Instructor: Pop Culture In the Classroom-Engaging Middle Schoolers

By Nancy Mann Jackson

1. Become a gamer.

Playing video games is a favorite pastime for many of your students, so why not look at your curriculum through the lens of games? When talking about how disease affects the human body, have students imagine germs or viruses as the villains and white blood cells and antibodies as the heroes. For a history lesson, have them imagine the setting and the various characters in a battle or conflict. Then, ask students to write a detailed plan for a video game that incorporates elements of your unit of study, including illustrations of scenes.

2. Spoof a favorite TV show.

Allow students to bring their favorite shows into the classroom by creating their own versions. For a social studies class, they could do a spoof on current events, like they might see on The Simpsons. For a history lesson, students can retell historical events using modern characters from a TV show. For a literature class, they might dramatize the events of a novel read in class or create a story of their own. Taping their own shows can include writing a script, working as a team, playing roles, and using video technology.


3. Karaoke in a foreign tongue.

Susanna Zaraysky, a former substitute teacher and the author ofLanguage Is Music, once organized a Spanish-only karaoke contest for her eighth graders. They chose Spanish versions of their favorite pop songs and, after submitting the lyrics for approval, worked with partners to act out the songs, as in a music video. Each group had to explain what the song was about. “Not only did the kids have fun dressing up and dramatizing the lyrics, they also learned to pronounce the words correctly,” Zaraysky says. “The language was alive for them, not just words in a book.”


4. Go into sales.

Every day, students are ­bombarded with advertising through television, print, and the Internet—and these ads play an important role in popular culture. Subjects such as persuasive writing or speaking, economics, and history all offer opportunities for students to examine their experiences with advertising. Ask students to bring in copies of print ads or watch favorite commercials in class. Discuss the psychology behind each ad and whether it’s effective. Consider comparing historical advertisements with contemporary ones, so they can see how things have changed, or stayed the same. Ask students to create their own ads in print or on video to share with the class.


5. Connect with music.

Instead of telling her students they were going to study poetry, former English teacher Gaye Weintraub introduced the unit by passing out copies of song lyrics and asking for student feedback. Next, she asked students to bring in the lyrics to their own favorite songs; after reading them aloud, they discussed the meanings behind some of the words, the tone, and the compositions. Finally, Weintraub talked about how songs are a form of poetry, and how poets, like songwriters, use similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech to connect with the audience. “Most students ended up in the library looking for more books on poetry and brought poems they discovered on their own to me,” says Weintraub.


6. Go to the movies.

Find ways to incorporate your students’ favorite films into the curriculum. For instance, a number of newly released films about superheroes (such as The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man) could offer a jumping-off point for studying heroes and villains. Have the class compare and contrast the characters from the movies with the real-life or literary heroes you are studying. See if analyzing the movies can help them determine the characteristics of the archetypal hero.


7. Dissect a sitcom.

Renee Hobbs, founder of the Media Education Lab at Temple University and author of Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom, designed a curriculum based on Nickelodeon’s iCarly, one of the most popular programs for this age group. Hobbs’s curriculum uses short excerpts from the show and requires students to analyze the personalities of the various characters and then create a chart to categorize the five different types of humor in the show: slapstick, visual, insults, wordplay, and running gags. You might do something similar with another popular sitcom, or ask students to conduct online research to learn about a program’s history, its production process, and its fans. 

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