Boston Globe - September 24, 1999

"Building Bridges Knowing Teen Culture Gives Teachers Opportunity"

By Doreen Iudica Vigue, Globe Staff  09/24/1999

Today, if teachers really want to connect with their pupils, do they also have to bop to the Backstreet Boys? Lip synch to 'N Sync? Or really care who killed Kenny?

"Teachers definitely have a certain, serious role in their students' lives,'' said Linda Davin, a middle school English teacher in Malden. ``But they should at least know that Dawson's Creek is a television show and not a geographical location.'' For teachers everywhere, being in-the-know about teenage popular culture -- from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello -- has always been a tightrope walk. Do it right, you're a hero. Do it wrong and you fall flat on your face. But, more and more, teachers are taking the risk, and looking for ways to connect with students by infusing bits of curriculum -- and their conversation -- with appropriate bites of popular culture.

Sadly, it's been school tragedies such as the killings at Columbine High School last spring that have many teachers feeling that now, more than ever, it's important for them to tune in closely to what is influencing teens -- good or bad -- and be conversant about it. Some, such as East Boston High School teacher Jennifer Driscoll, even weave television characters or music lyrics into their social studies, English or history lessons, using snippets from pop culture for attention-grabbing ``teachable moments.'' This week, Driscoll had her students bring in their favorite song lyrics for a lesson in poetry. She wanted them to examine why those words moved them to play the songs over and over.

Her plan was to have them see the `poetry' in the words of rocker Eddie Vedder or rapper Ginuwine, and in between turn them on to rhymer Robert Frost. ``I think pop culture can be a good teaching tool,'' Driscoll, 30, said. ``It's better to relate what I'm teaching to what they already know, something in a song or from a video. You can make more of a connection if you know what your students are talking about.'' At the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, officials say courses on pop culture they offer educators have become increasingly popular among teachers seeking stronger links with their students. But some educators shy away from anything having to do with pop culture, feeling they need to set a mature example to students and not ``bow'' to their level. Some say they find so much of teen culture offensive, violent, and misogynistic that they push the classics even harder.

All things Bart Simpson and his sassy attitude have been long-banned in schools and Pokemon has joined him, deemed by educators to be a detrimental distraction. But there can be lessons from the negatives, too. ``There's nothing real about Real World,'' said Davin, referring to the MTV series. ``And I take the opportunity to tell my students that eight college students in a free condo is the furthest thing from real. College students struggling to pay their way through is the real world.'' Other teachers, mainly 20-somethings new to the profession, are drawn to the same music, television shows, movies, and dress of their students because it interests them.

It can buy instant credibility for younger teachers who have yet to prove their abilities in the classroom. In the middle are the bulk of teachers who try to build some kind of bridge between ``us'' and ``them'' by tuning in even peripherally to what students care about. But the interest must be genuine, educators warn. If a teacher watches Kenny get killed on ``South Park'' once, for example, and comes into class showing off his flimsy knowledge of the caustic cast of cartoon characters, students will see right through it. A button-down ``trig'' teacher telling students to ``keep it real'' will be goofed on faster than Ricky Martin swings his hips to the beat of ``La Vida Loca.'' ``Teachers must handle this very carefully because it can mean the difference between them coming off as persuasive, inviting, or pathetic,'' said Catherine Krupnick, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who specializes in culture in education. ``The world is so full of people trying to curry favor with kids that they lose respect very quickly for someone just trying to sell them a line to win them over.'' Don Taggart, a world history and social science teacher at Weston High School, knows that all too well. He said he never tries to throw out the name of a show or performer to seem cool, but he says he does try to set a mood in class so students feel comfortable enlightening him about their interests.

He will often try to relate those interests to his lessons. ``If I wanted to talk about China in class, but someone brought up a topic that was more important to them at the time, we'd weave it in,'' Taggart said. ``I also like to get kids thinking about why they buy certain clothes, or why being `in' with fashion is so important to them. It makes them think about who they are individually and who they are when in groups.'' Andre Joseph, a social studies teacher at Concord-Carlisle High, said using popular culture examples is useful to him, especially when he's trying to spur discussions about the progress of society. And he's more opinionated than most. ``If I see something on MTV that is garbage, I'll tell them,'' Joseph said. ``They say, `Why don't you lighten up?' and we'll get into a discussion . . . and we'll examine through history and sociology what's going on in society, how we got here, and where we're headed.'' Ryan Goble, a literature and creative writing teacher atHuron High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., teaches his students about dramatic structure, style, and tone through music videos.

He also has his students group CDs by their cover and asks them to analyze the messages the artists try to get across. ``Using popular culture is an essential way to teach kids, especially those who don't like the written word,'' said Goble, 23, who is developing a pop culture curriculum to sell to educators. ``I am teaching these kids to be consumers of the written word and of the modes and messages of communication that surround them on a daily basis. . . Using pop culture lets them know all the channels of communication are open in my class and that's a subtle way of saying, `You can come talk to me.' '' Goble and Krupnick said that while teachers should not use the classroom to pass judgment on their students' cultural tastes, most students would appreciate a thoughtful and provocative debate about personal preference and choice, and even a lesson in what was hot when the teachers were teens themselves.

Newton North High School teacher Allan MacDougall infused so much of his social studies and history lessons with pop culture that a popular culture course evolved. For 30 years, MacDougall has helped students use pop culture to make better choices, think critically and examine the roots of their modern-day music and movies through bygone icons such as Al Jolsen and Benny Goodman. He now takes brush-up summer courses at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, along with about 150 other teachers from the around the country eager to study subjects such as ``the roots of hip hop'' and apply the lessons to their own social studies or English programs. The Hall of Fame has offered these courses for the past five years, officials there say, and credit them as the most successful of their educational programs. ``It will make them more sensitive people and teachers to recognize, especially with what happened in Colorado, that if kids are listening to Marilyn Manson and dressing in a certain way, it may be a signal there are problems,'' said Emily Davidson, education programs manager at the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame. ``But it may also be a way of trying on an identity, through music and dress or literature. It makes us all more informed people.'' 

Linking the past to the present makes for creative exchanges, MacDougall says, and opens students up not only to a world beyond Top 10 lists and Blair witches, but to each other and to him, as well. ``I think some kids are more likely to talk to me about things they might not talk to someone else about,'' he said. ``And, if you are open and willing to listen and be taught by them, that also creates a very positive bond.'' Zimran Parchi, 18, a senior at Newton North, said many teachers still feel they need to keep a cultural distance between themselves and their students, if only to underscore their authority. But students see through that, too. ``It's a farce to say they don't go home and do the same things we do,'' Parchi said. ``Students like to know teachers are real people. We're all pretty much the same people, so the things that equalize us, where we can learn together and share life experiences, is cool.'' But Krupnick warns that even the best-intentioned teachers and parents looking to connect should not get too caught up in teen culture. It can become embarassing. ``It's one thing to go to a Springsteen concert with your kid,'' she said, ``but kids' culture is counterculture; their way of separating from adults. If grown-ups start putting up posters and leaving their underwear all over the floor, their kids won't want to bring their friends home anymore.''

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