Imagine, if you will, that each of your students receives the gift of a blank white wall. A wall displayed somewhere prominently in your community. A wall that is theirs to decorate, as long as it is uniquely them. What will they create? This image is one that I keep in the back of my mind when consuming the world around me and planning student learning. I keep it there to remind myself that I want students to be in control of their world, not to be a passive receptacle consuming the messages that society feeds them. That blank white wall is why I bring the real world into the classroom, as much as possible.
Think of these as simple tips to find these pop culture, zeitgeist, real world moments to bring into the classroom. As you layer in pop culture, it’ll increase the classroom culture, colleague collaboration, and student engagement.
1.Create a Running a List of Student Interests and Keep It Handy
Knowing your students may seem easy to some, and most teachers are already doing this through formal and informal work. If you stress about this, the easiest way to learn about your students is to build relationships with them: talk to them about non-academics, show you care, share a piece of yourself. Tangible objects could be surveys, an exit slip asking them to create 3 symbols that represent themselves and interests, share your theme song and ask students to bring their theme song, journal back and forth with students.
For me, it’s the keeping it handy that trips me up, and perhaps you too. When it’s not natural, we need a tangible reminder to build the habit. How could you make your student interests visible to you in your daily life? Consider creating a list of top 10 interests of your students or of a particular class. Or, a list of the interests of the top 5 disengaged students in your classroom, right now. Take that list and make it a screensaver on your phone, make it the background on your computer, or a bookmark for the book you are reading.
- Do It Yourself and Share
It is an unreasonable expectation to ask students to do something if we ourselves don’t do it. If you ask your students to write then write, too. If you ask your students to read then read, too. The same is true of analyzing the real world. As adults, we have lenses that we view the world. Next step is making it visible to your students. How are you sharing, or not sharing, your real world analysis with students?
Students will see that you are doing what you are asking of them and gain exposure to a lense that might just become their lense to view the world. Back when Twilight was a huge deal, I had a student who went on about how great Twilight was when she finished it. I shared that I wasn’t a fan of the book because I thought that the book tried to sell us a strong, female character when in reality it’s another damsel in distress story and gave a few examples. The next day, she rushed into class to tell me that she had re-read the book last night and she could see what I was talking about with Bella. But, she still loved the book. What’s important is that she considered the message and analyzed it. And, she did it with an outside reading choice!
- Find a way to listen, watch, or consume what your students are consuming, every once in awhile.
One of my top take-aways from Falling in Love with Close Reading is the idea of taking songs that your students like to introduce a skill or close reading lense. To some, bringing a song in tomorrow might scare you. At first, I know that I worried about bringing in a popular song and realizing it’s corny.
Talk to your students or survey your students about their pop culture interests. Try doing this when you’re planning a unit because interests change. Then, go consume, consume, consume. You might be saying that I don’t have time to do that. That’s why I put “every once in awhile”; time commitment is up to you. You could listen to your students’ favorite station on the way to work rather than NPR once a week. DVR an episode of Teen Wolf (not the seminal Michael J. Fox movie, though that’s super awesome…the MTV TV show) and watch it with commercials. Read a book, or a snippet of a book, that’s sweeping the nation: think Hunger Games or Fault in Our Stars. While you listen, watch, or read, think of the messages and themes of the media. Start keeping a list because it might connect to a later unit.
What about if I really, truly don’t have time to enjoy my own pop culture, how will I ever consume my students’ pop culture? It’s true that we all can’t be Lorelai and Rory Gilmores. There are other ways. Do a search to see if the themes or subjects of a handful of their favorites align with your upcoming unit. Consider old favorites for your students or even old favorites for you. A tip about movies: the most currently released movies won’t be available to watch in a classroom, but their trailers are all over the interwebs.
- Break your units into themes and reflect on where you’ve seen or see those themes.
If you don’t already do this, thematic approach to your teaching can help you when it comes to making connections. As you plan your units, take your theme(s) and do a quick brainstorm of where you’ve seen that theme play out in the real world. Go big and list multiple possibilities and think about how each clip provides a nuance to the concept building. Head to YouTube or a search engine and look for videos that relate to your concept. This can work for teachers as well, especially the non-examples.
Part of using a media clip can also be to provide a low-complexity and engaging text for assessment, which means you can actually assess the skill of the students without worrying if they missed the bar because they couldn’t do it or because they didn’t understand the text. This is one of those perfect times to use a popular culture clip from your own knowledge. I wanted to pre-asses writing skill, use of evidence, and basic understanding of a revolution. Using a historical revolution would have been too much time devoted to background building; I needed a simple to understand piece, which landed me on Chicken Run. I chose specific scenes that help argue “Is Chicken Run a revolution? Explain.”
- Collaborate with colleagues, neighbors, friends, and kids.
No time to search, show the list to a colleague, family member, or friend and talk to them about your upcoming unit. Do they have any connections they can think of to these pieces? Or, would they mind taking a look at your student interests and your possible ideas. Instantly your list of 40 pop culture references has been winnowed down to a list of five possible connections, extensions, or assessment pieces.
Find the media-holic. When you are getting ready to plan a unit or thinking of way to hook a certain student, collaborate with these people to find your “pop culture text”. Then, you do the heavy lifting of connecting your standards and content to the pop culture text. When you open up for collaboration, you end up benefitting from your colleagues.