Reading & Literacy

Pop Culture’s Place in the Classroom

By Liana Loewus — November 22, 2011 2 min read
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This will be my last writeup on NCTE. Overall, I have to say it was an impressive conference, especially content-wise (the logistics were a bit hectic for me, but perhaps that’s to be expected with about 7,000 attendees and 50 concurrent sessions during each time slot).

On Friday, three high school teachers from Gresham, Ore., presented on ways to use pop culture in addressing state literacy standards. In their session, “Can Lady Gaga and Hamlet Coexist?,” the young teachers began from the premise that the answer to their title was yes. They devoted no time to debating the value or appropriateness of particular material—instead, the presenters stuck to explaining how and to what ends they infuse lessons with pop culture.

Rana Houshmand said she uses pop culture mainly for scaffolding difficult literacy skills. She finds that students do well when they ease into a skill using content they are comfortable with. When teaching students to answer literal, influential, and evaluative questions, she begins by asking those questions about popular visual images, then about song lyrics. Eventually students dive into more difficult academic texts.

Eli Nolde, the next presenter, offered some creative ideas on incorporating pop culture to boost engagement. He explained that he had attempted to use a Nathaniel Hawthorne excerpt for a Read Aloud-Think Aloud (in which the teacher reads something to the class and stops intermittently to explain what he or she is thinking at that moment), and was dismayed to see students rolling their eyes and putting their heads down on desks. He decided to try again, this time with a text that was familiar to his students but not to him: the Call of Duty game manual. The exercise exposed his own “illiteracies,” he said, and gave the students a chance to be experts. Watching him authentically struggle with comprehension gave them a model for being metacognitive in their own difficult reading, he said.

In teaching students to compare works and analyze themes, Nolde introduces a soundtrack project. Students create a mix CD soundtrack for a play, book, poem, or character, justifying each of their song choices in writing.

The presentation became a brainstorming session of sorts when the high school teachers threw it out to the audience to describe how they use pop culture to teach literacy. Here are few interesting ideas and online tools that came up:

Toondoo—Create comic strips based on a text.

Pinterest—Make an online bulletin board for a character or text.

Facebook—Create a Facebook page for a fictional character. (One teacher without much access to technology gave her students the option to make pages by hand.)

Grooveshark—Make online music playlists for the soundtrack project.

Edmodo— Have students use this social networking site to post book quotes on the class wall and discuss the text.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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