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Volume 16, Number 4
July/August 2000

Shakespeare vs. Teletubbies

Is There a Role for Pop Culture in the Classroom?


What was that mysterious place where human skulls stared at passersby through the plate-glass window? Mary and Gloria Navarro asked themselves that question each day as they walked by a shop called "Mama Roots" on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights, a working-class section of San Diego. When the 10-year-old twin sisters joined an after-school program aimed at building literacy skills, it gave them a reason to find out about those skulls.

The girls interviewed the shop manager, John Lee, about magic and ghosts and witches. They then wrote a story about the shop and shared it with their classmates. After receiving suggestions to improve the piece, Mary and Gloria rewrote the story (see "View from the Classroom: Student Writers Hone Their Skills"). It turned out much better the second time, Mary says.

The Adams Avenue Newspaper Project teaches grade-school students to explore their community as if they were reporters. While journalism programs have long been used at the secondary-school level, studies show that they can also benefit the teaching and learning of younger students. Editing workshops that teach students to critique each other's work, special guest speakers from local media, and instruction in computerized newspaper design all help enrich the students' journalistic efforts.

The program, which was developed and is run by faculty and students at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), takes the journalism idea one step further. It tries to improve literacy by tapping into students' vast knowledge about popular culture—from X-Men and Pokemon to movies and talk shows, from TV news to the Internet. This wider classroom use of the media can be controversial because of the great lengths many teachers go to to keep such cultural products, often laden with vio lence, consumerism, or stereotypes, out of the classroom.

Yet some researchers counter that children are going to use the media anyway—to learn, to construct their own identities, to situate themselves within particular groups—giving teachers an opportunity to make use of students' attention to the media for educational purposes. "There is a need for adult monitoring, of course, but it does no good to pretend children have not seen what they've seen or heard what they've heard," says Anne Haas Dyson, a professor of language, literacy, and culture at the School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. "If you want to build on what children know, then you have to pay attention to media."

Dyson's ethnographic study of how grade-school children adapt superhero stories to everyday life is described in her 1997 book, Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture and Classroom Literacy. She shows ways that students can be taught to reconstruct superhero narratives to promote broader definitions of what it means to be strong, to include less stereotypical behavior by girls and boys, and to avoid violence. Teachers may have children make their own videos, tape interviews with family members, or produce a newspaper, she says.

Dyson is now researching additional ways teachers can use children's familiarity with media genres. She is "interested in the knowledge that simply surfaces in children's response to school activities." The same composition skills that girls might employ on the playground when they pretend to be soul singers or DJs can be tapped for collaborative poetry reading and writing, Dyson says. Children often appropriate diverse media including radio, television, videos, and sports shows during open-ended writing activities and when they present and explain their work in class, Dyson says. "In one class I observed, embedded in the children's sports talk was nascent knowledge about geography—the names of teams' cities and states—as well as gender and power ideologies just itching for organization and critical discussion in the official world."

In drawing football fields and writing sports reports, children may demonstrate mathematical knowledge (two-digit numbers, counting by tens). Ideological issues may also come up: for example, Dyson examined football pictures drawn by girls that included skimpily clad cheerleaders. The teacher Dyson observed asked the students who liked football (not all boys, as students thought) and who didn't (not all girls) and who was supposed to play the game (a popular children's movie had a co-ed team). Female athletes were invited to talk to the class about their own limited opportunities to play sports as children. "Children don't need to be football fans, popular music fans, or movie buffs to become literate in school, but they do need respectful teachers with the imagination to see possibilities for resources in the lives of diverse, contemporary children," Dyson says.

Tom Newkirk, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, also sees a clash of cultures in schools where traditional "great works" of literature are emphasized more than the popular media materials children often try to bring into the classroom. For example, while teachers may see certain horror films as purely violent, students may have a more complex understanding of them and the cultural references they invoke. They may see humorous moments and even be able to mock the genre in ways that adults wouldn't.

Newkirk, who has been interviewing 4th and 5th graders at four southern New Hampshire schools for a book on this subject, says he watches Teletubbies on TV and has no idea what's going on. But two- and three-year olds know exactly. "A lot of times we are snobs," he says. "We see ourselves as special, protecting our own forms of literacy and protecting literature. We miss a connection with kids if we dismiss movies and TV. Kids sense the disapproval. You want them to acknowledge your world, but you also have to acknowledge theirs."

That's not to say everything is fair game in the classroom, but teachers should have good reasons for not allowing something in, he says. "Movies have detail, dialogue—the elements of the narrative are there—and the kids are attracted to them," he says. they can write a summary of a long movie, you can teach sequencing, description, narrating, tension and resolution, and the kids might have the basis for discussing more realistic fiction later." Such discussions can also improve students' writing, he adds.

Teachers who know popular culture know students' reference points and have a bridge to their world when discussing traditional texts. Obviously, teachers can't ignore the violence and sexual degradation in, say, the horror genre. However, rather than simply condemning violence in films, they should make it a point for discussion. Even Shakespeare contains vio lence, so it is not enough to say no vio lence should be tolerated. A more constructive approach would be to ask when violence is necessary to a story and when it becomes mere gore. A legitimate topic when discussing horror films may be the use of suspense and anticipation in writing, Newkirk says.
However, some scholars remain skeptical about allowing popular media in the classroom. Many forms of media are corrupted not only by violence and stereotypes, but by commercialism, making it difficult even for adults, let alone children, to tell good from bad, says education policy analyst Edward Miller. Children are better off avoiding the imitation of popular shows in their writing; they should learn to do their own creative work, he says. "Teachers probably should at least be aware of what's out there and what kids are looking at, but many teachers dismiss popular media because they sense that these things don't have a lot of value. And I think their instincts are right," says Miller, a former editor of the Harvard Education Letter.

From Consumers to Producers

In a society saturated with media messages, how can schools negotiate this uneasy relationship with popular culture? The use of journalism offers a good solution, says Miller, because it teaches skills of inquiry and critical thinking while at the same time connecting them to the outside world. Children learn how to judge fact from opinion, gauge the accuracy of information sources, and tell balance and fairness from bias, he says. This not only has academic benefits, but it may also make students better citizens.

Studies dating from the 1970s and 1980s by such researchers as Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and Donald Graves at the University of New Hampshire have already shown that journalistic techniques can foster children's critical thinking skills and sense of ownership in their work as they pursue practical aims as writers. The knowledge that their work will culminate in a publication to be read by others provides students with a natural imperative to write clearly and the motivation to meet deadlines and work hard.

As they solve basic obstacles to making their work understandable, children absorb lessons that have application in their regular schoolwork. Like their newspaper stories, student writing assignments also must have a focus or point, engaging introductions, smooth transitions, and satisfying endings. Grammatical problems often are solved along the way in the journalistic process and are seen as more interesting because finding solutions is necessary to make writing readable to an audience.

"Kids Like Being Reporters"

All this happens twice a week at the Adams Elementary School annex in San Diego, when 15-25 children gather to discuss story ideas, write, and learn desktop publishing skills as part of a newspaper project organized by Ellen Seiter, a professor of communication at UCSD. Because the University of California seeks to get faculty involved in urban K-12 education, Seiter received $15,000 in seed money from UC's Urban Community School Collaborative Grant to launch the program at Adams Elementary, where most students are Mexican American and 90 percent of students qualify for free lunches. A $16,000 grant from the Price-Weingard Fund paid for 14 computers and two digital cameras.

Students like Mary Navarro interview local shopkeepers and take photos of the community. The community comes to them, too. After a guest lecture by George Lipsitz, a music critic and professor of ethnic studies at UCSD, students wrote about what kinds of music they enjoy. They then agreed to write about the Backstreet Boys, with girls and boys taking opposite points of view. Another collaborative project that followed a talk by a local DJ and blues artist had them writing a group story, with each student contributing two comments.

Seiter, who has studied children's use of the media for some 20 years, and graduate students from UCSD help students edit the paper, working as a group to spot errors and determine story size and placement. The paper is then distributed as an insert to a community newspaper published by the Adams Avenue Business Association, reaching 17,000 readers in the working-class neighborhood.

The idea of producing a newspaper seems "very important to the kids," who are especially interested in getting their names in the paper, says Seiter. "The focus on the end product has really motivated them in terms of self-representation, and they do like being reporters."

In addition to building kids' writing skills, the program also aims to spark their interest in reading newspapers. They learn to think of their own families, their own churches, and their own favorite restaurants as places that are newsworthy, says Seiter. For 10-year-old Mary Navarro, the strategy seems to be working: "It's making me interested in reading the newspaper. Sometimes I say, 'Mama, could you get me 35 cents? I want to go buy the newspaper,' and she says, 'Sure.'"

By teaching kids to become both media producers and media consumers, the Adams Avenue project promotes the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills necessary to succeed at the college level, Seiter says. That's especially important for at-risk students, she adds, because while "they may know a lot about TV or movies or video games, kids don't get points in school for just being media literate. In fact, it tends to get you labeled as someone who is media-saturated and not growing up in a healthy environment."

Roy Peter Clark started using journalism to teach writing decades ago after seeing start-up newspapers created by elementary school children—entrepreneurial efforts by 4th and 5th graders who distributed their work in their neighborhoods. Clark's writing classes do not start with lessons on sentence or paragraph structure. Instead, he assumes kids are ready to tell stories from the moment they walk into the classroom, and he gives each student a reporter's notebook. "That sends a signal that writing is not about sitting still and making things up. It's about going out and searching, gathering, collecting, and selecting. Making judgments about what's most interesting and important."

Grammar is important, Clark says, but it needs to be taught in the context of the children's actual construction of meaning so that "it has some reference to the purposes you are striving for." Student reporters learn to observe their surroundings and their culture, ask good questions, and pursue answers to those questions, he says. In other words, they learn to be learners.

For Further Information

For Further Information

D. Buckingham and J. Sefton-Green. Cultural Studies Goes to School: Reading and Teaching Popular Media. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994.

R.P. Clark. Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

A.H. Dyson. Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture and Classroom Literacy. New York:Teachers College Press, 1997.

M. Gillespie. Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change. New York: Routledge, 1995.

D. Graves. A Fresh Look at Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994.

P. McLure and T. Newkirk. Listening In: Children Talk about Books (and Other Things). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994.

E. Seiter. Television and New Media Audiences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.