Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Using Disney World in the Classroom

Standing guard over their king for thousands of years and every one of them is an individual? How can you NOT be fascinated???
As a high school history teacher, my goal is to engage and interest students in the content that I am teaching; student engagement correlates directly with learning. Whenever I tell people that I meet that I'm a history teacher of high schoolers, they always give me a look like I've got a third eyeball or respond with the good ole southern adage, "Well bless your heart!" Many times, people tell me how much they hated history class when they were growing up, how bored they were by the subject, as though I'm supposed to understand or be sympathetic with them? Like would you tell the doctor that is about to give you open-heart surgery how lame you think the medical profession is or complain to the auto mechanic who is fixing your brakes how worthless to society those who fix cars are? I don't think so!

Obviously, I am fascinated by history, both that of America and the global story of our past (otherwise I'd be a really crummy history teacher, wouldn't I?). Philosopher George Santayana is famous for having said that "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." While I agree with this to a degree (because let's be honest, we remember the things in the past, but more often than not we still make the same stupid mistakes), I love and value history for a very different reason: I love figuring out how we have gotten to where we are in human history. People stress out about the wars in the Middle East and ISIS and believe that these emerged out of nowhere, without understanding that the foundations for this stretch back to imperialism of the early twentieth century and the role the US had in arming a little group called the Taliban with weapons in their fight for independence against the Russians. Or people feel sorry for "third world" countries in the Caribbean or Africa that are portrayed on infomercials with the hungry kids or that are constantly at civil war with each other, simply relegating these things as happening because "they must be inferior," without really understanding that the bad economies and corrupt governments of these nations are a direct result of European and American imperialism and colonization of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By teaching these causal relationships to my students, my hope is that ultimately, they will see that certain actions our country and humanity performs today could have detrimental (or conversely, positive) effects on the future of human history.

With that being said, history is just a story of what a bunch of "dead white guys" did wrong (erm...sorry, I'm supposed to say that everything America has done is right...my bad). This is often hard for my students to understand and grasp (working in a diverse school), even my white kids. We often teach history as a series of snapshots that don't have a whole lot to do with each other. For instance, in the first unit of my American History class, I teach about the Old West, the Indian Wars, Immigration, the Robber Barons, western farmers, and labor unions. All of these events were contemporaneous in the years between the Civil War and 1900, but more often than not are case studies of events or movements during the latter half of the nineteenth century, rather than an examination of the connections. As a result, my students have a hard time being interested, simply because they can't visualize or see the realism of said events. Therefore, it is my goal to try to pull this into modern-day contexts or at least give the kids something visual (other than Forrest Gump) to make the connection with and garner their interest.

As someone who loves Walt Disney World (and has written two books about the historical contexts of many popular Walt Disney World attractions), I've found that there is a lot one can learn about American and world history if you just know where to look; Disney World exemplifies historical "edutainment" fairly well. As a result, I've compiled a list of the various ways I use Walt Disney World in my classroom to teach American and World History.

World History
Possibly the best place to look to learn the history of the world is Epcot's World Showcase. While the land is short on listed attractions, many of the concepts of world history can be gained through the examination of cultures, shows, architecture, and music of the park. For instance, when I teach Chinese and Japanese history, my students examine the architecture of the buildings of the Epcot pavilions. After showing the kids a geographical map of east Asia, noting the proximity of ancient China and Japan, we look at the architecture of Japan and China at Epcot. The kids ultimately will notice that both the buildings of China and Japan have the curved corners on their roof lines. They will remember that the aristocracy of the Tang Dynasty of China (618-906 CE) often showed their wealth and make the connection that if the roof lines of the Japan pavilion has curved corners, it must represent that the ideas of the aristocracy and Confucianism spread from China to Japan at some point (in fact, it was a result of the Chinese empire's influence over Japan during the Tang and Song dynasties).

This Moroccan tower represents a minaret, a Muslim prayer tower.
The Morocco pavilion is also known for the intricate tile mosaics, traditional Umayyad art in the Moorish fashion.

I also like to use the music of World Showcase and other parts of the Walt Disney World resort to teach students about the musical styles of the various civilizations that we study. On a daily basis, while my students are working on their bell ringer assignment (vocab and questions that get them prepared for the day's lessons) or working on an outline for an essay, I like to put period music on my computer for them to listen to as a way to connect their love for music to a specific era in history (For example, as I'm writing this blog post and my students are working on an activity about the Women's Lib movement of the 1970s, I am playing music from that decade..."Ramblin' Man" by the Allman Brothers Band is currently playing on Pandora). As a result, when we study the Polynesian migration, I play music from the Polynesian Village resort. When we study the ancient tribes and empires of Africa, I play music from Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge resort. When we study the founding of Islam and the Islamic empires of the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires, I play music from the Morocco pavilion or Mo'Rockin. This gets the students engaged and immersed more in the culture and history of the region and era that we are studying.

Another example of World History that I often like to use to show causation is a ride-through video of Spaceship Earth. This shows how one technological advancement leads to the next, ultimately putting us where we are today. Rather than simply being a trip through time and space, I like to use the attraction to teach students about causal relationships and have them analyze why the outcomes resulted.

As a cultural historian, I am fascinated not only by the government and economy of different civilizations, but more so by what regular people were doing in their day to day lives, such as the way they worshiped, the clothes they wore, the art they created, and the food they ate. As a result, I love to teach this to my kids. I feel it helps them to grasp historical themes better and become more interested in the subject. There aren't many opportunities for using the attractions of the Walt Disney World resort to teach the cultural history of world civilizations outside America, but one example I often like to use is Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. The lobby and hallways of this resort are replete with display cases featuring artifacts from African history, from the large African story mask near the stairs on the far end of the lobby, to the handmade shields on every room door, meant to repel evil spirits from the domicile. While not necessarily teaching history, these artifacts help students to understand the cultural practices and beliefs of African peoples, which can help facilitate and understand the complex history of these diverse peoples.
Each door in the resort features a handmade African shield, meant to keep evil spirits out of the room.
One of the most fascinating attractions that can provide a brief history of world events, as well as add to mythology, is Pirates of the Caribbean. In volume one of my book series, A Histoical Tour of Walt Disney World, I actually analyze the accuracy of the attraction to some surprising findings. I like to use videos of the attraction to set up for students that the image and myths that we have of pirates, as portrayed in the ride, are factually inaccurate. Pirates often did not make people walk the planks, nor were they always as ruthless and bloodthirsty as often portrayed, nor was "pirate treasure" only gold and jewelry. I go into depth as to why pirates buried their treasure, how they were expected to treat people, and why they spoke and dressed the way they did. I also use this as an opportunity to explain to my students why piracy began during the 1600s and how common it was in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean as a whole.
Thanks to my father, this hairy-legged pirate was always my favorite. :)

American History
I'm going to be honest: Walt Disney World has a ton of American-history themed attractions and details around the parks, lands, and resorts. Walt himself once described that he had "red, white, and blue running through [his] veins," showing his love for America and her history. In fact, Walt Disney World's attractions are part of what inspired me to study history through high school and college, ultimately leading me to share one of my passions with young people.

While I could teach the progression of America through the events of the American Revolution into the period of Manifest Destiny (as America began its march westward) in Liberty Square and Frontierland, I usually begin using Disney World attractions to teach American history around the turn of the twentieth century. One of my students' favorite lessons that I teach is one on the culture of Victorian Era America, which began around the 1880s and lasted into the 1910s. I use photos of Main Street USA to show students Victorian style architecture, playing the music of Main Street to teach them about ragtime music stylings. I show them film clips from Meredith Wilson's musical, The Music Man, to teach them about morality, as well as the Mickey Mouse cartoon, "The Nifty Nineties," to show students an example of courting, dress, and vaudeville of the turn-of-the-century.

However, the attraction that, I believe, gives the best educational example of cultural history during the Victorian Era, is the Carousel of Progress. I use three of the four scenes of this awesome show to teach the cultural history of America: scene one (which takes place on Valentines Day in the 1890s), scene two (which, according to my research that I explain in volume 1 of A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, takes place on July 4, 1926), and scene three (which takes place on Halloween during the late 1940s). The Carousel of Progress does a great job tying together a lot of the historical themes of each of these eras that I teach my kids (Victorian Era, the Roaring Twenties, and post-WWII America), such as morality, popular culture, and technological innovations. This makes a lot of the factual content I teach my kids (i.e. the Wright Brothers' first flight, the invention of the talkie film starring Al Jolson, the creation of the radio, the perfection of automobile and locomotive transportation systems, etc) more real and grasp-able.

Maybe someone should tell him now not to burn the Christmas turkey? Then at least he has 100 years to perfect his technique...

Another history-based attraction that I like to use to teach the concepts and events of American history is the American Adventure show over at Epcot. This show does a great job to show some of the different movements and events of America and what has made America "great." While I am somewhat critical as it portrays a rose-colored view of America and leaves a lot of things out of history (such as the end of slavery, the successes of the Civil Rights movement, immigration, etc), it does a nice job exploring some of the lesser known parts of America. For example, a lot of kids have a cursory understanding of President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt from the Night at the Museum films, but don't really know much about him. When I teach the Progressive Era of American history, when reformers and presidents such as Roosevelt made reforms to try to improve the culture and society of America, I show a clip from the American Adventure when Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir are at Yosemite National Park. We use this clip as an impetus to discussing why Roosevelt would create the National Park system and how this was a positive or negative change for America around the turn of the twentieth century. I do similar activities and hold similar discussions over other scenes in the show, such as the speech by Chief Joseph ("From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever...") and the advances in women's rights and technology during the last few decades of the nineteenth century as portrayed at the Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia in 1876 by Susan B. Anthony ("We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever."), Edison, Carnegie, and Twain. 

There are numerous other examples of how I use my favorite place on earth to teach and make real the subject that I love. Many think that Walt Disney World is just a vacation experience, but to my students and I, it's not. It's a teaching opportunity. Being in North Carolina, the opportunity for an "edutaitional" field trip is not feasible, but thankfully, due to the Internet, I can bring these two spheres together to make history real and alive for my kids. And hopefully, by doing this, I can inspire the love of either Disney or history, if not both, in my students.

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