Let’s face it, when it comes to school, there are just some subjects kids aren’t interested in. Teachers have to get creative and find ways to pique their students’ interest. Incorporating pop culture into the classroom, when done right, engages students and can help make content more relevant.
There are many areas in which incorporating pop culture can bring fun and focus to your class.
ESL: If you have students in your classroom who are learning English while trying to learn everything else, you know the importance of immersing your students in the language. ESL students benefit from hearing English from many different sources, not only their teacher. These students are often reluctant to speak, so movie and TV clips can be used as a springboard to get students excited and get them talking. Look for clips that are simple and funny.
No matter the age of your students, children’s movies are often the best to use because the language is easy to understand. Turn on the captions to support all of your students when incorporating these activities.
Social Skills: Sometimes it’s easier for students to learn skills vicariously, especially when they need to learn what not to do. For instance, with the LifeSmart Curriculum, students will find it easy to analyze others’ behavior in the many relevant, real-life situations depicted in the VideoModeling Curriculum. They’ll see what is the best way to act, and the worst way, but don’t have to go through it themselves. Ask your students to identify any other shows or movies with characters that had especially good social skills (e.g. eye contact, friendly, start conversations, etc.) and characters who did not (e.g. rude, no eye contact, etc.).
Culturally Responsive Education: Depending on where you teach, your students may have little exposure to diversity. Movie clips can be a great way to expose students to people of different cultures and backgrounds. You can watch video clips with people from all walks of life. Today’s pop culture is increasingly diverse, and incorporating media is a great way to normalize differences.
Motivators: Pop culture is a powerful motivator. Incorporate things from your students’ favorite movies, video games, and music into your class reward system. Students on the autism spectrum often have an interest that they are passionate about. Incorporating this into their daily routine can be a powerful way to motivate them. Reward students by letting them listen to a favorite song during independent work time or at the end of the day when you are cleaning up and getting ready to go home.
Math: Math is a subject that many kids dislike. It’s difficult and, let’s face it, innately a little dull. In an effort to help kids see the real-life applications of math, we incorporate word problems. Some of these word problems are a bit ridiculous, and some are entirely irrelevant. While it isn’t possible to make 100% of math meaningful to each child, adding in a little pop culture can lighten the mood. Using something they love, (or hate) piques their interest.
For example, you can do an addition problem about apples and bananas, or you can do one about emojis or superheroes, which one sounds like more fun?
Reading: In addition to being a teacher, I’m a mom of three girls, ages 12, 10 and 4. Without fail, since the oldest was in Kindergarten, the same scenario plays out at the book fair. We walk in to choose a book or two and, as the mom and teacher I’m drawn into the level appropriate books with beautiful illustrations, while my children want Monster High, Shopkins, Disney Princesses, and other pop culture-based books. At the end of the day though, whether it is award-winning literature or a book about the Minions, if kids are reading then it’s a win. For students with reading difficulties, books at a lower level or with many illustrations may be more suitable. Helping kids take an interest in their learning is what counts.
Music is a fantastic tool for building reading fluency. Give students the lyrics to a popular song and read and sing along. You can even look up music videos with karaoke lyrics to help students follow along. Repeated readings are great for developing fluency, so are repeated singings!
Spelling: One of the most excellent tools out there is google image search. Connect each spelling word with an image. For example, if your spelling word is ‘build,’ the image could be that of a Minecraft hammer. Use tunes from favorite songs to make a new song and spell out words, or draw if your students have trouble with writing.
Keep these tips in mind when you incorporate any pop culture into your lessons.
• It is tempting to just throw on a movie, especially at the end of a long day, so when using video clips be sure they are justified and explicitly tied to your objectives.
• Keep it short and sweet. A full video is usually not necessary. Use content as a springboard for learning.
• Observe for appropriate content. Even if you’ve seen a video clip before, watch it before showing it to your class. If you’ve heard a song look up the lyrics before listening to them with your class. Common Sense Media® has reviews from parents and kids on movies, books, and more. They include lists of popular, age-appropriate media for kids.
• Ask your students for recommendations. They will be more than willing to give you ideas of what to incorporate if you aren’t “cool” enough to know what is cool to them.
Keep your students on their toes when you add pop culture to your lessons. Both you and your students will find the lessons to be more engaging and you’ll help to show that there are almost always lessons to learned from their favorite TV shows and movies.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.