Using Pop Culture for Student Engagement: How To Channel Contemporary Works Into Your Classroom Lessons

Amongst the literary gods, there is room for those still waiting for ascension.

Film Review: Justice League — Strange Harbors

Student engagement has always been a challenge for teachers. As educators, we don’t just want our kids to learn but we want them to enjoy that learning; we want their enthusiasm, their adoration, and their enrapturement. We watch films like The Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Emperor’s Club and imagine students who are entranced, ensnared and invested in every syllable of every word we speak. We envision applauds at the end of our brilliant lectures and discussions or maybe a hardy thrumming of knuckles on desks to signify their collective admiration for our wisdom.

So when we look out into the faces of our students and see disinterest, boredom, and disconnect, it hurts.

High school kids are bored and not learning. Here's how to fix that. - Vox

For a time, the problem of engagement – or more precisely the lack thereof – was handled with apathy and indifference. If a child didn’t want to learn and didn’t want to engage with the material, they would take the failing grade and both parties – teacher and pupil alike – would move on. The notion of the stuffy academic at the high school and college level lecturing to a group of bored, listless and indifferent students was as common a trope in television and films as the muscle-clad hero or the masked slasher and in that subtle social commentary, a reflection of a broader truth that has plagued education for a very long time is evident: kids are routinely and understandably not interested in the things educators want and need to teach them.

And really, as children, were we so very different?

That of course isn’t to say there weren’t works of literature and lessons in history that inspired me as a child and young adult but when looking back on my own journey through public education, I can attest to the fact that I was consistently disengaged with the material. It is natural for an emerging generation to be resistant to the “old” and more invested with the “new”, and while that might frustrate adults, it also provides educators with a unique opportunity to engage these students by weaponizing – in a good way – the very things they love.

The Snobbery Problem

Pop culture is a bit of a loaded term. Academics often use it as an interchangeable synonym for lowbrow contemporary works of literature, film, television and more recently, videogames and the designation often implies a negative or dismissive connotation.

Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte are art.

Stephen King is pop culture kitsch.

Of course, anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about Victorian writers like Dickens and the Bronte Sisters can easily convey the reality that they too were the pop culture icons of their day, just as Shakespeare – that most lauded highbrow wordsmith – was once considered a vulgarian peddling bawdy wares to the commoners. Once you remove the snobbery of the term pop culture and genuinely examine what precisely that label entails, you rapidly discover the fallacy of applying intellectual and artistic merit based on the age of the material in question.  

Note that in recent years Stephen King – one of the most prolific and successful authors of all time – has seen his work adopted both informally and formally at various levels of academia and many critics – including those who once dismissed him as the literary equivalent of junk food – are now re-evaluating his sizeable contributions not merely to horror fiction but to the broader landscape of American literature, which includes a staggeringly brilliant output of short stories that have been instrumental in keeping that particular literary form commercially viable.

Stephen King Books Pleated face Masks Super Limited

Roger Ebert once penned an infamous editorial where he flatly and intractable claimed that videogames could not be art. While Ebert was and remains one of the greatest cinematic critics of all time, his postulation – erudite as it may be – was as flawed a decade ago as it is today. That is because Ebert’s assertion was ultimately fueled by his detachment from a burgeoning and evolving medium that he had no personal investment in and therefore he could not envision a game that would rival those works for which he had dedicated the entirety of his professional life analyzing. To his intellectual credit, Ebert did attempt to buttress and futureproof his claims by explaining that the possibility of a game eventually ascending beyond the current functional pablum that the medium now occupied was possible but he was quick to add that such a game was unlikely to be made anytime soon.

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Today, the notion that videogames cannot be considered a legitimate artform has largely evaporated. While the medium is still broadly considered to be comprised of functional product, the continued expansion of the videogame market – which includes a torrent of indie software, many of which are deeply personal and courageously tackle some of the most paramount societal issues of the day – has demonstrated just how wrong the detractors were about gaming.

This aside is relevant for the simple reason that the young often must endure the condescension of the older generations who are often resistant to their interests and, far too often, are content to denounce or otherwise marginalize those interests for the sake of buoying the “classics.” And while as educators we know many of those classics are considered thus for damn fine reasons, trying to pump this down the throats of our kids isn’t a particularly healthy or effective strategy when the goal is engagement along with those crucial and valuable connections.

Avengers Assemble

Once we can admit that the snobbery and elitism levied against pop culture is absolutely unnecessary and intellectually specious, that gives us as educators license to use it freely.

I’ve been using relevant pop culture in my ELA classroom since the very beginning of my teaching career. While it most assuredly helps that I happen to enjoy many of the same films and TV shows as my students, that affinity – however genuine it might make me seem to my kids – is largely incidental because what matters to them is how they relate to the material I utilize in my classroom. I teach all sorts of classic literature and I will continue to do so as long as I am an educator but I also utilize pop culture every single opportunity that I can and for two very specific reasons:

  • Student engagement is practically guaranteed. When I play a clip from a popular film even the most stubborn kids usually pay attention, and they usually keep paying attention once the clip has ended because what got their attention keeps them tuned in for the extrapolation by me and my other students.
  • Students tend to retain what is interesting to them. You don’t have to be a cognitive scientist to know that we retain what we register as interesting and compelling. You can teach a kid the concept of foreshadowing and have them look up the definition and even cite it in a text but show them a powerful image or a memorable film clip and they will never forget the concept.

One of the best examples I can share is the teaching of irony. Irony is one of those things that most people understand on a visceral and instinctual level but ask most adults to give an academic definition and they would probably struggle. When introducing or reinforcing irony, I discovered that showing the students filmic examples worked considerably better than merely explaining or even letting them read examples in literature. Instead, I created a foundation of comprehension predicated on familiar pop culture moments, using everything from the opening of the comedy The Other Guys to a popular scene in the superhero film the Avengers where Loki admonishes The Hulk and demands respect as a god before being slammed around like a literal ragdoll and is effectively lowered by several pegs.

Here is a video of that scene and me explaining, precisely, how I utilize it to teach a difficult concept.

Watch Marvel Studios' The Avengers | Full Movie | Disney+

When discussing POV, I have utilized brief clips from video games such as Call of Duty and Gears of War to demonstrate the difference between 1st and 3rd person. When explaining parallel episodes, I showed my students different lightsaber battles from the various Star Wars films and the two fights between Batman and Bane in the Nolan film The Dark Knight Rises, which demonstrates the oft-used trope of a hero being beaten, humbled, and then returning stronger to claim victory. I have used Thanos from the Marvel films to explain the concept of a villain and The Punisher to better elucidate the concept of an anti-hero. I have employed episodes of The Twilight Zone to teach myriad literary concepts and skills and I analyzed the opening scene from the film JAWS to demonstrate the type of suspense-building that Hitchcock referred to as “playing god.”

While it would be easy to assume that my students are getting an education on pop culture, that would be reductive and inaccurate. The truth is that these pop culture references – some of them new and some of them older – are simply a form of scaffolding; a means to prop up my kids and get them closer to understanding key concepts. When I show my classes The Simpsons version of The Monkey’s Paw, they love it but they have also read that text several times and enjoy it all the more because they enjoy that frame of reference. When I show my students a creepy short film like Bedfellows, it is in service to a broader lesson on situational irony that will aid them well as they begin to reads Poe’s seminal short work The Tell-Tale Heart.

Perhaps the real power of utilizing pop culture is that a clever educator can use it as a type of gateway – a means of getting students to dip their toe into more vaunted academic works. Show kids a couple of creepy shorts on YouTube and whet their appetite for more and then introduce them to the macabre narratives of Poe or the dark ironies of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Like so many things at our disposal, using pop culture isn’t about replacement but rather supplement and teachers today have the resources to offer their students so many wonderful and varied ways to connect to lessons and concepts.

Of course, ultimately, the choice remains in the hands of educators. Those who reject outright the potential efficacy of including pop culture into their lessons do so at their own peril but for those willing to embrace the contemporary and bring the fun, expect your kids to be much happier, interested, and above all, engaged.

The Last Kids on Earth | Netflix Official Site

Digital Storytelling as a Tool for Comprehension

How Web 2.0 Digital Storytelling Can Make Our Students Better Readers

Being an ELA teacher, it goes without saying that student comprehension of the narratives I assign is paramount and effectively flows into and out of practically every assignment I require. The challenge – especially as students are expected to read grade-level appropriate texts that require rigorous analysis and deconstruction – is ensuring that such comprehension is equitable so that all my learners have the opportunity to understand what they are reading. This can be especially difficult when students are required to read older texts, such as Shakespeare and Poe, because the language employed by these seminal but antique writings makes comprehension that much more a struggle, especially for students with learning disabilities, ELD students, and those with lower levels of literacy.

One of the most effective solutions for helping students with comprehension is asking them to retell the story in their own words.

To be clear, this is not exactly a summary but rather a restatement of the story, as if the students is the writer or the storyteller. Instead of mere summation, retelling allows the student to employ both text and some manner of nonlinguistic representation.

In the past, teachers were limited to how their students could retell stories, utilizing traditional physical assignments, including drawing pictures or cutting out photos and art from newspapers and magazines. Fortunately, the advent of technology and Web 2.0 resources has granted educators a bevy of options, including digital storytelling, which offers educators, students, and anyone else the opportunity to tell or retell a story using all sorts of multimedia and presentational options.

One such site is Elementari, which provides users – both teachers and students alike – a wide range of options for digital storytelling that includes the use of pictures, audio (including narration), video, and a broad assortment of visual flourishes. Elementari is also user-friendly and most students will be able to cobble something together with relative expediency.

There are many ways a site such as Elementari can be used to supplement learning. In this case, I have a lengthy unit on Edgar Allan Poe that students enjoy but that challenges many of them in regards to comprehension. Elementari comes in handy here because there are actually two specific ways in which I use it to aid student comprehension of the text.

For example, one of the stories we read is The Masque of the Red Death. It’s a creepy and effective story that utilizes rich language, colorful metaphors, and poignant, purposeful pacing but many students sometimes find it difficult to fully comprehend. Elementari first affords me the opportunity to transpose the text onto a presentation and insert various imagery to help students better formulate a sense of plot and theme. I use this as a second read, something to supplement student comprehension after they have completed the first read.

The next step is to have the students use Elementari – which they have already been exposed to through my presentation – to retell the story using their own words and by searching for and utilizing multimedia of their choosing.

This is a powerful and engaging way to get kids to not only retell a story but to consider its construction, thematic underpinnings, and overall tone. By using digital storytelling, we are provided the opportunity to both reinforce comprehension and give students the opportunity to demonstrate their own mastery of the text by allowing them to forge a digital, multimedia-infused reimagining of the narrative.

Want to improve comprehension?

Make your kid the storyteller.

Flexibility in 21st Century Learners

Why Their Ability to Adapt Might Save Them From Extinction

When we talk about forging a student who will invariably become a citizen of the 21st century, two of the most important skills we can and should imbue our kids with is flexibility and adaptability.

Rigidity in most things is never a particularly good thing. Dogmatic adherence or allegiance impedes the natural evolutionary process in all its forms and stymies meaningful change and reformation. A student who is rigid at a young age will more than likely only continue to calcify as they get older, making them all together inflexible at a time when perhaps that lack of flexibility might be costly to them on a professional level.

It has been predicted that many of the jobs our kids will have or seek have not even been invented yet and that many more occupations will inevitably see parameters and responsibilities shift over the course of the next several decades. This means that many of our kids will have more than one career, and some of them might actually have to change careers multiple times during their lifespan, which is a daunting if not downright terrifying proposition for those unwilling to embrace change.

Flexibility and being amendable to change is all about emotional adaptation and the ability and willingness to evolve if and when the need arises. An example of this happened recently on a massive scale when the widespread closure of public schools forced teachers of all types – from luddites to technocrats – to adapt a fully digital model to accommodate distance learning. Like a meteor striking the earth and causing a potential extinction-level event, the response from educators varied and was a mix of panic, fear, and outright bedlam. For some teachers who had wrongfully shunned all but the most perfunctory technology in the classroom, theirs was a profound struggle to implement even the most basic and rudimentary technological lessons, exposing an inflexibility that no doubt made them feel outmoded and outdated.

That feeling of fear, underscored by an abject defeatism rooted in the belief of their own impending obsolescence, is something no child should have to experience as they move towards their own chosen career paths. Kids need to understand that change is often a good thing and their ability to shift alongside their environment will make them invaluable in the long run. This focus on flexibility is also important because that ability to adapt is a natural outcome of students who have been well-versed in the full spectrum of 21st century skills.

For those teachers looking to contribute, collaborate or merely pull some resources, Edtopia offers an exciting, centralized hub that focuses specifically on the skills children will need as they progress through this century.

Beyond tests and rote memorization, we need our kids to be highly adaptable organisms so that their flourishment – rather than their extinction – is guaranteed.     

Truth is Non-Negotiable

Why the Recent Antics of Donald Trump Reinforce the Need for Information Literacy

On January 27th, 2017, when responding to critics of White House Secretary Sean Spicer’s vociferous defense of Donald Trump’s demonstrably false claims regarding the number of attendees at his inauguration, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to rebuff those who cited irrefutable evidence that Trump and Spicer were indeed lying. This term sent the media into a tailspin and forever cemented Conway as little more than a grifter and sycophantic shill for her boss. Yet, in the nearly four years since her mind-numbing utterance, the gradual erosion of the importance of truth – already diluted from more than two decades of a largely unregulated digital space where fact and opinion often fuse into something impossible to separate – has brought this nation to a place where a fair and incontrovertible electoral victory is being challenged by a sitting president; one who has also taken to the airways and the information superhighway to spread falsehoods, disinformation and outright propaganda in a transparent attempt to subvert the will of voters and sadly, millions of Americans believe his fiction.

So how in the hell did we get here?

In truth, Trump and his lies are merely a symptom of a much larger problem and that problem is that a large and growing percentage of Americans cannot tell the difference between verifiable fact and opinion, lies and manufactured fantasy. We have raised an entire generation on media that bombards them from a million different points of digital origin, each designed to titillate and garner a click or a swipe and so very much of this content nothing more substantial than the ramblings of unhinged zealots spreading misinformation like disease or cleverly constructed false news stories emblazoned with factually incorrect headlines that people read, absorb, and pass on to friends and colleagues.

A few days ago, as I was discussing the promising emergence of two Covid-19 vaccines, one of my students began talking about some bizarre conspiracy theory about these vaccines. I quickly but gently chided her and then spent a few minutes explaining to her and the rest of my students that vaccines have been nothing short of one of the most important breakthroughs in human science and medicine and that vaccines had saved literally hundreds of millions of lives.

But truthfully, that is a mild example of the effect of misinformation on kids.

It gets crazier.

Three years ago, I had a student vigorously defend Flat Earth Theory and insist that everything written in science books was wrong.

I’ve had students tell me that 9-11 was an inside job, that vaccines are a global conspiracy to tag every human being with a tracker, and that the clandestine yet somehow very well-known Illuminati controls everything from the banks to the music industry. To be clear, we’re talking about more than the dissemination of urban myths but rather students who absorb and regurgitate these falsehoods, believing them to be truisms.

Information Literacy as a Crucial Skillset

Because of this, information literacy might be among the most important skills we can teach our kids. Information literacy is, simply put, the skillset students need to navigate the ocean of information comprised of all media types in order to delineate that which is reliable, verifiable and has been rigorously vetted. Both kids and far too many adults take truth for granted and assume that if something appears on their social media feed looking official, it must be true. Case in point, a friend of mine rebutted a post I wrote about Bernie Sanders, claiming the Vermont Senator had supposedly embezzled tens of millions of dollars for his extended family. When I checked the veracity of his source, I discovered this claim had been reported by an extreme right-wing commentator who cited a debunked journalist who has already been busted for publishing false, unverified claims about other liberal politicians.

In essence, he cited not one but two confederate liars.  

Information literacy isn’t merely an academic skill but rather the fostering of a methodical and deliberately informed approach to the consumption of media. Students need to be skeptical of all media until they can verify its source and delve into their own vetting process. Kids need to know and understand that there is a monumental amount of information online that hasn’t been verified, vetted, or otherwise scrutinized and in doing so themselves, they become more informed and effective citizens.

Truth is non-negotiable. It isn’t malleable, it isn’t partisan and it doesn’t bend to the will of anyone, including the president. Truth is precious because it is pure and because, without fail, truth offers us a light out of even the darkest predicaments.

If we don’t teach our kids this important lesson, we have failed them and ultimately doomed us all.

Creativity in the Classroom

Why Kids Need More Than Tests and Worksheets

Stagnancy in the classroom doesn’t come from the children – it comes from the teacher.

Truthfully, it is so very easy to lean on what we’ve done before, especially if what we’ve done before is adequate and nobody is complaining.

But when you’re looking at your kids and all you see are faces filled with boredom, apathy or indifference, you’ve got to ask yourself if adequate is enough.

For me, the litmus test has always been thus: If I was a student in my own class, would I like it?

It’s a simple question prone to deliver devastatingly honest self-reflection if we pose it to ourselves and answer truthfully.

A colleague of mine recently opined how unfun school currently was. She and several other educators had been visiting numerous classrooms for the purposes of looking for AVID strategies and she came away feeling very sorry for the kids. In a meeting I had with her later, she admitted that so many of the kids just looked tired, bored, and inert. She lamented this and we both agreed that distance learning – imperative as it may be as we move through this global pandemic – was only making things worse.

“Where was the fun?” She asked.

Fun is a tricky word, isn’t it? It’s relative, entirely subjective, and fraught with myriad pitfalls. When we talk about fun in education what we often mean is engagement but in truth, fun is important and anyone who has ever taught knows that if you can get kids having some semblance of fun, you’ve got them learning.

Of course, let’s be honest, not every lesson can be fun. But when there is the potential for fun, how often are we exploiting that potential?

Last week I had my students do a writing prompt but at the last minute, I changed the assignment from a traditional short response to something far more interesting, compelling and dare I say, fun. Instead of writing a traditional summary and analysis about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, I had my students write a confession from the murderous narrator’s point of view. I pre-loaded this concept by showing them a picture of the DC villain the Joker and asked them to ruminate on the characteristics of this fictional individual. The students – awoken and alert by the picture and prompt – subsequently engaged in a meaningful discussion about the Joker’s insanity, which parallels the insanity of the narrator from The Tell-Tale Heart. At this point I had their attention and by the time I had explained the assignment, you could feel the electricity of synapses crackling and imagination being stoked. As a bonus I even gave students the opportunity to record themselves reading the confession as extra credit. The result was a much-improved workflow and a much larger buy-in on the assignment, along with better work product.

I could have patted myself on the back but in truth all I did something that I simply don’t do enough: I tapped creativity and fostered it in my classroom.

Creativity and innovation have rightly been identified as chief skills that every 21st learner should have and this is nothing new because creativity and innovation have always been powerful tools. Creativity propels innovation and innovation is the fuel of human evolution. We are a species that solves problems and creates solutions and then – remarkably – fine tunes those solutions even further. Our students need to be creative because they are living in a world where solutions must be created to new and emergent problems and that requires the ability to think beyond rote memorization and banal, static tests that only assess a pre-determined set of skills or facts.

But a creative classroom requires a likewise creative instructor which means as teachers we must be willing to go outside our own comfort zone and find new and exciting ways to engage our kids and their imaginations.

And that means not only teaching them about this world but letting them create a few of their own.