Popular Culture & Curriculum

The following is an essay I wrote for my first assignment.  Hopefully it will be helpful to any teachers who would like to integrate popular culture into the curriculum, and are looking for some more information on the subject.

How can popular culture texts be thoughtfully incorporated into the curriculum?


Popular culture texts play an important role in the lives of our students.  So what is popular culture?  Duncan-Andrade (2004, p. 313) describes youth popular culture as “the various cultural activities in which young people invest their time, including but not limited to: music, television, movies, video games, sport, Internet, text messaging, style, and language practices.”  How can we, as teachers, incorporate these diverse texts into our classrooms in a thoughtful and meaningful way?  Hall (2011, p. 304) would argue that popular culture texts need to be thoughtfully incorporated into the curriculum – simply flooding the classroom with popular culture is not what is needed.  The following discussion will look at a variety of ways popular culture can be incorporated into the curriculum in thoughtful, meaningful and effective ways.   Drawing from readings in Learning Pack C, as well as my own teaching experience, I will argue that the use of popular culture texts in the classroom can enhance student engagement, help students to understand academic texts and concepts, and help develop critical literacy skills.  I will also explain how student engagement with popular culture texts can be enhanced through the participatory nature of Web 2.0.

Increasing student engagement

As teachers, I am sure we have all experienced that moment when we realise that what we are saying just isn’t ‘sinking in’ – the students have switched off and are no longer engaged in the subject being taught.  I would argue that the incorporation of popular culture texts into the curriculum is one way to reduce the likelihood of this happening, and keep our students ‘switched on’ for longer.  Beach and O’Brien (2008, p. 779) warn that due to the increasing use of popular culture texts outside of school among youth,  there is a mismatch between students’ out-of-school practices and their in-school, print centric practices, contributing to increasing disengagement with print-only curricula.  This viewpoint suggests that to enhance the engagement of our students, we should not only be including popular culture texts in the curriculum, but we should be using these texts in a variety of media forms.

An example of this from my own teaching experience comes from working with an autistic child with low literacy skills.  When asked to complete writing tasks, this student became very agitated and upset, often refusing to write at all.  However, when asked to create a comic book about his favourite superheroes, he was able to create a comic book several pages long, incorporating speech bubbles to explain his characters’ dialogue.  He was able to work on this project for an extended period of time without becoming distracted.  In another example, in three case studies of middle-school students, Patel Stevens (2001) investigated the effects of incorporating popular culture into the curriculum.  She explained that student responses to the lessons were “overwhelmingly positive”, and that the introduction of popular culture references such as movie clips “visibly transformed” the students’ demeanours, leading to a high level of engagement that was maintained throughout the lesson (Patel Stevens, 2001, p. 551).

The scenarios above represent just two examples of how popular culture can increase student engagement in the curriculum.  By incorporating these familiar texts into the curriculum, teachers are able to make connections between our classrooms and students’ lives.  When these connections exist, there is an opportunity for powerful learning (Hunt & Hunt, 2004, p. 85).

understanding academic texts and concepts through popular culture

Using popular culture texts in the curriculum can help students to engage with and better understand more traditional academic texts as well as academic concepts.  Popular culture texts can help students expand their reading comprehension skills, as well as help them build bridges of understanding between their prior knowledge and academic concepts.

An important reading comprehension skill is for students to be able to make connections between what they are reading and their own lives, their world, and other texts.  Hall (2011, p. 296) explains that some of the most readily available images students use to make text-to-text connections come from popular culture.  Therefore, an understanding of the way students integrate popular culture texts into discussions about academic ones can help teachers use them to deepen students’ reading comprehension and curriculum knowledge (Hall, 2011 p. 296).  An example of this from my own classroom was a guided reading lesson where students were reading a non-fiction text about penguins.  Students began to discuss the ways the penguins in the film Happy Feet matched up with what they were learning – for example the way that penguins breed and raise their young.  This is an example of how “links to films, television, music and video games provide knowledge to help students define concepts or understand certain ideas” (Beach & O’Brien, 2008, p. 785).  Similarly, in her investigation of the use of popular culture texts by students in a social studies classroom, Hall (2011, p. 302) noted that “students used movies, video games, and comic books to inform their interpretations of academic texts and to respond to questions posed by their peers”.

It is not only in the area of reading comprehension that popular culture can be used to increase students’ understandings – it can also help students to understand academic concepts across a variety of curriculum areas.  Links to popular culture can be seen as bridges to learning, allowing teachers to model learning about unfamiliar topics (Hunt & Hunt, 2004, p. 82).  For example, in a case study by Patel Stevens (2001), eighth-grade science teacher Traci was able to increase her students’ understanding of the three basic laws of motion by having her students analyse action scenes in popular films.  In another example, Morrell (2002) used popular rap and hip-hop music to help his students connect with poetry texts.  He found that students’ “critical investigations of popular texts brought about oral and written critiques similar to those required by college preparatory English classrooms” (p. 74).

If we, as teachers, can thoughtfully incorporate popular culture texts into our classrooms, we can help our students to make connections between learning at school and their own lives, thereby increasing their understandings of academic concepts.

Using popular culture to promote critical literacy

In order for students to successfully navigate the use of popular culture texts, it is important for teachers to provide students with critical-analysis tools.  In her study of middle-school students in a social studies classroom, Hall (2001) found that students placed a high value on popular culture texts, often using these texts as indisputable evidence, with no questions raised about the reliability of these texts.  Hall suggests that one way to approach this problem is through critical media literacy.  Critical literacy is the concept that, “to become truly literate, students must move beyond simply decoding text and absorbing facts and information to thinking critically about what they learn and apply it to their lives” (Provenzo, 2009, p. 193).

According to Morrell (2002, p. 72), “Popular culture can help students deconstruct dominant narratives and contend with oppressive practices in hopes of achieving a more egalitarian and inclusive society”.  In a television and media unit, Morrell worked with inner-city students to deconstruct the way that mainstream media portrayed urban youth.  He found the students were motivated and empowered by addressing a real problem in their community, and were able to use research tools to make critical evaluations of the media texts.  Beach & O’Brien (2008, p. 798) also argue that critiquing popular culture texts can lead students to challenge the status-quo.  For example, students can break down and discuss the gender, cultural and racial stereotypes seen in familiar texts such as Disney films.  Using popular culture texts allows students to learn how to critically evaluate their sources, as well as the information found within them (Hall, 2011, p. 303).  This is a skill that is becoming increasingly important in a society where students are constantly bombarded with a wide variety of information in a number of different media.  In learning to become critically literate, students are no longer merely passive recipients of information – they begin to question the ideas put before them (Hall, 2001, p. 304).

Interacting with Popular Culture via Web 2.0

In order to fully engage with any aspect of the curriculum, including popular culture texts, students need to be given the opportunity to become active participants in their learning, rather than simply be passive recipients of information.  One way to encourage this participatory culture is through the use of Web 2.0 tools.  Davies & Merchant (2009, p. 3) explain that Web 2.0 is a term that refers to the way in which users of digital technology interact with one another; for example in online participation, networking and collaboration.  These can include blogs, online forums and social media.   According to Crooke (2012, p. 64), we are living in a time of participatory tools, attitudes and aspirations.  In order to enhance and enrich the way our students interact with popular culture and the curriculum, we as teachers need to make use of these new technologies and ways of communicating.  Learning bounded by the walls of the classroom and limited in interaction is an out-dated concept (Davies & Merchant, 2009, p. 2).

One example of the way students can use Web 2.0 to interact with popular culture texts is the use of blogs in reviewing popular books.  In her studies of adolescent book review blogs, O’Sullivan (2012) found that this form of communication allowed students to take charge of the ways they presented and shared their views.  The students wrote reviews about popular culture texts such as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, took ownership of their opinions and conveyed these with integrity and assurance (p. 206).  In my own teaching experience, I found that the use of online forums allowed students who might otherwise be reluctant to participate in discussions about books were able to share their opinions more freely.  Students participated in an online message-board about the books we had been reading in class.  They expressed their opinions, and made connections to other texts.  Some students who never put their hands up in class to participate in discussions were happy to contribute to the forums.

In order to thoughtfully integrate popular culture with the curriculum, teachers should consider the ways in which students are able to jointly construct and participate in their own learning.  From the examples above, it can be seen that the participatory nature of Web 2.0 tools can encourage students to interact with both popular culture and the traditional curriculum in meaningful ways.


In this paper, I have argued that thoughtfully incorporating popular culture texts into the curriculum can enhance student learning in a variety of ways.  Firstly, students who are exposed to popular culture texts are more likely to be engaged with the content being taught.  Furthermore, encouraging students to make links between their learning at school and their background knowledge of popular culture can help them to understand academic texts and concepts.  Additionally, popular culture can be used to develop critical literacy in students, and the examination of popular culture texts from a critical standpoint can help students use these texts as information sources.  Finally, the thoughtful incorporation of popular texts should allow students the opportunity to learn in a participatory rather than passive way.  One way this can be achieved is through the use of Web 2.0 technologies.

Reference List

Beach, R. & O’Brien, D. (2008). Chapter 27 : Teaching Popular-Culture Texts In The Classroom. In Coiro, Julie et al, Handbook of research on new literacies, (pp.775 – 804). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Crook, C. (2012). The ‘digital native’ in context: Tensions associated with importing Web 2.0 practices into the school setting. Oxford Review of Education. 38(1), 63-80.

Davies, J. & Merchant, G. (2009). Web 2.0 for schools : learning and social participation. New York: Peter Lang.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R. (2004). Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy: Youth Popular Culture, Pedagogy, and Curriculum in Urban Classrooms. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 26 (4), doi: 10.1080/10714410490905366

Hall, L. (2011). How popular culture texts inform and shape students’ discussions of social studies texts. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 55(4), 296-305. doi: 10.1002/JAAL.00036

Hunt, T., & Hunt, B. (2004) Popular Culture: Building Connections with Our Students. English Journal, 93(3), 80-83. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/stable/4128814

Morrell, E. (2002). Toward a critical pedagogy of popular culture: Literacy development among urban youth. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(1), 72-77. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/216919813?accountid=13380

O’Sullivan, K. A. (2012). Books and blogs: Promoting reading achievement in digital contexts. In J. Manuel & S. Brindley (Eds.) Teenagers and reading: Literary heritages, cultural contexts and contemporary reading practices (pp. 191-209). South Australia: Wakefield Press/AATE.

Patel Stevens, L. (2001). South park and society: Instructional and curricular implications of popular culture in the classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(6), 548-555. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/216913563?accountid=13380

Provenzo, E. (2009). Critical literacy. In E. Provenzo, & A. Provenzo (Eds.), Encyclopedia of the social and cultural foundations of education. (pp. 193-194). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412963992.n93

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