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Popular culture in high school language arts.


This article argues that popular culture such as music, movies, and television should be used as additional "text" in the language arts classroom to build stronger connections with traditional literature and aid in teaching other important skills and concepts within the curriculum. The author offers advice for implementing popular culture and provides specific examples of its application in the classroom.


One challenge facing many high school language arts teachers is poor student motivation and performance when it comes to the literature and composition requirements of a traditional curriculum. Although many literary anthologies employed in secondary schools have added more women and minority writers along with a writing curriculum that includes more creativity and variety in forms of written expression, the average teacher still views these new resources and ideas as ancillary to formal composition and the established literary canon (Lane, 2001).

The societal pressure that drives many high school language arts teachers is that they must produce capable students with proficient skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking (Buckingham, 1992). They have traditionally sought to accomplish this goal by utilizing a curriculum that focuses exclusively upon literature that the typical high school student dismisses as dull and almost foreign (Hobbs, 2001). Students today live in a culture saturated by music, movies, television, video games, cartoons, teen magazines, and the Internet. Most have no natural interest in the works of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, or Chaucer. They may balk at the very notion of composing a five-paragraph literary analysis that must then be edited for run-on sentences. Academic activities of this kind do not stimulate today's typical high school students because these printed texts and writing tasks are so far removed from their language, experience, and culture (Hobbs, 2001). Even the most competent and creative efforts on the part of the language arts teacher to implement student-centered activities, stimulate prior knowledge, and promote active reading may tall short of sparking a student's genuine interest in the material.

Meeting the needs of today's students will require adjusting the traditional high school language arts curriculum and broadening perceptions of what is considered "text" as a teaching tool (Stevens, 2001). Instead of viewing popular culture as a distracting rival of the literary canon, language arts teachers can learn to embrace it as an invaluable resource. Popular culture can be used as a teaching tool in the same way as a novel, poem, or textbook to teach essential language arts skills and concepts (Lane, 2001). James Berlin (1996) argues, "Our historicist perspective on current English Studies hierarchies enables us to regard all manners of discourse as worthy of investigation, including film, television, video, and popular music" (p. xvi). This shift in the paradigm of what constitutes "text" worthy of literary locus does not suggest the demise of traditional literature and composition (Lane, 2001), but instead aims to construct and sustain a more comprehensive and meaningful connection between the texts that high school students experience and the world in which they live.

Historical Background

Language arts education at the high school level is only just beginning to adapt to the vast multicultural and technological changes that are taking place in American society. As a result of the call for "back to basics" education during the 1980s, language arts curricula have remained true to "obscure books and the culture of print" despite the changing face of American student populations and the multitude of available texts that surpass the printed page (Lane, 2001, p. 2). Teachers have continued to employ the time-honored great works of the literary canon as the only text worthy of investigation and discovery in the process of analyzing literature (Lane, 2001). Secondary language arts teachers have traditionally viewed popular culture as the enemy (Hobbs, 2001). Language arts curricula of the past have clung to printed text as the only means of educating students, but "modem literacy involves diverse combinations of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, moving, thinking, and representing strategies and skills" (Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 210). In this age of I-pods, portable DVD players, and every cable channel imaginable, the common assumption amongst most language arts teachers is that they must compete against hours of popular culture consumption on a daily basis. They feel that the value of the sound byte and notions of instant gratification dispelled by the popular culture of today create barriers to the patience and critical thinking involved in the comprehension and analysis of literature (Hobbs, 2001).

Language arts teachers have enjoyed the use of various instructional methods as a means of building a bridge for students to better relate to reading and writing tasks. Freewriting and brainstorming have been commonly utilized in the classroom as ways of generating ideas for writing (Skinner and Policoff, 1994). Likewise, teachers have employed activities such as advance organizers to aid students in thinking and connecting with issues related to literature (Snapp and Glover, 1990). Methods such as these remain effective to an extent in helping students better relate to the curriculum.

Theoretical Framework

Implementing popular culture in the classroom derives from the idea that teachers must build connections between the printed texts of the literary canon and the background knowledge of students (Flood, Heath, and Lapp, 2005). Language arts teachers must contend with the realization that their students cannot relate to the literary canon and lack the internal motivation or interest in reading and analyzing such literature (Hobbs, 2001). Popular culture offers a way for language arts teachers to bridge that gap. When utilized appropriately and consistently, popular culture becomes a powerful tool to "activate student schema, scaffold learning, engage students, and connect learning environments" (Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 214). Implementing popular culture will enable students to better understand the historical and underlying concepts of the literature they are reading, which will foster the motivation and ability to analyze a wide variety of literary elements.

The same framework applies when students are faced with developing an essay. Often times they have no idea what to write about; they lack the necessary spark to get started. Popular culture offers a valuable source of inspiration for ideas that relate to important issues of American society (Lane, 2001). When provided with a "text" that is relevant to their lives in language that is familiar, necessary writing skills like topic development and support for ideas have an open space to flourish (Hobbs, 2001).

Popular Culture and the Curriculum

Hobbs (2001) recommends showing specific movie scenes in the language arts classroom to compel students to make close observation of details. This activity serves a dual purpose: first, it provides a model for the importance of including interesting detail in the writing process; second, it teaches students to look closely at the amount of detail that goes into character development, which improves their analytical skills in reading (Hobbs). The process of noting details in short movie clips could also be applied to other areas of literary analysis such as setting, point of view, and tone. "From there, students can employ the same comprehension strategies using literary forms" (Hobbs, 2001, p. 46).

Lane (2001) asserts that various forms of popular culture may be utilized to establish the important relevance of the historical context of a literary work. In a language arts curriculum that includes great works of American literature, teachers could illustrate the characteristics of different literary periods with movie clips that depict traits from that time period, instilling a stronger connection with the literary work and creating meaning that goes beyond the surface.

McParland (2000) advocates the close examination of music and song lyrics to parallel the skills required to analyze poetry. Because "poetry and song share qualities of meter and rhythm, use of metaphors, and imagery," language arts teachers can use popular music in the classroom to tap into students' interests and experiences and practice the same analytical skills required when searching for a deeper understanding of poetry (McParland, 2000, p. 30). Once students have mastered the art of analysis with popular music and developed an appreciation for it, translating the same skills in the study of poetry becomes a much easier task. Music can also establish important links to other literature. McParland (2000) writes that "musical genres can offer greater depth, meaning, and relevance to literature ... often concerning human relationships" (p. 28). If used as a hook, popular music can guide students to evaluate the emotions conveyed by a variety of familiar songs and later draw parallels with literature that might otherwise be difficult to connect with an emotional level (McParland). Aiex (1988) suggests organizing brainstorming sessions for the development of writing topics around themes associated with popular movies. This kind of activity offers students the chance "to synthesize, analyze, evaluate, and argue--to engage ideas actively and write substantively about them" (Pailliotet, 2000, p. 216). Aiex (1988) also recommends television news programs as a model for persuasive writing and the need to provide adequate support and detail when developing an argument.

Popular culture can be used to engage students in critical thinking and writing about other media and the culture we live in. "By learning to 'read' media and popular texts, students learn about the construction of writing and how writing, consciously or unconsciously, reflects and produces specific values and points of view" (Lane, 2001). This kind of visual literacy forces students to choose their own perspective on an issue, examine relevant texts, and then produce writing that supports, scrutinizes, or expands upon those ideas (Lane). Movie clips, news programs, magazine advertisements and even music videos can be used to elicit the same kind of critical thinking that students must employ when writing a research paper or engaging in a debate. Though many students may struggle with the mechanics of writing, Jeremiah (1992) argues that rap lyrics can be used to teach various technical aspects of composition such as sentence structure and variety, verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, usage, and negation. In addition to grammar mini-lessons, language arts teachers have the opportunity to utilize rap music during the editing stage of the writing process to make grammar instruction more interesting. Before peer editing begins, teachers can invite their students to bring in non-explicit versions of their favorite rap songs or other music to practice making corrections.

Classroom Applications

It is important to realize that developing this library of resources does require a great deal of time and effort on the part of the teacher, but the amazing results are well worth the effort. In accordance with copyright law, teachers may use materials such as DVDs, videotapes, recorded television programming, and music in the classroom for educational purposes (Davidson, 2006). Due to time constraints within the curriculum, showing only two or three scenes at most from a movie or television show will suffice, but the ultimate decision about which sections to show will depend on the instructional purpose.

1. Activity: Theme of "The American Dream" in overall preparation for reading American Literature and essay brainstorming Music: "America" by Neil Diamond

2. Activity: Puritan historical context Movie: The Scarlet Letter

3. Activity: Personal connection with "'Upon the Burning of Our House" by Anne Bradstreet Movie: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

4. Activity: Compare and contrast sermon styles with Jonathan Edwards in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" Movies/Television: Footloose, Lakewood Church with Joel Osteen, The Apostle

5. Activity: Historical context of McCarthyism as it relates to The Crucible by Arthur Miller Movie: The Majestic

6. Activity: Character analysis practice for The Crucible essay Movie: The Nutty Professor

7. Activity: Write an essay comparing and contrasting any character from The Crucible with any fictional character of your choice Movie/Television: Student choice

8. Activity: American Revolution historical context for Patrick Henry's "Speech to the Virginia Convention" Movie: The Patriot

9. Activity: Demonstrate logical and emotional appeals in Patrick Henry's "Speech to the Virginia Convention" Movies: Philadelphia, A Time to Kill

10. Activity: Illustrate target audience and modes of persuasion for Advertising Project Television commercials/Magazine ads: Teacher choice

11. Activity: Illustrate characteristics of Romanticism in preparation for reading "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving Movies: The Last of the Mohicans, Sleepy Hollow

12. Activity: Illustrate characteristics of Gothic Romanticism in preparation for reading "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe Movie: Sleepy Hollow

13. Activity: Demonstrate parody and introduce "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe Television: "The Simpsons"

14. Activity: Practice analyzing literary elements in poetry such as diction, tone, theme, point of view, symbolism, and irony Music: "'Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" by Pink Floyd

15. Activity: Illustrate non-conformity as a transcendentalist ideal in "Serf-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson Movie: Dead Poet's Society

16. Activity: Illustrate civil disobedience for personal connection with "Civil Resistance to Government" by Henry David Thoreau Movies: Ali, The Rosa Parks Story

17. Activity: Demonstrate examples of satire Television: "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy"

18. Activity: Freewriting to generate writing topics Music: Instrumental mix

19. Activity: Peer editing where students bring in their own copy of school-appropriate lyrics and practice editing for grammar, usage, and punctuation before editing each other's writing Music: Student choice

20. Activity: Model for providing adequate support in persuasive writing and drawing firm conclusions Television: "Hardball"

21. Activity: Model for using vivid detail in writing Movie: The Princess Bride

22. Activity: Brainstorming and discussion for critical essay related to cultural issues Movies: Divorce Kramer vs. Kramer, Racism--Do the Right Thing, Gangs/Crime--Boyz in the Good, Goals/Dreams--Billy Elliot, Sexuality--American Pie, Politics--Bulworth, Terrorism--The Siege, Sports--Hoosiers, Relationships--When Harry Met Sally, Teen Romance--Sixteen Candles, Peer Pressure--Heathers


Language arts education today requires more ingenuity on the part of the teacher to get students interested and to build connections with the curriculum. When implemented appropriately, popular culture becomes a vital resource to reach students on a familiar level and draw them further into our academic world. A review of the literature provides some specific strategies to achieve these educational goals, offering a microcosmic glimpse at the vast possibilities that exist for all language arts teachers to reach their students in a unique way while remaining faithful to the skills and concepts required by their curricula.

Popular culture becomes a potent ally when language arts teachers are faced with the reality that many students have no interest in reading and analyzing traditional literature or producing salient and evocative writing. It also offers teachers a distinctive method to create a classroom environment with engaged students experiencing multiple modes of learning and discovering the intrinsic enjoyment of literature and composition. Current research has shown great success in employing popular culture to teach students to become critical analysts of various media (Alvermann, Moon, and Hagood, 1999; Williams, 2003; Martin, 2003; Paul, 2000; Fisherkeller, 2000). To demonstrate that it can be applied with equal success as an innovative way to teach traditional reading and writing skills, an experimental study is the next logical step to examine the effects of implementing a modified language arts curriculum that utilizes popular culture as a fundamental literary text.


Aiex, N. (1988). Using film, video, and TV in the classroom (Report No. CS506459). Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED300848)

Alvermann, D. E., Moon, J. S., & Hagood, M. C. (1999). Popular culture in the classroom: Teaching and researching critical media literacy. Chicago and Newark, DE: National Reading Conference and International Reading Association.

Berlin, J. (1996). Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Albany: SUNY Press.

Buckingham, D. (1992). English and media studies: making the difference. English Quarterly, 25, 8-13.

Davidson, H. Copyright and fair use guidelines for teachers. Retrieved May 28, 2006, from

Fisherkeller, J. (2000). "The writers are getting kind of desperate": young adolescents, television, and literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43,596-606.

Flood, J., Heath, S. B., & Lapp, D. (2005). Handbook of Research on Teaching Literacy Through the Communicative and Visual Arts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hobbs, R. (2001). Improving reading comprehension by using media literacy activities. Voices from the Middle, 8, 44-50.

Jeremiah, M. (1992). Rap lyrics: instruments for language arts instruction. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 16, 98-102.

Lane, R. (2001). Mary Tyler Moore to Tori Amos: teaching pre-service teachers the uses of popular/media culture in secondary language arts curricula. The Writing Instructor. Retrieved January 27, 2003, from

Martin, S. R. (2003). Close the book. It's time to read. The Clearing House, July/August, 289-291.

McParland, R. (2000). Music to their ears: that's what music can become to youngsters when we integrate music into our lessons. Scholastic Instructor, April, 27-30.

Pailliotet, A. W., Semali, L., Rodenberg, R. K., Giles, J. K., & Macaul, S. L. (2000). Intermediality: bridge to critical media literacy. The Reading Teacher, 54(2), 208-220.

Paul, D. G. (2000). Rap and orality: critical media literacy, pedagogy, and cultural synchronization. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(3), 246-252.

Skinner, J., and Policoff, S. P. (1994). Writer's block--and what to do about it. Writer, 107(11), 21-24.

Snapp, J. C., and Glover, J. A. (1990). Advance organizers and study questions. Journal of Educational Research, 83(5), 266-271.

Stevens, L. (2001). South Park and society: instructional and curricular implications of popular culture in the classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44, 548-555.

Williams, B. T. (2003). What they see is what we get: television and middle school writers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46, 546-554.

John Day, University of Houston, TX

John Day is a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston and currently teaches eleventh grade English at Dulles High School in Sugar Land, TX.
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Author:Day, John
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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