Popular Culture 2.0: Teaching Critical Media Literacy in the Language Arts Classroom

By Morrell, Ernest | New England Reading Association Journal, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Popular Culture 2.0: Teaching Critical Media Literacy in the Language Arts Classroom


Morrell, Ernest, New England Reading Association Journal


One of the biggest challenges to the development of academic literacy is that of engagement. Our youth are disengaged from literacy education in their classrooms and schools today for many reasons, all of which we need to take into consideration if we are to help them acquire the academic, professional, and critical skills that they will need for life in the 21st century. If we are to make the necessary adjustments to increase youth engagement, we must first understand the logic of their disengagement. One major reason that youth are disengaged from traditional academic literacy education is that they lack the confidence to perform the tasks that are associated with English education. The Expectancy-Value Theory of Motivation Achievement (Wigfield Sc Eccles, 2000) posits that students are less likely to be motivated to perform a task if they expect to fail at that task. The Expectancy-Value theory also contends that youth are not likely to be motivated to perform academic tasks that they do not perceive as relevant or bringing them any value. I translate this in my own teaching and work with teachers and students to think of motivation for students as a function of confidence and relevance. If we think of engagement as being directly related to motivation we can say that students will not be engaged with literacy curricula if they do not have confidence in their literacy ability and if they do not see the literacy curricula as relevant to their present or future life.

I first became interested in the connections between literacy and popular culture as a graduate student working on my teaching credential in the early 1990s. One of our literacy courses borrowed its structure from the work of Luis Moll who, along with several colleagues in the Southwestern United States, taught bilingual teachers to become ethnographers documenting the funds ofknowledge possessed in homes and communities (Moll, Amanti, Neff, Sc Gonzalez, 1992). This particular course asked us to go into the community to document the ways that youth were using literacy outside of the classroom and to suggest ways to make connections between these out of school literacy practices and our classroom curriculum. Through this work I became fascinated with the complex literacy skills that young people were learning and developing through their organic participation in popular culture. I logged hundreds of examples of students using traditional and new literacies to navigate film, music, video games, and sports. Like Shirley Bryce Heath in her work in the 1980s Piedmont Carolinas (Heath, 1983), I was able to document the literacy events that were a meaningful part of participation in youth popular culture. Through this process I was forced to reconsider a youth culture that was often dismissed as not having any intellectual merit and I was also challenged to think differently about how I would use youth popular cultural literacies in my classroom practice.

I came to see the teaching of popular culture as a strategy that could be used to motivate my students by making connections between literacy practices that were relevant to their lives and literacy practices around which students held a great deal of confidence. I also felt that many of the students' literacy practices outside of school paralleled the kinds of literacy practices I was attempting to promote inside of the English classroom. In the ethnographies of literacy (Barton, Hamilton, 6c Ivanic, 2000) that I was conducting for my graduate school courses I saw students consuming mass amounts of traditional texts via their participation in popular culture. They were reading print in the form of magazines, newspapers, and CD jackets; they were analyzing non-print texts such as films and songs and discussing their merits and flaws in a way similar to how teachers would like them to talk about poems, plays, and novels. Students were also writing a great deal through letters and entries into notebooks. Once the Internet began to take off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the amount of reading and writing for students increased dramatically. …

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