A few years ago, the History Channel ran a special called "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America." One of the most intriguing selections by the panel of historians was the appearance of Elvis Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956. Elvis was the biggest popular culture icon ever, yet now this moment in television is considered a history changer. Why?
The 1950s marked a fundamental change in youth culture. Kids were called teenagers for the first time and had disposable income as well as newfound independence in postwar America. Looking back, we see how seeds of the radical 1960s were sown in those gyrating '50s. Generational rebellion skyrocketed like the new space shuttles that were being developed by NASA.
The shocking appearance of Elvis shaking his hips on live television means so much now because that moment helps us understand multiple generations. In fact, the popular culture of today is the history of tomorrow.
Millions of parents and teachers continue to search for ways to connect with the students from grade school to college. My friend Josip Kasic and I have launched PopTeacher.com to help find some answers.
The goal of PopTeacher is simple: to get better.
The national high school graduation rate is between 65 and 70 percent. Billions of dollars have been spent over the past four decades on our struggling educational system. President Barack Obama recently pledged another $900 million to address the high school dropout crisis. All of those funds will purchase technology and pay for more staff, but in the end money can't buy the relationships that are necessary to capture disconnected students.
So how can we connect?
Effective teaching hinges upon communication, and you can't communicate without entering into the world of those you wish to reach.
Students are living and breathing pop culture -- from music, TV and Internet to sports, video games and novels. With PopTeacher.com, we hope to tap into the passion and energy students of all ages have for those interests.
Taken broadly, pop culture is a great way to ignite discussion and begin building those critical relationships. Any academic subject under the sun can be explained in some way by using examples from the myriad places students go for entertainment. Additionally, the study of pop culture itself becomes a great way to learn as we hold up that mirror to ourselves to see what beauty marks and pimples are visible.
Plenty of people oppose this type of approach to education. To them, entertainment does not belong in the classroom. But try ignoring the perspectives and motivations of your target audience in any other field and see how far you make it.
The tagline of PopTeacher.com is "Connecting Through Culture." The word edutainment has been flying around for years now. I like that. Make learning fun.
Many folks don't believe that classrooms can be exciting, but they've got to be. Attention spans have never been shorter. From "Sesame Street" to "Dora the Explorer" and beyond, entire generations have grown up on edutainment. Abandoning the only learning model a student has ever known and expecting positive results is unrealistic.
That's why technology is so critical in communicating to 21st-century classrooms. Students carry around the entire Internet on phones in their back pocket! They can have instant answers and opinions to any question that ever crosses their mind just by using Google on their iPhones. They are empowered by information and technology and gawk at us with expressions that seem to say, "You're supposed to teach me what exactly?"
Youth subcultures have become increasingly specialized over the past half-century. Students feel exclusive in their worlds and guard accordingly, but these gatekeepers take interest when teachers and parents somehow know the passwords.
Here's where many teachers hesitate. They say things like "I'm not going to make a mockery out of academia by using entertainment figures to teach." What they're probably thinking though is. "I don't understand these students."
Those teachers also know what it's like to drone on before an audience of silent, expressionless faces. Do you know how to get that same crowd talking instantly? Ask them about their music/video games/sports team/favorite YouTube video. What good does it do to talk about video games in a classroom? The simple answer is that talking is occurring. Communication is happening! Standoffish students are quickly disarmed by teachers who ask for information. Whether you're a teacher, employer or parent, let them tell you about their world and you'll have a much easier time telling them about yours.
It's OK to leave the comfort of a well-established lesson or lecture to find newer and current ways of relating. Anybody can teach, but not everybody teaches well. You don't have to water down the material in order to bring it down to a level that students can grasp.
So how does this work in practice?
The first challenge is to come up with good ideas. Beyond that, however, we must come up with relevant connections.
I don't even realize I'm doing it half the time. When a student once asked me about differences between human geography and physical geography, I could've just given a straight answer, but my brain isn't wired that way.
Instead of launching into an explanation of human interaction versus topography I immediately think about songs from singers like Will Smith ("Miami"), Billy Joel ("Allentown") and Petula Clark ("Downtown"). They've all written songs about people in places, a.k.a. human geography. Give students a choice between reading from a textbook and checking out popular song lyrics and see what they prefer.
What about the physical geography? Look at how wonderfully environments are described by The Eagles ("Hotel California") or even Stephen Foster ("My Old Kentucky Home"). Yes, they'll even bear with you as you describe Pittsburgh native Stephen Foster. Why? Songs are interesting and entertaining.
Then something else happens. Ask those students to come up with similar examples from current artists. Next thing you know the teacher learns about a song describing Seattle by Owl City and another about New York from Jay-Z. And by the way, they'll say, did you know the Dropkick Murphys have a song about those miners that were trapped in Pennsylvania? Commence discussion and forget about the "What's a Dropkick Murphy?" part. Allowing the students to share what they have to offer is vital.
Music is useful for a variety of subjects. Blay Whitby, a British computer scientist, wrote an article for PopTeacher.com about using "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge to teach predicate calculus. I know nothing about that subject but the surprising cultural example still pulled me into reading about concepts that are foreign to me.
The world of athletes and sports teams also offers opportunities. Third-grade teacher and writer Gaetan Pappalardo recently wrote an article for Edutopia (a project of the George Lucas Educational Foundation) about using pop culture to inspire elementary students. Like so many other effective teachers today, he can rattle off a variety of fun and useful ways to get kids involved.
Pittsburgh hockey fans will appreciate all the exercises he gleans from the study of a hockey rink: "The lessons are endless: shapes, perimeter, measuring length, width, and angles," he writes.
Pappalardo suggests the same types of lessons with football and baseball fields as well. Why not use the Steelers to introduce geometry?
I know there are thousands of people out there with other great ideas. That's why it's so important to build community in order to combine our brainpower. We're looking for lots of people to get involved, hopefully often, so we can not only try new ideas but also discuss their effectiveness.
Veteran educators often ignore suggestions by those who are new to the field. That's a mistake, especially when it comes to relating to younger generations.
I came up with some of my best stuff during those first months of teaching because I fell back on what I knew -- culture.
One of my most fun lectures in U.S. History 2 is when we study the changing American family by discussing television sitcoms across the decades. For example, the ideal families of the 1950s ignored political and social issues while later shows like "Roseanne" and "The Simpsons" were built on dysfunction. These popular programs have staying power because they resonate and reflect who we are. A show that lives on in syndication like "Full House" is especially useful.
Remember when single-parent sitcoms were new and controversial? Then came the 1990s and families were replaced by Friends. If you want social commentary, consider "Seinfeld." That "show about nothing" in some ways defines Generation X.
Students go home laughing about the TV we discussed and often fail to realize that we conducted a sociological study. That's edutainment.
How will our society one day be viewed? We will be studied and judged based in part on innovations we made and the culture we reflected. In this age of information, we are so technologically driven that our forms of communication will be studied for a long time.
We already recognize how much the Internet has changed our world. Information is instantly available. One of the first places we find answers is at Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. One of the ways the great Wiki became so useful was through student projects designed to improve the accuracy and depth of article entries.
I'm in the process of switching my research requirement from a traditional written paper to that type of collaborative effort. The website even offers WikiProject classroom coordination with an experienced community to help teachers work with students in this way. Students can fact check existing articles and make well-researched additions. They can contribute to something that's both international and lasting.
The possibilities for PopTeacher.com are limitless. We're excited to get creative ideas from all over. We'll also focus on different monthly themes that are timely. For this kickoff month we're asking people to come up with clever uses for the excitement surrounding the March Madness of the college basketball tournament. You don't have to know one thing about that sport to contribute a great idea. In April we'll be focusing on ways to use advertising in the classroom. And we're just getting started.
No one will ever have all the answers, but we can always get better. The beauty of teaching is that you never stop learning. Even if someone masters all of the information in her field, she still must stay sharp in order to effectively communicate the material.
Academic rigor is important. But we must also be able to connect with students.
I believe we can best connect by using culture in conversations that build relationships and break down barriers. Be vulnerable. Be willing to sound a little silly or (gasp!) even be wrong. Ask questions to which only students have the answers. If we can engage them in the right way to create something lasting they'll have a harder time walking away from that personal connection.
Forget orthodoxy. Conventional wisdom should always be challenged. Elvis shook things up in the 1950s. So should we.
Clay Morgan teaches history at Community College of Allegheny County, Allegheny Campus, and social sciences at University of Phoenix. Contact him through his website "EduClaytion" ( educlaytion.com ).