Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Art of Subterfuge: Using Pop Culture to Create Interest in the Classics

Teachers, let's be honest. Most kids these days are more interested in the watching the latest video, writing a text, checking their social media or sending a Snapchat than they are digging into Mark Twain's Huck Finn (there's a movie for that).

Our highly egocentric students live in the present. Therefore, we need to connect the classic literary canon to what it currently going on in their lives—either through what they've heard or seen or simply by using what they know about. Clearly, I have no problem doing the bait and switch.

Let me give you an example. Want to prove how Latin is relevant? Play the song "Pompeii" by Bastille. The song was the number one alternative hit for 2013 and the second most streamed track in the entire U.K. It sat at the top of the American pop charts for weeks, and Bastille performed it on Jimmy Fallon.

The song begins with band members chanting "Eheu" and this chanting occurring throughout the song. Most listeners think it's a dragged out "A-O," but it's not.  It's actually Latin for "Alas/Oh No/Bummer" (although it's not an exact translation). Dan Smith, the lead singer, studied English at the University of Leeds. He wrote the song about two dead, ash-covered corpses having a conversation after the volcanic eruption—something he revealed on SiriusXM.

While your students will have heard the song, most will not know any of the above.  Most also won't know that Dan Smith's birthday is July 14, which is why the band is called Bastille. Trust me, when you tell them all this by dropping it into your lecture, they suddenly look at you with new eyes, and then they sit up and pay a bit more attention. See, Dan Smith is cool. His band is one of the hottest ones out there. Since he majored in English, that fact makes English suddenly became a little cooler, and so are you by association, just because you actually know something about the culture these kids live in.

They will also know about Vampire Weekend, which had the number one alternative album of 2013, according to Rolling Stone. Ezra Koenig, lead singer for Vampire Weekend (and nephew of my daughters' pediatrician) majored in English at Columbia University. Ezra drops in literary references everywhere, including writing a song called "Oxford Comma." However, he doesn't care about it, so feel free to discuss AP style. He uses so many allusions and references that there's an entire online glossary dedicated to it. When you show kids that vocabulary is fun, they just might start digging on their own.

I'm one of those teachers who loves tying things together. I played Fitz and the Tantrum's "The Walker," which everyone knows because it was also in a spreadable cheese commercial.  The kids honestly think it's about someone walking around, so I play the song after we've read selections from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. That line of "I march to the sound of my own drum" suddenly makes sense when in context of Thoreau's "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears the beat of a different drummer." They also suddenly understand why the singer says, "Ooh, crazy's what they think about me" in the very opening line. You can literally see the expressions on their faces at the "aha" moment.  Once again, that old English stuff becomes fresh and cool again.

There's all sorts of things to talk about—like how Twilight used the love triangle because Stephenie Meyer liked Wuthering Heights, and how Shirley Jackson wrote a great little story called "The Lottery" (hello The Hunger Games). Everything new is actually old, after all.

As teachers, we also need to teach our students to read between the lines to discover the hidden meaning. Writers often have their own subterfuge. For example, that cute little ditty "Chocolate" by the band The 1975 is actually about marijuana. Just substitute the word "weed" for "chocolate" and see what the song really says. Now substitute Joseph Stalin for Napoleon in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Students don't realize that authors do these things, but it's one of the first things they need to understand and comprehend. They have to look beyond the obvious in order to do critical thinking, yet they often take things strictly at face value. It always amazes me how during the Song Project how many of my students think that the song they've picked is about having a happy life when, in all honesty, it's about having sex. (Case in point, fun.'s "We are Young." Really, they aren't literally setting the world on fire.) The discussion is important. Your English classroom needs to be a safe place to explore ideas and discuss things.

As English teachers, our job is to make connections and to make things relevant. It's that "Why should we care?" factor—the bridge you need to cross to reach your students. Teaching Walt Whitman? Show Apple's iPad commercial. You can discuss both Whitman's poem and the fact that yes, that is the voice of Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society that you hear. I even tie it back to Apple's 1984 commercial. I teach parody using both Michael Jackson's "Bad" and Weird Al Yankovic's "Fat." Now you can show his latest video, "Word Crimes," a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." Trust me, this focus on bad grammar is awesome.

You can find relevance anywhere, from music, to books, to shows like "Jeopardy!" and "The Simpsons." I can't tell you how often I say, "This was one of yesterday's 'Jeopardy!' questions." Most of your students listen to rap, country, alternative and pop music, or a combination of some or all of them. If they don't know that song, or YouTube clip about those cats (remember T.S. Eliot loved cats), I can guarantee you that a vast majority of them will go search for it later.

You don't have to listen to everything, you can also find cultural references in what you read. It's amazing how much information I cull from newspapers and magazines like Time and People.  I even infuse those articles into the classroom—we read a news article on slut shaming after the incident in Steubenville, Ohio, and discussed it as part of how the culture had shifted from when Lennie in Of Mice and Men grabbed that girl's dress. Our students have a collective culture that is different from ours, and we need to tap into that so we can redirect their focus and show why it's relevant. They when things tie together, when things connect.

So look around you, make things exciting, and feel free to share ways you use pop culture in your classrooms in the comments.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.