Making Student Voice “Pop”

food snack popcorn movie theater
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As English teachers, we often fancy ourselves not just teachers of reading and writing, but keepers of a sacred flame:  Culture. For better and worse, we’ve hitched our wagon to both the humanities and the arts and made it our role to help make students both literate and “worldly”.  

It’s an interesting time to attempt to fulfill such a charge:  “The Canon” is changing (finally!), other realms of popular culture (film, video games–yeah, you heard me!) are encroaching on the sacred space once reserved only for Great Books (that capitalization is 75% sarcastic), and modern writers and pundits are constantly drawing from new cultural touchstones to reach their audiences.  A teacher of English who doesn’t keep up with modern culture might nowadays feel just as left out of certain conversations as a young reader who doesn’t get Shakespeare references.

This semester, my beat here at Moving Writers will focus on how our roles as teachers of reading and especially writing intersect with popular culture.  I’ll share thoughts about why pop culture should matter to your classroom, and why making your young writers more worldly and aware of a breadth of popular culture will ultimately sharpen both their writing and their thinking.

Writing With Spirit

Today in the hallways I walked past a girl wearing a homemade cardboard Delorean time machine, a girl dressed up as Rosie the Riveter, an incredibly convincing Hagrid who I’m still not sure wasn’t just the actual actor sneaking around our halls, and dozens of other film-inspired costumes.  

It’s spirit week, of course–today was “Blockbuster Day” and the kids could not have been more into it.  

Besides the hilarious levels of creativity the kids exhibit this time of year, the other striking thing about spirit week is how strongly popular culture creates a communal joy for them.  As a pop culture junkie, it’s one of my favorite weeks of the school year. But this year, it also provided me with an epiphany about writing that should’ve occurred to me long ago.

Make Those Hot Takes Pop

Besides exploring authorial voice, English 11 always begins the year with a heavy emphasis on cultural context–we want them to see the web of culture that is built by shared texts and other media.  As I wandered past an Iron Man and a Hermione today casting spells and shooting energy beams playfully at each other on their way to class, it occurred to me that our students already have a rich enough cultural context to contribute to the web of culture in the writing they produce.

My students are starting their first major writing undertaking of the semester next week:  The Hot Take. I’ve written about this project before (because I LOVE it), so if you aren’t familiar with the genre, feel free to click here for a quick overview.  In a nutshell: The kids are writing argumentative pieces that are strong on passion and voice.

Which is why this year, I’m asking them to try their hand at using allusions to popular culture as part of their writing voice.  Since the consistent thread is relevance in our course, I want them to start to think about all the shared pop culture touchstones they can draw on when they are trying to communicate to an audience with shared interests or context.

Pop Culture Connects Us

The first thing I want my students to consider when using pop culture references in their writing is how shared interests help connect us to one another (and by extension, to our potential audience).  Another way to think about a writer’s voice, of course, is to consider it the author’s personality embedded into the DNA of a piece. It might be carefully controlled or recklessly smashed into every other clause, but it’s there in good writing.  So if your personality borrows heavily from your love of, say, Harry Potter, using some playful references to the popular mythos in your writing will go a long way towards winning over your audience. Unless you’re House Slytherin, of course…

Helping young writers to establish the right tone for their subject matter can also be a challenge.  Pop culture references can be of use to our students here as well. Consider the tweet below that I came across a couple a days ago.  It references one of the most famous shots in the Star Wars universe: Luke staring at the twin sunset on Tatooine (you either know exactly what I’m talking about or you’re rolling your eyes right now–that’s kinda how pop culture works).  Look at what Whitbrook has to say about it though–he reduces an enormous cinematic universe to a distilled image and idea: Wanderlust.

star wars sunset reference

Such simplifications are powerful writerly moves–perhaps even a notebook entry unto itself!  They’re also a wonderful way to shift a reader’s perspective. Some young writers struggle to find the perfect words (“wanderlust” probably wouldn’t occur to 95% of my writers) to express their emotions and attitudes, but if a reference to a shared piece of culture can help their readers grok what they’re thinking (see what I did there?!) then it’s a writing tool that will empower struggling and underdeveloped voices.  

Pop Culture Helps Us Interpret the World

The other reason I want my students to learn how to use pop culture references in their writing is because it’s such a common tactic for professional writers.  A few days ago The Atlantic ran an article explaining how The Great Gatsby can help explain the Trump presidency.  Look at the graphic Slate ran (below) for an article examining the ethics of Apple as a company–recognize that hand from any famous animated films?  

apple witch hand

Image via

Kids may not have read (or made sense of) all of the classics by high school, but I’m going to suggest to them that they don’t need to.  If they can find a moment in a film, or a character from a YA novel, or a line from a popular song that encapsulates an idea they want to convey to their audience, then they’re already on the road to being highly effective writers.  

Students need broad contexts in order to become informed readers and writers, and pop culture–even the stuff we might balk at as Keepers of the Cultural Flame–is a part of the context they’ll need to be literate in the world.  So when my group of boys in first hour starts in for the millionth time tomorrow about how Boss Baby is the best movie they watched last year I’m going to tell them to save it for a more receptive audience:  Their readers.


How do you get your kids engaged with pop culture?  How do you help them find their writing voices?  Share your ideas with us on Facebook or find me on Twitter @Zigthinks


    1. Thank you! May I say that I love everything in your writing about comics in the classroom (only read a few of your posts so far but it’s all spot on)! I started incorporating graphic novels into my classroom library several years ago and the results with my lowest readers’ attitudes towards pleasure reading has been worth the price of admission alone!

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