Why Teachers Should Keep Up With Pop Culture

Do you know who the current top hip-hop artists are? Do you know which new Netflix series is hot right now? How about the latest superhero movie, know anything about that? Oh, and any idea why kids keep making jokes about a particular athlete, cartoon character or US state?

Well, if you’re a teacher of students who are in middle school or older, you might want to bone up on those topics and more. Teachers need to be good at lesson prep, engaging students, and classroom management, but they also need to know what their students are into, which can help with every one of those aforementioned elements.

So, here’re just a few reasons why teachers should keep up with pop culture, no matter how strange, nonsensical and downright painful it might be.

It helps you connect with your students

I’d asked my middle school students to write a review of a piece of media, a movie or book or album of their choosing. They were an advanced group and quite capable of such work. One by one, I checked in on them, reading what they’d written thus far, asking questions and giving them a little guidance when appropriate. One of these students had chosen to write a review of his favourite album, Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez On Me. He’d mentioned 2Pac’s influence on other artists as well as the collaborations featured on the album. “What about his lyrics?” I said. “You can’t really write about 2Pacc without mentioning his lyrics, right?” The student’s eyes went wide and he laughed, as though at his own silliness for having neglected such an obvious point, then bent back to his work to complete his review.

Now, I don’t know much about hip-hop in general and even less about 2Pac specifically, but I am well aware that he is known, among other things, for his lyricism. That was enough to prove my bonafides, at least to this student. It’s not to say we’re now best friends, nor have I now been elevated to rank of Cool Teacher—and neither of these is the point—but I did connect with this student on a level that is outside typical classwork and is important and relevant to him. This builds trust and legitimacy while also demonstrating that you care about the same things they care about, that these things are valid and important.

It helps engage students in the lesson

When teaching students about direct and indirect characterization I began by asking them what they knew about various comic book characters and celebrities. In a slideshow I’d show them an image of, say, Batman and ask them what he is like. They’d shout out a few answers. Then I’d ask how they knew these things. Then I’d show them an image of some athlete or movie star they were all familiar with and ask the same questions. Some things they knew about the celebrity due to his or her behaviour, others they knew simply because of what they could see or what they’d been told. Gradually, we transitioned to characters in the novel we were studying and, through questions, I led the class to examples of direct and indirect characterization in the book, the entire point of the lesson.

I could have simply begun with the characters from the novel we were reading. The students certainly knew enough about these characters to participate in the discussion. By starting with characters and people they actually cared about, however, I grabbed their attention more effectively. They looked forward to seeing who the next superhero, actor or singer might be. To up the engagement I’d throw in an occasional joke, something obscure like a character that had recently been featured in a popular meme or someone that was currently ion the news. I didn’t actually expect a serious answer from them in this case, I was just looking to ensure they were still engaged.

So, when presenting a new concept think of how you can use pop culture references as a way to ease students into the lesson.

It can help avoid disruptions

During one class students kept peppering references to Ohio into their responses and work. When I tasked them with writing advice on visiting a particular city, country or region, five of them chose to write about the American state. I was baffled but didn’t think much about it. Ohio came up in answers to questions, came up in discussions, some students would stop me to ask if I’d ever been to Ohio. Every time it would come up half the class would laugh while the other half would groan, annoyed. I was beginning to find myself in the latter group so, finally, I asked them what this obsession with Ohio was all about.

It turned out to have been the topic of a fairly long-running meme that, for some reason, had recently resurfaced. It wasn’t inherently offensive (at least not in the context of my West African classroom, though it may have been viewed as more controversial in, say, Columbus; I really don’t know) but it was becoming a source of disruption. If I’d known about the meme ahead of time I could have diffused it when it first surfaced, maybe with a joke that took the fun out of it, by repurposing it to my own ends, or by simply shutting it down. In this case, though, I was in the dark and so wasted quite a bit of time dealing with it.

It could have been worse. Some memes are offensive, can create conflict, or can be used as a veiled insult toward other students or yourself, the teacher. Knowing about these can help defend against such potentially damaging or embarrassing disruptions.

How to do it

Does this mean you have to start listening to music you hate, watching movies that bore you and take up reading about sports you couldn’t care less about? Well, no, of course not. But you may want to sample some of it. If you know your students are into hip-hop maybe watch a few episodes of a documentary series like The Evolution of Hip Hop on Netflix (it’s legitematly fascinating). If your students are into football (meaning soccer) but you couldn’t even be paid to care about it (like me), but you have friends who follow the sport, maybe ask them a few questions about it or avoid tuning out when they bring it up.

With my more advanced classes I began every first class of the week with a five minute discussion period during which students could bring up anything with which they’d engaged in English, such as a movie they’d watched or series they’d begun or book they were reading. This gave me a good idea of the type of thing they enjoyed. At times I made mental notes to watch a few episodes of this series or check out that movie. If I was already familiar with a work I would suggest something similar, thereby engaging with them further and, again, demonstrating that I cared about their interests.

And when you don’t know anything about it? Admit it. I know nothing about recent anime or manga, for example, and I would tell them so if and when the topic came up. I was always careful not to seem dismissive but I’d bee honest that it was a blank spot in my knowledge base. And then I’d ask them a few questions about it, using it as an opportunity for them to teach me about something, thereby allowing them to use their English skills in a different way but also, once again, showing interest and strengthening my connection with the students.