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

Comments (32)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

David Leonard's picture
David Leonard
Second & Third Grade Teacher in Cobb, CA

Hello Gaetan,
Thank you for reminding me of the power of creating comics. My class spent their time in the computer lab using to create their own comic. It's amazing to see the instant inspiration that arises from this form of publication. I gave a five minute tutorial on my Smart Board and that was all they needed. We'll definitely be spending some more time on D, D, N in the future. Sometimes we forget the resources we have within reach.
Our computer lab printer doesn't work currently, but you are able to email the comic you create so I had them email them to me. Thanks for this great column and sharing your ideas.

LearnMeProject's picture

Pop culture of the day is always dismissed as trivial whereas pop culture of yore loses the "pop" modifier and is, therefore, considered less trivial and more meaningful. As long as kids--elementary but older as well--are thinking about things, analyzing, making connections, developing and expressing their ideas in the context of what they know, I think using pop culture in the classroom is a no brainer. Before you know it students will be asking questions--about historical context and larger cultural issues, for example--that will lead the discussion in a distinctly un-pop direction. Or, vice-versa, use the un-pop to leadn up to the pop; make sure your students know that Taylor Swift or Lebron James or Modern Family is coming soon.

michelle kopp's picture
michelle kopp
Special Education Parent and Teacher

I allow my students to use Mangas and other reading materials like magazines to do their reading from. This translates into their writing. They love to be allowed to write about the things they love. When I give an example in class of dialogue from SpongeBob, or characterization from ICarly, they giggle with excitement. Do I personally love these shows? No, I watch them with my kids. However, it gives me a connection with my students that helps them want to work for me.

Ladon Brumfield, Girls Rule!'s picture
Ladon Brumfield, Girls Rule!
Director/Facilitator at Girls Rule! - Inspiring Girls to Blend...OUT!

This is a great article and the 5 suggestions are great places to start. We began incorporating pop culture, specifically music in our Girls Rule! as a means of connecting with teens and tweens a few years ago. It is a great way to leverage their energy and interests while teaching valuable lessons. Thank you for sharing!

Ladon Brumfield, Girls Rule - Inspiring Girls to Blend...OUT!

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

Arts integration is a way to use this pop culture connection. We have had great success in our school using this teaching strategy. In essence, you are teaching the content through the arts. So kids can learn geometry through the cha-cha slide. Or punctuation through drama. It is truly a revolutionary way to bring pop culture into the classroom and create relevant connections. Learn more at

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Thank you Gaetan,

I have been making papercraft models from this worldwide website for over a year now, some for myself (models for an adult me :-) and for my students, who as you already mentioned go bonkers about Pokemon, Manga, Fantasy Heroes, Disney movies. etc.

They are all free downloads to print, and then scissors, fold, and glue...

Teachers can select which models to use and how much assistance to provide students based on age and abilities, etc.

Craft skills, geometry, model building, storytelling, you name it...

You'all have fun "Kindergarten for Life" can lead to "Paper Engineering", which is now a very high-paying career, ask Mr. George Lucas... :-)

Wayne Sheldrick PhD's picture
Wayne Sheldrick PhD
Educational Speaker, Writer and Coach

Great post Gaetan. I agree with Keith's comment "make an effort to connect to our students and to see the way they construct meaning from the world around them." Not relating to our students is the single greatest cause of misbehavior in the classroom. When students don't feel they are part of the group and that their ideas and interests are valued the have no vested interest in working. There are too few "teachers who haven't forgotten what it's like to be a kid,". We need to put the kids first and the curriculum second. Thanks

Meri Kahle's picture
Meri Kahle
7th & 8th Interrelated Sped (Language Arts) from rural Kansas

And the effects of tying it to pop culture are longer lasting! In 8th grade, my awesome English teacher Mr. Coleman, reinforced our instruction over parts of speech by having us choose a song's lyrics and identifying each word in the song by part of speech and usage. We had some very insightful conversations about subjects, predicates, prepositional phrases, etc. The song I chose was "The Logical Song" by Supertramp! And now 31 years later, I can still hear the song and pick out the parts of speech! Anything we can do to make it meaningful and connect to what they know, sticks!!! :)

Teresita Frazier's picture

Quite an interesting way to connect with learners using pop culture in meeting learning objectives. I wondered if English or LA textbooks include any pop culture activity incorporated in their lessons. Perhaps students can create a list of lyrics for their use in class. I'd probably use one of my favorites (1980's) and have them make comparison to parts of speech on old and new lyrics.

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.

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