Social Sciences

Student Engagement Strategies From Disney World

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

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This is part 2 of a 2-part post on strategies to increase student engagement. You can read part 1 here.

Recently I spent time at Disney World. I had the time of my life on a ride called The Rise of the Resistance. In part 1 of this 2-part post, I explained the components of that special ride which teachers can apply to teaching. Teachers can include excitement, encouragement, immersion, and options to make learning engaging for students. I previously outlined the importance of excitement and encouragement. Now, let’s explore how immersion and options could transform your classroom into something your students look forward to.  

Use Immersion to Hook Learners

The #1 reason we endured that four-hour wait was that we were completely immersed in the world of Star Wars. All we needed was a Jedi robe, lightsaber, or blaster to blend in. Maybe next time I will dress as Rey because her outfit is totally amazing. When Kylo Ren’s minions captured us, the guard taking us to our cell never broke character, barking orders to “Stay on the blue line!” or “One false move, and I’ll blast you to the next galaxy!” I was shocked that the smaller children did not burst into tears because that lady was intense. 

In the classroom, achieving a world of meaningful experiences centered around students’ interests takes a bit more preparation, and I am still in the learning process myself. Yet the benefits are far-reaching. I teach 6th – 8th grade, which sometimes has a reputation for having the most reluctant learners. Some of my boys are currently living up to this reputation. Yet, I do not take it personally. Instead, I try to connect with them to see what is going on. 

Right now, my 6th graders are reading Freak the Mighty, which has some King Arthur references throughout. I found a King Arthur Webquest online, with a “queen’s proclamation” sending knights on a learning quest to the Land of Google. I wore a tiara, used my Harry Potter wand (I did not have a sword), and knighted my students Lords and Ladies of the Realm of Winterfell (only one noticed the Game of Thrones reference). They made crests retelling the information only in symbols. Even my students who are not “artists” enjoyed being in charge of the research and provided the information to their team. 

We are a few chapters away from ending this novel, and students still refer to each other as Lord or Lady. I honestly believe this will create a lasting memory that my 6th-grade students will take with them for the rest of their middle school careers. At Disney World, it is hard not to become engrossed in the Star Wars culture. The familiar theme music plays throughout the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge park, and many people dress as their favorite characters. This is how we want our students to feel in our classrooms. They should be so wrapped in the experience that they groan when the dismissal bell rings. That’s a great sound.  

“When we incorporate options, immersive experiences and provide encouragement – the excitement will follow, and perseverance will prevail.” Student Engagement Strategies From Disney World Click To Tweet

Engage Students Through Options

When waiting in line for Rise of the Resistance, you have the freedom to hop in and out of line for restroom needs or food. At one point, a rebel leader even came through our line to give us the option to leave. For about 20 seconds, my husband and I discussed this, but I am a die-hard Star Wars fan to the core. So we stayed the course, and it was so worth it.

I have also been a long-time proponent of Genius Hour. The Genius Hour Guidebook and other sites have abundant examples, ideas, and detailed explanations regarding Genius Hour. I love doing Genius Hour projects because they build off student interests.

Students choose what they want to learn more about and design their own learning paths. As they go, I can easily add in the strands of research skills, technical writing, grammar/mechanics, how to properly cite your work, and listening and speaking skills. This year, their projects have crossed into their other disciplines, sparking excitement from their other teachers. My students are all wholly engaged, focused, and do not mind the long process of the journey. However, they do care and put up quite a fuss if we lose a research day to something else pressing. 

However, Genius Hour is only one avenue to provide options. I am also a fan of creating menu choice boards with six to nine options of final products students can create within a unit. Each has various levels of complexity and rigor, so no matter which option a student selects, I still have a sense of what they have learned. 

I also try to offer choices no matter the lesson – even if it is a stand-alone assignment. My students began a new poetry assignment called Two Voice poetry this past week. To engage students, I gave them the option to choose their “voices.” Several of my students are fellow Star Wars fans. They immediately began writing their two voice poems as the Mandalorian/ Boba Fett, Anakin/Darth Vader, and Grogu/Yoda. Poetry can be torture for middle school boys, yet their eyes lit up when I dangled the idea of choice! To make this unit immersive, my students will present their poems during a Poetry Cafe. I will let them bring snacks and drinks to enjoy while we listen to what I hope to be out of this world spoken verse poetry. Rise of the Resistance provided riders options all along the way. I believe teachers should also give options to their students’ all along their educational journey.  

Make Learning Memorable

When I told my colleagues and students how long our wait was to ride Rise of the Resistance, they could not believe I actually did it. Yet it is the best ride in all of Disney World, and I would do it again in a nanosecond. When we incorporate options, immersive experiences and provide encouragement – the excitement will follow, and perseverance will prevail. We want our students to have a meaningful takeaway and lasting, positive memories. 

My 8th grader just began writing their graduation speeches. It’s been fun listening to them recall their favorite memories. All of their academic memories have been connected to unique experiences in various classes. They remember the time their Spanish class went to an authentic Mexican restaurant and had to order in Spanish. Or the time they dressed as Greasers and SOCS after reading The Outsiders

Students are pros at sniffing out meaningless assignments. Yet if the majority of our lessons have some element of excitement, immersion, connection, and options, our students will have memorable learning experiences. So I encourage you to take a risk and try this out. I promise the experience will become the glue for retaining a concept you are trying to get across. And perhaps your most resistant students will rise to participate. 

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Mamie M. Arndt