5 Ways to Incorporate Pop Culture into Your English Language Arts Class

It can be a challenge to get a group of high school students excited about English  Language Arts, and at times, it is overwhelming to think of new ways to get the classroom engaged in a lesson. In my experience, I have found it very helpful to connect with my students by incorporating pop culture into my teaching. Students spend several hours a day on their screens, fully entertained and influenced by what is being published on social media. Pop culture plays a huge role in the social development of our students. By incorporating pop culture into your English Language Arts class, you will tap into your students' interests, bringing the outside world into the classroom.

Think back to when you were a teenager, what was your favorite class? I personally loved classes where the teacher incorporated real-life situations, current events, and other aspects of pop culture that connected well with my reality. I understand the pressure of time constraints in order to successfully prepare our students for standardized exams, but we all aim to create lessons that will linger in students' minds. The best way to accomplish this is to keep up with the latest trends and utilize that knowledge to connect our lessons to students' world. Sometimes this can be as simple and checking to see what's trending on YouTube or Snapchat.

Here's a link to an article that shares The 19 Pop Culture Moments That Defined 2018. It would be a great article to use as an introduction to a unit on Pop Culture or a mini-lesson on the topic itself.

This is a great opportunity to get your students excited about creative writing. The process of creating text for social media advertisements is a challenging and creative process. Getting your students to write up a social media campaign for their favorite brand will be a fun and educational challenge that will teach them the value of purpose, syntax, and tone of voice. Free marketing anyone?! :)

One way to get your students communicating is to motivate discussions about current events. Give your students a trending topic with the objective of researching the topic and constructing a point of view that will take less than a minute to explain. This will allow them to develop thorough and concise arguments, while participating in relevant debates. Grab a FREE copy of this current event (What's Trending Right Now?) handout, HERE!

Another great way to get our students interested in figurative language is to get them digging into their favorite songs. The modern form of poetry can be seen in the lyrics of songs today. This is a great way to encourage your students to analyze metaphors, syntax, alliterations, and jargons found in the songs that they listen to all the time. Make sure to check the links at the bottom of this page to access some relevant resources from a few of my fellow Coffee Shop bloggers! :)

Podcasts are a new medium that allows listeners to either be entertained or learn something new. There are podcasts that involve series, education, and current events, creating many ways to include podcasts in your lesson planning. For instance, ask your students to listen to a specific podcast that can be later discussed in class. Another idea is to create a podcast, record yourself giving a unit lesson, and then ask your students to listen to the lesson in the episode. Or perhaps, give your students the chance to record their own English lesson or debate via podcasts. The use of a podcast is a great way to get your students excited about English topic or book.

Here are a few podcasts worth taking a look at:
  1. https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts
  2. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/archive
  3. https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction

If you are looking for more fun pop culture-related activities, check these out!

6 Test Prep Strategies for English Classes

Quick secret: Most students who struggle on the English, Reading, and/or Writing sections of a standardized test have the same exact problems: can’t finish on time, think they’re “slow readers”, make silly grammar mistakes, and write semi-persuasive essays that are more rant than rhetoric.

Teachers already know and teach certain test prep skills well: test prep vocabulary words, modeling close reading practice, writing essays, and giving multiple-choice assessments. However, over the last 10 years as a test prep tutor, I have fine-tuned several techniques that I wish were mainstreamed into every classroom.

The following tips are ones that have made SUCH significant differences for my ACT/SAT students that I’m trying to integrate them more into my middle school ELA classes.

DISCLAIMER: Adapt these tips to your state or country’s exam. For example, these were designed for a paper-and-pencil test that DOES allow you to write in the test booklet. 

Tip 1: Cross out the words that make an answer choice wrong. 
Most high school students lose MORE time than they realize on multiple choice questions; they falsely assume they’re not READING fast enough, when in fact they are wasting too many seconds debating between answer B and answer C.

In their heads, they’re thinking things like, “Oh, that sounds right… but that one looks right too… and I remember reading something about elephants in the passage, so that one might be right…”

SO, my technique is to make students cross out the words within the answer choice that cause it to be incorrect. Students who do this often become faster because they spend less time wavering between two or more options.

Download THIS FREE LESSON to teach students the strategies from this blog post (AND practice them on a sample reading passage)!

Concisely teach test prep with one FREE lesson!
Tip 2: Skip questions often (and soon enough)
Another bad habit that prevents students from finishing on time is when they don’t skip questions, and instead dwell on a single question for far too long, not realizing how long they’ve remained on the question.

Thus, I coach students to FIRST skip questions that look difficult, keeping in mind the student’s personal weaknesses. For example, if the student tends to miss inference questions, then the student should skip those and come back to them later.

I also encourage students to skip the question SOON enough. If the student reads the full question, thinks about it for a minute (and maybe even tries it), and THEN decides to skip the question, then that’s a lot of time wasted.

Plus, given what we know about the impact of stress on the brain, it’s in a student’s best interest to skip any questions that could trigger the student to believe the test isn’t going well.

Tip 3: Lightly annotate while reading
When a student tells me that (s)he gets bored, zones out, or can’t finish a reading passage on time, I can cure them 9 times out of 10 with a specific annotation strategy.

Students do NOT have time to do hardcore annotations like we might normally preach in an English class, BUT they can lightly annotate for main ideas; namely, I ask students to circle the word or phrase in each paragraph that pinpoints what the paragraph is about. Benefits of this include:
  • Circles “pop” more than underlines, especially when using a pencil
  • Students now have a visual “trail” of the structure of the text
  • The passage is now easier to skim when going back to find a text-dependent answer
  • Students have been actively paying attention for main idea, “filtering” out things that are less important, and can now answer main idea multiple choice questions more easily
  • Fewer minutes overall spent reading, due to better focus

In addition to circling keywords, I welcome students to minimally underline whatever they instictively feel is important. (I'm a huge advocate for NOT over-underlining to the point where students no longer know which words are important and why.)

Circles "pop" more than underlines to make the main idea of a paragraph visible.

Find more reading-specific test strategies in my companion blog post, 5 Standardized Test Tricks for READING Sections.

Tip 4: Stop choosing based on “what sounds right”.
This is an old piece of grammar test prep advice, but there’s a bad inherent assumption: that the student has enough of an understanding of standard English that he or she even knows what is right. If the student doesn’t code-switch well or has gaps in knowledge, then going by “what sounds right” is terrible advice.

Plus, test prep makers will purposely insert wrong answer choices that will “sound right” to students. For example, the test will offer “should of” instead of “should have”.

If students have gaps in grammar knowledge, it is worth your time and theirs to fix it. Get help with this set of common errors bell-ringers, OR steal my entire grammar program!

Tip 5: Know the writing test rubric, and give them what they want. 
Most students don’t know EXACTLY what that particular test’s rubric for the writing section looks like; they assume they know how to write “a good essay” or that they are “a good writer”, they wing it on the standardized test, and then they feel surprising disappointment when their writing score isn’t as high as they predicted.

For example, the ACT’s writing rubric wants students to analyze alternative viewpoints, analyze the context and/or origin of the situation, and examine "implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions." That's a pretty tall order that a typical five-paragraph essay might not accomplish unless students know that's the expectation.

To help your students meet advanced writing demands, check out my ACT Writing Unit or a not-test-specific Timed Essay Writing Unit.

Tip 6: Show your practice test to a teacher or tutor. 
My biggest frustration as a tutor is when students take too long to ask for help and their scores don't increase. English teachers can make it "safe" for their students to bring their practice books to class and ask questions before the ACT, SAT, or another standardized test.

For more English teacher test tips, you might like the blog post Secrets from the Tutor: What Your Secondary Students Really Need From You.

You might also be interested in…

10 Mental Health Tips for Teachers

Hello again-- The SuperHERO Teacher here and It’s time to talk about mental health. And, yes, TEACHERS, I’m talking to YOU.

Let’s get real. We all know that teaching, as rewarding and noble as it may be, can be stressful. We sacrifice our time, our money, our hearts and even our health, in order to provide the best education that we can to those who call us teacher.  We put the needs of others before our own.

Raise your hand if you’ve stayed late to grade papers or answer emails.
If you’ve worked through your lunch period to catch up on an unfinished project.
If you’ve had to cancel plans with family or friends to prep for upcoming lessons.
If you’ve skipped the gym out of sheer exhaustion.
If you’ve worked through an illness.
If you’ve compared yourself to another teacher.
If you’ve experienced anxiety, fear of failure or lack of self-confidence.
If you’ve felt like you needed to give yourself that same pep talk that you gave your student?

The list goes on and on.

To an outsider, these sacrifices may not seem huge. But, in reality, these sacrifices can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. And now is the time to address this all too common problem. To face it head on. It is time for YOU to start taking care of YOU.

This may seem like a daunting task, but I am here to tell you that it can be done. To start, here are 10 simple tips and tricks for staying mentally and emotionally healthy.

1.      Get those Zzz’s.
A good night’s rest is going to be the first step! When your body is well-rested, it can face the day-to-day challenges with more clarity and focus. I know that we hated them as kids, but one of the easiest ways to get our best rest is to SET A BEDTIME. And stick to it.
2.      Make time for yourself.
It may seem like the hardest thing to do, but it is so important to make time for ourselves. We spend each day making time for others, meeting their needs, stretching ourselves thin. But, it is just as vital to our mental health to turn that focus onto ourselves. Try to spend a few minutes each day doing something that is JUST FOR YOU. It may be reading a book, meditating, taking a bath, drawing or doing a crossword, watching that guilty pleasure TV show that you love! It will help relax you and help your mind ease from being “on” all day.
3.      Say no.
We are all guilty of saying YES to fifteen too many things. We over-stack our plates and, inevitably, they may end up toppling. It is okay to say no. I repeat: IT IS OKAY TO SAY NO. Choose to say yes to things that fulfill you, that are important, that have a positive impact on you and that YOU HAVE TIME FOR. (This doesn’t mean that you have to say yes if you don’t already have plans).
4.      Surround yourself with good people.
Not much to explain here. Just surround yourself with good people. Those people in your life that lift you up, that make you laugh, that inspire you. Your people.
5.      Get moving.
This is the one that is so easy to give up. We are exhausted after a day’s work and have a million and one things on our to do list. So, sometimes the gym gets crossed off that list. But, taking care of yourself means taking care of your body, too. It doesn’t have to be training for a marathon or taking a high-level kickboxing class. Just get moving one time each day: walk, stretch, do a youtube yoga session, take a hike at your local nature trail, ride a bike, play a family game of tag in the backyard, do squats on commercial breaks, etc. You will grow stronger and healthier one day at a time.
6.      Try something new.
Isn’t this what we encourage our students to do? Be bold. Try something new! New experiences are extremely beneficial to our mental health as they build trust and confidence in ourselves. Maybe you’ve always wanted to take a cooking class or to try handlettering. Take the leap. Try the thing.
7.      Set Realistic Goals.
What do you want? Think about it. Set a goal (or two or four) that is something that you want to accomplish in a given period of time. Make sure that it is a goal that is achievable so that you can build on your strengths and grow your self-confidence throughout the process!  Then, after you reach that goal, you will set another, more difficult one. 
8.      Reflect.
Reflection is a major part of growth, as we all know. Finding a way to reflect on your daily experiences can greatly improve your chances for success. Maybe you like to reflect through journaling, or through meditation, or maybe even with FaceTime chats with your best friend or mom J.  The key is to do it and often.
9.      Practice Self-Love
I cannot stress this tip enough. When we love someone, we focus on the things that make that person so amazing. So, in order to love ourselves, We MUST STOP zeroing in on the things that we don’t like about ourselves, the things we want to change. We MUST start focusing on our strengths. **TRUE STORY: Anytime my friends or I have a negative comment about ourselves, we remind each other to practice self-love by *sometimes aggressively* saying:  “Apologize to yourself and say 3 nice things.”** As silly as this sounds, it really makes you stop and think about things that you appreciate about yourself, maybe things that you have accomplished or worked on, things that you feel like you are good at, things that help you love yourself.
10. Smile.
Force yourself to smile in the mirror. It's easier said than done, I know. But give it a shot! You might feel silly because you don't feel like smiling, but that may lead to laughter and genuine happiness... Oh my goodness, please tell me I'm not the only one who does this?! LOL. 
If you are looking for something to help you practice these 10 tips and tricks, I have the tool just for you! This Lifestyle Planner& Bullet Journal is going to help you focus and prioritize your mental, emotional, physical and nutritional health so that you can take on 2019 like the TEACHER BOSS you really are!

Just as we plan for our students’ successes, we must plan for ours, too!! This journal is going to help you set goals and track them. It will help you BE INTENTIONAL and STAY FOCUSED on your being your best YOU.

This is not your typical teacher planner. You won’t be recording your daily tasks or making to-do lists that run on forever. Instead, you’ll be focusing on YOU.
There are 10 sections in the journal:
1.      Discovering YOU
2.      Setting Goals & Resolutions
3.      Personal Growth
4.      Mental Health
5.      Self-Love
6.      Physical Health
7.      Food & Nutrition
8.      Recreation & Relationships
9.      Financial Freedom
Career & Passion

We all deserve to be HAPPY and HEALTHY. My hope is that this journal will be a small help along the way!

You can download a free Mood Scantron (tracking) page from the planner HERE

Brittany Wheaton
The SuperHERO Teacher

Here's some more mental health resources for teachers:
-5 types of teacher burnout by Secondary Sara
-Surviving Teaching as an Introvert by The Daring English Teacher
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