Pop Culture and the Pedagogue

How can teachers compete with popular culture to educate children?

One of my educational interests is studying the everyday behavior of ordinary people both from an experiential and a scholarly perspective. These everyday behaviors, elusive as the air we breathe because of individual interpretation, swirl around us as popular culture.

In my book, The Best Dressed List: Classroom Trends and Cultural Fashions, I investigate the intersection of American culture, popular culture and classroom culture and I unpack the effect the mixture has on teachers and students. I discuss values endemic to society-at-large and especially to school-aged children and youth - who take for granted growing up with a sense of entitlement, capture world news in sound bites and shop via the Internet. Many parents, either being overly devoted or through opportunistic bonding activities, have taught their children to seek attention rather than think about their world.

These same children willingly practice free throws by the hour, but time their reading by the minute; obsess about weight and body image, but lobby for junk food in the school cafeteria. They run marathons for disease prevention, but ignore taking precautions against STDs. Teachers, caught off guard in the midst of clashing values, find themselves forced to compete in ways never imagined.

What teacher education program prepares students to bring the excitement of the big screen to the classroom? How many teachers command attention and communicate information with the intensity of an online instant message? Although students who major in sociology, for example, explore culture from multiple perspectives, education students do not. Teachers, caught in the crossfire between academic and societal priorities, often find they aren't in the winner's circle.

Few would argue with the notion that going to school has all but bottomed out in popularity with the K-12 set. Some might maintain that going to school rated low on the priority list 30 or 40 years ago. Perhaps they are right; nonetheless, there is a distinct degree of difference in how American society prioritizes what is important in the culture in 2005 as compared to what was important 20 years ago. Popular culture insidiously dictates our priorities.

Try as we like to stamp out its annoying influence, we contradict our attempts with the purchases we make, the clothes we wear, the movies we attend, the music we listen to, the TV programs we watch and the books we read. No one today can honestly admit to having (or desiring) total immunity to popular culture's charisma. While some scholars tag popular culture as the defining American experience, others argue about its substance, and still others debate the merits and deficiencies of "high" vs. "popular" culture in education.

Mulling over how people create and re-create popular culture, I am particularly drawn to the skillful ways in which both children and adults attempt to resist popular culture in the classroom and create it at the same time. During the last decade, federal and state policy makers have enacted numerous school reform measures (e.g., No Child Left Behind Act, Profiles in Learning) that call for tightened educational standards and greater teacher accountability. A byproduct of these reforms is to disassemble the negative influence of popular culture in the classroom.

Thus far, the promised reforms have increased the number of bureaucratic mandates to schools, but have had little effect on negating students' keen interest in "real life," that which epitomizes American culture.

Trying to remove the influence of popular culture in the curriculum won't increase test scores. Concerned legislators, parents and others should be seeking venues for teachers to create meaningful intersections between popular culture and the classroom if they are intent on raising test scores.

Unfortunately, student teacher preparation programs have few opportunities to examine ways in which popular culture and education intersect in their course work. The demands of teacher licensing laws (another reform measure to ensure accountability) force teachers to give short shrift academically to one of the primary reasons that students too often consider "what's cool" and "what's school" as binary opposites.

Meanwhile, the public continues to call on teachers to perform wonders in the classroom comparable to those splashed on the Hollywood big screen (e.g., "Mona Lisa Smile," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "The Dead Poets Society," "Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver"). And parents continue to count on teachers to create stimulating homework assignments that can compete with the after-school video games.

Teachers who struggle to craft lessons that combine substantive content with cultural context find that paper and pencil tasks seldom fit the bill today. Students, who try to solve the dilemma of whether to watch "The O. C." or "American Idol" on TV or complete their homework, find that being able to join in the cafeteria conversation with their peers easily rivals homework.

With tales from my own classroom observation, I lure K-12 teachers into reflecting about how and why they find themselves butting heads with popular culture.

During one classroom visit with fifth grade students, for example, I watched the middle schoolers struggle with accepting the moral of Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare." Children today think in contemporary terms. They decided the hare should have won the race by a mile because he would have trained for the marathon and been in peak condition. The moral of the postmodern fable would be "Fast and conditioned wins the race." Move over Aesop, and give way to ASAP.

Ten and eleven year-olds, obviously, have already learned to embrace the popular stance on immediacy and society's deification of speed. "Slow and steady wins the race" has little meaning to the middle school set. That doesn't mean teachers should abandon teaching fables, but they need to do something more engaging than handing out a worksheet with a printed fable and asking the students to identify the moral.

Teachers who are savvy to ways of building interest in traditional content and holding student interest at the same time find ways to link their instruction to appeal to students who live in an image-driven world. Film, for example, provides creative teachers with opportunities for visual learning. Children today who can't imagine a world devoid of TV or computer screens learn readily from visual images.

O. Henry's classic short story "The Ransom of Red Chief" illustrates the point. Students generally find reading this boring. They overlook the elements of the story's construction and make little attempt to relate to the characters or plot. However, when students view "Ruthless People," a hilarious film based on O. Henry's story, they find the story captivating; they reconstruct the plot with ease and find the characters to be clearly portrayed. Students born into a visual world respond to the nuances of visual imagery in more energetic ways than to the printed word.

I am not encouraging teachers to sit back and let their students watch plots unfold on the screen in lieu of reading classic works. However, I suggest that teachers construct lessons that incorporate active learning with traditional instruction and weave popular culture into the curriculum. If role-playing scenes from "Ruthless People" helps students understand characterization in "The Ransom of Red Chief," role-play first, and then move to the text. Assign students to write a comparison of the short story and the film. If watching the film encourages students to read the short story and adds to their understanding, the time is well spent.

The point is to construct meaningful activities that will engage students in learning. This type of lesson planning takes time. It often meets with opposition from teachers who have a file drawer full of ready-made exercises and those who fear that breaking with tradition will cause a decline in learning.

K-12 teachers face a daunting task in the classroom. By taking a stand in opposition to the everyday experiences that form the vortex of student life, teachers contribute more to their own frustration than to student learning. They need to engage students intellectually and at the same time embrace the world in which we live. They need to incorporate technology in teaching; be culturally alert and sensitive to issues of race, class and gender in the classroom; and promote economic responsibility without denigrating the consumer.

In addition, teachers must educate students for life beyond the classroom. Teachers, students and society need to join hands to find a way to reclaim the classroom as a cultural priority or they risk losing their voice in defining education as a worthy American experience.

Societal change, like an invisible school board member, shapes curricula, policy and pedagogy. It's here that popular culture and education intersect. Mindful that popular culture is a subset of the larger cultural system that embraces our customs, traditions and values, we often forget how much it embellishes our identity.

Teachers are ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary work. Their work is more critical, rewarding and difficult than most. For those who opt to stand up to the challenge, a chance to remold the world awaits.

Dr. Susan Huber, associate professor of education, began teaching at St. Thomas in 1992.

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