Three Ways Students Use Pop Culture Texts in the Classroom

Previously, I started a discussion about pop culture and reading comprehension. Today, I want to delve into how students use pop culture texts to aid (so to speak) their reading comprehension. Teachers – understand, this is happening regardless of if you sanction it or not!

I spend a lot of time with middle school students. And as a result I have a pile of data about their reading practices. Part of this gigantic pile is a set of discussions where sixth-graders sat around in groups and talked about social studies texts.  When I was reviewing the transcripts, I noticed a lot of mentions about pop culture texts in connection with the social studies texts. So before we get into how to use pop culture texts in your classroom, I think it’s important to first look at how students are using them.

As Evidence

evidenceStudents used pop culture texts as evidence to support their arguments about social studies texts. In this context, pop culture texts were seen as valid and reliable sources of information. For example, students cited a Disney cartoon of Robin Hood as evidence that Robin Hood could not have been a real person. The logic was that cartoons are not real. If cartoons are not real, and Robin Hood is in a cartoon, then Robin Hood cannot be real. Students never questioned that something like a cartoon should be used as a piece of evidence to understand something being read in a social studies text.


To Silence

Students used pop culture texts to shut down alternative ideas about what had been read in their social studies text. For example, in one class students were reading about the Middle Ages and who was allowed to be a knight. The group agreed that the text said only boys could become knights. However, one student, Hope, challenged the book by saying, “I know Joan of Arc was a knight and that means girls could be knights too.”

Rather than talking more about Joan of Arc, students argued that Hollywood movies always shoed males, and never females, in the role of knight and that this was evidence that girls could not be knights. When Hope countered that these were just movies, the group asked her to name a movie where a girl was a knight. When Hope could not, they stressed this was further evidence that they were right. Despite additional protests from Hope, the remainder of her group continued on with the line of thinking that the movies they named provided additional evidence for their argument and that Hope had no real evidence. Eventually, Hope remained silent.

To Make Connections

Students use pop culture texts to make inter-textual connections. For example, when one class was studying Roman architecture they connectionsread about how the Romans built arches. Several students made an immediate connection to McDonald’s and the golden arches. They claimed that this connection to McDonald’s helped them realize they had some understandings about arches and allowed them to better visualize the social studies text in their heads. Students claimed that these connections allowed them to learn more about what they were reading in class but also helped them see how some of the ideas they read about were represented in their actual lives.

So…What’s It All Mean?

These examples show that students will use pop culture texts in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes in school. In some instances, their usage of pop culture texts may help – or at least not hinder – their learning. In other cases, students’ use of pop culture texts may foster misunderstandings of content. However, students will use pop culture texts in some fashion when reading academic ones. I learned this is to be expected.

So if students are going to use them, why fight it? You can’t. Instead, let’s talk about how to engage students with pop culture texts in ways that support academic development and can foster critical thinking of them.