This post was written by NCTE member Shelby Boehm.
“What good is an education if you must shed who you are?”
―Bettina L. Love, We Want To Do More Than Survive
Young people, especially students of color, enter classrooms every day where they do not matter. Through policies and practices that center whiteness, schools continue to enact violence on a personal and systemic level (Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist; Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive).
Bettina Love argued that contemporary schools function as the “educational survival complex,” where learning for survival is the purpose of education for students of color (p. 27). In this sense, young people are not expected to thrive in classrooms—in fact, the system anticipates their failures as explanations for historical and modern economic, social, and political issues.
One way to create opportunities for young people to not only matter in schools, but to thrive, is through revisioning the role of popular culture in the curriculum. As a teacher, my high school students were often current on various popular culture texts, even recommending texts to one another as our classroom community developed. As I transitioned into my doctoral program, I wondered about additional affordances of popular culture in the classroom beyond serving as a “window, mirror, or sliding glass door” (Rudine Sims Bishop) to lived experiences for my students.
Popular culture (also referred to as mass culture or pop culture) is generally recognized as a collection of ideas, cultural practices, and objects that are representative of a certain time in society. In this sense, popular culture captures the experiences relevant to a certain group of people much in the same way young adult (YA) literature contains stories representative of adolescence. Because both popular culture and YA literature have proven valuable separately as a means toward critical reflection in the classroom, the intersection of these two areas should be considered for new possibilities in the classroom.
Below, I describe three potential benefits of highlighting popular culture references in YA literature using Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017), which is a coming-of-age story about navigating struggle and empowerment. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas’s novel integrates contemporary socio-political issues, popular culture, and critical conversations about social justice.
Popular culture references in YA literature can help teachers to better understand their own adolescent students.
“As usual it matches my J’s, the blue-and-black Elevens like Jordan wore in Space Jam. . . . I hate dressing like everybody else, but The Fresh Prince taught me something.” (p. 54)
Knowing more about students than their academic ability in your content area is an essential part of teaching. Understanding popular culture that resonates with young people is one way toward fully recognizing your students. The above example from The Hate U Give contains numerous takeaways for a teacher considering protagonist Starr as a representation of their own students: appreciation of sneaker culture (e.g., J’s, blue and black Air Jordan Elevens), the movie Space Jam, professional basketball player Michael Jordan, and the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Reading the text while prioritizing popular culture references, either alone or with students, can serve as a reminder of the powerful and persuasive potential of popular culture in your own students’ lives.
By analyzing popular culture references in YA literature, students can better understand and relate to fictional characters.
“. . . Drake raps from the speakers. I nod to the beat and rap along under my breath. Everybody on the dance floor yells out the ‘started from the bottom, now we’re here’ part. Some days, we are at the bottom in Garden Heights, but we still share the feeling that damn, it could be worse.” (p. 16)
Although Starr’s reflection of her life in Garden Heights is supported by the lyrics to Drake’s popular song, “Started from the Bottom,” the experience of feeling conflicted about their circumstances resonates with many students. Still, some students will have trouble relating to these experiences. The above reference to popular culture can help students to identify with fictional characters through a shared popular culture reference, even if their experiences are different.
A focus on popular culture references in YA literature provides a generative space for considering, critiquing, and revisioning sociopolitical issues.
“A Tupac song on the radio makes up for our silence. He raps about how we gotta start making changes. Khalil was right. ‘Pac still relevant.” (p. 258)
While The Hate U Give contains numerous poignant moments appropriate for discussions around police brutality, the book also has potential for conversations around race and class that are supported through popular culture references. The above example alludes to “Changes” by Tupac —a song critiquing the war on drugs and poverty.
In The Hate U Give, Starr reflects “I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me?” (p. 364). For students of color, mattering in school should be the minimum; existing as fully seen, included, empowered, and loved the goal. Centering popular culture references while reading YA literature can be one approach for making sure that students, especially those who don’t feel seen through the traditional school curriculum, know that they matter in school.
Shelby Boehm is a current doctoral student in English education at the University of Florida and a former high school teacher. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @TeamBoehm.
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