I Get Wise with a Little Pop From My Friends

I want my students to be continually thinking about context–cultural, historical, and otherwise.  For many of my students, the boundaries of their writing AND reading are constricted by their narrow contextual pools of knowledge.  Helping them to see why the narratives of their history classes or the view through the microscope in biology are actually playing a role in their ability to make meaning of the world more holistically should be a default goal of an English classroom. (Which is why I grimace inwardly whenever a well-meaning fellow educator confides in their students that they’re terrible at math or chemistry or whatever content area–it sends the message that skipping over a whole realm of knowledge is something to be done casually.)

Besides encouraging attentiveness in those areas, I am going to start creating more explicit spaces in my classroom for students to examine small artifacts of pop culture. I may expand as the year goes along but for now, here’s my plan:

  1. 1-2 times per week, notebook entries will call their attention to pop culture references found in unfamiliar contexts–a Tweet, a news article, a Podcast, etc.
  2. On an ongoing basis, my students will be on the lookout for pop culture references THEY notice in their reading, viewing, and other experiences.
  3. When they spot one, they will be responsible for reporting it back to the class where it will join our new feature, the “What’s Poppin’ Wall”.

At first, these are going to function rather loosely as separate entities–I need to saturate my students with context.  As time goes on, I’m hoping each element plays a small role in expanding those reading and writing context boundaries I mentioned earlier…


Notebooks for Nuance

The Notebook element of this undertaking is already a part of our weekly routine, and the early results of tossing pop culture topics at them has revealed some interesting results.  One early entry asked students to interpret the pop culture reference in this opening paragraph from an opinion column about the militirization of police:

What would happen if American police officers carried whistles instead of guns and dressed in old-fashioned blue uniforms instead of outfits that make them look like they are about to ask us how long we’ve had these droids? (The Week)

Star Wars fans will chuckle at the thinly veiled reference to a famous line from the films.  Those lacking that context will react the way one of my students did in her notebook:  “I don’t see any pop culture references here, so in terms of pop culture context, this doesn’t really mean anything to me.”  

For those who got the reference, the next challenge becomes one of interpretation.  Why make this reference to Stormtroopers–the intimidating enforcers of the Empire–in an article about police carrying guns?  The topic ignited a great discussion in my class, especially when I showed them these two images to drive the reference home:

storm trooper

It’s important to be clear that NONE of us will get every cultural reference, but when we spot one and reflect on it, we should reflect on both its purpose and the stylistic role it plays in the writer or artists work.  Notebooks are a perfect space for such exploration.


Context Continuum

Asking students to track down their own examples of pop culture references will serve lots of purposes, but mostly I’m hoping it creates buy-in.  If Star Wars isn’t your jam, then that notebook entry above probably sucked, to put it in the kindest possible language I can imagine a student using to describe it.

For that reason alone, inviting students to seek their own pop culture references in whatever reading and writing environments they frequent is an essential activity.  There are other benefits as well, though: When we ask students to reach into their own experiences, we open a window into what those experiences are. If that window ends up providing you a view you aren’t used to embrace it and try to take it in.  Expanding our contextual knowledge of THEIR world of experience provides as much benefit as our attempts to broaden their perspectives. You might be surprised to discover, for example, that modern video games are brimming with references to literature.  

While one could go about this particular activity in any number of ways, I’m going to approach it with the liberating caveat that my students do not need to GET the reference in order to submit it for discussion.  I have a feeling that their curiosity about references they don’t understand, but that appear in the music and films they spend their time with, might actually jump start more vigorous conversations than references to culture they recognize.  

Ultimately, the major goal here is to try and create a sort of Spider-sense in them about cultural context–awareness of its ubiquity will help motivate the harder work later.


The Wall of Pop

“Publishing” their pop culture discoveries will be an assignment with an open-ended deadline, since the idea is for them to stumble onto references naturally, not by grade coercion.  If I were to give them a weekend to track down a pop culture reference, I’d end up reducing an intriguing tour of their world to a frustrating real-life version of Where’s Waldo?.  They’ll also need help learning HOW to look–what clues does a text provide when it’s referencing another story, or a song?  How do films nod to other films? Mini-lessons as the semester wears on will help my students gain a sharper eye for seeing pop culture everywhere.  

pop wall

The Wall awaits student input…unbecoming tiger stripe border compliments of fellow Moving Writer and roomie, Hattie Maguire:)

Once the results begin to trickle in though, our “What’s Poppin’ Wall” is going to be a shared space for us to consider the massive tangle of American Culture in all its messy glory.  In class, we’ll be adding everything from modern satire to The Great Gatsby to documentary films to the conversation, but the wall will play the crucial role of…let’s call it…cultural diplomat.  

If we’re going to tell students that Shakespeare and the Dead White Guys (How is this not a band name?  IS this a band name? Are they any good?) matter, then we have to create a space in the room for Banksy and the Young Artists and for genres of pop culture that maybe didn’t even exist when we were in high school.  Making the references they find in their cultural realms a visible part of the classroom helps legitimize their experience.  

If all goes well, each of my students will leave in June with better close-reading and viewing habits and a richer, more open-minded contextual pool to draw from.  As readers and writers entering a hyper-connected world, it might be the English skill they put to use most often. Like the Heads Up Display in Fortnite.  See what I mean?  Pop culture references everywhere!


*Featured image via RedBubble (yeah–you could order that notebook for yourself!

How do you help your students gain context for their reading and writing?  Find us on Facebook or share your ideas (and pop culture references!) with me @ZigThinks on Twitter.


  1. This is so timely! Just this past week my seventh graders were struggling to understand the context of the main character Felix in Morris Gleitzman’s novel Once. (Felix steps into Nazi run Poland after having been hidden in an orphanage for almost four years. The reader has more context than Felix–dramatic irony–and the kids struggle to grasp Felix’s naiveté.) We’re working on Writer’s and Reader’s Moves this year. We used the reader’s move of “contextualizing” to talk about the fact that characters come from a set of circumstances and we can better understand their actions, reactions and choices if we seek to understand their context. Before our discussion of this move, I made copies of this picture http://time.com/3877714/donald-the-duck-and-trigger-the-dog-unlikely-bffs/. In our writer’s notebook, we wrote about what happened in the photo, without knowing the context, but looking at clues from the picture. Then, we shared. Of course, many thought the duck was killed by the dog. After sharing, I gave them the backstory of the photo. From there, we began to talk about context and how without it, we rely on prefabricated assumptions. I used a snow globe as a metaphor for context. The following class period, we watched this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVifkAx5rIY. I stopped throughout so we could make connections to context. Amazing responses from kids. One student shared how the film proves that sometimes, no matter what we do to break out of our “context,” we’re pulled back inside of it. Another noted how we’re all sort of walking around in our own snow globes (!). When we read yesterday, there were many beautiful interruptions pointing out context! Woot hoot! Thank you for sharing your ideas here! Gives me another entry point to talk about context.

    1. I love this! I’m totally stealing that photo notebook:) I think maybe you should’ve written this post! Thanks for sharing.

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