Teacher Tips Ways to use Popular Culture in History Classes

It is probably fair to say that the present generation of teenagers is more divorced from that of their teachers than any crop which came before them. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Institute, young people between the ages of 8 and 18 spend about 7.5 hours a day, every day, immersed in pop culture, which they access through TV, movies, video games, music, reading material and social media.

Teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon by using pop culture references as a way to build bridges between what needs to be taught, and what is already known. Teachers of History, in particular, can demonstrate the importance of the past by challenging their young learners to find connections between historical events, people and social trends, and today’s popular diversions.

One 7th grade teacher from California has done this successfully by having her students treat all their entertainment as homework. While watching popular TV shows, listening to songs, or playing video games, Mrs Emerson’s students are on the lookout for anything which relates to their in-school learning. Points are awarded for all identified references, and what the students also tend to find is that content which seem stale and uninteresting in a classroom environment actually plays a big part in their own culture.

Shows like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” often use references to the past to make satirical points. Historical dramas are also worth considering as more than simple entertainment. While blockbuster movies like “Titanic” and “Schindler’s List” are useful introductions to important events, they should also be analysed for hidden context. What, for example, might “Titanic” teach students about the immigrant experience or about class, and what might “Schindler’s List” reveal about cruelty and prejudice in other times and places?

Video games also commonly use a historical setting. A young lad’s appreciation for History might be encouraged by having him learn more about the real events which inspired “Age of Empires” or “Assassin’s Creed”. The important thing for teachers to remember is that information, by itself, can often be dull or misleading, and that striving to make sense of that information is what really matters. Playing a video game based on pirates or ancient civilizations allows the student to put their learning into practise, and teaches them one of History’s most important lessons – that what happens now will have repercussions in the future.

 Finally, social media can be a great teaching and learning tool, as well as a ubiquitous means of communication. Students can use applications like “Fakebook” to set up profiles for historical figures, or create blogs for discussing important events. Rather than simply have students wonder how anyone ever survived without it, create lessons where history might have gone differently had people been able to communicate almost instantaneously.

One of the first things that any teacher learns is that lessons tend to be more successful and enjoyable when the content is relevant to students. The basic idea is that ‘your’ world – the material which needs to be presented – is more accessible when students are thinking about ‘their’ world. Although the use of pop culture in schools may seem heretical to those who believe that teenagers already have far too much exposure to ‘entertainment’, there are definite rewards for all involved when teachers combine prescribed content with contemporary shows, songs and social media.