A former classroom teacher, Andrea Ferrero knows how important it is to capture students’ attention in order for them to absorb a lesson. That led her, eight years ago, to start Pockets Change, a K-12 financial literacy program that also helps students express their own voice through hip hop music.
As educators work to engage students in curriculum, tying lessons to their pop-cultural interests is an increasingly common approach. And it works on a variety of subjects, from consumer math to social studies, as Pockets Change and the other following examples demonstrate.
Hip hop finances
Pockets Change partners with schools and after-school programs, with staff members facilitating workshops. The program can also wrap easily into English language arts and career and technical skill classes. Generally, Ferrero said, the group will see students three to four times over the course of a week.
At the very first session, students learn how to beatbox, a way to make drum machine sounds through the mouth. Beatboxing also encourages students to try something they may not be comfortable doing, which allows the Pockets Change facilitators to encourage them to do something else that makes them uncomfortable — talk about money.
“Many of us are not talking about money, and if we are, there is shame around it,” said Ferrero. “Money is the last taboo.”
By helping students find what she calls their “personal rhythm” while also learning how to balance a financial record, Ferrero and her co-founders are tying popular culture into classroom learning and infusing students’ own interests into the curriculum.
Students also spend the week developing business ideas. For example, two years ago, a group of students at La Cañada Elementary School in Lompoc, California, launched a dog-walking business — and it's still running even as the students have moved on to middle school.
A musical history of America
At the high school level, David Reiff is a veteran of bringing pop culture into the classroom. The name of his class at Hauppauge High School in New York — "American History through Pop Culture" — makes the lesson plan fairly clear. Students choose projects that tie a social and political subject to an element of pop culture that interests them.
“All aspects of pop culture are incorporated, and students are encouraged to suggest examples,” Reiff said in an email.
Music is often a popular subject, with students rewriting song lyrics and potentially even making music videos “to reflect the course content,” said Reiff.
He's such a fan of pop culture that he’ll tap into it for ideas for his other courses, including Advanced Placement (AP) Economics and AP U.S. Government, and he's compiled a list of projects to inspire other educators, including some lessons he's used during a professional development seminar he led for teachers.
Creating a Facebook page for a historical figure, designing an album cover that represents a specific era, or crafting a playlist for someone famous in history — and explaining why that music was important to that person — are a few of his favorite activities to use with students.
“Students are always encouraged to share music or other pop culture references that are relevant to the subject matter,” he said.
Social studies superhero
Superheroes also provide educators with plenty of inspiration for tying trending and classic characters to academic goals. Tim Smyth, a social studies teacher at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pennsylvania, keeps a classroom library stocked with comic books and graphic novels, including class sets of the "March" trilogy by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.
Smyth also runs a website, "History Comics and Comics in Education," where he catalogs lesson plans and resources for educators, parents and anyone who wants to tap into comics to encourage students to read. He started using comics when he noticed his son, then in kindergarten, was a reluctant reader, he said. Smyth found that comics helped his son find “the confidence and interest he needed to read."
As much as he loves bringing comics into the classroom, however, he also suggested educators do their homework before using them to make sure they’re always tying the lesson to curriculum objectives.
“There also has to be a reason behind the pop culture references — it can’t just be done in an effort to be ‘cool,’” he said. “For one, students will see right through you. For another, if an administrator or parent has a question (and I love interacting with both as a team effort), you need to be prepared to defend the educational use of these materials."