Five Ideas for Using Pop Culture to Inspire Elementary Students | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I had a student ask me for a month straight, almost every day, if it was okay to write a story about Transformers. At the beginning of each writing workshop, he would stroll up to me and ask the same question.

"Yes, you can write a story with Transformers in it." I thought I sounded sincere.

"Are you sure?" he would ask.

He just couldn't believe what I was telling him. He surely didn't want to carve out a long piece of writing only for me to tell him, "That's not allowed." Or, "Transformers are not for school." Maybe even, "You need to write about important things in your life." It's obvious these exact excuses were once uttered in his direction. More than once, I'm sure. It took a month to break this pattern, to get him to relax and write. A month, people. That's a tough knot to loosen and untie that doesn't really need to be in the first place.

The High Costs of the Knot

Vicki Spandel, author of The 9 Rights of Every Writer, makes a great analogy that clarifies what probably happened to my young sc-fi writer up there. I'm not exactly sure of the exact quote, but it goes something like this: 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?"

I totally related with this little guy. When I was eight, twenty-some-odd years ago, sword-wielding mice, superheroes and hockey were meant to stay home -- not for school. It's really no different today except for maybe the teachers who haven't forgotten what it's like to be a kid, the teachers who understand that there's energy in a measly piece of plastic or a silly cartoon.

Exploit the Energy

Brock Dethier, in his book From Dylan to Donne, states that in order to connect with our students we need to exploit the energy that our students invest in traditionally scorned genres -- not only sci-fi and fantasy, but the cheesy, the painfully trite, and repulsively romantic.

I'm not sure if we can successfully connect with our students without dabbling in their after school activities. I'm not saying you have to sing along with Justin Bieber (I like to rile up my girls by calling him "Justin Beaver") or even enjoy SpongeBob's silly antics. But you absolutely have to acknowledge the fact that your students value this, love it even. It gets them up in the morning, pulls them through the day. It's their life. And if you don't care about it, they know. And it definitely influences the culture of the classroom.

Kids naturally mix pop culture and "school stuff" to create a mish-mash genre. Thomas Newkirk, in his article "Popular Culture and Writing Development," cites Anne Dyson for naming this trend "hybridization." Most teachers allow this to happen. However, "allowing" and "encouraging" are totally two different animals. Allowing is good, but if you encourage kids to use pop culture in the classroom...fuhgeddaboudit.

Five Mini Pop Lessons

1) D-D-N Most fiction is made up of D-D-N: Description, Dialogue, and Narration. Now if you teach a younger grade, most kids begin their story telling careers by either narrating you to death or creating a large random story of nameless talkers. I try to simplify the art of fiction by using comic books. Basically I point out that the speech bubbles are dialogue (character needs a name tag), the rectangular box usually at the bottom of each panel is the narration, and the illustrations are the descriptions. A friend of mine took this a little further by using Fluffy, the three-headed dog from Harry Potter, as a reminder for her students. Each head was designated a D, D, or N. if you had too much or too little of a certain element, the heads would rise and fall accordingly.

Free Online Comic Creator

2) Race Cars So, what I do here is bring my son's racetrack with battery-operated cars to school. Oooh -- ahhhh. Let the little buggers go and teach elapsed time. I like to let the kids experiment with track formations, inclines, declines, and obstacles. How do they affect time? Come on, who doesn't like playing with race cars?

3) Pop-Pop-Pop-Music Have you ever heard twenty eight-year-olds singing with pop and energy, "Here I am (Gunk-Gunk . . . Gunk-Gunk) rock you like a hurricane." Well, if you haven't, it's angelic. Music is filled with figurative language -- similes, personification, hyperbole, etc. Using lyrics in the classroom is nothing new. However, with little guys, I love showing them the lyrics (format, punctuation, shape) and reading it like a poem. Then I spin the tune and their eyes bulge. Wow! It's important for young writers to begin to understand the magnitude of words and how to choose their words wisely. Especially when they are writing short pieces and poems.

4) Hockey Rink The lessons are endless: shapes, perimeter, measuring length, width, and angles. My favorite lesson is adding a map scale to the rink. Students research standard measurements of an NHL hockey rink and then create a scale to represent distance. For example: The standard NHL hockey rink is 200 ft. long. So, depending on the size of the printout, one inch might represent ten feet or so. You can use a baseball or football field as well, however, the hockey rink is a little more diversified with its lines, circles, and semicircles. (Free Hockey Diagram Printouts)

5) Action Figures and Dolls I have to admit that I've spent hundreds of hours of my childhood playing with action figures in my basement. That's where I started to write stories. However, they were never literally written, just performed with plastic and metal. My epic basement battles would have never happened if the characters I put into action didn't have a story of their own. Their history gave them motives. And the better the character the better the story.

Character development in my writing class begins with Action Figure Day. I round up all of my old action figures and dolls (and some of my son, Max's) and set them up around the room: Superheroes, Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers -- the lot. Then we conduct web-based research on the back-story of each character. The main idea of this lesson is to inspire junior writers to create original characters by giving them a "life." Next, put those characters into motion by writing a story. Ah, the good-old days.

Do you use popular culture to inspire your students? Please share your experiences!

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Sarah's picture
Kindergarten teacher from Florida

Thank you for the great article and examples of how teachers can relate to their students. I enjoyed your story about Transformers! I teach kindergarten and my students are always talking about the latest action figures, dolls, TV shows, etc. I think that it is important to make learning relevant to students. Teachers can do that by using topics that interest students and relating them to academics. I feel that this can improve student learning.

Denise Littman's picture
Denise Littman
Student in master's degree program

Fantastic! It seems so obvious (after I read the article). I don't think there could be a better way to connect with your students and have the lesson sink in. I have been studying the Understanding By Design method of curriculum development, and this just hits a home run. It is the perfect start to a lesson! After all, it isn't really what the students are writing about -- it's that they are learning the mechanics and technique of writing.

Thank you for the wake-up call. I have two young children of my own, so the "culture" is already in place. Now I have to incorporate it into my lessons. Thanks again!

Hollie Walraven's picture
Hollie Walraven
Science Teacher, K-2

I think that your story about Transformers is GREAT! For this little guy obviously transformers are very important to him or he would not want to write about them everyday. For us as adults, transformers may seem silly. But that might be all he has and if he is that interested in them then I think that is great. Just because us a teachers may not understand or relate to some of the topics that our students choose to write about does not mean that they are not of importance. I also like to get my little girls in a tizzy and call Justin Bieber, Justin Beaver. That really gets them going.

Meghan Hovan's picture
Meghan Hovan
Use to be 3rd grade teacher now subbing in Minneapolis, MN.

What a great post. I have always struggled with teaching writing to my students because they just didn't want to do it. I always thought that if I gave them the prompt they woule feel better about writing but they still never got into it. I like the idea of letting them write about their interest in pop culture, WOW!!
I volunteer in a secnd grade classroom and they write all the time. The teacher lets them choose to write about what they are thinking at that moment. You should see what they come up with. They are great and the stories they tell, I love reading their journal entries. And they always have something more they want to add.
I also agree with Wayne's comment about connecting with students. If you don't know their interests then you really don't know who your students are. Connecting is an important part of being a teacher.

Darby Boardman's picture
Darby Boardman
Third grade teacher from West Palm Beach, Florida

The five ideas that you listed are great ways to encourage children and motivate them. I completely agree with using Pop Culture as a tool when teaching children. You need to be "relate-able" to children. If they can see you as a person, who might even be interested in something they are interested in, then student learning will be successful.

Something I do everyday with Pop Culture is play up to date radio hits, kid bop version, in my classroom. You will hear it during "down time" and I even have my kids asking me to put it on during independent work time. They love the fact that I know the songs and sing along with them. Sometimes I even get the "Miss B how'd ya know that song?" Like I live under a rock, haha!

I definitely plan to incorporate the heros/ action figures to my writing next year with teaching character. I found that at you can create your own super hero comic character and this year I allowed my students to do just that. Then they had to incorporate this character into their writing. Wow did they enjoy that!

Juan Gonzalez's picture
Juan Gonzalez
1st grade teacher from WA

It is interesting to me to hear how the student had to ask to write about something he enjoys. In my first grade class, we have a writing curriculum that allows students to write about whatever interests them. This allows them to be more motivated to write and in the process become better writers. I totally agree that using pop culture is a great way to inspire our students.

Travia Ferebee's picture

I really enjoyed reading about your experiences with your students. I agree that it is necessary to incorporate the issues and things that our students are interested in in their real lives with our lessons. I am a teacher of students with special needs, and I find that this is very helpful in the classroom to help students really get the concepts of what I am trying to teach. I also really enjoyed your idea about using the comic books to discuss dialogue, description, and narration.

Laura's picture
Special Education Teacher

I loved the idea about the music. It is so easy to forget what is right in front of our noses everyday. The students walk through the halls for hours, and sometimes days, singing the songs that their teacher has played in the classroom. On top of that, they can now identify the figurative language that is in there! I have some parents say it drives them crazy when they are in the car listening to music. I love it! Haha

Teresita Frazier's picture

Sometimes I use music in my math classes, one of many incentives for students to see if they are able to focus, yet stay on task as they listen and work math at the same time. It actually sets calmness; try smooth jazz. I used it in the beginning of class when they are working on "quick reviews of the day".

ndmoore's picture

Last year I had the opportunity to visit the Ron Clark Acadamey. Throughout the classrooms they used popular music along with teacher made lyrics to encourage motivation, participation, and togetherness. This was also a positive tool to use in teaching content. I do agree with the five ideas of using pop culture. Relating to the students is a great way to get them involved in their learning. I sit with my daughter and watch cartoons and other tween shows. I listen to various stations and search the internet, trying to use what the students see to relate to them.

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