Originally published on illuminate.
Step into Jessica Maloughney’s (BEd’11) Grade 2 classroom at St. Patrick’s Community School in Red Deer, Alta., and you may be reminded of a six-year-old’s bedroom. Minecraft posters decorate the walls, Lego figurines are tucked around the classroom, and collections of Star Wars and Frozen books populate the bookshelf.
These aren’t just classroom accessories. They’re part of Maloughney’s teaching practice. When she teaches her 18 students about math, for example, she might get them to channel their “inner Kanye” with backwards caps, spouting rhymes about numbers as “Math Rappers.”
“The basic foundation of my job as a teacher is communication,” says Maloughney. “To communicate with a student, you need to meet them where they are. They aren’t going to come up to your level at age six to meet you. You need to enter their world.”
Bringing ‘home’ into the classroom
For Maloughney, entering the world of her students means engaging with a wide variety of realities. More than half of her students speak English as a second language, and three are absolutely new to to the language. Many of the children are from low-income families and live in a variety of home situations. They have different medical concerns and a range of behavioural disorders.
Maloughney says integrating popular media her students enjoy into her classroom is one of the best tools she has available to connect with them and help them tackle challenging circumstances.
“The classroom is their home away from home,” she says. “For some of them, this is the most stable place that they know, and seeing things that they choose or enjoy, it makes them feel more welcome in our ‘classroom-home.’”
Jason Wallin, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Secondary Education who studies media and youth culture in curriculum, agrees that breaking down the walls between a student’s school life and life outside the classroom should be a major focus for teachers. When a teacher considers education as existing in a different sphere from the lives of students, students can feel alienated.
“We take this really important youth identity component that’s developed outside of school, and we largely divorce that from the classroom where we have more formal curriculum concerns,” says Wallin. “When a teacher begins to break down the false dichotomy between the informal curriculum of popular culture and the formal curriculum of the school, you’re dis-alienating the students from those identity constructs that they form elsewhere, and they can bring them into the classroom itself.”
The language of pop culture
One major potential source of alienation that concerns Maloughney is the language barrier faced by her English language-learning students. When she started integrating popular kid-friendly movies, video games and fictional characters into her teaching, she saw a marked improvement with these students.
“It’s a scary thing to come to a new country and sit in a classroom where you are just meeting the other kids and you don’t know the language,” she says. “It’s amazing to see these kids who have been in Canada for a month who can’t tell you the names of basic objects in the classroom, but they can quote things from The Lego Movie. When you see their faces when they recognize something, it’s special.”
Lydia Menna, a language and literacy professor in the Department of Elementary Education, is not surprised that Maloughney’s English language-learning students pick up television, game or movie references in English more quickly than they do some of the formal curriculum. Teachers need to provide multiple entry points into literacy learning so students can see themselves as readers and writers, Menna says.
“That whole idea of connecting with students’ interests—diverse literacy practices and cultural experiences can make for more meaningful learning,” explains Menna. “As a learner, often your most memorable learning experiences are the ones that connect to something that you are interested in.”
Bringing popular stories and characters into the classroom also makes social interaction with English speakers easier for the English language learners.
“For them, being able to gauge what their classmates are interested in and realize that it’s the same things they enjoy, it gives them a starting point,” Maloughney says. “It also gives them more language, since they might know the references in their language, but not necessarily in English. Hearing the reference in English helps them pick up the words for concepts they already know.”
Flipping the teacher-student hierarchy
All young learners can benefit when the popular culture they draw from to construct their identities outside the classroom is treated as valid curriculum content by educators, says Wallin.
“It’s important as educators that we attend to this complex life-world of students outside of the school and say ‘This matters and is deeply relevant to what we should be doing in the classroom,” he explains.
Maloughney agrees. “Kids are so much more ‘with it’ than people give them credit for. At six years old, a lot of them already understand that the adults in their lives don’t want to hear about how they got to the next level in Minecraft, or how they drew a picture of Iron Man because he’s their favourite Avenger. It’s sad. But if you give them the opportunity to talk about things that they are passionate about, they are over the moon.”
When teachers take their students’ interests more seriously, it also presents the opportunity for teachable moments where students can start questioning their consumption of media and develop critical thinking skills.
“As adults, we’re sometimes out of touch with children’s culture, and it’s important to understand the way things are marketed and how those forms carry ideological meaning,” says Wallin.
“Adding youth and pop culture into your teaching is not going to cost you more time, energy or effort,” says Maloughney. “Students know what they are passionate about and they will happily take their turn to be the teacher and teach you about something that maybe you don’t know.”