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Using pop culture references can help teachers

The post below was originally posted on March 7, 2011 on my old blog, It pertained to my time working as a paraprofessional at a special needs school where I found that using pop culture can help me connect to my students. Now that I have worked as a high school English teacher for six years since then, I can attest that this is true.

I regularly use pop culture references to either connect what is in the text to their daily lives, build a rapport with them, or just to get a reaction from them. They are amazed when I can pull out rap artists or make references to movies they've seen. I think it's important to know what your kids are into so that you can show them that you are more than just someone teaching content, but someone who is trying to relate that content to their lives. Again, the below is when I first found this to be true. I'm sure if you've been teaching a while, you likewise have made connections. I hope this article finds you well though in your use of pop culture in the classroom.


I’ve noticed something that’s pretty remarkable in the last few weeks that involves the songs “Move it, Move it,” the “Ghostbusters Theme” and a scene out of The Simpsons episode “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer.”

I work at Elim Christian School, a school for students with special needs, and in my classroom we have used the two songs mentioned above and The Simpsons clip for various reasons to help our students. Let me start with “Move it, Move it” – the song from the movie Madagascar. This song is used as a positive reinforcement for a student in our class who works to get this song at free time. If he has a good day, he is rewarded by being able to sit by the computer, go on YouTube and watch the music video.

He loves it and sings along with it while moving his head. We have also found that this song serves as this student’s alarm clock, more or less. You see this student will oftentimes fall over and lay on the classroom floor just as it’s about time to go home.  A couple of times when this has happened, staff has put on this song and miraculously this student fell out of his deep slumber and was ready to dance and well, move it, move it.

I have found that the “Ghostbusters Theme” song works just as well with this student. At recess, this same student will flop on the gym floor and when recess is over, it’s time to bring the middle schoolers back to class. The other day, I started to sing, “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood. Who you gonna call?” The student replied “Ghostbusters!” I said, “Come on, get up let’s keep singing!” He did and we went back to class.

Just as the “Move it, Move it” song is used as a positive reinforcement, the scene from The Simpsons episode is as well. There’s a student in our classroom who barely laughs, much less smiles. But when he is allowed to watch the part in that episode where Homer eats the incredibly hot chili and it burns his tongue, he can’t control his laughter. It is a pretty funny part, and it’s also in Italian which adds to the humor.

These are just three examples, but there are many more instances in just my classroom alone where pop culture serves as a positive influence. Whether it be a student’s love for Monster’s Inc, the Jonas Brothers, iCarly, Taylor Swift, Jimmy Buffett, Justin Bieber, American Idol, etc., pop culture can teach us a lot about a student’s motivation.

Although these are special needs students, I believe this type of motivation can be applied across the board to any type of student. If a teacher goes out of the way to listen to some Lady Gaga even if he or she doesn’t like Lady Gaga and then talks to a student in his or her class about her, that can make a huge impact on building rapport.

This article is not one that is a response to something in the news, but is something I’m writing in response to real life. It’s something I’ve noticed is happening in classrooms and is a good thing. It should continue to happen because that’s how our students largely perceive the world and learn from the world. So teaching to that can only be a positive thing.

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