Skip to content
Home » Blog » Using Pop Culture in the ELA Classroom: 5 Tips to Engage Secondary ELA Students

Using Pop Culture in the ELA Classroom: 5 Tips to Engage Secondary ELA Students

    using pop culture in the ela classroom

    Using pop culture in the classroom could be your key to unlocking student engagement. This post serves as your guide to all things you need to know to capture students’ attention and spark critical thought using popular culture.

    If you’re here wondering how to engage your students in authentic and meaningful learning experiences, it might be time to welcome pop culture into your classroom.

    Two of the biggest challenges teachers face are engaging students in content and fostering meaningful learning experiences. However, once students are engaged, the gates to meaningful learning fly wide open. And that, my teacher friend, is where pop culture comes in handy.

    While some may claim that turning to pop culture waters down an otherwise rigorous curriculum, I would argue the exact opposite. If done well, using pop culture in the classroom can enhance student learning as it helps bridge the gap between classroom content and students’ lives outside of academics. And as that gap closes, students will flourish.

    There are several benefits of using pop culture in the classroom. For starters, you can use pop culture to spark student interest and engagement in learning. Additionally, this approach can promote critical thinking and a stronger understanding of classroom content. But even those are just scratching the surface of the benefits.

    Here are a few more reasons to bring pop culture references into your classroom…

    • Increases student interest and engagement.  Dedicate some time to exploring a student’s world and connecting it to your teaching, and you’ll be surprised by how much more willing they’ll be to explore the world of more traditional English language arts.
    • Captures the attention of otherwise disengaged students. There are several reasons why a student might appear disengaged or reluctant to learn. Whether they are simply disinterested, “don’t see the point,” or struggle with comprehension, using pop culture can shift student interest. Sometimes all it takes is giving students a more accessible and relevant way to learn, explore, or apply classroom concepts.
    • Makes classroom content and concepts relatable. Sometimes all it takes to engage students in seemingly “useless” or “boring” content that is “irrelevant to their lives” (all their words, not mine) is to switch up how you present the material. Students can apply academic concepts using new, more relatable material by connecting classroom content to pop culture. Topics that once felt outdated will suddenly seem more relevant and approachable, opening the doors for them to think critically and dive deeper. 
    • Sparks engaging discussions. What teacher doesn’t dread an awkwardly silent classroom discussion? The use of pop culture in the classroom encourages collaborative and meaningful discussions, as students are likely to have more to say regarding a topic of higher interest and relevance. Then, you can use a pop culture-rich discussion as a springboard for more academic concepts and applications.
    • Strengthens critical thinking skills. It can be hard to move students beyond surface-level thinking and analysis. Weaving pop culture references into your lessons will inspire students to make connections between what we teach and the world beyond the classroom. As a result, students will experience a deeper learning experience. When students explore classroom concepts using pop culture, they’re inherently strengthening skills, like critical thinking, in a meaningful way. 
    • Builds a strong classroom community. The modern classroom is filled with students of varying skills, backgrounds, and needs. Despite these differences, we can unify students, build community, and promote collaboration by using pop culture references familiar to most, if not all, students. And it doesn’t stop there. Showing interest in pop culture can also help build positive rapport between students and teachers, too.

    5 Tips For Integrating Pop Culture In The Classroom

    With the prevalence of technology and social media, popular culture is literally in our student’s faces 24/7. Instead of constantly fighting an uphill battle vying for students’ attention, perhaps we should start finding ways to use pop culture in our favor.

    Here are five tips to help you bring pop culture into the classroom in a meaningful way.

    1. Start with this question.

    Before you incorporate pop culture into your lessons, it’s essential to establish purpose and relevance. Therefore, you should always ask yourself, “Will this promote an effective and meaningful learning experience for my students?” If the answer is yes, plan away! If not, it doesn’t mean you have to scrap pop culture altogether. However, you might need to find a more powerful way to connect the dots between pop culture and classroom content.

    2. Use popular culture as a conversation starter.

    Students are likely to have more to say about music, tv, sports, and celebrities than they are about figurative language, theme, and character development. Luckily, you can use those very aspects of pop culture to spark engaging discussions that tie into your curriculum. For example, if you’re planning to teach argumentation, have students share their thoughts on a trending celeb feud and analyze the argument to determine who has the stronger case. Ask students why Twitter would restrict Tweets to 280 characters to get them thinking about word choice, summary, or synthesis. Want students to work on evidence? Have students make a case for the best movie, athlete, singer, or tv show ever. Spark a debate over which pastime is better, podcasts or reading. Ask them to argue if social media is a blessing or a curse. Fun discussions like those can get students’ wheels turning and minds churning.

    3. Encourage students to incorporate pop culture in their writing.

    You can incorporate pop culture in more than discussions. Encourage students to write using pop culture as well. For example, before they draft an analysis of a poem, have them write an analysis of their favorite song. Get more specific by having them choose the ultimate love (or breakup) song and justify their choice. If you’re reading a novel, have students write a paper comparing the novel and a movie adaptation. Alternatively, they can compare and contrast a classic, like Lord of the Flies, with a similar, yet modern story, like The Hunger Games. You’d be surprised how much more students have to say when they’re writing about something they’re interested in.

    4. Use pop culture to make ideas more relatable and easy to understand.

    When you can connect classic literature to modern references, it opens up a whole new level of understanding for students. Students might have difficulty connecting to The Great Gatsby, originally published in the 1920s, but they sure know a thing or two about disillusionment and materialism. After all, isn’t one of the biggest problems with social media that not everything is what it seems? Can you think of a better modern-day example of materialism than celebrities like the Kardashians? On the other hand, if you’re diving into the world of dystopian literature or satire, a modern show like Black Mirror is the perfect pop culture connection. (Just be sure to preview any clips for inappropriate content before showing them in class.) There are pop culture references for pretty much any topic or theme you can think of. You just have to go out and find them.

    5. Keep it natural and up-to-date.

    Not every lesson needs to (nor should) include a pop culture reference. In fact, students can see right through any forced or overdone pop culture references. As a result, they won’t reap the full benefits of incorporating pop culture into the classroom. To ensure you are making genuine connections between academic content and relevant pop culture, be sure to stay up-to-date with pop culture happenings. Relevance is a short-lived thing these days, thanks to the 24-hour media cycle. What works one year may not hold the same power the next. Be willing to change your pop culture references with the times.

    Pop Culture Perfect Pairings

    There are many ways to use pop culture in the classroom. Trust me. You could spend endless hours getting sucked into researching, scrolling, and planning. However, I know how busy teachers are, and you don’t have time for that.

    Here are a few ideas to help you save time and get started:

    • Teaching poetry? Have students analyze popular song lyrics, explaining that songs are basically poems put to music.
    • Introducing satire? Show a few clips of The Simpsons to illustrate what satire is and highlight how to effectively use humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to make a point. You know, as Orwell does in Animal Farm.
    • Reviewing characterization or plot? Have students apply these concepts to their favorite TV show. Or, you can watch an episode of a show in class and have them apply the concepts.
    • Reading a classic novel? Find pop culture references that match the text’s theme, plots, or characters. Trust me. There’s a match for just about any theme imaginable.
    • Diving into argumentation and persuasion? Have students look at actual advertisements, analyzing them for ethos, pathos, and logos.
    • Want to incorporate social media? Have students create character Instagram profiles, film BookTok reviews (TikTok style book reviews), write Twitter TidBits (craft an argument using 280 characters or fewer), or make character playlists. The options are endless!

    Final Thoughts on Using Pop Culture in the Classroom

    Pop culture can do more than provide entertainment. It can also make classroom material accessible, meaningful, and engaging for students. While it might feel a bit silly initially, using pop culture in the classroom can lead to a more enjoyable and effective learning experience for you and your students. Of course, some students might find it “lame,” but then again, some students find anything a teacher does lame. Hey, we can’t win ‘em all.

    Regardless, using pop culture in the classroom allows educators to teach standard curriculum material in a more creative, meaningful, and accessible way. So, don’t be afraid to step away from your syllabus’s (often stuffy and outdated) literary canon. Incorporating more relevant references from popular culture may just be what you need to make your lessons pop. (Pun intended? Absolutely.)

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *