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Professional Learning

Five Ideas for Using Pop Culture to Inspire Elementary Students

Gaetan Pappalardo shares some tips for using pop culture to increase student engagement

January 13, 2011

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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