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Role Models #3: Walt Disney

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students find out who Walt Disney, the man, is.  Today’s children know Disney from Walt Disney World, Disneyland, or the Disney Channel.  However, long before those ventures, he was a young artist and struggling businessman.  Help the children understand that before the Disney media empire, there was Walt Disney, the struggling entrepreneur.   Kids will delight in watching an early clip of Steamboat Willie and seeing the real Walt Disney in an interview!

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



To understand the life and work of Walt Disney and to be further introduced to the biography collection.  (AASL 1.1.6, “Read view, and listen for information presented in any format . . . in order to make inferences and gather meaning.”)

Suggested Time:

45-50 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each student will understand Walt Disney’s life work and some of the milestones along his career path.  Each student will also be able to explain that a biography is the story of a person’s life.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Ask the students to tell you what they have learned so far about role models. Ask them to name a few characteristics that might make a person a good role model.

Don’t tell the kids who today’s lesson is about – be sure to cover the book’s cover!  Tell them that they will have to decide whether this person is a role model or not.  Prompt them to remind one another that a biography is the story of a person’s life.

2. Main:

Begin the lesson by giving facts from the text about Walt Disney.  Let them try to guess the person’s identity by giving clues.  I like to use these:

  • This person enjoyed taking care of animals as a child.
  • This person also liked to draw and often drew pictures of animals.
  • This person was best friends with his older brother, Roy.
  • This person was very poor growing up and he started work by delivering newspapers when he was nine years old.
  • When he was eighteen, this person said that he wanted to become an artist! His parents were not very happy about his choice.
  • This person’s first real job as an artist was making drawings for advertisements.
  • He became friends with another artist and together they made a new kind of ad that was shown in movie theaters. These ads moved around on the movie screen – they were animated!

At this point pause and see if any of the children have any guesses about who might have been an animation artist early in his career.  If you need to give further facts, consider using these, which are also taken from the recommended text:

  • This person moved to Hollywood and started working on cartoon ideas. His cartoons were longer and more developed than other cartoons of the time.
  • This person fell in love and got married to another artist named Lilly Bounds.
  • Early in his career, someone hired away all his fellow artists and bought his cartoons. He was left with very few resources and did not know what to do next.
  • He decided to run his businesses differently and did not ever sell any of his ideas again! He kept his ideas for himself and the company he and his brother started.
  • He came up with a new idea to draw a small mouse. He wanted to name the mouse “Mortimer” but Lilly convinced him to name the mouse “Mickey” instead.

Again, pause and see whether the children can identify this person.  With the clues of “Mickey” and “Mouse” and “animation” they can probably figure out who this person is!

As soon as the children guess the correct identity of Walt Disney, set up a chart on flipchart paper or a board at the front of the room.  Scribe a few notes so that the children will be able to remember some of the details of Mr. Disney’s life.

Show pictures of Walt Disney from the front cover of the text and from the text itself.  Most of the children have probably never seen a picture of Mr. Disney before.

Explain that Mickey Mouse’s first animated cartoon was Steamboat Willie.  Show a bit of the original Steamboat Willie cartoon:  Steamboat Willie Cartoon.  The kids are going to be very, very excited after they see the old Mickey Mouse clips!

Show the short interview of Walt Disney found here:  Walt Disney Interview.  The language will be hard for the children to understand, but help them through it so that they can see Mr. Disney in person and so that they can hear him talk about taking risks and overcoming obstacles.

Point out that Mr. Disney had to find his way first as an artist, then as an animator, and then as a filmmaker, before he was ever inspired to build a theme park!  Again, another new and unknown venture!

3. Conclusion:

After you have covered the text and videos, go back to the flipchart or board notes.  Ask the children whether they think that Walt Disney was a role model.  Ask them to give evidence to support their answers.  Scribe a conclusion for the class.  “Walt Disney was a good role model because . . . . “  Use their thinking and reasoning so that the lesson has a conclusion and so that their thinking can be summarized for their portfolios or as a group work sample.

  1. Walt Disney by Jonatha A. Brown.
  2. Steamboat Willie cartoon, found here: Steamboat Willie Cartoon
  3. Walt Disney Interview, found here: Walt Disney Interview
  4. Computer for accessing the videos on YouTube.
  5. Playback capability including projector, screens, and speakers, to show the videos.
  6. Any of the library’s Disney book collection, laid out on a table top display.
  7. Flipchart paper and markers for scribing notes about Mr. Disney’s life and work.

I have not built a written assignment into this lesson simply because when I have taught it the kids have gotten so excited about Walt Disney and the Steamboat Willie cartoon it has been nearly impossible to refocus them.  Thus, I think that a writing assignment would be a bit of a stretch.

However, if you need a writing assignment, I’d set a simple task such as:

  1. List five facts about Walt Disney’s life.
  2. Do you think that Walt Disney was a role model? Please explain your thinking with a few short sentences.

I have never done an art extension with this lesson, but since Disney was an artist and because there have been so many Disney films and characters over the years, you could easily include an art extension.

Be sure that the children understand that it took Mr. Disney decades to become successful.  The theme parks were a new concept and had never been done in the same way before.  My students kept wanting to say that “Walt Disney invented Disney World.”  But, that’s not entirely correct.  There was a long and difficult professional path that led to his being able to create a successful theme park.  But, he was not immediately successful.  He had to work very hard and develop many aspects of the business before the theme parks were realized.

Recommended books for this lesson: 

Walt Disney by Jonatha A. Brown

Key Terms:

Walt Disney, Animators, Biographies, Performing Arts, Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie