Award-winning teacher Shauna Pollock shares her innovative system for an "experimental prototype classroom of tomorrow" that you can apply today to your own classroom, and reap the educational benefits of teaching by the "Disney Way".
Walt Disney was a filmmaker, a theme park designer, and an innovator - but he was also an educator, and the same principles that make his films so watchable and his theme parks so enjoyable can be applied to the classroom. If Walt Disney had designed a curriculum, equally effective for students from kindergarten through high school, it would have looked a lot like Shauna Pollock's Creating Classroom Magic.
Shauna shows you how to:
PUNCH UP YOUR LESSON PLANS WITH PIXIE DUST!
Foreword (Rolly Crump)
Foreword (Jim Korkis)
Part One: EXPERIMENT
Chapter 1: Dream Big
Chapter 2: Believe in Yourself
Chapter 3: Be Curious
Chapter 4: Quit Talking and Start Doing
Chapter 5: Take Risks
Part Two: PROTOTYPE
Chapter 6: Embrace Failure
Chapter 7: Make Your Dreams Come True
Chapter 8: Make a Plan
Chapter 9: Build a Creative Culture
Chapter 10: Tell Stories
Chapter 11: Immerse Them
Chapter 12: Create Magical Moments
Chapter 13: Plussing: Give Them More Than They Expect
Part Three: CLASSROOM COMMUNITY
Chapter 14: Leadership: Practice What You Teach
Chapter 15: Show Them You’re Happy They’re There
Chapter 16: Be a Bee
Chapter 17: Individualize the Experience
Chapter 18: Seek and Be Open to Feedback
Chapter 19: A Spoonful of Sugar
Chapter 20: It’s a Small World After All
Chapter 21: The Laughing Place
Part Four: TOMORROW
Chapter 22: Feed the Birds, Make an Impact
Chapter 23: There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow
Chapter 24: Make It Better
While working at EPCOT with Dr. Charles Lewis, a leading health educator from UCLA, he shared his philosophy on teaching, “If it’s a ton of fun and an ounce of information, you’ll reach a teachable moment.” I love that!
You might say I was a student of Walt’s inasmuch as the studio was much like a college campus. There was a freedom to learn from everyone. There was an open-door policy that encouraged and supported being inquisitive, curious, and the sharing of ideas and information. I learned so much from everyone I ever worked with. When I had my own design firm outside of Disney, I found I was not only teaching and guiding those that worked for me, but I was also a student and learning from them as well.
Shauna has such an impressive and unique approach to teaching. I thoroughly enjoyed that Walt Disney’s philosophy was applied to teaching in general. This book is a great example of what teaching should be about. Focusing on the individual, never making them feel uncomfortable, recognizing each person’s strengths, encouraging them to “color outside the lines” and “follow their own ideas”, no matter how crazy.
I’m so happy you’ve chosen to come on a journey with me in this book.
When I was in elementary school and assigned to research a famous person for a biography, I chose Walt Disney. A lot of people don’t separate Walt Disney the person from Walt Disney the company. Even his daughter Diane, as a child, asked him if he was the famous Walt Disney from the Walt Disney Company. She only knew him as Walt Disney, dad. He confirmed that was him, and she asked for his autograph. When I first read that story, I fell in love with it. In fact, in the first Walt Disney biography I wrote as a grade five student, I badly plagiarized it word for word from Bernice Selden’s Walt Disney: Maker of Magical Worlds as the opening to my project. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about intellectual property and will happily share stories and quotes, but this time, will give them proper credit.
You’ll notice that I refer to Walt Disney by his first name, Walt. This is because he insisted on a first-name culture in his company. Bill “Sully” Sullivan told me that Walt said to him, “There are only two misters at Disneyland. Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Toad.” Using first names created an atmosphere of familiarity and friendliness. Consider the possibilities if you adopted this idea in your school.
Walt Disney is someone whom I greatly admire and have learned many lessons from. Many others have as well. In fact, there are a huge number of books that have been written about how to use lessons from his life in business, management, and leadership. After watching Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Walt in Saving Mr. Banks, my interest in Walt was reignited, and I began to read every book I could get my hands on. No longer simply interested in the facts of his life for a school project, I read about Walt through the lens I see everything through—that of a teacher. Very quickly, I realized that there were so many things for me to learn from his legacy.
Walt was an incredible innovator and storyteller. Lessons from his life can be easily transferred to education. Certainly there are educators around the world inspired by Walt, but no one has yet written a book about it. I insist that my students do research and work that is “Un-Googleable”. They have to find new ways to look at things and share the discoveries they make. They cannot merely read the work that others have done. The book I have been searching to read is one that takes lessons from Walt’s life and ties them to the classroom. Before my publisher contacted me, it didn’t exist, it was an Un-Googleable project. I feel so fortunate to be able to write the book I wanted to read.
One of the most compelling dreams Walt had was his last dream. He made his final filmed appearance talking about his plans for EPCOT—the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—in 1966. He introduced the world to his idea for a futuristic city, one in which families would experience the newest in cutting-edge technologies in their home and work lives and be a model for the rest of the world. He said people would be able to “actually live a life they can’t find anywhere else in the world”. It would constantly be evolving, “always introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems”. In a planning meeting for EPCOT, Walt described his vision for the city simply: “People will be king.”
Walt’s dream for EPCOT sparked something in me, and my EPCOTclass was born. My grade 3/4s and I were the Experimental Prototype Classroom of Tomorrow. Like Walt’s dream, the people were the key element. With demands coming from all directions, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by school and board policies, paperwork, standardized tests, and the thousands of tiny puzzle pieces that make teaching feel like juggling, and forget that we’re here for the kids. In my EPCOTclass, the students were the center. We dreamed big, co-designed our learning opportunities, took risks, learned from our failures, and created a supportive, exciting community.
The system of public education in North America has changed very little in the past two centuries. The way that Walt and his mother and his grandparents were schooled is very similar to the widespread and accepted model for education today. There is a complicated and convoluted history of education in North America, and all the details do not fit neatly into this narrative. David Nasaw, in Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States, explains that the primary purpose of elementary schooling in the mid-1800s was to reform “the moral character of the children of failed artisans and farmers from both sides of the Atlantic.” They were tasked with “preparing their poor, working-class, and immigrant adolescents for future lives in city and factory”.
A strong influence on public schools in North America came from observations of the Prussian model and were intended to “better maintain social order and increase material productivity”. Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica expand on this in Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education: “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.”
Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Real change requires innovative thinking. Use the stories within this book to inspire you to look at an old system in a new way. Make the classroom of tomorrow happen today.
School is done to kids. It isn’t good enough. The students are often passive recipients of information instead of being active agents in their own learning. In fact, I have seen that the standardized, “traditional” model of education isn’t working. Schools should be places of wonder, excitement, curiosity, creativity, and creation. Changing things within a system is difficult, but gradually, every little innovation that is tested and effects change in individual classrooms can be celebrated, learned from and inspire someone else to make a change. There are a lot of things that I’ve done to make my classroom different than what many people are used to.
We have gotten accustomed to an outdated educational system—one that was designed for people living in a very different world than we live in today. The only thing that the current North American schooling model prepares students for is more school. Instead of seeing the future, we lean on the past. In Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, Sam Gennawey wrote, “the design for EPCOT was not revolutionary but evolutionary”. It is urgent that we rethink education and evolve to prepare children for the future they are hurtling into. Almost fifty years ago, Walt planned the schools in his vision of EPCOT, imagining a new kind of system to “welcome new ideas so that everyone who grows up in EPCOT will have skills in pace with today’s world”. We are quickly losing that pace and our students can’t wait to catch up. We have to make changes now.
As I researched, spoke about, and wrote this book, I kept returning to a central question: what is the purpose of school? Why do children attend school from the ages of four to eighteen? Almost anyone would answer with something like: to learn to be productive, happy members of society.
We get distracted along the way, though. If we want students to be happy at the end of schooling, why do we allow them to feel unsuccessful and unhappy along the way? Almost every child approaches the start of schooling with a mixture of trepidation and intense excitement. School feels magical at first. Years of being forced to conform, follow strict rules, and memorize what amounts to useless content in our information-filled world tarnish that excitement. A few years in, many students no longer feel that their hours spent in the classroom are magical.
The Disney parks are known around the world as the “happiest place on earth”. Some people are lucky enough to spend one (or a few) days in their lives there. Most people spend more than 2500 days of their lives in school. Shouldn’t there be happiness in all of those days?
In this book, I will share with you many ways to make your classroom more happy and hope that you’ll take some of those ideas and develop them further to turn your classroom into the happiest place on earth. Teachers set the tone in their classrooms and you are empowered to make magic. You can create a situation in which students feel like they are seen, heard, and celebrated, and they feel safe to imagine, dream, innovate, and create.
Innovation isn’t easy. Though you may understand what is not working and have a vision of what you think could, the steps to connect the two are challenging. People are used to the accepted system and will question and doubt you as you try to change. Alfie Kohn reminds us in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” that “[t]he features of our children’s classrooms that we find the most reassuring—largely because we recognize them from our own days in school—typically turn out to those least likely to help students become effective and enthusiastic learners”. Rows of desks, a teacher at the front of the room delivering knowledge, tests that determine a student’s retention of that knowledge, competition for ranking, and rewards in the form of grades are comfortable only because of their familiarity.
Walt Disney said, “The greatest natural resource [is the] minds of our children.” With our students, we can discover the world around us and learn in engaging ways. We just have to be willing to be a little uncomfortable as we blaze a new trail.
In sharing about Walt’s life and legacy, I have made every effort to use Walt’s own voice. He is endlessly quotable and I have included many of Walt’s own words in this book. I have also had the incredible joy of meeting and talking to some real live Disney Legends who knew, worked with, and learned from Walt. Their unique experiences and reflections added a new level of understanding for me. They were proud storytellers filled with memories and passion that they were generously willing to share. I also rely on some of Walt’s fictional characters and stories to tell my own. References to Walt’s creative works included in this book were carefully selected to enhance the story and are all projects he was inextricably involved in personally.
In telling Walt’s story, I share my own. More importantly, I can share the stories of a handful of the hundreds of students I have been lucky enough to build classroom communities with over the last ten years. I reached out to former students and parents to reflect on the impact our time together has had on them over the years. Included in this book are some of those memories, in their own words. Using our experiences as a model, I hope that you will find inspiration.
This book has been written to allow you to reflect on your practices and design your classroom in a purposeful, thoughtful way. See the future and see what your students need, even if they don’t know how to ask for it. As you read, I hope you will find it both entertaining, as it gives you a perspective on Walt’s life you may not have considered, and informative, validating the choices you make and encouraging you to keep innovating for the sake of your students. In Teach Like a Pirate, Dave Burgess says, “At some point in your career you have to decide if you care more about teaching to tests or teaching kids. My decision was made a long time ago. I teach kids.” With a vision like Dave’s, the challenges and roadblocks against change are much easier to overcome.
Most importantly, you are the reason I am sharing these stories. This book is intended to be read by educators to improve the student and teacher experience. In his description of EPCOT, Walt provides us with an excellent description for a magical, innovative classroom, one that can be “always in a state of becoming”, “never cease to be a living blueprint of the future”, and “be a showcase to the world for…ingenuity and imagination”. EPCOT was intended to be a living laboratory; products and processes designed in on-site research and design centers would have been implemented immediately and tested on real consumers. Classrooms can be like that. Things that you do don’t have to be perfect; in fact, if you wait for them to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever. Test new ideas, learn together, see how what you do transforms the learning in your classroom.
In Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, Sir Ken Robinson wrote, “If you’re involved in education in any way—you can be part of the change. To do that, you need three forms of understanding: a critique of the way things are, a vision of how they should be, and a theory of change for how to move from one to the other.” I hope that you’ll use this book to build your theory of change and find ways to improve the student experience by creating an environment where you and your students love to spend time.
When I recently moved cities and left my school, someone asked me if the atmosphere and learning environment my students and I had created could be replicated or if it only worked because I was there with them. I absolutely believe that it can be replicated. I believe that every person is filled with passion and can be creative. I believe that every classroom can be a safe, warm, entertaining place where students and teachers are excited to go every day. That is what this book is for. By sharing my inspirations, experiences, and ideas, I hope to support you in creating an atmosphere and learning environment that inspires others.
The book is deliberately ordered to guide and scaffold your learning. Picture the book’s structure as a Jenga tower. Without a strong base, the upper levels would not be supported. The book is divided into four parts that guide you through the process of creating a magical classroom. The foundation is Experiment. In it, you reflect on your philosophies and practices and make plans for how to move forward. Next is Prototype, which will help you to develop a plan of action in more detail. Classroom Community follows, and gives practical, concrete details about how to create a positive, supportive, innovative culture. This is the part that includes the most classroom examples and stories, though they are also scattered throughout the entire book. Finally, the book concludes with Tomorrow, which encourages you to learn from the past to make the future better. At the end of the book you are reminded that things can always improve. I recommend reading the parts in order, as they unfold in a logical way and the ideas in early parts build upon the foundation laid out in later ones.
Within each part, there are several chapters that explore, in further detail, the overall theme. Each chapter begins with a summary of what is contained within, in the form of an AA Milne-inspired “In which” statement. For many, Walt Disney is inseparable as a person and brand, but for the purposes of this book, I have separated them. Instead of a focus on the brand, you will read about the man behind the brand. I met with people who knew him and carry on his legacy. At the beginning of each chapter, I use quotes by Walt Disney, the people who worked directly with him, or song lyrics from films made during his life, ones that he was actively involved in creating or overseeing. Following the quote(s), you will read stories that explain the title, introduction, and quotations. Then, you will find information about how all this relates to teaching. There will be ideas, processes, and examples included. Finally, each chapter concludes with a series of questions encouraging you to “Consider the Following” and reflect on what you have read. I encourage you to write your answers or talk about them. By simply skimming these questions, you are missing out on the opportunity to apply the learning to your own life and make lasting change.
Throughout this book, I share strategies and methods to incorporate technology into the classroom. The tools and suggestions are offered as guidance and support in enhancing excellent practices. No technology can replace good pedagogy or a caring teacher.
I am well aware that much of the technology mentioned in this book will quickly become outdated. With the speed that technology is advancing, it is challenging to predict how long any tool will remain relevant. Perhaps, in later editions, there will be brand-new technologies and tools to include. Please excuse any hilariously outdated references, no matter when you are reading this.
You may notice the pronoun “their” is used in the singular as well as plural in this book. This a deliberate writing choice. In order to be inclusive for people who don’t identify with the gender binary, I have adopted the pronoun “their”, as it is the preferred pronoun of many individuals and includes everyone on the gender spectrum. I explain this here to raise awareness and understanding amongst readers and to encourage you to consider discussing this with students as well. Creating safe, welcoming places for all individuals is a key theme in this book.
Throughout this book, you will notice that there are direct quotations from students and parents. Several volunteers filled out a survey or participated in interviews to help with this book. Each person mentioned by name gave permission (or in the cases of respondents under the age of 18, gave parental permission) for their names and words to be used. I am aware of privacy concerns both in this book and in the classroom. A lesson that I teach early and often is to get permission before using the ideas, words, names, or images of others.
Magic happens in a classroom when the stresses and challenges fade away and the teacher and students can focus on the good stuff. A magic classroom is one where everyone is happy to be there. It occurs when a child finally “clicks” and understands a difficult concept or solves a problem. It happens when a student exceeds expectations and surprises themself with what they can do.
By identifying, embracing, and following through with your dreams, despite hurdles, you can make magic in your classroom and model a positive learning attitude for your students. Everyone can make magic. It is a matter of being present, attentive, considerate, and creative. Making magic is a process and this book will help you on your journey. There are many hints, examples, and stories of magic in classrooms included.
You surely have magical moments that you recall fondly from your time teaching. Hold onto those teachable moments, the reactions you’ve garnered from students, the impact and connections you’ve made. This book will help you celebrate those magical moments and cultivate more.
Take the ideas in this book, make them your own, make them better, and share what you’ve done. I would love to hear your stories.
Shauna Pollock is an adult human female who discovered her life purpose early: she loves to create safe, inspiring places for kids. They need someone who believes in them. She helps them become the people they never knew they could be. She has spent ten magical years in classrooms with students from kindergarten to university. Now, she wants an even bigger challenge. She wants to share her ideas and experience with a wider audience, so she has written this book.
Shauna is a recipient of Canada’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence and was recognized for student-centered teaching and creative integration of technology.
How Walt Disney turned his failures into successes, and how you can teach your students to do the same.
It is paralyzing to over-think your actions, consider the worst-case scenario, and listen to your own doubts and those of others. As soon as you stop fearing failure, and realize it is part of the creative process, you can try things and be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be. As I remind my students often, you only have control of your own actions. The reactions or reception of your ideas and creations by others is entirely in their control. Realizing this is empowering and gives you the confidence to follow through with your ideas and take risks. Acknowledging and then taking the power away from fear and worry will give you the freedom to fail.
Failing is a very real possibility when you take a risk. In fact, failing is inevitable. People don’t do new things perfectly the first time they try. You failed so many times when you were learning to walk. When you started talking, you were a big bucket of fail. You hadn’t learned to fear those failures yet. It’s time to unlearn fear and realize that you’ll only make a difference if you let yourself fail, fast, hard, and often.
Walt taught his team to admit when they’d failed and dig deep to learn lessons from failure. Bill “Sully” Sullivan started working at Disneyland on the third day it was open and continued with the company for the next thirty-eight years. Sully, a Disney Legend, told me he learned from Walt, “If you make a mistake, admit it.” Wendell Warner, a Disney engineer, told Jim Korkis, “I’d go to Walt and say, ‘I blew it. I tried to pull something off and I failed.’ Walt would say, ‘Well, did you learn anything?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ And Walt would respond, ‘Okay, then it’s not a total loss, is it? Keep trying and keep an eye on what people are doing around the shop. See what you can learn from them.” Walt knew not to focus on the failures and mistakes of his people. Instead, he helped lead them to discover the opportunities they had opened up by trying.
Once you’ve failed, you can look critically at what worked, and what didn’t. “You may not realize it when it happens,” Walt said, “but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” You can find fresh new ways to solve your problems and change the world. If you love the problem you’re trying to solve, you will never be paralyzed by only having one way to do it. You’ll be willing to try, try, and try again. Failing is a chance to make improvements.
Regretting a failure is as unproductive as worrying about possible negative outcomes. “Why worry?” Walt asked. “If you’ve done the very best you can, worrying won’t make it any better. I worry about many things, but not about water over the dam.” Pick yourself up, try again in a new way, or try something else.
I taught at a tiny, rural school in Lesotho, a country landlocked by the much larger South Africa. Students in the form seven (similar to seventh grade, but populated with students up to the age of 18) building crowded together, at small tables with worn-out workbooks and any paper and pencils they could find, after walking up to two hours to attend school. They were used to teachers who stood at the front of the room, reading from nationally approved (often irrelevant and outdated) curriculum. Students at Mahlekefane School were expected to copy the notes of the teacher, answer questions verbatim and sit silently when an adult was speaking. On the first day that I worked with the form sevens, I started with an introductory game. I drew a Hangman game on the single blackboard in the dusty classroom. I told students the basic rules, that they were trying to find a mystery word that was indicated with hyphens on the board. They had to try to solve the word before an entire person appeared, piece by piece, on the board, coming into existence from wrong answers. I have taught in a huge variety of classes in Canada, and this game had always been a quick, easy way to get students thinking and talking. At Mahlekefane, all one hundred eyes were staring at me widely. All fifty mouths were clamped shut. I worried that they couldn’t understand what I was asking, and began modelling my expectations, step by step. Still silence and wide eyes.
Typically, I do not use rewards in the classroom. However, with my experience in “supply teaching”, I had learned to bring a variety of tools and strategies with me in every new situation. On this day, I had neon butterfly stickers in my pocket from a dollar store at home. I tried a new tactic. I said, “If you say a letter, any letter, you will get a sticker!” One brave student raised his hand and offered a single letter. I can’t remember if it was in the word or not. Regardless, I marched over to him and placed a sticker on his forehead. The students around him started to giggle as he beamed. Suddenly, twenty five hands were in the air, waving. Students realized we were playing a game. What mattered to me is that they were playing, guessing, and trying to solve the puzzle. The ice had been broken.
Days later, students were participating, sharing ideas, asking questions, and happily playing the crazy games that I introduced them to. They didn’t need stickers anymore. All they needed was to see that the “right” answer wasn’t important. Just answering was important. A mistake wasn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t possible to “fail”.
I later learned that the students had been terrified to try to answer my challenge because they were accustomed to being punished for any wrong answer. On the way to the school in the mornings, their teacher would pick up a stick that he would use to hit any student who answered a question incorrectly. Their fear had been learned and they were protecting themselves by hesitating to answer the weird new teacher. In the long term, I don’t think rewards work in education. In any time period, I know that punishments do not work in education. External motivations hamper learning, no matter the intention. Students need to see that learning includes risk, failure, frustrations, and elation.
Perhaps your own teaching situation is not that extreme, but, in order for students to learn, they need to feel safe and confident to try new things. They will make mistakes and they will get frustrated. It is the essential role of the teacher to provide an environment where that is safe and where they feel like they can fail in tiny and spectacular ways. Show your students that you know that taking risks will lead to failures big and small. Those failures can be used constructively, as learning opportunities. Walt said, “So what if you lose? Learn the lessons of your failure and then try again.”
From the first day of school, give your students opportunities to play and make mistakes. Introduce games and eliminate competition in them. Play for the sake of having fun. Show them that they can participate and try without fear of losing face. Have your students cheer each other on and say, “Good try” to one another. Don’t hinder their learning opportunities by making winners and losers. All efforts should be equally valued and celebrated. Once you’ve played a bunch of games with your students—both physical and mental—they will begin to see the culture you are working to create. They will see, as you lead by example, that efforts, risk, and failure are all part of the process. They’ll begin to feel safe to try new things, and this attitude will transfer to all aspects of their learning.
Continued in "Creating Classroom Magic"!
Using Walt Disney's storytelling techniques to inspire and enthrall your students.
Walt could see things that weren’t there. He acted out entire films to inspire his team. He stood in the bucket of a crane on the site of what is now the Contemporary Resort in Orlando and, channeling Mickey in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, conjured the image of the Magic Kingdom in the air. Lying on his deathbed, he drew the plans for EPCOT in the air against a backdrop of his hospital ceiling. The power of Walt’s stories made others believe in him and follow him. His passion, clear vision, and ability to weave a compelling story convinced others and turned his visions to reality.
In Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, Sam Gennawey describes Walt’s formula for making educational films. He could take a dull topic and make it interesting. His films started with a long shot, which gave an overview of the topic. Then, there was a narrow focus on a specific problem or opportunity, which was the subject for the film. Then, he unfolds a lesson, describing where we’ve been and where we’re going. The lesson unfolds as he delivers facts about the topic in an accessible way, often through metaphors. (In Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, for example, Walt demonstrates the need for toothbrushing by showing a woman sweeping a floor and scraps getting stuck between the floorboards. This is like food between the teeth, the silent narration explains.) He incorporates blue-sky thinking by providing speculation about what could happen, good or bad. Throughout, he used visuals to enhance the lesson and presented in simple terms anyone could access. This formula can be easily applied to delivering lessons. Consider the long-shot or overview as the curricular or subject area. The narrow focus is the learning goal. Share facts accessibly, connecting them to your audiences—in this case, student’s experiences. Make sure to incorporate visuals if possible and describe any advanced vocabulary to ensure clarity.
Not only was Walt a great storyteller, he was a great teacher. His skills helped him to create stories that educated while they entertained. Because he communicated so clearly, he inspired others around him do the same. German space engineer Wernher von Braun became a friend of Walt’s. Von Braun explained that Walt made him explain concepts plainly and precisely, boiling them down to the essential facts.
In the film Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney says, “Storytellers restore order with imagination and instill hope. Good stories are timely and timeless.” What Walt did well was find the core of the story and tie it into common ideals or desires. Audiences learned a lesson and felt hopeful.
Your students are always watching you and paying attention to the story. Make sure that your actions match the story you want to tell, whether it is about your vision, mission, values, or a specific concept or idea. Jim Korkis said, if you trust the story and know what you’re telling, for example a mathematical formula, is right and valuable, your students will eventually receive it. He reminds us to believe in the story.
Great stories engage their listeners, are memorable and repeatable, and highlight a truth or lesson. “Since the beginning of mankind,” Walt said, “the fable-tellers have not only given us entertainment, but a kind of wisdom, humor, and understanding that remains imperishable through the ages.”
Before written language, information was passed on in the oral tradition through stories. When a listener understands a story and can relate to it, it becomes more memorable. You internalize the story, and through the narrative and characters, the lesson is easier to determine and retain. Stories are how we structure, understand, retain, and share information.
You can return to a great story at different times in your life and get something different out of it. Depending on your situation, you can understand it differently or more deeply.
Great stories can be emotionally evocative, and the listener experiences emotions in taking in a story. Rolly Crump told me, “If you get the audience to laugh, they’ll continue to listen to you.” The same could be said for sadness, fear, anger, and disgust, along with a whole host of other emotions.
When I was in grade 4, there was a teacher’s strike in my school board and students were out of schools for weeks. I was very lucky to have friends’ parents who were connected to a local storytelling community. Several of us would go to one of our classmates’ homes and listen to stories all day long. The passionate way the stories were conveyed, as well as elements such as rhyme, repetition, and striking visual imagery, made the stories impossible to forget. Twenty-five years later, I can still retell some of these stories.
Good stories have messages and lessons that can be interspersed differently by different people and at different times. Great stories have hidden details that enhance the experience depending on how deeply you dig. Stories can be told visually, orally, dramatically, and experientially. Disney told stories in all these modes, though films and theme parks.
Everything you do tells a story. Together with your students, you are building the story of your class culture and learning. The lessons that you teach are stories. Try to use some of what you have learned from Walt to make them come alive to you and your students.
Walt was a masterful storyteller. He captivated his audiences, created compelling characters, and adapted old stories in new ways. Think about the first Disney cartoon you watched. I bet you could retell it right now with detail and emotion. Now think about your first university lecture; could you do the same? How can you captivate your students and tell stories that they’ll remember?
If you’re intimidated to start telling stories, consider finding some great picture books. I believe that students of all ages benefit from picture books, and I have read them with students from age three to age forty-three. Walt said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island and at the bottom of the Spanish Main…and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.”
Continued in "Creating Classroom Magic"!