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Bring the Magic of Disney to Your Classroom

By Paul Wurster
March 1, 2022
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Disney is known for being the most magical place on Earth and Kaylah Holland wants to replicate that magic in class.

Holland is an instructional technology and blended learning associate for BreakFree Education, a nonprofit that provides training and resources for educators who work with students inside the juvenile justice system. She's had an interest in active learning experiences since graduate school and now leads workshops and other professional trainings that take a deep dive on the subject.

Folding Disney into the mix is something Holland is doing to help educators think about how to improve the learning experiences they create for students when designing lessons. 

“Disney is a fun concept to use to talk about being intentional with creating experiences in the classroom because most people know about and love Disney,” says Holland, a self-proclaimed Disney fan and two-time visitor to Disney World. “Disney has such detail. You really get this great experience from the minute you arrive to the minute you leave. And if we can use Disney as a guide, we can create that same engaging experience in the classroom.”

Holland says that replicating Disney magic begins with a shift in mindset from teacher to designer. The concept emphasizes the learner over content, the “how” over “what,” and the experience over the lesson. It is a shift from the traditional sage on the stage paradigm.

“The idea really works because at the core, you are changing the way education is really done. You are no longer saying, ‘Here is the content. Let me stand at the front and be the know-it-all teacher,'” she says.

Holland's aim is not to have teachers decorate classrooms with Disney imagery or dress up dull content by embedding Disney characters and storylines. The goal is to help teachers create learning experiences that are immersive and engaging by drawing parallels to the devices Disney uses to create its park experience. Looking for ways to replicate this is the idea, Holland says.

Create moments

One example is creating what Holland calls “insta-worthy” moments. Disney parks create them by providing visitors with photo opportunities so they can share their experiences with others. Teachers can apply this idea to their lesson planning by intentionally adding elements that students will want to share, Holland says.

By showcasing student work to an authentic audience, such as other teachers, administrators, the public or other students, a well-planned lesson will encourage students to take ownership of their learning. This is where Holland sees lesson planning often fall short. Many teachers provide amazing lessons, but their concept for how students will show their mastery is little more than the traditional quiz or classroom presentation. Students tend to spend more time developing ideas and working on projects if they know their work will be reviewed by a larger, “more important” audience, Holland says.

“If the teacher stands up and says, ‘Hey, I have and actual audience for this product that you're creating. We are going to submit to a contest or we are going to have an art gallery and all of your parents are going to come,’ it really helps students to engage in what they are learning,” she says.

Create a map

Disney’s use of park maps can be used to inform the digital organization teachers set up for students. Trying to navigate a park the size of Disney World would be almost impossible without clear directions and pathways. The same is true for students who are faced with navigating multiple digital spaces just to get to their lesson materials.

Students often have to access content in a variety of ways. First period might use a platform that is different than the one used in second period. Meanwhile, third period might be entirely paper based. This can cause confusion and frustration. When designing a lesson plan, providing easy access to content ensures that students are able to focus on what teachers want them to learn. Keeping this in mind when designing lesson plans is a key to success, Holland says.

“When you talk about including technology, often times teachers get to a point where it’s kind of a smorgasbord – like a hot mess, for lack of a better phrase,” she says. “If you are asking a kid to click more than three times to get something, you have already lost them.”

Make memories

Visitors to Disney parks can purchase buttons with phrases, such as “First Visit,” “I’m celebrating,” and “Family Reunion.” The parks also sell hats designed to appeal to a wide variety of interests and achievements. These items allow park visitors to share personal interests or celebrate something with each other. This concept can be used to create active learning experiences in class by intentionally adding elements of student interest and making them visible. For example, by incorporating a word wall, teachers can provide a place to celebrate their students' academic and non-academic victories, Holland says. 

These ideas are part of an ISTE Expert Webinar Holland led called “Design Like Disney: Create a Magical Experience in Your Classroom.” ISTE members interested in learning more can watch live the recording.

Holland will also provide attendees with a lesson plan template they can use. The template contains six focus areas to help teachers easily design an engaging, relevant and meaningful learning experience. It also contains links to relevant online resources to help teachers easily design an engaging lesson with purpose.

“I am really excited about the lesson plan and being able to share it. I hope teachers can sit down and completely redesign a lesson without it being a huge deal,” Holland says. “It is a really easy, simple process.”

Bright ideas delivered in 30 minutes! Watch ISTE Member webinars now!

Paul Wurster is a writer and technical editor based in Eugene, Oregon.