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Integrating Pop Culture in the Classroom

Monday, October 26, 2015


A couple weeks ago, we were lucky enough to hear from Dr. Ernest Morrell, a professor of English Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, on how we can make education socially, culturally, and digitally relevant to our students. While he was teeming with ideas for how to better walk and connect with students (everything from auto-ethnography projects to science rap battles, parent mentoring programs to new titles in multicultural literature), Morell devoted a portion of his talk to this stark reality: that “we compete with the media for students’ values.”

We can create or reinforce certain values within our classroom, he noted, but students leave school only to be inundated with media images presenting an often very different set of values. Referencing his book on this subject, Critical Media Pedagogy, Morell urged all present — ranging from ND undergraduates to ACE faculty — not to allow students be blind and uncritical receptors of these images, but rather to equip them with tools to view pop, or popular, culture and its many mediums: social media, television, music, etc. through a critical lens. His process does not involve shielding them from pop culture, but rather exposing them to it in the controlled environment of our classroom. This process does not involve shielding them from pop culture, but rather exposing them to it in the controlled environment of our classroom.

“Would I cheapen the language or literature by tying in Saturday Night Live or showing parts of the Leonardo Dicaprio version of Romeo + Juliet?”

As a 22-year-old high school English and Spanish teacher in Louisiana, I was responsible for 150 students who only knew Full House from watching it on Nick at Nite, so the idea of including pop culture in a lesson worried me. Did I know enough about the cultural milieu of the bayou my students were swimming in to choose timely references and identify when the use of pop culture was inappropriate or irrelevant? Would I cheapen the language or literature by tying in Saturday Night Live or showing parts of the Leonardo Dicaprio version of Romeo + Juliet? Aren’t adaptations with less-handsome lead actors more true to the text, anyway?

On further reflection, though, I realized I wasn’t giving The Odyssey, Flannery O’Connor, and “Ozymandias” enough credit if I thought they’d be cheapened by association with pop culture. If a text is actually timeless, the comparisons my students and I make between it and contemporary culture will only further illuminate its virtue.

We, especially in the humanities, tend to set up this choice between pop culture and the “high” literature/art/culture we want to teach, but really pop culture is one of the main and most effective bridges between what our students know and what we want them to know. And science backs me up on this; we’re helping kids become more intelligent and creative when we help them build and connect knowledge in multiple parts of their brain.  

Because pop culture, like so much today, has the power to engage or distract, here are a few guidelines for how and when to integrate it in your classroom:

1.     Check your definition of pop culture.

You don’t have to know all five (er, now four) of the members of One Direction to integrate pop culture in your classroom. Pop culture is what is on the minds of the masses,  but remember that it’s as much local as it is national. The unique fascinations of my students allowed me to teach math using deals at Bass Pro Shop and Popeyes; this would not have worked in San Jose. Integrating a local news story in history class, discussing how the spread of modern American slang echoes the development of ancient languages, or assigning a project where students rewrite a Taylor Swift song in the - dash-heavy style - of Emily Dickinson are all great ways to integrate popular culture without having to read Tiger Beat.

2. Keep learning your students’ interests.

Don’t stop gauging your students’ interests after your opening interest survey. Build in questions on quizzes or bell work where they can tell you what’s captivating them (“What song on the radio today accurately depicts the effects of sin and grace? How?” or “Where do you see projectile motion at work in your favorite sport? ”). Seek out ways to learn more about them such as inviting them to have lunch with you, chaperoning retreats, attending community events, and visiting their places of worship. Morell suggested a “Day in the Life” project where students write about what they see, do, eat, and experience in a typical day.  

3.  Know where you’re going so your students do, too.

If you’re not sure how a pop culture reference fits in the broader arc of the week, month, and year, it can easily distract your class and make all of you lose sight of the skill you want them to grasp. Lesson plan with this question in mind: “Does this help me to more effectively teach the lesson goal to my specific population of students?” Thoughtfully preparing discussion questions beforehand like this teacher who integrated rapper Kendrick Lamar into his Toni Morrison unit and clearly displaying and repeating the lesson’s goal to yourself and your students will help steer the class away from tangents and towards learning.

4. Build classroom procedures and a culture that welcome thoughtful connections.

You don’t always have to be the initiator of the pop culture connections. The beauty of pop culture is that it allows kids to be experts, something they love but too rarely get to be. Teach students to annotate their daily work and readings with T2W (Text to World) connections, and facilitate discussions that draw those out of them. One of my proudest moments as a teacher and fellow learner was when my ninth grade girls took a straightforward discussion question about women to a whole new level, discussing whether the females in The Odyssey defied or ultimately conformed to stereotypes (naive maiden, conniving seductress) that they’d seen in Of Mice and Men, popular music, even Disney movies.  

5. Take pop culture beyond your four walls.

Morell emphasized pushing students beyond just discussion and simple production; “even my 4-year-old can tweet,” he joked. Students need to see the importance of an assignment beyond the classroom and how it might actually impact the greater society, and pop culture and the connections they find to it provide a segue into that. Have students write to musicians, actors, and media CEOs about connections they find and criticisms they develop. Provide or, better yet, have them develop forums where they can share insights they’ve gleaned with each other, their school leadership, and local communities.

6. Push connections toward a greater truth.

Any pop culture connection should help bring students not just greater academic skill, but also ideally direct their thinking toward this greater world and, we hope, their Creator. As teachers in faith-based schools, we don’t want them to see the real world as distinct from the academic or the secular world as distinct from the spiritual. Rather, we want to give them lenses of biology and history, cultural sensitivity and empathetic faith with which to see everything they encounter outside the walls of our classrooms.

Lucky for us, we have a perfect example of this integration: Jesus, who used sheep, seeds, Samaritans, and a seine, the daily realities of the people he met, to teach the most important of all subject matter.