Teaching Literacy from and with Popular Culture

By Asselin, Marlene | Teacher Librarian, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Teaching Literacy from and with Popular Culture


Asselin, Marlene, Teacher Librarian


In contrast to the longstanding canon and print of school culture, much of what students read, write, and talk about out of school today is popular culture. This column extends the perspective on homeschool literacy connections discussed in the last column by presenting a rationale for and approaches to including popular culture resources in "New Times" (New London Group, 1996).

   At the heart of modern education is a learner-centered classroom: We should
   start knowing that the social experience the child already possesses is
   valid and significant, and that this social experience should be reflected
   back to him as being valid and significant. It can only be reflected back
   to him if it is part of the texture of the learning experience we create
   (Bernstein, 1972, 149).

In principle, most teachers today uphold this philosophy, but within their own comfort zone. Younger students are welcome to bring resources about their families, friends, hobbies, and other "safe" topics. Similarly, secondary teachers may condone occasional use of selected popular music, videos and digital texts. However, resources from the culture through which students really identify and define themselves are scarcely found in schools, and if they are, they appear extrinsic to real teaching and learning. Digiman, Britney Spears, Eminem and the array of complex electronic and hypermedia forms in which youth culture lives remain the out-of-school curriculum (Maheri, in press).

Why is youth culture left at the school door? Violence, excessive stereotyping or gross insensitivity in much popular culture invites censorship, which in turn covers for teachers' discomfort and unfamiliarity with the content and forms of youth culture. Teachers may also feel uncertain of their role if popular culture is used in the classroom -- if teachers are no longer the experts, what role should they assume?

Research about popular culture in literacy education is grounded in two major concepts besides learner-centeredness. First, expanding definitions of literacy reflect the range of media besides print that people use for business, entertainment and communication: "[B]eing literate in contemporary society means being active, critical, and creative users of print and spoken language, as well as the visual language of film and television, commercial and political advertising, and more ..." (International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English [IRA/NCTE], 2000). Since much of popular culture is embodied in media other than print, the notion of media literacy links to popular culture.

Second, critical literacy is central to research and pedagogy about popular culture. Social and cultural theories of critical literacy differ from past psychological conceptions where individual cognitive processes are emphasized as ends in themselves. In New Times literacy, teachers help their students develop critical social consciousness through analysis of how texts are used to construct social, economic and political inequities, and based on this knowledge, use literacy to effect social change (Muspratt, Luke & Freebody, 1997). Drawing from media literacy and social and cultural views of critical literacy, critical media literacy has to do with providing individuals access to understanding how the print and non-print texts that are part of everyday life help to construct their knowledge of the world and the various social, economic and political positions they occupy within it. Critical media literacy is also about creating communities of active readers and writers who can be expected to exercise some degree of agency in deciding what textual positions they will assume or resist as they interact in complex social and cultural contexts (Alvermann, Moon & Hagood, 1999).

What does critical media pedagogy look like in a classroom? Anne Haas Dyson (1997) studied a primary classroom where the teacher encouraged children's knowledge of popular superheroes as contexts for language and literacy development. …

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