Making Curriculum Pop

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble. - RALPH WALDO EMERSON

You got me runnin' goin' out of my mind,
You got me thinkin' that I'm wastin' my time.
Don't bring me down,
no no no no no, I
'll tell you once more before I get off the floor
Don't bring me down.


As you all know, there are many out there who think teaching with popular and common cultures is silly, "cute" or intellectually insulting. To those folks I say, "don't bring us down" as there are mindful principals to this practice.

For those not interested in popular and common cultures, I'd like to hire this baby as my momentary spokesperson:

Answering the question of "why" one MUST teach with popular and common cultures is more massive discussion that is largely the subject of my dissertation. I will address that issue in other blogs. For today, I'd like to focus on the more pressing principals of "how" one might teach effectively with popular and common cultures.

As my former high school teacher and MC Popper Mary Christel said in her classic book Seeing & Believing: How to Teach Media Literacy in the English Classroom:

The use of film in a typical class has been seriously questioned or even vilified for many years, because film is commonly integrated at the end of a study as a 'reward.' Film is just the dessert after a multicourse repast of reading, writing, and testing.

I edited some of her specific references to literature classes out as I think her observation applies to ALL disciplines.

I recently assigned my undergrads to go out and interview practicing teachers about how they use media and technology in their curriculum. Almost 50% of my students came back talking about "Disney Week." Before major holiday breaks, middle school teachers round these parts seem to screen films to reward students for "good behavior."

On the secondary level, we all know English teachers who pop in the film adaptation of a novel without any scaffolding or teaching objectives. We've also met the history teacher who screens Schlindler's List as a "supplement" to the main textbook. It also seems like every high school student I've met since 1998 has seen Jurassic Park in their biology class before a holiday break. When I ask the student what the film taught them, the answer is usually something like, "science." Lest you think math teachers don't show films without scaffolding, see if any of you can find a math teacher at your school who uses Stand and Deliver as "enrichment."

My favorite bizarre use of film in the classroom? For a year I worked as a substitute in the Ann Arbor public schools. I was assigned to a high school biology class. The teacher left me a VHS cassette. The only instructions were "show this." The film was some Discovery Channel documentary on the mating habits of animals - 60- minutes of raw, uncut animals of every genus and species humping all over the globe. While this was not the most effective or intelligent way to use a film, it certainly made my job simple that day! One should note that Isabella Rossellini has taken this type of programming to the next level with her "Green Porno" shorts on IFC.

This is the type of practice that makes teaching with popular and common cultures so challenging for those who make an mindful practice of it. Given the prevalence of multi-media in our culture one would think it would be an essential element of curricula across the globe. Pop/common texts remain the subject of heated debate because many teachers are careless with pop texts. For that reason policymakers and administrators rightly perceive the coolest texts out there as "filler" and "fluff."

In my humble opinion, lazy pedagogy around pop/common texts must be avoided at all costs. The job of the teacher is to use all the craft we've acquired to integrate popular/common texts in the service of differentiated learning experiences for as many students as possible. Developing this type of mindful practice, without a critical mass of textbooks and teaching materials, is EXTREMELY hard work.

Christel goes on to say the following - in the passage I changed the word "film" to "pop text" to generalize the point -

[Pop texts] can be so much more than just a reward or a time to relax for patient and reluctant readers of a text. It can provide meaningful enrichment, even for the eager reader, who can access [pop] texts with very sophisticated insights cultivated by the careful reading and understanding of a [pop text].

There is a boatload of research out there supporting these ideas. Effective use of pop/common texts begins with good pedagogy - the same type of pedagogy folks should be using with more traditional content. If we don't develop this craft with pop/media texts we're probably "Amusing Ourselves [and our students] to Death."

I've spent my entire career figuring out how to integrate popular and common cultures completely into my practice. These texts are not just "hooks" or "desserts" - pop texts are as exciting and essential as the core content I'm trying to teach.

What did this process look like for me? My first major project used the music and history of Motown Records in Detroit to create a fully integrated interdisciplinary unit for math, science, art, history and english classes at an alternative high school outside of Detroit.

From there I raised a lot of grant money to create and co-teach a Fiction to Film class where students read novels and wrote letters to people in Los Angeles who turned those books into movies. We then spend our spring break in LA meeting film professionals contacted by the students.

I've done many history projects but writing the Rodney King section of the Ben Harper curriculum with Jen Boylan was some of the most challanging writing I've ever done. I should note that Ms. Boylan teaches literature and history at a New York City high school where she has created a series of humanaties courses around gastronomy - her popular/common text is that of food and food culture. Very cool stuff.

Two of the most exciting ways I've used popular and common cultures were to teach genetics. In 2001 the Fiction to Film class created a symposium around genetics and popular culture called "Nice Genes, Dr. Frankenstein."

In 2008-2009 retuned to this subject collaborating with a Napoleon Knight in the Bronx to build an entire genetics unit around film, comics and popular news clippings. (For more info see TEACHING: SCIENCE, ART OR CRAFT?, LITERACY, SCIENCE & THE 4Ss, VIEWING STRATEGIES: A CASE STUDY). To date, I can't think of a more exciting educational partnership I've participated in.

If you have some time you can check out a 20-minute documentary my students made in 2002 about the Genetics Symposium and the LA trip. You'll notice Robin Williams and others DID NOT give us permission to film them, hence the still photography.

These are some practices I have documented on the internet. I share these things not to impress my resume on you but to illustrate practices that have been a crucible for my philosophy of teaching with popular/common texts.

Each one of the projects mentioned above has had shortcomings - their strengths has come from the principals articulated below.

Nicole and I generally use pop texts in three ways:

This is best explained by the PDF posted here and attached below:

Before designing a curriculum with a pop/common text Nicole and I usually ask the following questions:

1. What curricular content do you want to explore with this text?

2. What are the themes and main ideas of the text that interest you?

3. What are the teaching objectives you want to use this text for?

4. What approach (stand-alone, direct link, or Rorschach) seems like the strongest starting point for your teaching of the

5. How can you differentiate instruction around this text?

6. How can you make an engaging and fun student-centered lesson using this text coupled with differentiated activities?

There are some "other points of consideration" in the attached PDF below. These common sense principals were arrived at through thirteen years of working with pop/common texts in a wide variety of classrooms, teachers, and students.

Hopefully you will find these principals useful as you design curriculum that pops!

Questions, comments, ideas and interesting stories about your work teaching with pop/common culture are always great to hear about in the discussion space below!

On a related note, I don't have a fancy editor or anything like that so if you ever see typos here or anywhere else on the Ning please send me a quick note - I always appreciate additional eyes!

Have a wonderful Wednesday and do remember those young and old who have served today!


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Ryan, Thank you so much for continuing to share and inspire.
Jasmine, thats very kind of you - thanks for the note!

Salute to you and your teaching! (see above for full salute)




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