Popular Culture in High School Language Arts
Day, John, Academic Exchange Quarterly
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.
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). …