George Lucas Educational Foundation

Project-Based Learning Using Disney Movies

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Illustration of a famous mouse

Last year, I was surfing Pinterest with the intent to find some interesting ideas to implement into my AP World History class. I came across several articles where individuals had used the classic tales animated by Walt Disney to encourage student learning. After thinking on this I had an epiphany: What if I could have students use their historical knowledge gained throughout the course to pick out the inaccuracies in Disney films? This had the potential to be an interesting project for students to explore a movie of their choosing and develop a polished presentation to teach their peers about the selected time period and region. I wanted to create an assignment in which students harnessed and nurtured their creative abilities but also accomplished the goals.

After extensive planning, I was able to develop a project that embodied the analysis of historical context, a fun animated classic, and also primary sources. The parameters for the culminating project were as follows:

  1. Summarize the story as portrayed by Disney.
  2. Determine the origins of the fairy tale. Where did the fairy tale originate in the world? How true to the tale did Disney stay?
  3. Determine the setting of the movie (time and place) and whether the architecture is appropriate. (i.e.: Is Mulan set in Han China when the Forbidden City was not yet constructed?) Is the clothing congruent with the setting? How accurate are the appearance of the characters? Are there any geographic misrepresentations? (i.e.: Does Hercules mention visiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Greece?)
  4. Determine what was going on the world at this point in history. Consider all events globally and identify at least one major event from each continent (except Antarctica).
  5. What historical inaccuracies can you find in the movie? Aside from talking animals and the magical powers of wands and genies, what fallacies are represented in the movie?
  6. Select two primary sources from someone who would have been a contemporary during the time and in the location of the movie’s setting. If Beauty and Beast takes place in Revolutionary France, you can use a letter from Robespierre. This source should be connected in some way to the movie. If you use Robespierre’s letter, perhaps you want to relate it to Gaston in his attempt to raid the castle.

As with any new project, there is always some trepidation as to whether the outcome will be as desired. There were several what if that flowed through my mind. “What if the students really just see this as an excuse to watch a movie and really do not analyze it as I envision? What if the students just decide to turn in poster paper? What if I have not prepared my students to think about these movies in a global context and really analyze the movies? Have I really thought through any possible hiccups? With so little guidance into what the final product should look like, what should I expect?” Because my students had worked so hard to prepare for the AP test, I figured I would wing it. Trial and error, right?

At the end of this project, I was more than impressed. Of course, there are always modifications to be made but essentially all of my students created final presentation products that were polished, analytical, and comprehensive. I received some Prezi presentations, video compilations, elaborate PowerPoints, and even a PowToon. Several of my students reported that they learned more from this project than any other assignment in their history classes. Others reported the freedom they were given to search out resources and to create a product in a format other than a written report was refreshing.

I consider every lesson a learning experience no  matter how many times it has been implemented. This lesson with a select group of students has taught me that the studies supporting project based learning  encourages a deeper learning model. I have also learned, that despite our best intentions to maintain a structured environment, there is something beneficial about letting students guide their own learning. We as teachers all know that our students learn more when they are interested in a topic, but letting them drive their own learning takes this to the next level. Granted, I consider this assignment a success and plan to implement it again this spring, I am still considering taking this project even further into the redefinition category (for you SAMR fans). Perhaps, it is time to engage my students in a digital collaboration platform such as Google Drive or even the Microsoft 365.

References:

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC horizon report: 2015 K-12 edition. Retrieved from http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-HE-EN.pdf


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Hannah's picture

I love your idea to make class as well as inquiry based learning more fun and interesting. Using Disney movies was brilliant; it's something almost every student can relate to. I really liked when you said, "I want to create an assignment in which students harnessed and nurtured their creative abilities but also accomplished goals". I like that sentence so much because a lot of people forget that students are still kids and they should use their creativity while still reaching goals.

Daphne Norton's picture

Love this idea! My friends and I used to talk about Disney movies - the child viewing experience versus the adult take on the same movie. Can't wait to do this project! Thank you for sharing!

kavipriya's picture

Very good idea. This will increase the students interest towards the class.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Spectacular post rooted in amazing creativity. Your example is as powerful as your idea. Thanks for the specific and practical direction.

Ashley Titus's picture

I love this idea and would love to adapt it for my 8th graders. Can you share some ideas of what movies were used? I think my best bet would be to give a suggested list for them to choose from but I'm struggling with deciding where to start building my list of options from. Thanks!

Jae Cordes's picture

With Disney being a highly litigious company, how do you get around using copyrighted works in a public space?

J.Ferrer's picture
J.Ferrer
Teacher

I really like how you mixed watching a Disney film with their time and period in history. I teach 2nd grade Math and Science and will be trying to incorporate this project into my science class. I could definitely use this kind of project at least once every 6 weeks to get them to use their critical thinking. Movies should be usedbin the classroom only and only when they relate to the material being taught and this project meets this criteria.

Kristen Franklin's picture
Kristen Franklin
Managing Editor at Edutopia

Hi Jae -- in using any images on Edutopia, we rely on solid image sources. For example, this image of Mickey Mouse was sourced from iStock.com, and we pay a license fee to be able to use it. If Disney were to have an issue with our use of it, they'd take it up with iStock.com first.

I think your question also may reference using copyrighted works in the classroom, and how to do so? Is that right?

J.Ferrer's picture
J.Ferrer
Teacher

Hi Kristen,

I like to use Bing when searching for images as it contains a License menu where you can choose from using images that are public domain to images that you can use, modify, or even share. Of course when not sure of the image you are using, make sure you check the copyright to ensure that you are using it legally.

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