August 15, 2013

It's a small world after all! What can be learned from Disneyland?

My family recently returned from a fun summer holiday in Disneyland, "The happiest place on Earth." It was the first time that our kids have been, so we packed as much in as we could into our 5 day trip to Disneyland and California Adventure Park. 

I had borrowed a guide book from a friend before our trip which really helped in planning our days and learning about all the rides, fast passes, food, and shows; however, nothing can completely prepare you for the experience of when you first show up! I was completely overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, smells, and yes the lines! 

Most of all though, I was so awestruck by all the amazing realistic and creative detail in the buildings and landscapes. You feel like you really are in a magical place, you are transported in time and space. (I apologize in advance for all the family photos that follow, but seeing is believing:)

Hollywood Land main street view
Restroom building in Fantasy Land

This was especially true as we entered Cars Land. It feels like you are living inside the Disney/Pixar movie "Cars". It takes your brain quite a few minutes to consider and appreciate what you are seeing as you walk down the streets.

At the entrance to Cars Land

Flo's V8 Cafe restaurant in Cars Land

Radiator Springs race track and scenery in Cars Land

"Lighting McQueen" on main street of Cars Land

In front of the Fire Hall in Cars Land

Family pic with "Mater" in Cars Land

Neon signs at night in Cars Land

More neon signs of a store in Cars Land

Amazing right! Can our classrooms compete with such entertainment?! Probably not. Am I not suggesting such a thing? No. But I do believe there is something that can learned from a place like this. So before the mob comes yelling after me, "This is supposed to be about education, not entertainment!!", I will continue on.

There is a sense of wonder and amazement that you experience as you enter a place like Disneyland and California Adventure Park (or whatever theme park you have near you). There is a blend of visual sets and images, characters, music, rides, and technological innovations, that are all blended together to tell a story that leaves an impression on you. At these parks this all happens within distinct "Lands" that have an overarching theme.

Adventure Land in Disneyland

What kinds of adventures do our classrooms inspire? Or do our students enter in and leave our boring school spaces uninspired and think amongst themselves, "This is the dullest place on Earth!" Is this the lasting impression we want to leave with our students? How we can engage our students' imaginations through the spaces we create that will help to build a sense of anticipation about what will happen next in class, and give them a desire to come back again and again? Many teachers complain about a lack of proper attendance in their classrooms. And there are many factors beyond our control to try and motivate children to come to school and learn; but what if our classrooms spaces were transformed into ones that inspired students to get up and come eagerly to school everyday? Is this possible? Well, this is what I am thinking about as September approaches; not about how I am going to "manage" this new group and keep them accountable for their attendance. 

Over the past few years with my grade 4/5 students I have planned the entire year around a theme. One year we were stranded on a deserted island all year, last year we were in a Medieval Kingdom. (See my previous posts for ideas about this.) I have had many students come back repeatedly to ask what "theme" I was doing next. This year I want to take my new set of grade 6/7 "tourists" on an grand adventure, and I will be their guide. I have planned a theme (again) around a book we will be reading, "Between Heaven and Earth" by Eric Walters, which is about a young man who climbs Mount Kilimanjaro. I will be setting up the physical space of the classroom as a "base camp" for our expedition together. A few details I have planned so far are to bring in a tent, some camping gear for my desk area, trail post and signs, camping chairs and a "fire pit" for a reading area, and a wall mural of Mount Kilimanjaro. I will welcome them to their first day of class as their expedition leader/guide, dressed up of course with my headlamp and all. 

This will work well to set up the year with excitement, and make the classroom space more inviting and fun to work in; but also it will lead to more meaningful connections to other parts of the curriculum. For example, in Science we will be studying about geological processes and features, and so we can learn more about Mount Kilimanjaro (which is a volcano). As the year goes on, I will have them tell me about what they want to explore more about, and so our journey together will take on multiple possibilities and investigations. N.B. There are many trails/paths that can be taken to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

As many families do after a vacation, my kids have looked back many times already through the photo albums and scrapbooks of our holiday. I hope that the experience my students will have this year is something they will value and look back over the "snapshots" of our year together with great memories for a very long time. By changing the context of our classroom spaces, I believe we can engage our students to help make their learning more memorable and fun for a lifetime! It can start with something as simple as changing the spaces we work in, but it has to start first with a change in own minds of what is possible!