Let’s Bring Pop Culture into the Classroom
Maybe even the Kardashians can teach us something
It was May 10th, 2019. I was going about my day as usual when YouTuber Tati Westbrook uploaded a video called “BYE SISTER…” (now deleted). In the video, she talked about why she was no longer friends with fellow YouTuber James Charles. Suddenly, everyone was talking about it. And I mean everyone. There were Twitter hashtags, Reddit threads, “tea” compilations on YouTube. James was losing subscribers by the second. That is, until a few days later, when he posted a video of his own responding in detail, and people began to turn against Tati.
It was the scandal of the year. I’ve never seen so many young people come together to share their opinions and “tea” on a subject online.
In the midst of all this, we were all still going to school, trying to solidify our grades as we wrapped up the year. We complained about having to finish final projects and study for AP tests — seriously, it's almost summer, we thought, who has time for memorizing chemical equations right now? If only we could be as excited about learning as we were about the #JamesCharlesIsOverParty.
Teenagers’ fascination with television shows, the drama of the internet, and various other forms of media is often seen as a bad thing, as a waste of time.
But we could actually learn a lot from pop culture. Instead of school being purposefully isolated from the real world, we should allow and even encourage students to reflect on and discuss the things they are watching and reading about each day. This would allow them to contextualize events and media within the greater scope of history and human experience. It would also provide them the chance to ask thoughtful questions about things that are impacting them outside of the classroom.
For example, during the Charles and Westbrook scandal, teens brought up all kinds of important questions online, such as whether “cancel culture” was doing more harm than good and how people should act in relationships and conflict.
Another popular show among teens (which I personally love), Black Mirror, brings up important questions about human behavior and the ramifications of technology. I think discussing this show with my peers in a classroom would not only be intellectually challenging but also fun. The popularity of Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” brings about questions of Billboard’s “long-running mistreatment of black country artists,” according to New Yorker writer Carrie Battan. Even the current popularity of the joke Facebook event “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” connects to ideas about human behavior, humor, and social media.
Of course, I’m not saying that schools should turn into 24/7 discussion zones for Stranger Things. What I am saying is that when there are opportunities in curriculums for students to connect to topics in the real world, they should be encouraged to do so. This could even mean talking about popular events in the news (non-political, of course) such as talking about the first-ever picture of a black hole in science class or that equation that’s recently gone viral in math class. It means saying to students, “Yes, your real-life experiences are valuable, and we can learn from them.”
Admittedly, there is always a concern that this could “ruin” kids’ experiences of watching television or discussing current events on Reddit and Twitter, as these things often provide them an “escape” from their busy lives. But I think that can be addressed by allowing kids to lead discussions, casually sharing opinions or theories without the concern of needing to have the “right” answer. You know the section on Common Sense Media that says “Talk to Your Kids About…”? That’s actually what I think we should try to avoid with these discussions. The goal should be to encourage kids and teens to talk about their own ideas, not to have them listen to adults — who have different perceptions of the world than they do — preemptively decide what in pop culture is worth talking about.
There’s also the question about what is appropriate to discuss in school and what’s not, and teachers will have to use their discretion based on the age and maturity level of their students. But it’s important to recognize that there’s a lot going on in the world these days, and we should acknowledge the issues that kids are dealing with.
Ultimately, I think incorporating pop culture into curriculums when necessary and allowing students to talk about current happenings, TV shows, etc. in a self-guided, mature, respectful manner will enable them to feel more comfortable at school. It will give them the chance to connect their learning to real-world experiences. And it will show them that learning isn’t confined to the classroom — it can happen anywhere.