Sunday, December 27, 2009

Differentiating at Disney

I just noticed that it has been a month since my last post. The month of December slipped away this year as my family and I spent time preparing for the holidays, gathering with friends and family and traveling to Disneyworld for a vacation we have anticipated for about a year.

As I look back, I will remember moments and feelings from different parts of our trip. From the slap-happy laughter of my sons howling at each other after the 20 hour drive to the magical happiness I felt walking down the Main Street in Magic Kingdom, I won't forget the joyous times. There were also many moments of excitement after rides when we couldn't stop talking about how much we loved the feeling of gliding over the US (like after riding Soarin) or how petrified we were experiencing the simulation of a ride to Mars on Mission Space. Of course there were the less memorable moments of exhaustion and frustration waiting in line and bickering about what to do next. But, I know I will most remember watching my sons and my nieces smile while running and dancing through the streets of Disney.

With all these happy memories, I started thinking about why this trip worked for us. What most impressed me about our experience at Disney was the park's ability to differentiate. I thought about how well everyone's needs seem to be easily met each day. I took mental notes as we walked throughout the parks. I couldn't help but begin to list (as I often like to do) some key ways that helped support a successful differentiated environment:

1. It was clear, from the minute you interacted with any Disney employee that the experience was about you enjoying yourself and feeling welcome. From the moment we purchased our parking pass and drove under the bright blue sign, we felt welcomed as the attendant (with sincerity) reminded us to "Have a Magical Day!"

2. Disney is SUPER clean ( which means they care about their customers)!!! The amount of effort put into caring for the park by the employees sends a message to the consumer (us) that there is a sense of pride and respect in the work they do. It also reminded us to care back for the park and meet the standard of respect and cleanliness.

3. Disney characters, employees and managers are constantly communicating and adjusting to the needs of people. I watched Goofy, Minnie and Mickey work a crowd for breakfast and adjust their demeanor for the ages and audiences each interacted with. Goofy hugged and playfully high-fived a younger fan wearing a goofy ball cap and then 4 minutes later gave the rock (knuckle- high five) to my 10 year old to ensure he felt part of the older kid crowd. He then carefully patted my niece's head as she smiled back with a nervous hello. He was awesome at reading and adjusting to people. Adjusting also happens in line. I watched the employees at the Haunted Mansion quickly break one long line up into 3 shorter lines which helped us all feel like we were moving faster. And what better way to adjust to long line waiting than the fast pass. We lived by these as the pass helped us prioritize and ride more in a day's visit.

4. Disney values individuals and collaboration. Whether age 2 (my niece) or 62 (my father-in law), each family member found something that he/she wanted to do. (The harder part for my kids was taking time to do what others wanted too.) From Minnie's House to Tom Sawyer's Island, girls and boys were able to find places and rides that appealed to their interests. My most pleasant surprise came when we spent the day at Epcot. I was very excited to explore the many countries around the center lake of the park but ( knowing visiting the countries appealed more to adults) a little worried my kids would fizzle out after walking through one or two. After visiting Canada and the UK, the Kim Possible Mission game came to our rescue and completely excited our journey through the rest of the lands. This game invited us (our family of five) on a mission to a particular country and then challenged us to complete a mission by using clues we watched and listened to on a cellular phone. It was completely interactive and had us working as a team for the day. So clever Disney!!!

5. Disney is innovative. It is a place to experience the newest technology in entertainment and creativity. It seems that since my childhood visit, they have created new ways to manage crowds (fast passes), keep ride goers happy with a variety of authentic experiences (Mission Earth, Test Track, Soarin ) and engage crowds with a variety of shows ( American Idol experience, Mickey 3-D, Beauty and the Beast on stage and many more). This park is dedicated to creating, rethinking and imagining what's next in entertainment.

So from all of this reflecting about how Disney differentiates, I have a renewed sense for how we as teachers can learn from Disney. We can keep these big ideas in mind as we head back to the classroom with our students ( they also reflect principles written by Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of the Differentiated Classroom) :

1. Welcome, appreciate and embrace individual needs.
2. Help establish a community of respect in the classroom so that differences are embraced.
3. Adjust our thinking, attitude and teaching for our students according to their needs.
4. Invite individuals to embrace collaboration.
5. Provide opportunities to think, create and explore in new ways in the classroom.

6. Invite kids to lend a helping hand.