Popular culture permeates so much of a youth’s life – except, it seems, when they are in their classrooms. How can teachers take advantage of students’ interest and knowledge in pop culture to help them learn Literature better?
In fact, step into Ms Angel Chiang’s Literature class and she’ll show you how movies excerpts from The Dark Knight, lyrics from Lady Gaga songs and even product advertisements can be linked to the Literature text.
Understanding Students’ Needs
When Angel first joined Serangoon Garden Secondary School (SGS), Literature was not taught as an O-Level subject. With the help of fellow literature-loving teachers, she sought to change that.
Now, they have 43 students taking the subject.
Angel and her colleagues came up with strategies to prove that they can teach Literature in a way that engages students and sustains their interest.
She noted that if students saw Literature as an academic subject in school and not a discipline, they would feel detached and stressed. “It’s a new subject in the school so students have no seniors to fall back on, no past-year papers, and nobody to give them advice except their teachers,” she says.
The students were also unable to relate to some of the themes in the set text. Lord of the Flies is largely influenced by author William Golding’s experiences in World War II and deals with abstract concepts, such as original sin and morality. Unlike the author, who lived through the period, the students lacked the contextual knowledge to comprehend it.
That was when Angel and her team decided to use the popular culture approach for their lessons.
Providing Cultural Accessibility
Popular culture is shaped by people’s choices, and students come into contact with it via entertainment, sports, brands, beliefs and forms of expressions.
Hence, Angel believes infusing it into Literature lessons can capture students’ attention and provide them the cultural accessibility to understand the text.
“For example, we start off by covering literary devices,” shares Angel. “I’ll show the class a music video or a movie excerpt, and we discuss how colour, light, imagery and diction are used to convey thoughts.”
“Then, I prompt them with questions: How does light make a difference to products of popular culture? How does the choice of lyrics in a song make a difference in its meaning? Afterwards, I relate it back to the text and ask, how can this be used to explain the themes in Lord of the Flies?”
Through this approach, students realize that Literature is not merely a subject in school but can be connected to real-world issues. If they need help understanding the context in which the Literature text is written, they know to situate it in the context of the world around them.
Associating their favourite form of entertainment with their Literature text also helps them to view the subject in a more positive light.
Becoming 21st Century Learners
When her pioneer batch of Literature students received their O-Level results, both Angel and the students were proud that they did really well despite being SGS’s first Literature students in over 15 years.
But as significant as their results are, Angel found it just as important that her students are equipped with social and emotional competencies needed in the 21st century.
With the popular culture approach in Literature, she hopes students can become self- directed learners. This is especially important because, while it is ideal, it is difficult for a teacher to help every single student in the class.
“We want the students to know it is possible to learn Literature not just by reading, writing or polishing their techniques of analysing and interpreting during lessons,” says Angel.
“We want to equip them with some skills so that they can be independent learners. If they can question, reflect and persevere by themselves, it means they have taken ownership of their learning.”