProtocols, but we shouldn't just rest on our laurels. We can keep learning new things and improving on our students' learning experiences. This summer I learned how to recreate the Stranger Things intro in PowerPoint. It was fun and I learned a bunch of small techniques that I can use elsewhere too. I could have just stuck to what I knew, but I took Luc's advice and came out better for it.

  1. "Embrace the Box." Kirstin Makela

I asked Kirstin how imagineers move forward with a project vision that is boxed in by budgets or time-constraints. I frequently feel like my vision for what I want in my classroom just isn't possible. Whether it is because of budget, time or just the limitations of my classroom setting - I feel like I can't do what I want to do. Her answer was quick. "Embrace the box. Creativity comes from problem-solving." What a powerful, simple idea. If we can think that way, and get our students thinking that way, maybe we'd see creativity blossom in our classrooms like it does at Disney Imagineering!

BONUS. Celebrate success. - Transformers Ride Cast, Universal Studios

After exiting Transformers two cast members clapped and cheered for us, thanking us for saving the world. I don't know if they always do that or if it was because there were so few people at the park at that point, but it was cool! These last three years of education have been, frankly, a nightmare. We, and our students, have suffered loss, confusion, disrespect, social restrictions, and goodness knows what else. It is hard to be positive and celebratory when we're in that harsh mental state, but it matters. I'm going to push myself to be more celebratory this year, even if I'm not personally feeling it. I imagine those two workers weren't feeling too celebratory to be working a hot summer early in the morning, but they did it, and I felt good about it. I hope to do the same for my students this year.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of all I learned this summer at the once again amazing Courageous Creativity Conference at Disneyland. I once again felt better about being a teacher than I have anywhere else. (Which, sadly, says a lot about my teaching situation and district.) I missed it intensely over the last 2 years and I'm so glad it is back. I'm already looking ahead to next year's edition.

Best wishes to everyone as they start their new year. You matter. Our job matters. Let's bring the magic!