Special Report
Professional Development

A Whole New World of Disney-Inspired PD

By Alyson Klein — May 14, 2019 8 min read
Teachers Brent Ruggles and Adrienne Stenholm participate in a photo challenge at Botanica in Wichita, Kansas, during a field trip on their final day of a two-year professional development program focused on technology, innovation, and community building.
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“Have shoes you can play in!” Dyane Smokorowski told her teacher leadership group in an email outlining a professional development day focused on community partnerships and technology.

She wasn’t kidding.

Teachers in all different subjects and grade levels across this 5,000-student district outside Wichita spent nearly five hours of professional time on their feet, nowhere near a school building or central office. First stop: the city’s botanical gardens, where teachers used an app called GooseChase to do a scavenger hunt, pinpointing different spots among the plant life and then trying a short activity—say, creating a song using a giant xylophone or building with Legos, giving teachers ideas for how to put technology to creative use in their classrooms. Later: a walk through Wichita’s one-time red-light district, the Delano neighborhood, using another app called Pocket Sights, which showed teachers what the area looked like more than a century ago. This offered an example of a ‘real world’ learning experience.

And the last stop: A pickle ball court, where teachers got a chance to try out the sport, a close cousin of tennis and badminton. Before they picked up the rackets, the teachers watched videos students made in gym class, explaining pickle ball fundaments. Then, partway through the game, the teachers gave each other some on-the-spot coaching. The idea? To give them empathy for what their students face every day in learning something new.

It’s not your typical faculty meeting, or “sit ‘n git” style professional development. And in many ways, it runs counter to the current push in teacher training for job-embedded professional development, firmly grounded in content.

The district offers that, too, said Smokorowski, a technology and innovation lead teacher here. But with sessions like the day out in Wichita, she’s going for professional development experiences that are so informative—and so much fun—that teachers line up to attend them, for fear of missing out.

“I want that hashtag FOMO,” she said. “I want to create something that’s so fun, yet so deeply embedded in pedagogy, that you want to come play with us.”

Taking risks

A big part of her inspiration comes from a previous job: Disney World employee. Before becoming a middle school language arts teacher, Smokorowski sold cupcakes and sodas at the iconic theme park in Orlando. Later, she worked at the Disney store in Wichita. Since switching to education, she’s been named a Kansas Teacher of the Year and inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame.

But she never really left the land of Mickey Mouse and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad behind. Instead, Smokorowski, “Smoke” to Andover’s teachers, has channeled what she describes as Disney’s “elements of surprise and delight” into her technology-focused professional development sessions on things like Skype in the classroom, Google search, Microsoft Office, social media platforms, and Chromebooks.

For instance, inspired in part by the popular “EDcamp” strategy, Smokorowski and her team created a technology two-day summer camp for teachers, complete with s’mores, camp counselor teacher shirts, and mock campfires (made of paper) where teachers could sit around and reflect on their learning. The campy theme “made it okay to be a little silly” as teachers began learning about complicated new technology and math concepts, she said.

She also likes to get teachers out into the community, so they can see the real-world applications for the gadgets and strategies they are trying to master, as part of a two-year, technology-focused teacher leadership training, nicknamed the “Chromebook Crew.” Her teachers have gone behind the scenes at the local zoo, and to an organization in Andover that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants. That program does “incredible” work with very few resources, Smokorowski said, giving educators confidence that they can teach the district’s blooming population of English-language learners with considerably more help.

She’s brought teachers to an improv stage, which she sees as both a great bonding experience and a good training ground for the unpredictability of the classroom.

“We did not even tell them where we were going,” recalled Smokorowski. When teachers came to the theater and saw a stage, they wondered who would be performing. “I said, ‘No, that’s for you!’ … We ask students to take risks. We need to be willing to do the same.”

Last summer, she brought a group of about 40 teachers to what she sees as “the world’s greatest classroom"—Disney World, naturally. The sessions focused in part on how the company personalizes experiences for each visitor, which Smokoworksi sees as a lesson in customizing instruction and the learning experience for students. The teachers, who paid their own way, were busy from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Smokorowski and her team dreamed up the content of the event; it wasn’t created by Disney.)

Teacher Beth Defebaugh plays pickle ball at Chicken and Pickle in Wichita, Kansas, during a teacher field trip meant to show teachers real world applications for learning.

There’s always a deeper meaning behind the fun, Smokorowski and her team say.

For instance, the all-day field trip in Wichita helped teachers collaborate, connect with resources in the community, and learn about new forms of technology by actually trying them out, Smokorowski said.

But just as importantly, it gave them a chance to connect these seemingly just-for-fun activities to their core content, she said. A math teacher could bring her kids to the pickle ball court to calculate the differences between that court and one used to play tennis. An English teacher could use the Pocket Sights app to let his students explore an area mentioned in a book.

Does this work?

What’s more, Smokorowski and her team see their professional development as demonstrating a different kind of teaching.

“The way that she presents it isn’t just showing us something we can do, she actually models that strategy,” said Deborah Eades, a language arts teacher at Andover Central High School. “We participate in it, so we can understand what the student is thinking about and how it affects the learning process for the student. … It makes me excited to go back and try it.”

But are these types of outside-the-box activities really the best use of scarce professional development dollars—and teacher time?

Stephanie Hirsch, the executive director of Learning Forward, a professional learning organization for teachers, has some big questions about the approach.

“At the end of the day, improv is not going to help a teacher understand how to teach a complex math concept,” said Hirsch when she heard about some of the Andover program’s activities. “It’s not going to help them to serve a student who has social-emotional issues. And it’s not going to help a teacher who is trying to find the right words to engage parental support.”

She thinks experiences like the ones that Smokorowski and her team offer can invigorate teachers. And visiting places like Disney World can give educators a chance to measure their schools against the country’s highest performing companies. But such experiences shouldn’t be the whole professional development enchilada.

“If it’s one piece of a comprehensive plan, sure,” she said. “If it’s the end-all, then I’d rather see them spend time on developing content expertise.”

The district spends plenty of time—at least one day a month—on more traditional, content-centered professional development, including professional learning communities, said Stacey Ryan, a technology and innovation teacher on Smokorowski’s team.

And the day out in Wichita was the grand finale to the Chromebook Crew’s training, which also included work on new technical tools, Skype lectures with educators and experts around the country, and a student-engagement idea: “glow day” in which teachers did their professional learning under a black light, wearing white or neon, as well as more traditional reading and reflection.

Rachael Neibling, a math teacher at Andover High School, who participated in a previous cohort of the program, said that content isn’t really the area she needs help with.

“Math, while it’s not stagnant, it’s kind of what it is. I don’t worry about knowing my content, I’m solid on that,” she said. Her more pressing questions: “How do I catch those kids that are now glued to their phones, that are not just going to sit and hear me talk for an hour? How do I get them interacted and engaged?”

Experimenting in the classroom

Andover teachers who have been immersed in this sort of professional development say it has value. More than 90 percent of teachers who participated in the three cohorts of the Chromebook Crew say the professional development was different, and better, than other experiences. And nearly 80 percent said it “definitely” renewed or helped fuel their passion for teaching.

Others say the experience inspired them to experiment in their classrooms, trying out both new technology and a broader range of activities.

Erica Hicks, a prekindergarten teacher at Prairie Creek Elementary School, had her students don safari hats and appear before a greenscreen, talking about their favorite animal, inspired by some of the technology training. Bethany Tyndall, a math teacher at Andover Central High School, brought her own “glow day” to her algebra and pre-algebra classes, as a student engagement technique. A lesson on contacting experts on Twitter spurred Neibling to invite a college basketball bracket guru to Skype into her classroom to help students master probability.

Nearly every teacher said that more professional experiences should look like their day on the town in Wichita.

“Once you’re out here, and you’re making these connections in person, having to go back and sit through a ‘sit and git’ professional development is not something that you ever want to do again,” said Nellie Hill, a 5th grade teacher at Robert M. Martin Elementary School. “These teacher leaders that are being developed here are going to be the ones that say, ‘Hey, wait, this is what professional development can be. Step up.’”


A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Whole New World of Disney-Inspired PD


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