Teacher Tips Ways to use Popular Culture in History Classes

History often gets a bad rap among the young crowd. Hardly a week goes by when a history teacher at the secondary level doesn’t hear a teenager scoff, “When am I ever going to need this?” or “How the heck is this going to help me?” After all, unlike with math and science, there are few “history jobs” available. So how can history teachers get their students to develop an appreciation for the subject?

Using pop culture to make historical lessons and examples relevant is a great way to appeal to students. Many students may not realize that many of today’s popular issues and debates actually have rich historical legacies. Though technology and fashion may change from year to year, many conflicts and dilemmas, especially ones related to culture and geography, do not. For example, the debate over immigration to the United States was as heated in 1900 as it is today.

Developing history lessons that compare historical problems to their modern counterparts is a great way to help bring the past alive. Many students see black-and-white photographs and assume that whatever is depicted in those snapshots is long irrelevant  … they could not be more wrong. Black-and-white photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island could be shown next to digital photos of modern immigrants from Latin America, giving students an opportunity to compare and contrast the situations.

Similarly, lessons learned from history can be applied to everyday life. For example, many young teenage males are excited by boxing, martial arts, and televised MMA bouts. Historic battles helped leaders develop strategies that are still used today, including at the individual level. Surprise attacks, flanking maneuvers, feigned surrenders, guerrilla warfare, and even human wave assaults can be explained in the form of two fighters in a ring, helping today’s television-obsessed teens imagine historic battles in a more modern context.

Feuds, celebrity, and political intrigue and outrage, all vital parts of history, can be looked at through today’s techno-savvy lens. How would world leaders during the Age of Colonization have mocked and pilloried each other on Twitter if that medium had existed back in the 17th and 18th centuries? What tweets would have been made by history’s most outrageous figures? If politicians of previous generations had possessed Facebook pages, what would they have looked like? Using modern mediums of expression to create representations of historic events is a way to get students to learn about history while having fun.

Using modern technology itself to teach and learn history can help make class more exciting. For example, students could pretend to be pop culture icons reporting on, or discussing, a historic event. How would students’ favorite newscasters, talk show hosts, or celebrity activists respond to the Declaration of Independence, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Hitler’s invasion of Poland? Or how would modern technology have changed the look, sound, and feel of historic publications or broadcasts, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats”?

In a fun reversal, students could use modern technology, such as photo editing software and websites, to make modern events and popular culture appear historic  How would today’s online news articles look if they were from the early 1900s, complete with black-and-white photography, block lettering, and on yellowing paper? Students get a chance to see that history always appears to be changing as things are viewed from further and further in the future. How will students’ own future children, grandchildren, and beyond view the biggest news events of today? Which events of today, when compared to events in today’s history books, will stand “the test of time” and end up in later history books themselves? Students can predict which of today’s news articles will end up in history books and write from that perspective, helping bridge the gap between popular culture and current events and history.