Pop Culture in the Classroom


Not all pop culture is trash.  We at BALANCE enjoy shining  a light on the cream of the crop, or what we call “nutritious pop culture” — popular works that help us better understand ourselves, encourage creative expression and inspire positive action.

Despite periodic proclamations of its death, pop culture is more relevant and powerful than ever. The exposure of today’s children to pop culture is significant and growing, playing an influential role during their developmental years. A 2010 report from Kaiser Family Foundation states that children between 8-18 years old are on screens an average of 7.5 hours per day, seven days a week. That adds up to a total of 53 hours of screen time per week.

And you know what they say – if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And make it work in your favor. In this case, how can we make  pop culture a tool for learning (and growing), rather than a distraction, escape, or addiction.

Just last month, Mercedes from Online Universities published a piece, “Cool Teacher’s Guide to Pop Culture in the Classroom”, which is exactly what it sounds like – utilizing pop culture to teach in the classroom. The post offers teachers an alternative to bashing pop culture and struggling to capture students’ attention – simply by meeting students where their interests are. It’s a straightforward concept but an important one . Consider  the 53 hours spent on screens per week.  If led in the right direction by pop-savvy educators, more could be supporting the learning and growth process rather than being wasted or worse.

Meeting students where their interests lie allows educators to better communicate with pupils. Students who aren’t interested in discussing historical details are likely to open up quickly when you mention a popular YouTube video or sports team. Even if the video isn’t directly related to learning, it can help capture the attention of students who might otherwise be uninterested.

“Let them tell you about their world and you’ll have a much easier time telling them about yours,” says history professor Clay Morgan. “Effective teaching hinges upon communication, and you can’t communicate without entering into the world of those you wish to reach.”

As the article reports, this extensive exposure to media could be a useful tool to introducing certain topics that could otherwise be unfavorable or unpopular in the modern-day classroom. Mercedes offers some tips:

•          Create lessons that will linger in students’ minds.One teacher completely rewrote the lyrics to Dynamite by Taio Cruz, creating a new song, Satellite (I’m Galileo), complete with historically correct references. Students may not remember every single one of those references, but as they struggle to get lyrics like “I throw my telescope in the air sometimes/Saying AYO-/I’m Galileo” out of their minds, you can be certain they’re thinking about Galileo.

•          Use popular culture as a conversation starter. Spark discussion in your classroom by showing relevant film clips that get students interested. The National Education Association recommends using clips as a focal point for discussion, and as a resource that encourages interaction. Film is especially useful for starting conversations, as students may have a strong opinion about what they’ve seen and naturally will want to share.

•          Encourage students to write about what interests them.Teacher Gaetan Pappalardo encourages other educators to allow students to write on subjects that matter to them. Relating a story of an eight-year-old student who couldn’t believe he was allowed to write a paper about Transformers, Pappalardo explains the value behind giving students freedom to express their interests:

“Being told what to write year after year can be compared to a wild animal held in captivity for a very long time. When it’s released back into the wild (writing freedom), when the iron door lifts, their eyes say, ‘What the hell do you want me to do now?’”

Giving students some freedom in their writing may allow them to be more excited and passionate about writing.

See more tips at: http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2013/03/cool-teachers-guide-pop-culture-classroom/

While it’s not news that children are regularly exposed to potentially-harmful pop culture, solutions to this parental conundrum are generally limited to difficult-to-enforce media use restrictions. If children, however, could be guided to view popular culture with a critical eye in the classroom, this generation might be less vulnerable to the unhealthy side of popular culture after all. The post offers some success stories, including one of Rachel Schneider, who teaches Women’s Popular Genres at University of Texas:

Rachel Schneider […] has used pop culture to introduce students to reading practices in the course. In the first week of her course, Schneider’s students examined Destiny’s Child Independent Women Part I in close reading, taking notes on the lyrics, costumes, dancing, and more. Students were able to read the material deeply, and also put it into musical and political context, considering the video in terms of feminism and cultural relevance. Schneider believes that this video provided good material for rhetorical and literary analysis, and at the end of the course, the students identified this particular text as a favorite.

At BALANCE, we believe that creating healthier alternatives will lead to children focusing more attention on pop culture that supports their healthy development.

We encourage conversations about the pop culture that crossover into both the home and the classroom. By using pop culture, teachers can more easily engage students in the classroom. And through the analysis of music and other media, teachers in classrooms can also teach students to think critically about lyrics, leaving youth less susceptible to simply absorbing lyrics and media that are violent, misogynist or glorifying consumption. Through this hands-on application of teaching students to examine and critique what they know, critical thinking and analysis skills could be learned and fostered in the classroom. The end of Mercede’s article sums it up perfectly:

Students are connecting with media, no doubt, but educators can influence and steer at least some of that connection into media that offers educational value […] Pop culture is more than entertainment; it’s a useful tool for connecting with students, improving engagement, and deepening understanding. And of course, it’s fun to turn students from uninterested zombies into students interested in zombies.

The influx of pop culture in children’s lives  continues to escalate with increasing access to iPods, smart phones, and laptops.  As educators of the next generation, it is our responsibility to help students digest popular culture in a way that serves their highest good.

What ideas do you have for using pop culture as  a way to engage students in conversations that build their self- knowledge and critical thinking skills?

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