Using Popular Culture to Get Students Hooked on Reading and Writing
Janet L. Losser and Courtney Johnson
Rather than struggling against their elementary students' obsession with a game that had become a popular cultural phenomenon, the authors, who were participants on the same teaching team, decided to adapt the game as part of the writing curriculum in their classrooms. The results were amazing as writing became intensely motivating for the students. This teaching tip is an excerpt from a longer, more detailed article.
Children today need creative teachers who respect their interests outside of school and are willing to acknowledge them in the classroom in ways that might be related to academic gain. We decided to invite an extremely popular aspect of our students' culture into our classrooms.
Janet, who was teaching while completing her doctoral degree, summarizes the basic orientation behind our idea, along with some of the theoretical justification that guided us as we put it into practice.
Mimi Chenfeld (2000) wrote,
When I see today's children poring over Poke'mon and Digimon characters—recognizing every name and picture, using words like "evolve," "transformation," and "weaknesses" —when I see their fascination (or obsession), I wonder if we're not missing important connections. Can we find a place to use and respect this knowledge in our classrooms and curricula? (p. 8)
Courtney and I decided to try out Ms. Chenfield's idea. We found that the writing programs of our classes came to life when we valued and applied in our classes what our students held seriously in their lives: Poke'mon cards, interaction, and stories. Johnsonmon became an important part of Courtney's class, and Lofgranmon·became an obsession in mine. Almost two decades later, the Poke'mon craze continues. We offer our teaching tip for others who might want to try Poke'mon or another game of the students' popular culture in their own classrooms.
Simply stated, popular culture is what is popular with particular groups of people. It allows certain people to relate to each other through its unique symbols and meanings conveyed constantly through the media. In a more complex definition Mukerji and Schudson (1991) explained that popular culture refers to "the beliefs and practices, and the objects through which they are organized, that are widely shared among a population" (p. 3).
There are many reasons why inviting popular culture into the classroom can be a promising strategy for teachers. First, to build on students' schema teachers have to pay attention to what motivates the group. Considering what is important to the students and including it in the classroom gives them power over their learning as it validates their interests. Lewis (1998) asserted that if teachers choose to ignore students' outside interests, these interests will edge into our schools anyway.
Second, inviting popular culture into the classroom, rather than attempting to exclude it, has the potential for creating higher quality experiences for students. Delpit (1986) felt that conversations at school become richer when the texts students experience in their world outside of the school are invited in so the classroom becomes a "meeting place" where learning can occur. Finally, student ownership in the curriculum is invaluable, and using it to support the curriculum gives students a sense they have some control over their learning.
Courtney Johnson shares her adventure when Poke'mon became Johnsonmon in her classroom.
My students' faces lit up when I mentioned the name Poke'mon. The Poke'mon name seemed cool, but how does the cultural phenomenon work? I was not in the know and I knew it. I asked my students about trading Poke'mon cards and was bombarded by what seemed to be a foreign language.
- "You have Poke'mon cards, and you try to get all the surprise boxes."
- "The way you get all the surprise boxes is by fainting all the other Poke'mons."
- "Different cards have different hit points and damages."
- "You have to have energy in order to do damage."
This new lingo left my head spinning.
I wasn't sure I could catch the Poke'mon fever that had infected my students. Did I want to? Was there enough potential in the Poke'mon craze to add value to my classroom? How could I possibly fit more into my curriculum? The idea of using the Poke'mon popular culture intrigued me, so I took a plunge into the unknown. I became the student, and my students taught me what I needed to know about Poke'mon.
Gradually I gained confidence that I could play the game. I went Poke'mon shopping and was surprised to find out how much the cards cost—$10.00 per deck! I couldn't afford the multiple decks I needed. I returned to my classroom empty handed and shared the problem with my students. Since we still wanted to participate in some way, we discussed the possibility of making our own cards. Together we came up with the name of Johnsonmon. My classroom was on fire with excitement as we began the creative process.
Students began by designing their own cards. I found an inexpensive scrapbook software program that allowed me to recreate students' designs on my computer at home. After a few attempts at designing the cards, I was able to create some Johnsonmon cards that looked very similar to the Poke'mon cards. Our class was beginning to create our own popular culture, not merely tap into another.
Before long, students were clamoring to collect and trade the Johnsonmon cards. Meanwhile, Poke'mon cards were creating a problem at our school. Many unfair trades were taking place with experienced traders taking advantage of the inexperienced traders. Parents were upset, and teachers took issue with the socioeconomic aspects of the "haves and have nots." The student council was asked to come up with a solution to the problem, and the they made the decision to ban Poke'mon completely. My students did not seem to mind; in fact they jumped up and down saying, "We have Johnsonmon! We have Johnsonmon!" They were proud of their designs and loved their cards. I realized they were ready to write about the Johsonmon characters that were so important to them.
For prewriting exercises, the students placed their Johnsonmon cards on their desks and studied the characters. They discussed possible story ideas with peers and explored the option of including other Johnsonmon characters in their stories. The energy level in the class was high as they wrote, revised, edited, and prepared their stories for publication.
When the class finished designing their cards, a trading frenzy began. Soon students were bartering for more cards and couldn't get enough. When they couldn't obtain the cards they wanted through a trade, they asked me if they could earn that card by doing extra work. It was incredible. These kids were motivated to work. The next several days provided intense workshop opportunities where students didn't want to stop writing. I was amazed as I watched them trade additional cards. Not only did they want the cards, they wanted the stories written by their peers that gave more detail about each of the characters. They were driven to read.
The following weeks provided rich opportunities for mini-lessons to support their writing. Were the stories organized? Had they chosen chronological order, cause/effect, problem/solution, compare/contrast? Were their stories clear and concise? Not only were they learning how to write, they were learning key literacy strategies. In addition, they were writing for a real audience—their peers—and their stories had to be good.
After the book was published, the students didn't want to stop. They wanted to write more and include other Johnsonmon characters in their stories. They worked together, threading the intricate details of each Johnsonmon character into a class story that included every student's character. They were determined not to leave anyone out.
Obviously the Johnsonmon project was not only a motivational tool for writing, but a powerful force for developing class unity. My students and I grew closer to one another through our writing. They treated me with respect because I valued what they valued. As I read and reread their stories, I became more informed about what an attack was, how trainers worked, and how a defending Johnsonmon held up in battle. I was in the know and could talk the common language with my students. I often called them by their Johnsonmon names. Their smiles suggested they liked it when I did.
Chenfeld, M. B. (2001). Basic beliefs—then and now. Reading Today, 18(3), 8.
Delpit, L. (1986). Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. Harvard Educational Review, 56, 379-385.
Lewis, C. (1998). Rock 'n' roll and horror stories: Students, teachers, and popular culture. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42(2), 116-120.
Mukerji, C., & Schudson, M. (1991). Introduction: Rethinking popular culture. In C. Mukerji & M. Schudson (Eds.), Rethinking popular culture: Contemporary perspetives in cultural studies (pp. 1-61). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.