Media Literacy: A Critique of How and Why Secondary Language Arts Teachers Currently Use Popular Culture
by Kathy Garland
A few years ago, I conducted a study of secondary language arts teachers who (1) taught in high poverty schools and (2) taught predominantly African American students (Garland, 2014). I wanted to understand these teachers’ perceptions of using popular culture (e.g., television, music, film) for academic purposes and I also wanted to learn how they used similar media in their own instruction.
I was fortunate enough to secure 30 teacher participants from four high schools, one in northwest Florida, one in northeast Florida, and two in middle Georgia. Over several months, they answered open-ended survey questions and participated in face-to-face interviews. Their answers serve as a framework for the following critique.
Teacher participants cited relevancy to the curriculum as a valid reason for using popular culture. Meaning, if the type of media could somehow be linked to the state-mandated curriculum, then it was fine to integrate it into lessons. By no means am I suggesting subversive behavior, but this type of thinking is contradictory for what past scholars have advocated. Alvermann, Hobbs, Morrell, and the Center for Media Literacy have all suggested that media and popular culture be integrated because it is relevant to students’ lives. I understand that teachers typically adhere to curricula directly given from districts, which are oftentimes handed down from the state. However, at some point, we should return to what is culturally relevant for our students.
We should include media, such as television, music, and film because that is with what our students engage. Popular culture has and always will be applicable (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010; Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005; Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999). No matter how much digital technologies are a part of our lives, studies have shown that children, especially those who are black, brown, or poor are still watching television, listening to music, and going to the movies (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). Popular culture should be part of language arts instruction because it is pertinent to students’ lives.
The basic sentiment from 18 of the teacher participants was that students would rather watch a screen than read a book. Three comments summarize these language arts teachers’ rationale for using popular culture:
It’s like backdoor teaching.
This is a non-reading generation.
They get really bored quick when it’s just paper.
Teachers perceived popular culture as a great way to bait students and then switch to “real” learning. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to engage students. But there is a flaw in using television, music, and film as if they are interesting, yet nonacademic learning tools. Beginning with a snippet of Family Guy so that students will read and understand Animal Farm’s satire is unnecessary.
Popular culture can stand on its own as the “real” text that offers “real” learning. In fact, this was demonstrated when a former language arts teacher created a Florida Department of Education course called Literature in the Media Honors (1005365). She not only used television shows, music, and film as more than just appealing tools, she also used these media as methods for supporting students’ literacy (Garland, 2012). While the course is engaging, this English elective is also an excellent alternative for teachers and students who seek contemporary methods for enacting literacy practices.
Teachers in this study saw popular culture as a great way to illustrate similarities and differences between novels and poems. For example, they described showing film versions of Romeo & Juliet before, during, and after reading Shakespeare’s play so that students could understand the language and concepts. They explained how comparing music during poetry units effectively demonstrate figurative language and rhetorical devices.
Using popular culture in this way isn’t wrong. However, television shows, music, and film can (and should) be used for more than visual or audio representations of the literature that we want students to read and understand. For example, students can examine film adaptations of texts to understand how media perpetuate ideas about race, gender, and hegemony (Garland, 2011; Garland & Smith, 2013). Music can do the same. In essence, popular culture can foster students’ critical literacy so that they begin to analyze and evaluate the media worlds in which they participate.
Standards, state mandates, and waning support from the federal government are at the forefront of all educators’ minds. I get it. But let’s not forget that language arts can be the place where students still learn to critically think. Popular culture can be the texts with which students enact such literacy skills. In a country where media realities are blurred every day, I’d say it’s time for us to get started.
Garland, K. (2011). Re-viewing popular film adaptations of young adult literature
using three contemporary literacy strategies. SIGNAL Journal, 34(2), 19–24.
Garland, K. (2012). Analyzing classroom literacy events: What observing classroom
conversations about popular culture can reveal about reading. English Journal. 101(6) 104-106.
Garland, K., & Smith, S. (2013). Exploring the core with in-depth popular film
analysis: How students can create a film review using a critical media literacy framework. Florida English Journal. 6-12.
Garland, K. (2014). Understanding the role of popular culture in secondary Title I teachers’
instruction. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University.
Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2 Media in the Lives of 8– to 18–year-olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation study. Retrieved from http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/
Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., & Rideout, V. J. (2005). Generation M Media in the
lives of 8-18 year-olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation study. http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m-media-in-the-lives-of/
Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., Rideout, V. J., & Brodie, M. (1999). Kids & media @
the new millennium. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.