Dive Brief:

  • Teachers Amy Schwartzbach-King and Edward Kang dip into pop culture, specifically zombies, to help teach the science behind brain function to students in Chicago Public Schools, they wrote in Edutopia. They stylize the class as a week-long zombie camp or as two-hour individual classes.
  • The two begin by having students look at how zombies act, and then have them consider what part of the brain needs to be affected to create that behavior. The class is then challenged to mix and match these characteristics to create theoretical, brain-impacted zombies. Students then create adventure stories and outcomes based on the kind of zombie they’ve crafted.
  • The lessons incorporate subjects from creative writing to math, even asking students to calculate the time it would take to get back to hiding places as zombies appeared.

Dive Insight:

Students are connoisseurs of popular culture, able to riff nimbly on subjects from Taylor Swift to TikTok. Getting them to apply that same focus and intensity on academics is every educator’s hope. Experts say teachers can harness that dedication by tapping into their students’ interests, whether that’s BTS or zombies, and channeling them into lessons that can bridge to the practical and educational.

For example, educators have used beatboxing to teach financial literacy — a very practical, if not timely bit of information. Song writing can be used to teach history, as the National Council of Teachers of English, for example, has a lesson plan that teaches students about pop culture of the past by examine Cole Porter’s song, “You’re the Top,” and even replacing items with more relevant subjects.

The nonprofit Pop Culture Classroom taps into graphic novels, with free downloadable examples on its website that can be used as lessons. It also provides reading guides that walk teachers and educators through different themes including prejudice, diversity and leadership.

By adopting material students are familiar with, such as cartoons, music, popular TV shows and video games, teachers may be able to better engage students in the classroom, experts say. Many forms of pop culture have a story element embedded within them, and students can successfully be tapped as a launch pad for lessons on identifying themes to analytical thinking, as Jamie Weld noted in her 2011 master’s degree thesis, “Connecting Literacy and Popular Culture.”

While some educators may dismiss pop culture as trivial and perhaps simplistic, they may be missing out on a crucial motivator for their class, according to one journal article. By giving a nod to students’ interests, they “validate” them, the author wrote. With that step, educators help to better connect students to their academic learning and engage them further.

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