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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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An impossible passion: young people, contemporary popular culture and reading

Karen Brooks
Senior Lecturer, Communication and Cultural Studies, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is an abridged edited version of the author's Keynote Address SCIS Oration presented at the 2007 biennial conference of the Australian School Library Association (ASLA). A longer version of the paper is to be published later this year in Access, the ASLA national journal.

As educators, we long to introduce students to the timeless messages contained in conventional, book-told stories and some of their artistic and narratively dense film counterparts. But for young people, reading of conventional narratives seems to have become an ‘impossible passion’, one that takes a back seat to the exciting world of blockbuster movies, celebrities, brands, ipods, YouTube, computer graphic imaging and continuous stimulation. Within the education system, on the other hand, popular culture can itself be seen as the ‘impossible passion’; one that many educators feel has no legitimate space in pedagogy.

The reality is that if we want to develop within students ‘multimodal literacy skills crucial to life in the twenty-first century’ (Gardner, 2007, p 93), then not only do we have to familiarise ourselves with the ‘social landscape of teenagers’ (Gardner, op cit), but with their consumption of popular culture as well. Educators need to equip our students to become literate readers of corporate and popular culture and consumers who can make informed choices. While kids may appear ‘savvy’ and able to deal with the images and ideas that assail them, they do not necessarily possess the cognitive skills or wisdom to contextualise and manage these materials, many of which are very adult.

However, to assist students in this way, educators themselves need to comprehend the roles of advertising, brands, logos and visual media in young people’s lives, linking contemporary forms to familiar historical ones to reveal an ongoing relationship and dialogue. It is also essential for educators to be conversant with various forms of digital technology such as multimedia, the Internet and electronic games, and to teach students to comprehend and critique them. School libraries play an important role in this context. As Wendy Steadman Stephens writes, 'podcasting, blogging and wikis are easy to use and don’t require local software installations ... school librarians need to leverage their school’s investment in digital infrastructure and equipment to teach students everything from copyright restrictions to developing a more nuanced understanding of critical literacy in online environments' (Stephens, 2007).

Scott and Plourde argue that if students are to succeed in the Information Age, ‘teacher librarians must work in collaboration with teachers and administrators. They must help students move from information retrieving to deep understanding and knowledge-based outcomes defined by curriculum standards’ (2007, p 420).

This process can only occur when traditional teaching practices join new ones (see Sternberg, Kaplan & Borck, 2007), that is, when popular culture, books and reading collide.


Challenges in adopting ICT

A study of 15 experienced high school teachers in Victoria by Cope and Ward in 2002 (cited in D’Silva, 2006, p 16) identified a number of reasons why teachers may be reluctant to fully embrace technology. They include high costs and inadequate time to prepare and train teachers in hardware and software. Staff also have legitimate concerns about assessment (see, especially D’Silva, 2006, pp 17–18).

Yet the degree of control that educators have over the role of ICT is sometimes forgotten. Does the student search the Net looking for information to enhance knowledge of a specific subject, Googling, using Wikipedia, and particular CD-ROMs or other programs? Does ICT become part of the assessment process in that the student uses a program like PowerPoint, builds a blog, makes a movie, designs an animation, creates an avatar in an online environment, or communicates with other students outside the classroom and across the globe to build understanding? As educators, we decide if, when and how much ICT is incorporated in the learning environment to facilitate learning.


Reading

Many educators are still wary about the content of what young people are reading these days, particularly in forms such as graphic novels, magazines and comics. But perhaps our concerns are misplaced. Books and popular cultural texts such as films, TV shows, Internet sites, magazines and comic books do not need to be in an either/or relationship with conventional literacy practices. All forms of reading can be incorporated into the curriculum.

Young people will indulge in reading-lite, such as Dolly, Cosmopolitan, the ubiquitous Disney versions of tales, a Pirates of the Caribbean novel with Johnny Depp’s picture on the front, but they will also be drawn, with gentle and enthusiastic guidance, through these same audiovisual tie-ins, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the stories of King Arthur, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and many other classic stories. Students need to experience the junk-food equivalent of books and reading in order to appreciate haute cuisine. Their diet must be varied.

By using popular culture and digital technology together with our knowledge of and appreciation for the literary canon, we can instil in students a passion for books and reading. 

The film Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone, is a familiar way of introducing young people to Jane Austen’s classic text Emma. It is the same story, told in the argot, forms and tropes with which students identify. There is also the film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Capture their minds in the present and then invite them to explore the past – to source the original story on which the films or TV shows are based. Ask them to compare and contrast and find other films, novels, TV shows and even computer games that use the same or a similar plot.

In this day and age of environmental concerns and issues around corporate, political and cultural responsibility, it is easy to enthuse the students not simply about reading, but creating their own stories that explore possible global futures. Using movies like An Inconvenient Truth, The Day after Tomorrow, and the multimedia program Afterworld (available on TV, online and on mobile phones), and encouraging students to read articles from New Scientist, National Geographic and Australian Geographic, and then novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, entire school terms can be dedicated to reading, viewing, sourcing and creating narratives about the world and the future and in a range of genres: from essays, magazine and newspaper articles to graphic novels, creative answers, photo essays and virtual responses.

Another option is to use young adult novels that acknowledge the importance of popular culture and ICT in young people’s lives. Traci Gardner (2007, p 93) addresses an ongoing problem for under-resourced libraries. She argues that ‘Internet literature’, that is, novels that reflect the social and digital worlds of the students, ‘creates unique opportunities to explore the social landscape of the teenager’s world while developing the multimodal literacy skills crucial to life in the twenty-first century’ (Gardner, 2007). Books that blend a variety of styles by incorporating blogs, emails, journal entries and text messages, in the truncated language familiar to their users, can also appeal to the digi-kids of today.


Conclusion

Popular culture is a continually shifting territory where identities are fashioned and refashioned. By keeping abreast of just who and what is educating young people and, more importantly, what they are learning in the process, teachers can not only intervene where necessary, but make worthwhile and very influential contributions.

Interfacing traditional pedagogical practice with contemporary popular culture and digital technology is a way of preventing not just the library but the curriculum from losing its meaning as a foundation stone in a young person’s lifelong journey of learning. Combining old and new, traditional and modern, classical and postmodern, means we can turn the impossible passion of popular culture into a passion of limitless possibilities that incorporate a range of successful and insightful reading strategies that can be deployed both inside and outside the classroom – yesterday, today and tomorrow.


References

D’Silva, Reginald 2006, 'Reading by bits and bytes: the use of computer reading software in classrooms', English Quarterly, vol 38 (4), pp 15–26.

Gardner, Traci 2007, 'Internet literature for media-savvy students', English Journal, July, vol 96 (6), pp 93–97.

Scott, Kristen J & Lee A Plourde 2007, 'School libraries and increased student achievement: what’s the big idea?', Education, Spring, vol 127 (3), pp 419–430.

Sternberg, Betty, Kaplan, Karen A & Borck, Jennnifer E 2007, 'Enhancing adolescent literacy achievement through integration of technology in the classroom', Reading Research Quarterly, July–September, vol 42 ( 3), pp 416–421.

Stephens, Wendy Steadman 2007, 'Digital frontier: schools, libraries, and adventure, Knowledge Quest, March/April, vol 35 (4), 70–73.

Key Learning Areas

English

Subject Headings

Social life and customs
Multimedia systems
Mass media study and teaching
Information literacy
Literacy
Films