Tag Article List: media studies

Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era

Becca Cragin
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH, USA


With the rise of cultural studies, positivism and formalism fell out of favor. But in recent years, altered versions of these methodologies have been suggested as solutions to the deficiencies of the ideological approach dominating the field. Where the ideological approach looks at the content of texts to determine their meaning, the aesthetic approach adopted by media scholars in recent years returns to the close textual readings of formalism (while abandoning its assertion that meaning resides in the text alone). Similarly, where the ideological approach tends to use textual analysis devoid of sociological empiricism, the use of “big data” in the humanities enhances interpretation by using empirical data alongside it (while rejecting positivism’s assumption that measurable data alone is probative). This article draws both methodological strands together to propose an approach to media interpretation called “grounded aesthetics.” Grounded aesthetics involves correlating sociological data with close textual reading to argue for the likely social meaning of the text, given the techniques it uses and the social reality around it. Examples of classroom activities are used to show how the approach can address the “post-truth” perspective many students share: that analyses of representation are interchangeable opinions. Grounded aesthetics greatly improves students’ ability to create well-supported textual analyses and to evaluate the persuasiveness of others’ arguments. It also models critical thinking skills that are useful for dismantling attacks on reality in the “fake news” era, especially those that dismiss analyses of inequality as ideology.

Keywords: aesthetics, big data, class, cultural studies, empiricism, formalism, gender, inequality, media studies, pedagogy, post-truth, race

Author Bio

Becca Cragin is an Associate Professor of Popular Culture in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include gender, race, and sexuality in television and film, in comedy and crime genres.

Reference Citation

Cragin, B. (2018). Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(3) http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/grounded-aesthetics-pedagogy-for-a-post-truth-era/

Cragin, Becca. “Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol 5, no 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/grounded-aesthetics-pedagogy-for-a-post-truth-era/

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Deconstructing Proper Condom Use as an Introduction to Literary Analysis 1

Julie Stewart
University of Cincinnati—Blue Ash
Blue Ash, Ohio, USA

Tom Clark
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

Marilyn Clark
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA


Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, and video games have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their personal experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows. This paper examines how Proper Condom Use, an episode of South Park, one of the most popular shows among young viewers, can be used as a springboard for in-class discussion of tools for literary analysis through an exposition of this episode’s visual and aural humor, themes, characters, audience, and genre.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing students to concepts relevant literary analysis, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience.

Keywords: Popular Culture, Visual Culture, Media Studies, South Park, Literary Analysis, First Generation Students

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Popular culture figures in television, movies, comics, video games and online videos have captured the imaginations of young people. The themes and characters of shows students watch regularly help shape
their views on contemporary issues, especially as they compare their experiences with those portrayed on their favorite shows (Duff, 2002). Lisa Patel Stevens (2001) points out that it helps to create student engagement to use non-print materials as pedagogical artifacts as students regularly engage in dynamic
multiliteracies through their personal media choices, the content of which constitutes part of their conversations with fellow students. 

This paper demonstrates how we organize a class employing an episode from South Park,
Proper Condom Use, (Parker & Stone, 2001) to introduce topics relevant to literary analysis as a platform for using similar frames in analyzing more complex media, in this case, classic short stories.  Specifically, it describes an early in-class exercise designed to generate class discussion in weekend and evening classes at a Midwestern college.

These classes are populated largely by diverse adult students in their late twenties or early thirties, typically parents, pursuing associate degrees on a part time basis, including many who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.  Some are enrolled in this class because it is a degree requirement, not out of a desire to read literature, which is perceived as an elite activity with little relevance to their own lives and aspirations.

Our challenge is to bridge that gap—to show students that the tools of literary analysis are accessible to them by introducing analytical literary frames in a novel way. In a sense, we begin with what Dwight McDonald (1962) would characterize as a “mass culture” artifact, an episode of South Park, as a bridge to more “high culture” short stories traditionally explored in literature classes. We especially focus demonstrating the importance of providing specific textual evidence to support arguments in analyzing short stories.

Our experience in exploring this episode with adult students–nearly all of whom report having seen one or more episodes of South Park, Comedy Central’s most watched show—especially popular among the 18-49 age group, confirms it is an excellent way of generating lively feedback, while also introducing
students to literary analysis tools, including imagery, character, theme, genre, and audience. (See Hull (2003); Stewart (2007); Vasudevan (2010). This exercise takes 60 – 75 minutes to complete, including showing the 22-minute episode.

Pedagogical approach

To stimulate discussion and establish a premise for later class analysis, prior to viewing the video, we ask students to recall the content and student reactions to sex education classes offered them in junior and senior high school. We then introduce the conflict at the center of Proper Condom Use (Parker & Stone, 2001), which concerns how, when, and through what agents sex education should take place.  We tell students they will be analyzing Proper Condom Use as a literary text.  To do so,  we pause at intervals to ask them to answer questions about each segment that specifically highlight a means of examining literary texts in ways they will be using in analyzing the short stories we have assigned for subsequent analysis.

In this paper we summarize the plot of the episode, including representative dialogue, show where we stop the video, what questions we raise, and how we use this experience to prepare students for making similar analyses of the short stories they will be reading during the semester.

Visual and Aural Humor

We begin by asking students to identify visual and aural elements, the sights, sounds, colors, vocal inflections and actions (Nixon, 1999) that are key to South Park’s comedy.  In the opening scene Stan and Kyle are burning a Jennifer Lopez doll with a magnifying glass, during which Stan yells, “Scream for me bitch.” Cartman, the most controversial of the main characters, then shows them how to “milk a dog,” a technique taught to him by mischievous fifth graders.

In-class question:  Specifically describe the sensory elements—what you saw and heard–central this scene. Explain how they highlight the transgressive nature of the children’s behavior. As you watch the rest of the episode, consider how the opening scene foreshadows the children’s subsequent actions.

Parallel analysis: Read the first four paragraphs of both London’s “To Build a Fire” and Crane’s “The Open Boat” and explain how the description of colors, weather, and the environment reinforces the naturalistic themes of each story.


We next introduce the concept of character, or persona, with definitions of protagonist and antagonist, which drive South Park stories.  We ask students to identify traits of their favorite character and explain the role that character typically plays, including what makes that character interesting.  We also ask whether this character is flat, displaying little change within or throughout episodes, or evolving, demonstrating growth and understanding. Students highlight that within the cartoon format of South Park characters typically remain largely flat, though they also point out that some characters admit to seeing the error of their ways at a particular episode’s end.

In-class question: With which character in Proper Condom Use do you most identify? What traits in this character’s persona make them likeable, funny, or annoying?    Describe actions and words from the episode that support your characterization.

Parallel analysis:  Describe Miss Brill’s persona at the opening of the story and contrast it with her persona at the end.  Cite specific passages that help explain the dramatic change in how she sees the world.


Experience vs. Expertise

We show subsequent scenes and ask students to analyze how elements of plot, motivation, tone, and values highlight specific themes within the episode, all of which can be identified in one or another of the short stories we analyze in subsequent classes.  For example, a major theme of South Park is parodying the reliance on expertise rather than trusting personal experience.  When Stan “milks” the dog, and when Randy and Sharon, his parents, observe his behavior, they say they will ground him for 10 months.  Yet they cannot bear to speak with Stan about sex: their notions about childhood innocence destroyed, they do not provide age-appropriate information.  Instead, they call a PTA meeting, assuming sex education at school is a “safe space” between their children, their children’s friends, and MTV–and that with comprehensive sex education, the children will subsequently engage in sexually responsible ways, and not in behaviors that lead to pregnancy and STDs.

Principal Victoria:  Okay, parents.  I know a lot of you want a chance to speak, but we have to talk one at a time.

Sharon:  Look, our kids are learning sexual things on the street and on television.  There’s no way we can stop it.  The schools have to teach them sexual education at a younger age.

Principal Victoria:  School policy has been to teach sexual education later.  In fifth grade.

Mr. Tweek:  It isn’t soon enough!

Stuart:  Yeah.  Why, just this afternoon our son was caught beating off our dog.

Chef:  Look, parents.  Do you really want your children learning about sex?  Part of the fun of being a kid is being naïve!  Let them be kids for a while.

Ms. Choksondik:  Naïve at what cost, Chef?  Parents, we have to face facts:  Children in America are having sex at younger and younger ages.  STD’s are affecting younger and younger kids all the time.  The only way we can combat that is by educating children before they have sex.

Chef:  The first thing that kids learn about sex shouldn’t be some bitch-scare tactic about STD’s.

Sheila:  No, she’s right!  With all the teen pregnancies that are out today, I think my boy does need to know about sexual education.  From the school. (Parker & Stone, 2001),

Students point out that this dialogue represents support for the view that common sense and experience lead to better decision-making than its opposite: relying on so-called experts.  The parents forfeit their traditional roles of teaching their children about sex themselves based on their knowledge of their own children’s readiness for such information and naively assume the South Park school teachers are better agents for this education.

Students volunteer that this proves to be a false assumption. Miss Choksondik, an advocate for teaching sex education to the fourth grade children whom parents may presume has been licensed by the state as an expert in the subject matters she teaches,  admits she has had little sexual experience. Chef, who represents the voice of experience and a character who has a reputation for having sex with many women, serves as a foil to this groupthink, asserting, unsuccessfully at this point in the episode, that sex education should not be taught in schools, especially to 8-10 year-old children.

In-class questions: Can you relate to the experience the South Park children have when you look back at your reactions to sex education classes you took during your elementary and secondary education? Recall a specific conversation you had with a fellow student about one of your lessons.  How did what you learned in the classroom compare with what you had learned from other sources? What were the differences?

Parallel analysis:  Explore how the theme of experience vs. expertise is developed in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Why does John fail to understand the impact of his wife’s postpartum depression on her feelings, thoughts, and behavior?  How does his medical expertise inhibit his ability to come up with a more effective treatment plan? Explore the theme of experience vs. education in Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Identify the differences in how the mother and her well-educated daughter view the mother’s possessions?

Scare tactics and unintended consequences

Another theme students highlight is the ineffectiveness of fear as a way of changing behavior.  For example, when Wendy and Bebe indicate they believe the lessons will be fun, Miss Choksondick, responds with “scared straight” rhetoric.  “Fun, you think this is going to be fun! Well, let’s start with our first lesson then, shall we?  She writes SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES on the blackboard, asserting, That’s right, because unless you get boys to wear condoms you can and will get a sexually transmitted disease from them! …Gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, the list goes on and on (Parker & Stone, 2001).

This scene satirizes sex education classes.  The lessons are inappropriate for this age group:  the scare tactics about negative consequences lead to fear of sex rather than a lifelong commitment to responsible sexual behavior, the program’s stated purpose. This scene allows for a conversation on the effectiveness of fear appeals in reducing harmful behavior. Many students report having experienced similar fear appeals in high school about sex education, and about smoking, driving and texting, and drug use as well (Stewart, 2007).

A related theme is the role of unintended consequences. In her second presentation on sex education, Miss Choksondik stresses the traumas of pregnancy.

Alright girls.  Yesterday we went over the myriad of diseases you can get from boys, but today we’re going to talk about the most horrible thing they can give you of all.  Pregnancy!  That’s right, since you girls have decided to be sexually active; teen-pregnancy is at an all-time high!  You seem to think it’s gonna be fun and neat to have a baby, well let’s watch a little video shall we? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

During a video a narrator intones, “…later the contractions are happening closer together.  Mom sure is in a lot of pain.  Now we can see the crown of the baby’s head, stretching the vaginal walls in ways never before thought possible by Mom.  Finally, the miracle happens, and the baby is born.  But mom’s not done yet!  She still has some afterbirth to push out of her” (Parker & Stone, 2001).  This terrifies the girls who later run away from the boys when they meet in the cafeteria.

Students observe the children have too little relevant experience to understand the materials being shared.  Having learned about STDs and AIDS, fear replaces friendship, and their reaction is to reject the boys unless they wear condoms.

Wendy:  Stay away from me Stan!

Stan:  Why?

Wendy:  Are you wearing a condom?

Stan:  A what?!?

Girls: [all screaming loudly] AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!

Bebe:  Do any of you have your condoms on?

Kyle:  No.


Wendy:  Don’t you know that without wearing a condom you could get a disease?

Kyle:  Nun. Uh.

Bebe:  yeah huh.  If you don’t wear a condom, you’re gonna get AIDS!

Wendy:  You guys have to wear condoms.  Now, please, just, just go away.  We don’t want your AIDS. (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The girls are terrified of having sex–and of boys in general. In response, the boys attempt to buy condoms at a drugstore.  While the older pharmacist is hesitant to fulfil this request, his assistant explains, “Kids are going to do what they do, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re protected. We just got in the new Gladiators for kids.  ‘Lil Mini’s.  They’re specially designed for kids under 10, and they’re only $5.95 for a box of fifty (Parker & Stone, 2001).” When the boys attempt to wear the condoms, Butters supplies rubber bands to make the condoms “stay on.”  He exclaims, “there isn’t nothing’ that’s getting’ in my wiener through this thing!  And it’s even got a little reservoir at the end so you can pee in it!” (Parker & Stone, 2001).

The teachers find out about the condom purchases and almost gleefully agree to start teaching sex ed. to kindergarten students–oblivious to their part in motivating the girls to fear sex and pregnancy and then insisting that the boys purchase condoms.

These scenes are used to generate conversation about experiences students have had when they believe their voices were not heard at home or in the classroom. Students point out that the children do not seek these remedies.  It is the parents who abdicate their responsibility to assess their children’s readiness to talk about sex, ask them questions about their experience, or see if the children have questions for them.

Students laugh at the unintended consequences of the sex education program: This spoof of the promotion of sex education from kindergarten through high school results in the boys and girls coming into conflict, each believing the other to be responsible for spreading disease.  They skirmish, with the girls protecting themselves behind a steel fortress and the boys, riding in battery operated cars, on the attack, using water guns to break through this defense.  In this battle, Kenny, hiding in his jacket, dies, a South Park plot convention, when struck by a boomerang. His death shows that the children are not the idealized innocents of their parents’ imaginations, another fruitful area for class discussion.

Nonetheless, while ignorant of carnal knowledge, the South Park children can be cruel and can experience fear, regret, anxiety, and especially in Kenny’s case, be subject to repeated extreme violence—and students can reflect on bullying they experienced in school and the emotional stress it created.

Similarly, some students report that like the South Park parents, their parents seemed only dimly aware their children were experiencing negative emotions.  This recognition serves as a source of the parents’ feelings of inadequacy, resulting in their histrionic outrage and grief over evidence that their children are leaving the Garden and facing uncertain and terrifying consequences which the parents cannot control.

In-class questions:  Recall how fear appeals were used in school programs about sex, drugs, tobacco, and driving?  As you remember student reactions to them, do you recall any unintended consequences, such as students mocking the presenter or the presentation?  What did they say and what was the reaction to their comments?

As a series, South Park suggests that parents don’t really understand what’s going on in their children’s lives. Do you agree? Explain your answer with reference to your own school experiences, including bullying and being excluded from favored groups.

Parallel analysis:  Identify symbols in Jackson’s “The Lottery” that contribute to the imagery the story uses to develop the atmosphere of fear that builds until the story’s shocking resolution.

What are the unintended consequences of the grandmother’s actions in O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find? Identify text from the story that supports your analysis.


Hypocrisy is another prominent theme of Proper Condom Use.  When Miss Choksondik and Mr. Mackey have unprotected sex, they are transgressing the lessons they promoted in the classroom. In fact, Miss Choksondick is so desperate for sexual contact, she offers Mr. Mackey a drink, strips naked, lowers her head off-screen, and is later portrayed with disheveled hair.  Students point out that his illustrates the limitation of education as a predictor of behavior:   while the teachers tell parents that sex education will lead their children to make responsible decisions, the teachers themselves fail to practice what they preach.

In-class prompts: Did you observe teachers or administrators practicing some of the actions the school discouraged in students, such as speeding or smoking? Did this affect your perception of the credibility of what was being taught?

Parallel analysisIdentify scenes in “Young Goodman Brown” where the protagonist increasingly grows disillusioned when he discovers the hypocrisy of adults he has known and trusted.


We point out that this South Park episode, a monolog, which we teach is a convention of satire and burlesque, lampoons the idea that if evil influences are not headed off early, a social apocalypse will occur—and the naive hope that experts can fix all issues children face. The monolog is delivered by Chef, the voice of experience, in which he calls for rationality and truthfulness from parents.

Chef:  Schools are teaching condom use to younger students each day.  But sex isn’t something that should be taught in textbooks and diagrams.  Sex is emotional and spiritual.  It needs to be taught by family.  I know it can be hard, parents, but if you leave it up to the schools to teach sex, you don’t know who they’re learning it from.  It could be from someone who doesn’t know, someone who has a bad opinion of it, or even a complete pervert.

Miss Choksondik:  He’s right.  I never knew how special and personal sex was until just recently.

Sharon:  This whole mess started because we couldn’t talk to our boys ourselves.

Sheila:  It’s easier just to leave it up to the school, but it’s just not a school subject.

Principal Victoria:  Then it’s decided:  no more condom classes in grade school.

Stan:  But Chef, when is the right age for us to start having sex?

Chef:  It’s very simple, children.  The right time to start having sex is…seventeen.

Kyle:  Seventeen?

Sheila:  So you mean seventeen as long as you’re in love?

Chef:  Nope, just seventeen.

Gerald:  But what if you’re not ready at seventeen?

Chef:  Seventeen!  You’re ready!

Stan:  Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh? (Parker & Stone, 2001).

When the parents see the error of their ways, they show they can reflect on their actions and learn from experience. We point out viewers sympathize with them because they realize their behavior springs from a positive motive to protect their children from future harm, in Kenneth Burke’s words, “a comic corrective” which serves as a relief valve from the tensions of the war between the girls and boys.

Consistent with South Park’s transgressive nature, the episode ends with Cartman again “milking” the dog, indifferent to what he now knows is objectionable to the parents, as he finds it personally gratifying. Students point out this is another indication of a self-absorption and “will to power” that defines his character.

Discussion Prompt:  What purpose does the ending monologue, a convention of burlesque and of South Park, serve in this episode?

Parallel analysis:  Identify specific passages in Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that reveal to the reader that the story is actually satire.

Audience Analysis 

After students have viewed the entire episode, we address the issue of audience analysis, asking students to identify what they find compelling in this episode and also how they see it appealing to other viewers (Duff, 2002).  Students identify plot elements that support differing value sets. The scriptwriters present a traditional perspective of morality—that parents, not schools, be the primary sex education teachers. Yet they mock conventional moral values by showing characters in highly degrading situations that stretch the limits of what is acceptable on television.  Chef presents a secular world view declaring the age seventeen is the right age to have sex–outside of love and marriage.  Finally, they reflect a populist perspective that implies gaining carnal knowledge from older adolescents during puberty is preferable to teaching it to elementary school children before they have the experience or physical maturity to understand its role in human society.

In-class prompt:  Why do you believe South Park resonates so strongly with a young and primarily male audience?  What plot elements and devices did you observe in Proper Condom Use that this demographic might find particularly amusing?

Parallel analysis:  Why do you believe “The Things They” Carried resonates so strongly with military combat veterans?  What plot elements and devices did you observe that this demographic might find particularly compelling? Justify your reasoning.


Within South Park’s ecosystem, the children remain ageless, indulging in the pleasures of childhood immaturity.  They serve as outsiders, spectators to the futility of parents and others who try to impose adult burdens on them.  Students laugh as they learn to identify specific evidence to support their analysis of the unintended consequences of the adults’ decisions and share similar stories from their own experience.

Our students report that they like this way of introducing them to basic literary concepts. They also enjoy it because it offers them the opportunity to reflect within a familiar learning space on something they have experienced in their own lives:  the use of fear appeals and worst case thinking intended to change young adult behavior–whether it be warnings about underage and unprotected sex, as in Proper Condom Use, or tobacco, alcohol and marijuana abuse as in South Park episodes Butt Out and My Future Self ‘N’ Me. In short, this exercise allows students to reflect thoughtfully as they share stories about their own school experiences with fear appeals while teachers can introduce literary concepts and how to document claims with specific evidence in an easily understood and relatable format.


[1]  An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Hawaii International Conference on Education, January 2017.


Duff, P. (2002, March). Pop culture and ESL students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 482-488.

Hull, G. (Nov, 2003). At last: Youth culture and digital media: New literacies for new times. Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 229-233.

McDonald, Dwight. (1962). Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (NY: Random House).

Nixon, H. (1999, September 1). Adults watching children watch South Park. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 12-16.

Parker, T. (Writer & Director). (2001, Season 5, Episode 7). Proper Condom Use. In T. Parker & M. Stone (Executive Producers). South Park. Comedy Partners; Comedy Central. Los Angeles: South Park Studios.

Stevens, L. (March, 2001). South Park and society. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 44, no. 6, pp. 548-559.

Stewart, J. (2007). The Rhetoric of South Park, MA, University of Cincinnati, Dept of Communication.

Vasudevan, L., Schultz, K., & Jennifer Bateman, J. (October 2010). Rethinking composing in a digital age: Authoring literate identities through multimodal storytelling.  Written Communication, vol. 27, no.4, pp. 442-468.

Author Bios 

Julie Stewart teaches communication courses at the University of Cincinnati—Blue Ash and has experience teaching traditional, non-traditional, and adult students in weekend and evening classes.  Her research focuses on media, popular culture, and communication.

Thomas Clark teaches written, oral and interpersonal communication skills classes at Xavier University. He is author of numerous scholarly and pedagogical articles as well as author of Power Communication and co-author of The Writing Process. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas_Clark10

Marilyn Clark has taught in the English Department at Xavier University for 14 years—much of that time in the Weekend Degree Program, one that enables adults who work full time to obtain a college degree.  Clark is a playwright, whose play, Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas, has become an annual production of the Sharonville Cultural Arts Theatre in Cincinnati.

Reference Citation

Stewart, J., Clark, T., & Clark, M. (2018). Deconstructing roper Condom Use as an introduction to literary analysis. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2).

Stewart, Julie, Tom Clark, and Marilyn Clark. Deconstructing Proper Condom Use as an Introduction to Literary Analysis. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol 5, no 2. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/deconstructing-proper-condom-use-as-an-introduction-to-literary-analysis-1/

Four Decades, Three Songs, Too Much Violence: Using Popular Culture Media Analysis to Prepare Preservice Teachers for Dealing with School Violence

Edward Janak
University of Toledo
Toledo, OH, USA

Lisa Pescara-Kovach
University of Toledo
Toledo, OH, USA



Since teacher education has morphed from normal schools into colleges of education, the goals of preparing teachers have expanded. While it is essential to prepare teachers to utilize scientifically proven methods as well as to read and use research in the field, there are ever-expanding other goals that must be met as well. For one example, with the increase of school violence taking place in the United States, it is imperative to include preparation for preservice teachers on how to prevent bullying and how to handle traumatic events, such as school shootings, with their future students. However, broaching such a sensitive subject is a challenge: how can teacher educators lead into such discussions without alienating students or raising overwhelmingly powerful emotions? This article examines one preservice educator’s attempt to prepare preservice teachers for the worst; by using media analysis of songs and videos, preservice teachers can launch into discussion of societal recognition of school violence and thereby ease into discussion of how to prepare themselves. Included is an appendix of online resources available to help educators at all levels help their students deal with these tragedies.

Keywords: school shooting, violence prevention, teacher education, media studies

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook.

These were all horrible, senseless tragedies that struck at the very hearts of people in the United States. Thanks to a variety of factors, the media have ensured those names remain emblazoned in the memories of Americans. These factors include proximity to large media outlets (allowing quick access for camera crews) and demographics of the student population (largely white, middle class).

Red Lake. Northern Illinois. Oikos. Casper. Umpqua.

These were all equally horrible, senseless tragedies. However, they did not strike home with the same level of profound angst as those aforementioned. In sad fact, there has been a wiki page devoted to keeping track of acts of school violence. A glance at the School Shooting Timeline Wiki (“School Shooting Timeline”) reveals the extent of shootings, including incidents about which some readers might have not heard. Indeed, in the years 2014-2015 the U.S. saw eleven incidents of school violence as well as one significant one in Kenya, and the assumption that “it can’t happen here” is rapidly disappearing; the shootings that took place in 2013-2014 occurred in sixteen different states (California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington). In fact, it is easier to report the eleven states that have not experienced a school-related tragedy (Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia) than those that have been impacted. This is not to say school violence is a uniquely American thing: three provinces of Canada and fifteen foreign countries on three continents have also experienced the tragedy. In addition, mass stabbings have become an alarming occurrence in China. This trend began in 2010; there were 18 children killed in four separate school incidents.

The point of this comparison is not to attempt to rank the scope and damage of these incidents; the loss of any human life, let alone that of a child, is always a tragedy regardless of where it takes place and what the social identity of the victim. The point is to demonstrate that there have been an inordinate number of acts of violence on public school and university campuses in the United States, seemingly growing every year. And, as the number of incidents continues to increase, more and more often teachers are being called upon to serve as first responders—if not to put themselves in the line of fire to save their students like heroes, such as Nevada’s Michael Landsberry and Georgia’ Antoinette Tuff, then to keep them safe during the event and help them heal in the aftermath.

However, there remains a stunning lack of any kind of institutional, bureaucratic support for the notion. This article presents one teacher educator’s attempt at filling this void using popular culture to gain entrée into the greater conversation. This is intended to serve as a pedagogical tactic, not a formal research study of the effects of this approach. While there was no formal gathering of data, this piece examines the culmination of several semesters’ use of this method. Beginning with a brief history of the development of teacher education in the United States, this article presents a media analysis framework useful for future teachers and details a series of lessons used by the instructor to get preservice teachers thinking about infusing anti-bullying throughout their future curricula and what to do if the worst happens.

This approach admittedly is somewhat limited. The ideal approach would be holistic in nature, providing preservice teachers (students enrolled in an education program on a path towards certification) with knowledge on bullying and school shooting prevention, intervention, active response, and recovery. Prevention should take the form of integrating discussion about the social, school, family, and personal dynamics of the majority into preservice curriculum. Preservice teachers also need to know how to work with at-risk students to intervene when warning signs are present and how to respond if an incident unfolds. Of utmost importance in preservice training is recovery. Those who witness and survive a school shooting suffer tremendous mental health issues with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder being a common outcome among survivors. However, due to the constraints of the course curriculum, the instructor used available prefatory materialand provided resources to the preservice teachers for future use. Due to its location in the Rocky Mountain region, each year there are preservice teachers enrolled in the class who are survivors—of Columbine, of Casper, of Umpqua or other incidents. With emotions and tensions raw, the topic must be somewhat eased into—and popular culture provides a means of doing such.

Unfortunately, the frequency of the incidents may be one factor leading to the lack of societal outrage over these events. For example, on the same day (April 13, 2013) that a shooter at New River Community College in Christianburg, Virginia, shot and wounded two girls on campus, online and print news media focused on the episode of Glee that dealt with a school shooting with the almost offensively flippant title “Shooting Star” rather than reporting an actual school shooting, at least in the outlets that chose to address the topic at all. For example, a simple Google search of “Shooting Star + Glee” returns 177,000 results, coming from both entertainment and more formal news outlets; a simple Google search for “New River Community College + shooting” only returns the relatively few 7,630 results, mainly from local news outlets. It seems as a society we are more comfortable talking about school violence when debating its entertainment value than in reality, one of the many reasons for the popular culture approach outlined in this article.

At the time of the “Shooting Star” episode’s initial broadcast, many critics lauded the producers of the show for taking on such a topic; however, the show failed to actually examine the issue of school violence in any meaningful way. Indeed, as argued by Kyra Hunting and Amanda McQueen (2014), the show simply used an accidental discharge of a gun—and the terror it caused—merely as a means of forwarding on its multiple serial plot lines and introducing one plot twist: “’Shooting Star’ thus appears to center on a singular episodic theme, and one that is largely unique to teen dramas—the school shooting—but the episode blends that narrative with elements of comedy and melodrama to move serial storylines forward” (293).

While there was widespread praise for the episode, many articles written in entertainment blogs and websites questioned the morality behind the use of a school shooting to move plot elements forward. Typifying the criticism, Autostraddle.com detailed the failings of the episode and the media’s unwarranted praise. One blogger, writing soon after watching the episode, wrote a scathing indictment of the show and its intent:

Everyone is so busy praising Glee for the appropriateness and emotion with which they handled school violence that few seem to see that Glee didn’t address the issue of school violence at all. They held us captive to their characters emotions regarding the potential of violence, but in the end the students were never actually in danger. It just feels emotionally manipulative…I’m sorry, Glee, but you do not get to bask in your own glory just because you wrote an episode about a serious issue and showed shaky-cam crying kids. You do not escape criticism simply because you attempted to tell a story about something which is scary and fills us all with queazy [sic] dread. I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of praise. Here’s the issue: this country doesn’t have a problem with intellectually disabled students accidentally firing off guns in school. This country has a problem with students bringing guns to school with the specific intent to harm other students. To conflate the two scenarios is inexcusably offensive. (Lizz. “Why I Think Glee’s ‘Shooting Star’ Missed The Mark On Gun Violence”)

Why the Need? The Changing Face of Teacher Education

While the media has lost sight of these tragedies, scholars across academe have begun to assume the mantle. Indeed, in recent years, much educational scholarship has begun centering around the topic of school violence. In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting in 1999, journal articles in the hard sciences (Beldean-Galea, et al, 2012; Fisher & Ketti, 2003; Johnson & Fisher, 2003; Jones et al, 2012; Olsen, et al, 2014), social sciences (Bon et al, 2006; Brown et al, 2009; Crews, 2014; Eitle & Eitle, 2003; Furlong et al, 2006; Hawkins, 2004; Shafii & Shafii, 2003), law (Lintott, 2004; Peterson et al 2002; Pierre-Louis, 2008; Time & Payne, 2008; Volokh, 2000), and even theology (Hartsig & Wink, 2001) began looking at the issue of school violence. Education journals took up the mantle in earnest: The Journal of School Violence began publishing in 2001. Beyond its scope, administrator journals looked at the legal and preventative issues (Blaya, 2003; Debarbieux, 2003; McCarthy & Webb, 2000), while theoretical journals debated the sociocultural elements involved (Ayot, 2000; Haselswerdt & Lenhardt, 2003; Malaby, 2007; Rutkowski et al, 2013; Speaker & Peterson, 2010; Watson, 2007; Willert & Lenhardt, 2003; Yablon, 2012).

Journals aimed towards PreK-12 and post-secondary practitioners as well as School Resource Officers (SROs) examined past incidents to develop best practice on addressing causes, prevention, and intervention in school shootings (Morrison & Skiba, 2001; Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002; Drysdale, Modzeleski, & Simons (2010); Robers, Zhang, Truman & Snyder, 2010; Doll, 2013; Pescara-Kovach 2015). Today’s more progressive school administrators, SROs and educators follow the rules of threat assessment, which arose shortly after Columbine. Behavioral Threat Assessment is utilized by numerous institutions throughout the United States and beyond. In fact, threat assessment is now mandated in Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It involves an examination of the school, personality, social, and family dynamics in effort to reach a prospective shooter before it’s too late. In truth, many incidents can be prevented if we follow the suggestions put forth in the practitioner journals.

Unfortunately, like many other areas of education, there often exists a disconnect between scholarship and classroom practice. While teachers are being called upon more and more often to prepare for the unthinkable, they are not being trained to fulfill this function: at the time of this writing (2016) neither of the two accreditation groups that oversee teacher education in the United States, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, have coping with bullying or violence in their standards. In 2010, the two groups agreed to merge as one umbrella organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). While the group is still determining its standards for accreditation, a draft is available for review and comment. Of the five proposed standards, it is only Standard One that deals with Content and Pedagogical knowledge.1 Within that standard, which demands that “Candidates demonstrate an understanding of the critical concepts and principles in their discipline, including college and career-readiness expectations, and of the pedagogical content knowledge necessary to engage students’ learning of concepts and principles in the discipline;” there is no call for preparing teachers to understand their moral imperative to ensure the safety of their students if and when the worst happens (“Standard 1: Content and Pedagogical Knowledge”).

Teacher education is a relatively new phenomenon when compared to the history of universities, or even the history of public schooling in the United States. As summarized by historian of education James Fraser, teacher education began with seminaries for women teachers beginning in the early 1800’s but truly blossomed in the 1830’s with the rise of normal schools, a means to try and standardize the preparation of teachers as much as a means to perpetuate the feminization thereof and summer teacher’s institutes. The Normal School movement would see its heyday between 1870 and 1920 (Fraser 114). However, all of these movements were extensions of the nation’s secondary schools; typically, normal school training would either be additional courses taken by high school students or an additional one to two years after high school done in teacher preparation. While some normal programs became affiliated with colleges and others evolved into either junior colleges or small, liberal arts colleges in their own right, the majority had no postsecondary affiliation; there were no “colleges of education,” so to speak.

The aforementioned structure was prevalent until the turn of the Twentieth Century, when universities began offering four-year training programs to better prepare teachers. Generally speaking, these programs were organized differently for future elementary teachers and secondary teachers. Elementary teachers would do essentially two years of liberal arts education, followed by two years of training in education, including significant time in a practice or demonstration school. Secondary teachers would earn a degree in their field, their senior year spent in education courses and some practice teaching. As James Fraser further explains, it wasn’t until the period between 1920 and 1965 that there was a push to get every teacher in the nation to earn a college degree, not just a normal certificate (174). It was this period that many normal schools became Teacher’s Colleges or Schools of Education.

Out of this evolutionary process, a theme of disconnection between pedagogical theoreticians and practitioners emerged. As delineated by Fraser,

If being a member of a university faculty means being a specialist, education professors have tended to develop their own specialized research, and their own impenetrable jargon. They, too, have distanced from practice…[as a result] the deep commitment to the work of teaching and the success of teachers—has virtually disappeared from professional preparation in education. The words of normal school students and professors from a century ago often seem quaint, but their sense of passion for a high calling, a calling that included doing whatever needed to be done to ensure student success, would be a welcome addition to the curriculum of many a 21st-century school of education. (Fraser 5)

This critique is not new. Indeed, in his 1963 work The Education of American Teachers, James Bryant Conant warned that the trend in Colleges of Education and state departments of education could be accused of forming “a national conspiracy on the part of certain professors and their friends to use the processes of teacher certification as a device for protecting courses in education and for maintaining a ‘closed shop’ among teachers of the public schools.” The unfortunate byproduct, which Conant warned in 1963 and has arguably come to pass, is that “highly talented people are kept from the classrooms, and responsible laymen and distinguished scholars in the academic fields have been denied a voice in the formulation of programs of teacher education” (15). As a scholar of the foundations of education, cautions such as Fraser’s and Conant’s ring in my ears as I develop and design courses to help prepare classroom teachers. Regardless of the course I teach, I always keep one eye on the practical, giving students “real-world” examples and applications for their studies.

The course from which material in this article is drawn is titled “Teacher as Practitioner.” Accordingly it is programmatically the perfect place to achieve praxis—merging of theory and practice. In this case, students involved are at the junior level. At this stage in their professional preparation, they have taken a variety of coursework both foundational (child and adolescent psychology and development, social foundations) and practical (working with students with special needs, incorporating instructional technology). However, their junior year is where they begin to put the elements together; the course that this unit took place in, required of all preservice teachers elementary and secondary, is where they get their first exposure to elements of planning, instructional strategies, and classroom management. In addition, students spend an extensive amount of class time on practicum, working with one teacher/class for five weeks culminating in the preservice teacher presenting a lesson/unit to the class. With such an explicitly practical focus and extensive classroom exposure, it is a natural fit to begin preparing teachers to deal with crisis.

Media Analysis Framework: Ohler and Postman

Teacher as Practitioner is loosely designed into three segments of five weeks each. The first segment, the most information intensive, is preparing them to enter classrooms. Topics therein include lesson and unit planning, instructional strategies, and classroom management, amongst others. The second five weeks are spent on practicum with students spending all their class time in PreK-12 classrooms observing and working with students. The third five weeks focuses on contemporary topics of importance for future teachers, but not necessarily specifically pertaining to pedagogy, curriculum, or management. It is in this final third of the course that students are introduced to the concept of thinking about themselves as the frontline of violence prevention and as first responders. Violence prevention is much needed in schools, as students deal with stressors brought on by normative and non-normative life events. Programs such as ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate) are drilled now required lockdown procedures in a number of states. As such, teachers must be exposed to the issues to better prepare them for school violence prevention and response.

It is also in this last third of the course that students are introduced to the media and technology analysis of Neil Postman and Jason Ohler. Students coming in to Teacher as Practitioner have completed a prerequisite course on instructional technology which provides students a good opportunity to work with a variety of software and hardware that they might encounter as teachers. However, what is not covered extensively in that course is approaching technology from a somewhat more philosophical point of view. In short, the preservice teachers get much information on how to use technology in their classrooms, but almost nothing on why, which becomes the starting point for the conversation in Teacher as Practitioner.

Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman highlights the philosophical utility of technology in teaching. In his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, Postman essentially argues that everything we need to know to be successful came about during the Enlightenment and that if we return to the lessons of that period, life will be much more effective. Each chapter deals with a different topic of analysis, from Progress to Language to Children to Education. However in his chapter on Technology, he provides a set of questions, echoing the work of Marshall McLuhan, to provide an analysis regarding technology. Postman argues that before adopting a new piece of technology, we must ask the following questions:

  • Whose problem is it?
  • Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
  • What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
  • What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
  • What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes? (Postman 45-53)

In classroom discussion, first I model applying the questions to instructional strategies regarding use of PowerPoint and daily music selections. Next, students working in groups apply Postman’s questions to both classroom technology (“Do I need to use a smart board or class set of tablets to get this across?”) and personal technology (“Do I really need that new smart phone or game console?”). Initially students struggle with the concepts in Postman’s last two questions, which ask them to contemplate issues of economic and political power in ways that they have not and analyzing language with critical lenses; however, a robust class discussion typically helps to clarify.

Once students are comfortable thinking about the why behind technology, the conversations shift into a focus on how technology has created a new literacy. Jason Ohler explains that there are “shifts in literacy” taking place today that must be addressed by teachers. Ohler argues that we must redefine what it means to be literate in today’s world: “being able to both read and write narratives in the media forms of the day, whatever they may be.” We live in the age of digital expression, however, with three core assumptions: first, “new media demand new literacies”; second, “new media coalesce into a collage”; and third, “new media are largely participatory, social media” (205-206). In short, educators must redefine the word literacy to include image and pictorial representations as well as letter and word. Ohler admits that his definition is ahistorical, as historians typically “object to the use of the word literacy to denote anything than literacy with one medium: letters.” Ohler continues: “Generally speaking, a literate person is still considered to be someone who has the ability to read, write, and understand words” (205).

As such, I try to design some lessons that tap into this new literacy, getting students to actively engage in messages that incorporate linguistic, visual, and auditory media to create the message. It is Ohler’s new literacy that dictates the methods and structure of the following lessons, getting students to begin thinking about the potential for school violence-related tragedy in their future practice. It is one of the times I am able to practice media analysis with my students. Part and parcel of this analysis is an exploration of how it can be effective; as explained by the editors of Rethinking Schools, “[e]ducators have a particular responsibility to take up media issues. We see the impact of media on young minds” (Marshall & Sensoy 16).

Bullycide: Shouldn’t It Get Better Now?

To open the unit, students watch the teaser trailer for the documentary Bullycide: The Voice of Complicity.2 Class discussion begins with an analysis of the trailer focused around a set of questions which they discuss in small groups:

  • Which of the adults in the clip most resonated (positively or negatively) with you? Why?
  • Which of the children? Why?
  • Is bullying worse in this generation than in previous generations? If so, how/why? If not, why not?
  • What is your job as teachers in regards to this issue?

This discussion becomes free ranging and widely divergent. Some students choose to reveal how they were victims of bullies or had siblings who were targeted. There is typically a wide discussion on the impact of social media and how the nature of bullying has changed from physical to relational, and whether current forms of bullying are equally or more traumatic to its victims than forms of the past. The class discussion tends to expand from the teaser trailer to discuss responses which typically surround bullying, whether in the form of comments to online stories or discussions with friends and family; as students point out, the all-too typical response of many posters is that kids just need to “get over it.” Students in the class question why so many people tend to believe this and whether “getting over it” is even possible.

This discussion feeds into an examination of the Center for Disease Controls’ work in preventing bullying, particularly via social media. Students often comment that the name of the documentary trailer, “Bullycide”, is a bit too harsh; however, when looked at in light of the work of the CDC, particularly in light of preventing violence to youth on social media (“Violence Prevention and Social Media”), students begin to soften their stance. Ultimately the conversation comes around to strategies in which they, as future teachers, can engage the students they will teach some day in their own classrooms to prevent this bullying in person. Part and parcel of this conversation are the legal and ethical limits to which they as future teachers can engage with their future students online.

Eventually and inevitably, at least one student brings up the “It Gets Better” project. Initially started by Dan Savage in an effort to combat the rising tide of suicides amongst LGBT teens, it became a movement in and of itself. From YouTube channel to its own webpage and project to a book edited by Savage and Terry Miller, millions of Americans have wanted to have their voice heard, that they had experienced bullying and violence, but that they persevered and life improved. The most popular testimonials on the website include those of President Obama, Chris Colfer of Glee, comedienne and actress Sarah Silverman, R&B artist Ciara, actor Zachary Quinto, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and pundit Stephen Colbert. While the celebrity contributions of It Gets Better are heartfelt and have resonated with the general public, it holds little in terms of practical applicability to preservice teachers;  issues of relatability proved problematic as well.  For example, a student who grew up on a Montana ranch had little point of connection to narratives from urban locales or large university settings. To many of my students, hearing from Lady Gaga or Adam Lambert, David Sedaris or Al Franken is alien; when it comes to bullying, the power of celebrity holds no sway. In addition, all too often preservice teachers are left to wonder how it is possible that those who have wealth and fame could have been bullied.

Shootings through the Ages

Once students have discussed bullying and potential anti-bullying elements they can infuse in their future classrooms, the conversation turns even more serious. One of the potential outcomes among those who externalize the pain of being bullied is the victim reacting violently, as happened in Littleton, Colorado, at Columbine High or in Fredericksburg, Virginia, at Virginia Tech. In previous semesters, I attempted to bring in numbers and statistics; however, it became apparent that the impact of the numbers was lost in white noise. I had to bring home the point to students in a powerful, yet meaningful, manner. Thus, Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Mark Foster of Foster the People enter into the discussion. The songs are not chosen for being contemporary or even necessarily familiar; they are chosen for their powerful thematic elements that reflect the violence in U.S. schools.

Students are given handouts that include a timeline of school shootings and lyrics to three songs with quotes from the songwriters about the inspiration. After presenting an overview of the frequency of school violence, students are a bit taken aback. Then the discussion turns to social reaction and whether this has changed over time. To demonstrate this point, the first example shown is the video for the Boomtown Rat’s song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Released in the summer of 1979, we begin with this song for its historical significance: it was one of the first songs that achieved great popularity, particularly abroad, to look at the issue of school violence.3 According to writer/lead vocalist Bob Geldof, he was making an appearance at a radio station when a news report came in over the telex machine detailing the San Diego shooting perpetrated by Brenda Ann Spencer, in which two adults were killed and eight children injured. When asked why she opened fire on an elementary school playground, Spencer’s reply was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” She is considered by many to be the “mother of such schoolyard massacres as Columbine and Newtown,” and even admits in interviews to feeling “partially responsible” with each passing shooting (Bovsun, “Justice Story”). Geldof was shocked by the incident, as were most Americans at the time. As he later recounted in an interview with Smash Hits magazine:

I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said ‘Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload’. I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, ‘Tell me why?’ It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy (Clarke 6-7).

The video4 features the band singing choir-like, in a schoolhouse, then moving to a stereotypical working class flat and watching themselves on television, then to an all-white studio wearing costumes that can best be described as very 1980’s. Likely due to their regional and temporal unfamiliarity with many of the images utilized in the video, for the most part students believe Geldof was not trying to exploit tragedy but simply illustrate it. They agree that there is a sense of senselessness5 not only about the images of the video, but the lyrics as well, particularly in the song’s bridge: “And he can see no reasons/’cos there are no reasons/what reasons do you need to be shown?” (“I Don’t Like Mondays”).

Once a tone of awe over the flippant nature of a perpetrator has been set, the second video is shown: “Jeremy,” by Pearl Jam. Released on the band’s 1991 debut album, Ten, the video would earn multiple awards—and would be the last video made by the band for almost a decade. Lyrically, the song is fascinating as it draws inspiration from two sources. The first was the story of a teenager, Jeremy Wade Delle, who shot himself in front of his second-period English class. At the time, the story didn’t receive much national attention—typically a paragraph summary buried in newspapers in sections such as “Around the Nation”—which bothered singer/songwriter Eddie Vedder. In a 1993 interview with Seattle’s KISW radio, Vedder commented:

It came from a small paragraph in a paper which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you’re gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper. Sixty-four degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood. That’s the beginning of the video and that’s the same thing is that in the end, it does nothing … nothing changes. The world goes on and you’re gone. The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger than those people. And then you can come back (Vedder, Rockline Interview).

The story also triggered negative emotions for Vedder: it reminded him of another incident with which he was familiar involving a junior high schoolmate. The boy, with whom Vedder had gotten into frequent fights, brought a gun to school and repeatedly discharged it into a classroom, though nobody was injured. These memories give the song a perspective not only of the senselessness of such tragedies, but also a taste of the perspective of the bully: “Clearly I remember/pickin’ on the boy/seemed a harmless little fuck/But we unleashed a lion” (“Jeremy”).

Beyond the power of the lyrics, this piece is chosen due to the incredible imagery of the video, which contains a videographic collage conflating images of the band (though save the singer not performing the song) intercut with images of Americana, religious typography, isolation and the neglect of a young boy. The overall effect is to create a troubling, discordant feeling in the viewer. Students watching the video, many for the first time, find themselves needing time to process and interpret what they just watched as they analyze the lyrics. The tenor of the conversation moves from shock to anger, even outrage, at a society that can create children willing to commit such acts.

The mood of the room changes, however, when the third song is cued. “Pumped Up Kicks” is ostensibly by the band Foster the People, though the recording featured the song’s writer, Mark Foster, playing every instrument and mixing it himself. Initially released as a free download on the band’s website in 2010, the song was quickly licensed for television and commercial outlets, leading to the commercial signing of the band. The song was then featured both on the 2011 EP Foster the People and that same year’s full-length album Torches.

There has been some controversy to the origin of the lyrics. Foster argues that the lyrics are an attempt to get behind the mind of a young person that would be so isolated, so denigrated, or so tormented that they would either fantasize or act out a revenge fantasy. The lyrics to bear this out: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/better run, better run, outrun my gun/all the other kids with the pumped up kicks/better run, better run, faster than my bullet” (“Pumped Up Kicks”). In the aforementioned lyrics “pumped up kicks” is analogous to expensive shoes. To date, at least two of our nation’s most notorious school shooters (e.g., Seung Hui Cho and Elliot Rodger) released videos, which criticized the wealthy, spoiled nature of their potential victims, prior to engaging in the Virginia Tech and University of California Santa Barbara shootings. There has been much speculation, hotly denied by Foster, that the song was based on an actual incident. In December 2007, 19-year-old Robert Hawkins entered a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, killing nine (including himself) and injuring five (CNN, “Police: Nine Killed in Shooting at Omaha Mall”). The song’s opening lines, “Robert’s got a quick hand/He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan” (“Pumped Up Kicks”) seem to allude to this incident, though it could be coincidence.

This song is chosen because it is often familiar to the students, but most of them never paid attention to the lyrics or meaning. While lyrically, the song ruminates on the state of youth violence, the tonal contrast of mood proves anomalous. Driven by a catchy hook and up-tempo chorus, the song sounds downright chipper, leading one to question the significant disconnect between lyric and melody. In interviews, in spite of a band member being related to a Columbine survivor, Foster admits there was an element of flip-ness to the song: “”It’s a ‘fuck you’ song to the hipsters in a way—but it’s a song the hipsters are going to want to dance to” (Doyle, “Band to Watch”). And it’s this interpretation preservice teachers cannot quite get over; whether Foster intended irony or camp, the students become irate.

The cheerful tone is echoed in the video as well. In spite of the song being essentially recorded by a solo artist, the music video is an amalgamation of Foster and his bandmates playing live and having fun. They are shown drinking, dancing, playing Frisbee, and using a rope swing to dive into a natural pool. As students read the lyrics and watch the video, there emerges a sense of incongruity, even disbelief on some parts. Many students clearly—and angrily—see how youth violence has been commercialized and trivialized due to the flippant tone set by the video.

Reactions and Conclusions

Students are often angry at the perceived shift away from outrage regarding youth violence. These lessons typically leave a stunned, silent classroom, unusual for this instructor; the preservice teachers tend to file out in quiet, thinking and digesting. However, as time has passed since I started these lessons, I have learned that for most students, the course topic moves into their daily lives. Dinner conversations, student group meetings, even their own postings on social media are all shaped by what was discussed in class.

In one case a student returned to class after the weekend and explained that the topic had become a discussion item in her sorority. She wanted to make all of her sorority sisters aware of the lyrics of “Pumped Up Kicks” and what it meant to her as a future teacher. In sympathetic response, her sorority agreed to a ban on playing the song at parties. In another case, a student approached the instructor and asked for the lesson to be taught as a professional development segment for a student group of which she was a member. In yet another, a student returned from a holiday break to tell the story of witnessing bullying of the student’s younger brother—and how the student was able to teach the brother, and her parents, how to be proactive in combatting it.

I knew these lessons were impactful but didn’t know how much until my teaching load changed. I was being asked to move from this course to its immediate predecessor, the course in social foundations. On my last day of class, I asked students to complete an informal course evaluation, one question of which was if there were any lessons they believe I should put on my “must teach” list for the foundations course. Almost all students listed the lessons in media awareness and/or bullying and violence in this manner; therefore, while somewhat more condensed, these lessons are on my syllabus and will remain as such.  For educators seeking help in these issues, a list of online resources is provided in an appendix to this article.

Far too often, the real impact of teachers upon their students is essentially immeasurable. Elementary school teachers don’t see how the choices they make produce high caliber students once those students have moved on to the secondary grades. High school teachers don’t see how the choices they make prepare students for careers, college, or both. And university professors, particularly those in professional schools such as colleges of education, don’t see what an impact we have on the future professionals we produce. I have no idea if there will be a long-term drop in youth violence as a result of these lessons; I have no idea how many teachers will witness an incident of bullying and hear a few bars from “Jeremy” or “Pumped Up Kicks” in their mind as they make a teachable moment out of it. However, I can sleep well at night knowing that I have given the preservice teachers some of the tools they will need to make this impact and thank Bob, Eddie, and Mark for providing an entrée to the discussion.


Works Cited

Ayot, Gloria. “Preventing School Violence by Valuing All Students.” Multicultural Education, vol. 8, no. 1, 2000, p. 26.

Beldean-Galea, Ioana Elena, et al. “Efficacy Study of a Primary Intervention School Violence Program.” Applied Medical Informatics, vol. 31, no. 3, 2012, pp. 47-54.

Blaya, Catherine. “School Violence and the Professional Socialisation of Teachers: The Lessons of Comparatism.” Journal of Educational Administration, vol. 41, no. 6, 2003, pp. 650- 68.

Boomtown Rats. “I Don’t Like Mondays.” The Fine Art of Surfacing, Columbia, 1979.

Bovsun, Mara. “Justice Story: 16-Year-Old Girl Shoots Up School, Tells Reporter ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’.” New York Daily News, 13 November 2013. www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/justice-story-don-mondays-article-1.1504277.

Brown, Ryan P., Lindsey L. Osterman, and Collin D. Barnes. “School Violence and the Culture of Honor.” Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 11, 2009, pp. 1400-05.

Bon, Susan C., Susan C. Faircloth, and Gerald K. LeTendre. “The School Violence Dilemma: Protecting the Rights of Students With Disabilities While Maintaining Teachers’ Sense of Safety in Schools.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, 2006, pp. 148-57.

Clarke, Steve. “The Fastest Lip on Vinyl.” Smash Hits, Oct. 1979, pp. 6-7.

Conant, James B. The Education of American Teachers. McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Crews, Gordon A. “School Violence Perpetrators Speak: An Examination of Perpetrators Views on School Violence Offenses.” Journal of the Institute of Justice & International Studies, vol. 14, 2014, pp. 41-59.

Debarbieux, Eric. “School Violence and Globalisation.” Journal of Educational Administration, vol. 41, no. 6, 2003, pp. 582- 602.

Doll, Jonathan J. Ending School Shootings. A Guide to Prevention and Action. www.endingschoolshootings.org. Accessed June 2016.

Downs, Steve. Interview with Eddie Vedder. KISW Rockline, 18 October 1993, www.fivehorizons.com/archive/articles/rockline.shtml.

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[1] The other four standards are: Standard 2: Clinical Partnerships and Practice, which deals with practicum placements and student teaching opportunities; Standard 3: Candidate Quality, Recruitment, and Selectivity, which deals with admissions standards; Standard 4: Program Impact, which deals with collecting data from schools in which graduates teach to prove program effectiveness; and Standard 5: Provider Quality, Continuous Improvement, and Capacity, which deals with how the college uses data gathered to monitor and improve its program. (“The Caep Standards”).

[2] Later iterations of the lesson replaces the documentary with the video for the song by Rise Against, “Make It Stop.” As opposed to many other videos on bullying, while this one depicts three teens precariously close to commiting suicide, all three get flashes of their potential futures; all three see themselves as having worth and therefore choose to live. It is extremely impactful.

[3] For another example, Harry Chapin’s “Sniper” centers on the Bell Tower shooting at U of Texas in 1966. That song was released in 1972.

[4] All videos are found on the popular video sharing site Youtube.com.

[5] Admittedly, The stylistic choices within the video such as the temporal/clothing of a past era, the blurring of vaudevillian/choir performance to school, the British Hammer horror treatment of eyes/communal brainwash of audience, the sitcom-esque familiarity of the everyday being intruded upon by the band, etc. are far from empty signifiers. However, students are unfamiliar with these so the intent is lost upon them.


Appendix: Informational Resources for Educators PreK-16

  1. University of Toledo Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide (http://www.utoledo.edu/education/centers/targeted_violence_suicide/)
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Violence Prevention (www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention)
  3. STRYVE (http://vetoviolence.cdc.gov/apps/stryve/)
  4. Stop Bullying (www.stopbullying.gov)
  5. Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44294/ )


Author Bios

Dr. Edward Janak is Chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership, Judith Herb College of Education, University of Toledo. He earned his B.A. (English, ’92) from SUNY Fredonia and his M.Ed. (Secondary Education, ’96) and Ph.D. (Foundations of Education, ’03) from the University of South Carolina. Primarily a scholar in the fields of historical foundations of education and educational life writing/biography, he is the co-editor of both The Pedagogy of Pop and Educating through Popular Culture. His work on teaching with popular culture has appeared in the edited collection How Television Shapes our Worldview: Media Representations of Social Trends and Change as well as The Journal of Popular Culture. He also serves as national chair of the “Education, Teaching, History and Popular Culture” area of the Popular Culture Association. His most recent monograph is Politics, Disability, and Education Reform in the South: the Work of John Eldred Swearingen.

Dr. Lisa Pescara-Kovach, is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology. She currently teaches courses in the field of human behavior and development as well as graduate level seminars on the causes, consequences, and prevention of extremes of intrapersonal and interpersonal school violence. She is the Director of the Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide and also serves as the co-chair of The University of Toledo’s Anti-Bullying Task Force. She authored School Shootings and Suicides: Why We Must Stop the Bullies and serves as Ohio Director of Bully Police USA, a grassroots organization geared toward assisting state officials in developing bullying-related legislation. She works as a bullying, suicide and school violence prevention consultant in several school districts and hospital systems. She has given invited presentations on the topic of behavioral threat assessment as well as causes and consequences of bullying at the regional, state, national, and international levels. She served as Hiram College’s Margaret Clark Morgan Scholar, an award reserved for scholars who make a considerable difference in their fields. She is curriculum expert for the BRAVE (Bullying Resources and Anti-Violence Education) initiative and is a campus prevention and protection trainer and K-12 behavioral threat assessment trainer through a grant funded by the United States Department of Justice.


Reference Citation

Janek, Edward and Lisa Pescara-Kovach. “Applications in the Classroom: Four Decades, Three Songs, Too Much Violence: Using Popular Culture Media Analysis to Prepare Preservice Teachers for Dealing with School Violence.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy vol 4, no. 1, 2017 http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1/four-decades-three-songs-too-much-violence-using-popular-culture-media-analysis-to-prepare-preservice-teachers-for-dealing-with-school-violence



Janak, E. & Pescara-Kovach, L. (2017). Applications in the classroom: Four decades, three songs, too much violence: Using popular culture media analysis to prepare preservice teachers for dealing with school violence. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1/four-decades-three-songs-too-much-violence-using-popular-culture-media-analysis-to-prepare-preservice-teachers-for-dealing-with-school-violence

A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy

Jordan M. McClain
Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA



This article discusses the use of popular music videos as a tool for teaching media literacy. First, the article addresses the importance of music videos as popular culture, what other music video research has examined, and what features make music videos a good fit for in-class work investigating media and popular culture. Then the article details a single-class activity for introducing and teaching media literacy through the use of music videos. To achieve this objective, the article also proposes a set of original music video-specific discussion questions. Finally, a particular music video is considered to illustrate possible results of this activity and the broader issues that may arise from class discussion.



Communication, Media, Media Studies, Popular Culture, Pedagogy, New Media, Digital Media, Media Literacy, Media Education, Music Videos


Although popular music videos have long been criticized for their superficiality, fast edits, and sensational content, features like these help make the videos an excellent teaching tool, effective for getting students’ attention and exploring broad issues. Many educators may be skeptical about or may have never thought about the benefits of using music videos in the classroom—thus the shortage of research on this approach. Cayari wrote about students creating music videos in order to learn music and technology skills.  Maskell discussed the use of music videos for teaching English, saying the content has “huge potential for use across the entire English curriculum” (54). There is still, however, much to uncover about the myriad possible uses of music videos as a pedagogical instrument.

With a focus on popular music videos, this essay discusses their importance, describes an activity using them to teach media literacy skills, offers some new music video-specific ideas for introductory media literacy exercises, and shares example results of the activity. This information may appeal to a wide range of educators, especially media and popular culture scholars teaching undergraduate college courses such as Media and Society, Media Literacy, or Introduction to Popular Culture.

Although the pedagogical value of music videos remains formally under-recognized, many have thoroughly established why music videos are an important and potent way to learn about life around the globe. “Music television deserves serious attention from students of popular culture” (Goodwin and Grossberg ix), proclaimed the introduction of Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, the influential collection edited by Frith, Goodwin, and Grossberg. Supporting this call to study music videos, Austerlitz saw them as a “fascinating oddity” (1) and a “compelling marker of cultural history” (1). He concluded that the music video’s “triumphs render it a subject worthy of deeper study and attention” (1). In summarizing the state of music video research and demonstrating why they are more than just entertainment, Straw wrote, “music videos are increasingly seen as elements within complex assemblages of image and sound that circulate the world and are recombined within a variety of diasporic media, from satellite television networks through DVD and Internet video clip sites” (3176).

Consideration of certain music video research trends indicates their diverse potential. One major trend adopts a media effects perspective and examines how music videos influence the ways audiences think and behave, especially younger groups like adolescents, teens, or college students. Studies have looked at music video effects in terms of sex, such as how kids imitate the content (Ey and Cupit), how they sext (Van Ouytsel, Ponnet, and Walrave), and what their attitudes are toward sex (Aubrey, Hopper, and Mbure; Beentjes and Konig; Kistler and Lee; Zhang, Miller, and Harrison). Others have researched music videos’ effects on perceptions of rape (Burgess and Burpo; Sprankle, End, and Bretz). There is also much work on the influence of music videos on how people think about gender-specific ideas related to misogyny (van Oosten, Peter, and Valkenburg) or bodily self-perception (Mischner et al.).

Overlapping with work that emphasizes effects, there is a trend of research interested in representational patterns in music videos. Gender often emerges as a main focal point, such as Wallis’s content analysis of differences in gender displays. Many have also tied race to genre, with rap being a dominant line of inquiry (Balaji; Conrad, Dixon, and  Zhang; Zhang, Dixon, and Conrad). Overall, work on representation has spanned topics like sexual objectification (Aubrey and Frisby; Frisby and Aubrey), sexuality (Turner), and violence (Aikat; Smith and Boyson; Thaller and Messing).

Such trends show the utility of music videos in media research, popular culture studies, and beyond. In addition, music videos are characterized by a combination of features that make them an ideal fit for in-class activities about media and popular culture:

  1. They are conventionally short, compared to a full movie or television episode.
  2. They are often familiar, which benefits group discussion because many students bring background knowledge.
  3. They are common online, which makes it simple for instructors to find multiple good examples.
  4. They are easy to access, such as the free official content available on video-sharing sites like YouTube or hosting services like Vevo.
  5. They are often controversial, working as a compelling catalyst for critical discussion and thus able to help students identify important issues, then articulate their views on social or political matters.
  6. They are commonly imitated on the Web, as evidenced by remakes, parodies, satires, and mash-ups that have become a common way for lovers and haters—including amateurs, professionals, and people in between—to express themselves online.1
  7. They are popular culture, as a collective form and as individual artifacts, which gives them instant student appeal and significance as a teaching tool. 

Activity: Popular Music Videos and Media Literacy

The following activity is a productive way to use music videos to introduce and teach media literacy. This exercise is intended to occur in class and requires the instructor’s use of an Internet-connected device that can play music videos viewable by the whole class at once (e.g., via projector or on a large monitor). Objectives include these:

  1. The exercise will (A) strategically use music videos as a teaching tool, (B) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about music videos, and (C) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about popular culture.
  2. Students will (A) strengthen media literacy skills and (B) increase comprehension of popular music videos as a significant form of entertainment media. 

Preparation: Prior to class, carefully select a popular music video accessible online and useful as a teaching tool. Billboard charts and YouTube’s “Popular on YouTube” section are helpful starting points. The instructor should select something that will resonate with students; this can be based on recency or the interests and personalities of the class. I suggest watching the video many times before class. It is also essential to research the video’s production background and popular reception. Immediately before class begins, it is smart to prepare the music video for easy start-up and test all necessary technology—video connection, audio levels, video start function, video end point.

Execution: Once class begins, start the activity by announcing its order (i.e., discuss media literacy, watch music video, analyze video alone and then together) and expected outcomes (i.e., enhance media literacy comprehension and skills).

Part 1: Introduce Media Literacy and Music Video-Specific Follow-Up Questions

First, I explain media literacy and the following five key questions of media literacy, using visual aids like PowerPoint slides and the Center for Media Literacy’s website, medialit.org:

  1. Authorship: “Who created this message?”
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”

As justified in the rationale above, we then briefly discuss why music videos are media content worthy of critical thought.

Next, to successfully analyze popular music videos and expand on the preexisting five key questions of media literacy, I propose the following set of original follow-up questions that are music video-specific—four follow-ups for each of the main questions—to help prompt critical thought and advance media literacy about popular music videos:

  1.  Authorship: “Who created this message?”
    1. Who is explicitly identified as a creator?
    2. Who created the song?
    3. Who created the music video?
    4. What are some major components of the music video that people created?
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
    1. What techniques are used in the music?
    2. What techniques are used in the music video?
    3. How does this music video seem influenced by popular culture?
    4. How has this music video seemingly influenced popular culture?
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
    1. Who do you think are some target audiences for this music video?
    2. What components of the music video indicate its target audience?
    3. What parts of the music video seem open to interpretation?
    4. What parts of the music video seem controversial? To whom?
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
    1. How does the music video convey this?
    2. How do you think this relates to the music video’s creators?
    3. How do you think this relates to the music video’s target audience?
    4. What may have caused these representations and omissions?
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”
    1. Why was this music created?
    2. Why was the music video created?
    3. Why was the music video created for this format? (I.e., cable television, the Web, DVD, etc.)
    4. Who would benefit from the music video’s popularity? 

Part 2: Watch a Music Video

After focusing on media literacy questions, introduce the music video by identifying the song and performer. I find it useful to informally survey how many students know the song or artist and how many like the song or artist. It is crucial to establish the significance of studying this artifact. For instance, instructors should cite facts about awards the artist or song has won, sales information like albums or singles sold, rankings from Billboard/Nielsen chart data, concert grosses, YouTube views, and social media metrics (e.g., how many likes or followers an artist has online). It is best also to show students visuals like a Twitter feed or Billboard.com article to support those claims. This will help students recognize the significance of putting popular culture under the microscope—this is not just a song but a social phenomenon that deserves to be studied, and the class is learning a system for accomplishing that.

Here it is helpful to notify students that after watching the video once, they will need to answer and discuss the five media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups. Thus, as they watch, students should think about answers to the questions, which they may wish to quickly review before watching the video at this point.

Part 3: Practice Media Literacy Skills by Discussing the Music Video

Solo: After watching the video, students should individually write answers to each media literacy question and the follow-ups. When dealing with time constraints for this in-class activity, I advise students to focus on answers that come easiest, instead of straining to complete all questions (i.e., quality over quantity). This is a good time to encourage optional Internet use for those with enabled devices. Answers are possible with only a pencil and paper, but Web-based research will probably strengthen responses.

Small groups: After the solo work, students form pairs or triads and share their findings with each other. They should consider what they learned from peers to expand their answer list and prepare for a full-class discussion.

As a class: After the small group work, reconvene as a class and watch the video for a second and final time. This provides a chance to see more, helps solidify what students learned so far, and refreshes memories for the following discussion.

I then lead a Q&A through each of the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups. Instructors should seek many answers to each question, solicit like and unlike observations across the group, and play devil’s advocate to help students form their opinions.

Activity Results

This activity results in valuable dialogues, which will vary based on the video(s) examined. One highly recommended music video to choose for this activity is Katy Perry’s 2013 hit, “Roar” (Lipshutz; Perry, “Katy Perry – Roar”) 2. Using this video would give the instructor a chance to talk about Perry’s many Grammy nominations, MTV Awards, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and Guinness World Records. The instructor could also discuss her remarkable billion-plus views that place this song in the top ten most-viewed YouTube and Vevo videos (Jang; Lane; “Vevo Top Videos”) and made Perry “the first artist to ever have two videos with over 1 Billion [sic] views” (“Katy Perry – Vevo”; “Roar10xCertified”). Students respond well to these kinds of arguments for a video’s significance and facts like Perry’s status as the most-followed Twitter user—with over 75 million followers, she ranks above people like Justin Bieber and President Obama (Perry, “Tweets”; “Twitter Top 100”).

Discussing Perry’s “Roar” video would likely cause students to answer the media literacy questions and follow-ups in ways that lead to fascinating conversations about the major media literacy concepts. “Authorship” would relate to the song being co-written by a team of professional hit makers including Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Bonnie McKee (Hampp; Seabrook). “Format” would connect to sexualization, familiar pop song ingredients, and the use of visual effects. “Audience” would lead to concerns about young fans, PETA’s objections to the video’s use of animals (Boardman; Palmer), or the video’s twist ending. “Content” would tie to portrayals of selfies, makeup use, and heterosexuality or sexual orientation. “Purpose” would relate to product sales, promotional culture, the modern music industry, free YouTube content, conspicuous use of Nokia merchandise, and celebrity branding.

This kind of popular music video analysis, based on the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups, enables discussion of many broad issues. In particular, this includes:

  1. How race, class, age, and ability are represented in music videos.
  2. How gender, sex, sexuality, and sexism are treated in music videos.
  3. How beauty norms are reflected in music videos; how this impacts body image, self-esteem, or eating disorders outside music videos.
  4. How celebrities appear in music videos; how musicians are positioned as celebrities in music videos.
  5. What music videos tell us about censorship, evolving moral standards, political correctness, and cultural taboos.
  6. How product placement shapes music videos.
  7. How genre affects music videos.
  8. How new and digital media impact music videos.

By using this activity, I have found that students thoroughly enjoy practicing and developing critical thinking skills through the study of everyday media and popular culture. The classroom becomes a space where fun and learning can logically and productively intersect. Students become more consistently engaged with class topics and discussions, searching for such intersection. Their media literacy skills improve—instantly and long-term—through the type of practice and collaborative critique that this exercise facilitates. As a result, students are more sensitive, informed, and skilled critical consumers of entertainment media.

This essay expands on general media literacy principles and produces original music video-specific questions, enabling systematic use of music videos as effective resources for teaching media literacy and critical thinking about media and popular culture. The five key media literacy questions are a valuable framework for studying popular music videos and exploring the broader issues they raise. Without the media literacy framework, this exercise might allow only surface-level scrutiny. Using the media literacy foundation strengthens, deepens, and formalizes this learning process, enhancing student comprehension, analysis, and evaluation of popular music videos as important media content.

The in-class activity described in this essay is ideal for undergraduate courses, but can be adapted by prefacing the work with level-appropriate lectures about media and popular culture for a variety of potential student audiences, such as tweens, pre-college teens, or graduate students. One alternative to the in-class activity is to remake it as a written test, which would benefit from a rubric used to grade answers. For example, instructors may choose to teach the five key media literacy questions first, then, on the same or a different day, show a music video and require students to answer the five questions and music video-specific follow-ups as a test of knowledge and skills. Other possibilities include a student presentation (individuals or groups pick a modern video, argue for its significance, analyze its content using the music video-specific follow-ups, and consider the implications); a reflection paper (students address the extent to which media literacy about music videos will impact how they think about such entertainment); or a self-produced video essay (students use the media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups as prompts for a prepared, recorded oral critique of a popular music video; bonus points to those who share their video essay on YouTube).

Popular music videos have many educational uses, which span disciplines. These videos are excellent instruments, effective for getting students’ attention, and helpful for teaching about many complex and meaningful concepts. Educators should therefore embrace and experiment with music videos as a powerful teaching tool.


1. By way of illustration, consider the many humorous takeoffs on The Black Eyed Peas song, “My Humps,” which inspired popular online videos by alt-rock celebrity Alanis Morissette, gender-role-defying electronic musician Peaches, and pre-teen remix video YouTube-star MattyBRaps.

2. Here are some other recommended popular music videos that work well for this activity: Michael Jackson, “Thriller”; Madonna, “Erotica”; Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”; One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”; Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”; Pharrell Williams, “Happy”; Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”; Drake, “Hotline Bling.”

Works Cited

Aikat, Debashis. “Streaming Violent Genres Online: Visual Images in Music Videos on BET.com, Country.com, MTV.com, and VH1.com.” Popular Music and Society 27.2 (2004): 221-240. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, and Cynthia M. Frisby. “Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre.” Mass Communication and Society 14.4 (2011): 475-501. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, K. Megan Hopper, and Wanjiru G. Mbure. “Check That Body! The Effects of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on College Men’s Sexual Beliefs.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 360-79. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Austerlitz, Saul. Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video, from the Beatles to the White Stripes. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Balaji, Murali. “Owning Black Masculinity: The Intersection of Cultural Commodification and Self-Construction in Rap Music Videos.” Communication, Culture & Critique 2.1 (2009): 21-38. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Beentjes, Johannes W. J., and Ruben P. Konig. “Does Exposure to Music Videos Predict Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes?” European Scientific Journal 9.14 (2013): 1-20. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Boardman, Madeline. “PETA: Katy Perry’s ‘Roar” Music Video is Cruel to Animals.” HuffingtonPost.com. The Huffington Post, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Burgess, Melinda C. R., and Sandra Burpo. “The Effect of Music Videos on College Students’ Perceptions of Rape.” College Student Journal 46.4 (2012): 748-763. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

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Author Bio:

Dr. Jordan M. McClain is Assistant Teaching Professor of Communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He enjoys researching and teaching about framing in music journalism, celebrity, the intersection of television and music culture, and consumer culture. For the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) he serves on the executive board,  as Music area co-chair,  and as Journalism and News Media area chair. For the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA), he chairs the Professional Development area.

Social media:

Academia.edu: https://drexel.academia.edu/JordanMcClain
LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordan-m-mcclain-72304163
Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_mcclain


Reference Citation:


McClain, Jordan M. “A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print. 


McClain, J. M. (2016).  A framework for using popular music videos to teach media literacy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/a-framework-for-using-popular-music-videos-to-teach-media-literacy/ 

(Re)learning about Learning: Using Cases from Popular Media to Extend and Complicate Our Understandings of What It Means to Learn and Teach

Kelli Bippert

Dennis Davis

Margaret Rose Hilburn

Jennifer D. Hooper

Deepti Kharod

Cinthia Rodriguez

Rebecca Stortz

San Antonio, Texas, USA
The University of Texas at San Antonio



This article utilizes sociocultural and socio-constructivist learning theories to analyze incidents of learning, and by extension teaching, in six different popular media selections. The authors describe their shared theoretical framework and the nature of the original analyses, which were completed as part of a doctoral course assignment. Each of the six excerpts is then described and discussed employing unique theoretical perspectives. The use of popular culture as the context for examining learning and teaching provides a space untethered from traditional notions of schooling through which typically accepted assumptions about pedagogy are revealed, re-examined, and reframed.



Sociocultural, Socio-constructivist, Learning, Teaching, Popular Culture, Media Studies, Pedagogy, Education, Communities of Practice

In this article, we describe an innovative pedagogy used in a higher education setting to facilitate reflection and unpacking of a complex construct that often goes unexamined in our field. We (the authors) are doctoral students and a faculty member in an interdisciplinary PhD program in learning and teaching, and we all identify as current and prospective teacher educators dedicated to the development of high quality and critically conscious PK-12 teachers. Our doctoral program intentionally highlights the importance of interdisciplinary inquiry as a stance and a methodology for approaching complex problems in educational scholarship (Repko, Klein). Because of the interdisciplinary nature of this program, our departmental membership represents a community of practice (Lave and Wenger) that intersects different educational and teaching backgrounds—art, literacy, early childhood, educational technology, mathematics, and science education—each with its own socio-historically developed commitments to different theories and perspectives on learning and teaching.

Given the variations across our individual perspectives and our goal of finding common understandings that transcend disciplinary boundaries, we have found it useful in our shared conversations about what it means to learn—and by extension, to teach—to identify common accounts of learning/teaching in popular media. Popular culture, including television, literature, and film media, often portrays a snapshot of our world through compelling fictional and historical characters (Storey). In this article, we leverage the potential of popular media to provide common spaces for counternarratives that problematize the givens of learning and teaching. 

Traditional accounts of learning/teaching are often corrupted by the assembly-line structures of contemporary schooling (Rogoff, Paradise, Arauz et al.; Sawyer) and the ideological perspectives built into standards and curriculum surrounding knowledge (Luke 13). In this article, we assume that examples of learning in popular media, particularly those that are untethered from traditional schooling, can be illustrative cases for re-conceptualizing what it means to learn and teach. Beyond providing entertainment, popular culture is a space in which our perceptions and taken-for-granted assumptions about the world are shaped (Grossberg 94). The pedagogy described in this article was designed to help us “[turn] a skeptical eye toward assumptions, ideas that have become ‘naturalized,’ notions that are no longer questioned” (Pennycook 7). This “problematization of the given” is an important part of our ongoing work to re-configure our own conceptualizations of learning/teaching so that we can be more effective and critically conscious in our work with prospective teachers. The analyses detailed here center on the following questions: In what ways do the fictional worlds within popular culture create a portal for analyzing the ways that learning and teaching occur in out-of-school contexts; and How might these analyses offer new understandings about learning/teaching that can enrich the way we model and discuss learning with future K-12 teachers in higher education?

The analyses detailed here began as part of a doctoral course, titled Socio-constructivist and Cognitivist Perspectives on Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, focused on socio-culturalist, socio-constructivist, and cognitivist theories as related to formal and informal learning and teaching. The primary assignment in this course was an ongoing inquiry in which we applied these theories to analyze learning and teaching events found in popular culture. Each student-author identified a “narrative of learning” in popular media, defined as an event or series of events in which someone is observed learning or changing, either incidentally or as a result of intentional teaching. Each individual student-author’s contribution featured different modes and theories that encompassed their learning and teaching event. The power of analyzing learning and teaching through six different socio-cultural lenses helped solidify these doctoral students’ understanding of how sociocultural learning and teaching occur in the everyday.

The analysis in this paper is undergirded by socio-cultural and socio-constructivist perspectives that establish learning as an interactive relationship between the individual and the social environment. Several general themes can be extracted from these two theories regarding learning and teaching. One claim is that all learning exists within the social setting and is internalized by the individual and then transmitted back to society (Vygotsky). A second notion is that learning requires the use of cultural tools (Vygotsky; Wertsch), both physical and abstract, which are inseparable from the individual. More so, in order for learning to occur, individuals must be active participants in their situated environment (Lave and Wenger).

Principally, learning is seen as an interactional process, where the learner is in a constant reciprocal relationship with the environment. These interactions cause the learner to act and react to socially-defined practices by adapting, engaging, contributing, and using past experiences (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds; Cobb). These actions change the learner and the community in various ways. First, the learner evolves, by developing past practices and making new contributions. Second, the transformation of the learner affects the situated setting, which can lead to changes in cultural norms, tools, and practices. Consequently, this interplay between learner and society causes learning shifts that are constantly impacting both the individual and their community (Lave and Wenger 51; Wenger 227). This leads to the notion that learning and teaching form a continuous and transformative cycle; “a process results in a product that in turn influences subsequent processes” (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 180).

However, these ideas produce only a general viewpoint of the learning and teaching process. Although there are many social learning theories that seek to further explain these elements, there is an ongoing debate about what learning is (Bruner; Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds), how it develops (Greeno, Collins, and Resnik; John-Steiner and Mahn), and how varying perspectives on learning might inform the practice of teaching (Sawyer). Because social learning views argue that the learner is inseparable from the environment and cultural tools, examining novice learners in their authentic setting is critical. It is important to consider how new members experience their environment, interact with new cultural tools, and seek support from other community members. In this sense, popular culture provides a unique space to examine a range of diverse learning and teaching scenarios.

The Process

We engaged in a three-layered process that helped question, reframe, and clarify our understandings about social perspectives of learning and teaching. The process began with unpacking various theories in the context of a doctoral course, then using those understandings to undertake an individual analysis, and finally collaborating with our peers to uncover shared findings to write this article.

First, as authors of our individual analyses, we began with certain shared premises grounded in sociocultural theory. Learning and teaching were understood as mutually transformative practices situated in a common space (Lave and Wenger; Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds). The space provided opportunities for learning and feedback. The learning process also relied on the use of tools, both physical objects and strategies or practices. Finally, the learning resulted in mastery, making what was internal to the learner visible to the community.

From there, we employed unique lenses to view what was being learned, how it was learned and evidenced, and what was the role of explicit teaching in that process. Our experiences as classroom teachers in varied school settings informed these decisions, as did our different disciplines, and personal preferences regarding popular media.

Finally, the decision to collaborate in this joint analysis emerged from a shared value of interdisciplinarity. The process of reading each other’s original papers, exploring common findings, and appreciating varied viewpoints has uncovered understandings that run deeper than a typical co-authoring experience. We have gained insight as to how art, literacy, math, and science intersect with each other, and with early childhood, elementary, secondary, and undergraduate learning and teaching. These common grounds are not simply in the space of lessons or learning activities, but more fundamentally in terms of how we view our students, ourselves as students and teachers, and the very meanings of learning and teaching.

Findings from Individual Analyses

This study aims to analyze learning and teaching episodes found within popular media. Using excerpts from Orange is the New Black, The Walking Dead, Megamind, Sherlock, Exit Through the Giftshop, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the student-authors follow novice learners as they interact with their respective environments.

In the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black (http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/70242311), Piper Chapman, a co-owner of an artisanal soap-making business, is living in an upper-middle class neighborhood. In the initial episode, Chapman self-surrenders at Litchfield Women’s Prison due to an international drug smuggling crime she committed ten years prior. On her first day, Chapman accidentally insults Red, the veteran kitchen manager, and instantly loses her food privileges. Consequently, she begins a series of problem-solving events to amend her relationship with Red. In order to survive, Chapman has to learn the hidden rules, overcome obstacles, and earn a respected place in the prison community. The social learning concept articulated in Rom Harré’s Vygotsky Space model was utilized to understand Piper Chapman’s interactions as she learned to adapt, participate, and contribute in the established prison environment in the first episodes of the series.

The Vygotsky Space model explores how learners interact within their social environment, internalize learning, and create contributions. The theory states that the learner is always situated within two dimensions: the public/private and the individual/social. Furthermore, it claims that these two dimensions interact with each other to form four quadrants of learning (Gavelek and Raphael 187). As learners transition through the quadrants, they engage in the developmental activities of Appropriation, Transformation, Publication, and Conventionalization (see Table 1, adapted from Gavelek and Raphael).

Table 1 Dimensions of Learning


During Appropriation, knowledge is social and public, allowing the learner to acquire it. In the Transformation phase, the learner’s appropriated knowledge is transformed into his or her own, yielding changes in the individual. These changes allow the learner to make visible contributions to the environment in the form of Publications. The acceptance of these contributions by society is seen as Conventionalization. Thus, the product is an ongoing cycle where the learner interacts within various private and social sectors that ultimately alter the individual and social context.

The Vygotsky Space assists in understanding the process of learning by examining both individual and social changes that occur throughout the four quadrants. This theoretical lens was employed to examine the actions of Piper Chapman during her initial stay at Litchfield Women’s Prison. Several key findings emerged from the analysis.

First, it was evident that Chapman’s initial lack of social knowledge in the prison environment led to immediate mistakes that changed her course of action. This created a need for specific knowledge, which placed her in various developmental opportunities. These included learning the bartering system and understanding the prison’s social hierarchy in order to obtain and exchange goods. A second finding was that cultural tools restricted and supported the learner during Appropriation.When the learner encountered physical items, they initially posed obstacles because they were used differently in the prison setting. However, as Chapman practiced using the items through trial-and-error, the tools became supporting elements of learning. Lastly, the examination found that the Transformation and Publication of cultural tools by the new member were substantial in gaining confidence, power, and acceptance. By creating and introducing tools, Chapman showed the community that she had mastered useful practices. The prisoners acknowledged Chapman’s actions and accepted her Publications. An example was apparent when Chapman learned to use the bartering system and gathered items to create a therapeutic lotion that she presented to Red. As a result, Chapman regained her food privileges and the respect of the senior inmates.

From this analysis it is evident that the new learner’s lack of initial social knowledge placed her in specific developmental opportunities. These led to individual contributions in the form of publicized practices and newly created cultural tools, transforming both the individual and her social context.

The next analysis focuses on The Walking Dead (http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead), the AMC television series about a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. The presence of the walkers, or zombies, is the driving force behind the group dynamics and the reason their society becomes focused on survival. This analysis examines the motivations between Shane, an established leader in the survivor community and Andrea, a member with less authority in the community with a sociocultural lens. Shane teaches Andrea through a scaffolding approach, enabling him to assess her learning and motivation. (See Neely for another analysis of this same event.

This analysis assumes that the standards and values that motivate individual learning are socially constructed (Hickey and Zuiker 288). Learning and behavior, as well as the society and culture in which they occur, are the forces that drive individual motivation. It is also understood that individuals have different motivations for learning. For example, Andrea is motivated to learn how to shoot so she can protect others and prove herself as a valued member of her new community; however, her ability to handle a gun has been questioned. Shane on the other hand has a different motivation. As one of the leaders, it benefits him to train others for two reasons: first, he does not have to work as hard shooting the walkers because others are helping him; and second, he does not have to continually watch over others while shooting the walkers.

This analysis focuses on three excerpts from Episode 6 in Season 2 that depict motivation through scaffolding. The intrinsic motivation felt by Andrea and Shane emphasizes the importance of learning; it also is essential to the human need for survival. Feedback is essential for one’s sense of control, is vital to intrinsic motivation, and improves learning. Unlike the others, Andrea bypasses the beginner tasks in her training and challenges herself to shoot at a harder target found in the “No Trespassing” sign. In response, Shane challenges her to the advanced class. This challenge to prove herself piques Andrea’s interest and increases her motivation. It also capitalizes on Shane’s motivation because he can nurture Andrea’s skills and help him reach his own goal of having more trained individuals in the community.

In this  particular scenario, Shane is badgering Andrea to shoot a moving target, trying to simulate a stressful interaction with a walker. After many failed attempts, her motivation begins to diminish. Illustrated by Madeline Hunter’s observation that degree of success is an important variable in motivation, Andrea’s low degree of success leads to low motivation. Eventually, as a result of her failure and Shane’s negative feedback, she quits and walks off.

By the end of the episode, Andrea’s and Shane’s different personal motivations intersect in pursuit of a common goal of survival. Thus, the urgency to shoot the walkers provides a common motivation for learning and teaching. As Yrjö Engeström explains from his situated learning perspective, the motivation to learn stems from participation in culturally valued, collaborated practices in which something useful is produced (141). Barohny Eun states that when you scaffold the learning process like Shane does, the learner (Andrea) needs to have each skill be both solid and well-embedded (410). It is these scaffolding situations that will help Andrea be able to utilize her gun, effectively utilizing the skills learned in prior situations. When faced with walkers, Andrea is able to apply her learning in a real life situation; she is more motivated and committed in her learning process.

The third individual analysis examines issues surrounding learner identity in the DreamWorks movie Megamind (http://www.megamind.com/). What forces shape a person into becoming a superhero? What forces shape others in becoming villains? The film Megamind acts as a social commentary, addressing the formation of identities by peer groups and the larger society. Through his experiences with society, the film’s protagonist, Megamind, learns as a child to accept villainy as his destiny, resolving to become the “baddest boy of them all.”

Two theories were addressed in the analysis of the opening scene: identity theory and positioning theory. According to James Paul Gee (“Identity as an Analytic Tool”), identity is described as the way a person is seen, a type of person, in society. A person’s nature-identity describes his or her physical traits and other aspects of the person that have been shaped by forces outside of the individual’s control. The institution-identity comprises the person’s official identity within society and his or her related powers and rights. Discourse-identity is shaped by the interactions that take place between the individual and others in the community. It reflects the individual’s relationship with others and is shaped by interactions within society. The fourth type of identity is the affinity-identity related to a person’s involvement in particular groups based on similar interests or activities. An individual’s position in society, and the power associated with it, is directly related to that person’s view of self (Davies and Harré 6). Of course, a person may choose to write his or her own “storyline,” pushing to increase rights and duties within the larger society. According to Rom Harré (“Positioning Theory” 3), positioning theory describes how rights and duties are distributed, change, and challenged over the course of a lifetime.

The film’s exposition was divided into four major parts, each occurring where the account of Megamind’s young life made major shifts. The exposition of the film Megamind was analyzed using discourse analysis (Gee, “How to do Discourse Analysis”). Each utterance within these parts was analyzed using Gee’s four types of learner identity (Gee, “Identity as an Analytic Tool” 100) and the expansion or retraction of rights and duty related to positioning (Harré, “Positioning Theory” 3).

Four patterns emerged based on the content of the exposition. In part one, the most commonly coded example of identity was nature-identity; at this point the exposition, which displayed Megamind’s earliest memories, showed very limited social interactions. In part two, institution-identity and reduction of rights were coded most frequently as he makes his home among prison inmates. In the third part, Megamind begins school and interacts with his teacher and classmates, and discourse-identity was coded more than in any other part of the transcription. The consequences of his perceived bad behavior result in his removal from much of the social interactions that occur in the classroom, limiting his rights and duties. Finally, part four of the exposition features the main character continuing the trend of negative discourse-identity formations and reduction of rights, as he chooses to push against social norms and positioning, creating his own storyline, starring Megamind as the “baddest boy of them all.”

By closely analyzing student, teacher, and peer interactions with at-risk children, we can gain better insights to reasons that many children push against norms set in the classroom. Megamind’s experiences in school could describe situations in which many marginalized children find themselves. Megamind, the protagonist in this film, is very much like many students who attempt to participate in school learning community, yet for various reasons fail to thrive as members of their learning environment. Be it intentional or not, the writers of the animated film Megamind described the very essence of how and why many children struggle in the traditional classroom.

The fourth vignette investigates identity formation in a different context. Over the course of the three seasons of BBC’s Sherlock (http://www.bbcamerica.com/sherlock/), John Watson develops from a damaged survivor of the Afghanistan war to a fully-realized, deductive-reasoning, consulting detective’s assistant. He forms and recognizes this new identity through his social interactions and experiences of working alongside Sherlock Holmes as they investigate and solve crimes at various locations within a period of three years. Watson’s cognitive, social, cultural, and psychological identities undergo a transformation that would be impossible without these social experiences. More than just the building of ideas from within the mind, learning for Watson must be analyzed from within the larger context of his place in society.

George Herbert Mead’s seminal work on identity formation stresses the impossibility of separating the self from the society in which it is formed. He further transfers the concept of communication between two or more people into an internal conversation within the individual. The person therefore becomes his own inner community. This concept, which he calls abstraction, cannot be the only interaction within a society, of course, but it helps to explain how identity formation becomes an internalized process, one that ultimately requires full participation of the individual.

Sheldon Stryker further explores the concept of identity theory by refining Mead’s work into a simple model explained as “society shapes self shapes social behavior” (Stryker 28). He likens identity to a mosaic, blending bits and pieces of social interaction to form a complete whole. It is relatively patterned, yet crosses new boundaries as new social interactions take place. Stryker finds that a shared meaning of a concept or idea provided the commonality to link identity and behavior (31). The practices within the identity and social community, and the common usage of the meaning, provide an extension of how identity is created.

In the beginning of the series, John Watson is a returning soldier and a doctor from the Afghanistan war, clearly affected by the violence and trauma of his experiences there. In therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, his therapist has advised him to stay calm, get involved in “normal” society, and reintegrate himself with civilians and a quiet life. He has difficulty reckoning his inner desire to experience more danger and violence with the socially accepted reaction that he should be feeling. Scenes from the first season emphasize this dissonance, showcasing situations where Watson fluctuates between settling down in the life of a clinical doctor and relishing the high energy of detective work. His time is ripe for learning a new life, one where he is both in control and in enough danger to satisfy his needs. This new community Sherlock Holmes provides comes at the perfect time for Watson’s emerging identity.

By season three, Watson proves himself a fully-formed identity as an investigator. One key scene in the final episode depicts both his skill as an investigator and his mentor’s awareness of these skills. Holmes has been shot and has left clues for Watson to figure out the case, knowing that Watson will be able to separate his emotions from logic and connect the dots, realizing that his own wife is the person who has shot his best friend. If this identity as an investigator had not been fully formed, Watson’s denial of evidence would have hindered his conclusions. The clues he collects, and the conclusions he makes from them, are symbolic of the larger ability to think like an investigator. This ingrained methodology has become a natural practice, one in which Watson engages without conscious thought. Watson’s identity arc corresponds with the narrative arc of the show; while he will continue to grow and develop as an investigator, as all learning continues, he now has ownership of his identity. The social context in which Watson is placed at this time has shifted yet again. A married man, practicing doctor, part-time investigator, this Watson has finally claimed ownership of his new identity.

The next analysis centers on cultural tools and co-construction. The 2010 documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, examines Thierry Guerra’s induction to the secretive community of some of the world’s most famous street artists (http://www.banksyfilm.com). Initially, Guerra is allowed access to the exclusive group under the assumption that he is a documentary filmmaker. However, Guerra is not content with simply standing by as an observer, and through an unintentional apprenticeship, remakes himself into the street artist known as Mr. Brainwash. This analysis of Guerra’s transformation reveals insights about how cultural tools help to scaffold artistic meaning making.

From a social constructivist perspective, cultural products such as language and signs semiotics are considered to mediate our thoughts and mold our reality (Vygotsky). Sign mediated activities include “systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs and so on” (Vygotsky 137). These semiotic means are referred to as tools, and it is with the aid of these tools that we construct our knowledge. James Wertsch believes that these cultural tools manipulate human action within the mind and in the world. He emphasizes the importance between the relationship of external cultural tools and their influence of internal processes.

The concept that individuals employ internal cultural tools to make sense of the external world is referred to as co-construction. The mastery of a new concept, skill or tool is the process of internalization. Furthermore, a skill or tool can be appropriated, meaning that it has been used in a unique or individual way. It is through an internal conversation that individuals appropriate and reconstruct their understanding (Harré). Semiotic representations, shaped by and indistinguishable from culture, aid our processes of internalization. Ernest Gombrich (as cited in Cunliffe) situates works of art not only in the mind of the artist, but also within social and cultural contexts. He proposes that artistic ability is not simply a naturally inherited gift, but that symbolic cultural representations, in the form of tradition, influence the work of artists by providing visual cues and critical feedback.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, the degree to which graffiti culture influenced Guerra’s artistic decision making is extensive. Often, Guerra appropriates the images, style, and artistic approaches that he observed during his time among the street art community. Throughout the film Guerra is able to engage with and observe how expert artists test and refine their practices through the mechanism of corrective feedback. One such example occurs when graffiti artist Space Invader asks Guerra what he thinks of his mosaic, and then later when he seeks Guerra’s help in installing the mosaic on a building.

Though frequently unsuccessful in his initial attempts at art making, Guerra is able to appropriate the strategies of trial and error and corrective feedback to his eventual success. Guerra’s mastery of these tools is evidence of his internalization of the practices and tools of the street artist community. This internal conversation and transformation was instrumental in reconstructing Guerra’s identity from Guerra the documentary filmmaker to Mr. Brainwash, successful street artist.

Finally, although educators frequently conceptualize learning as an intentional product of teaching, an analysis of J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, reveals many layers of learning occurring simultaneously, often in the absence of purposeful teaching, and exposes issues of periphery and power (http://harrypotter.scholastic.com). As a new student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry happens upon the magical Mirror of Erised. His initial interactions are directly with the Mirror, but Harry also learns about its powers from his mentor, Headmaster Dumbledore, before encountering it again in a high-stakes duel with Professor Quirrell (possessed by the evil Voldemort’s spirit).

In their definition of learning, Patricia Alexander, Diane Schallert, and Ralph Reynolds describe it as both “conscious and intentional,” and “tacit and incidental” (178), so learning is continuous (Matusov 338), inevitable (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 178), and multifunctional (Davis 105). Teachers and students constantly (but not always consciously) send and receive messages about expectations, socialization, power, and other cultural norms of their community. So, within a single activity, a learner typically experiences several types, or layers, of learning simultaneously. This study analyzes Harry’s learning by what he learns (tool, environment, and identity) and how he learns (incidental or intentional, guided by teacher or learner).

Layers of learning across the what categories is evident when the Mirror drops the Sorcerer’s Stone into Harry’s pocket. Harry gains new understandings about a magical tool (the Mirror), norms of the wizarding world (the Stone’s reflection materializes in his pocket), and his changing identity (from loser in his uncle’s household to hero at Hogwarts). Through this single event, Harry experiences three layers of learning.

Harry also experiences multiple layers in terms of how he learns: intentionally through Dumbledore’s explanation (teacher) and Harry’s following his advice (learner), and incidentally when he experiences the Mirror’s magic. Rowling describes Harry’s reflection twice as changing from “pale and scared-looking” to smiling (208, 292). The first time is when Harry originally encounters the Mirror and sees his reflection surrounded by family; the next is when he encounters the Mirror during his final confrontation with Quirrell/ Voldemort. After the first incident, Prof. Dumbledore suggests that Harry avoid losing himself in the fantasies the Mirror shows him, and Harry decides to do so. Finally, the incidental learning occurs in that Harry accidentally encounters the Mirror in the storeroom before he faces it in a high-stakes situation (assuming that Dumbledore did not mastermind the coincidence).

Power is inherent in educational relationships, with the expectation that a learner’s power increases with greater experience, knowledge, and mastery of craft and culture. Although institutional power rests with teachers (compared to students), Jean Lave and EtienneWenger note that the periphery offers a position of power, too (36). Harry’s mastery of certain spells and tools is not valued or even permitted in his classrooms; however, it is invaluable in actual practice. He remains an outsider, even as a hero, because of his unfamiliarity with wizarding culture as well as his own personality and choices. The Mirror episodes afford opportunities to reframe learning, from a planned activity to a continuous, multi-layered experience. Harry’s experiences also highlight the power that a peripheral position can confer in a community of practice.

Uncovering the Givens and Identifying Tensions

While each of these examinations uses a distinct lens in addition to the shared social learning theories, looking across these six vignettes brings further insight regarding teaching and learning.

Through our reflections on the process of examining cases of learning/teaching in popular media, we have identified two broad implications of this work: 1) helping us see learning/teaching more clearly, around the boundaries of what we were accustomed to seeing; and 2) identifying dialectic tensions that expand the complexity of our thinking about learning.

As an example of the “givens” in the field of education that we were able to examine more deeply as a result of our analyses of out-of-school learning as represented in popular media, we offer the following list of assumptions, developed through our class discussions, that are often played out in typical classroom practice in K-12 settings and required of beginning teachers in a typical education program as evidence of readiness for leading a classroom:

  • Assumption of designed intentionality: there has to be an observable, measurable objective, written with a clear verb and statement of evidence
  • Assumption of observable and instant mastery: the lesson is successful if all (or most) students at the end of the lesson have “mastered” the objective
  • Assumption of tangible evidence: Mastery is almost always documented through the creation of tangible artifacts (writing), even to the point where some things are written (or copied) simply for the purpose of creating this artifact when they could be more efficiently and authentically accomplished through talk or other intangible practices
  • Assumption of active engagement: the lesson is successful if all students look busy
  • Assumption of structure: there is an expected architecture to the lesson sequence and the lesson is successful if all components are performed for the appropriate amount of time in the appropriate order
  • Assumption of tidiness: the lesson is successful if it is tidy and compliant such that disruptions or meanderings from the architecture are discouraged and instances of dissonance or conceptual struggle are deemed indicators of bad teaching

It is certainly beyond the scope of this article to argue that these normalized practices are universally incorrect or ineffective, and we do not claim to dispute accumulated evidence for the need for these and other features of standards-based and data-driven instruction. Our point is simply that part of our work as interdisciplinary scholars who hope to extend our quality as teacher educators is to engage in thoughtful critique of these and other givens of learning/teaching that are rarely questioned or even noticed because they are assumed to be true and natural. Each of these ritualized practices rests on assumptions about how learning occurs and what is worth learning. Our cases of learning in popular media give us a shared context for examining learning in a way that is less corrupted by these practices so that we can engage in what Gee calls critical learning: learning to notice, critique, rearrange the design features built into a semiotic domain (Video Games 25).

Our reflection on these cases also helped us develop a list of tensions or dialectics—two seemingly opposing states that cannot be easily collapsed into each other or resolved—related to learning that expand the way we now talk about learning with colleagues and students. These four tensions are summarized below.

Coercion/volition is the first tension we identified. Our cases show examples of learners learning through participation in communities they have chosen to affiliate with (or have allowed themselves to be recruited into). At the same time, though, the learners are compelled or coerced to follow accepted pathways of access and to learn a prescribed sequence of practices. There are both individual agency and external authority driving their participation in these communities.

The second tension we identified is labeled replication/innovation. Learners who gain exclusive levels of centrality in their communities do so through the appropriation of tools and practices. which allows them to push the limits of how these tools/practices can be used (Lave and Wenger; Wertsch). Members do not just replicate the conventionalized practices of a community (Gavelek and Raphael). They actually “own” them and transform them, spitting back the transformed forms into the community so that others can also internalize the novelties they have helped build. It is important to point out, though, that replication is not totally removed from the process. There is some degree of absorption of pre-existing practices, things that make the community a community. A learner has to enter into social contracts with other members of the community, and some of these contracts involve the adoption of cultural models, tools, practices, and so forth that bind the community together.

Our cases also reveal a whole/part tension. Most of our cases center on individuals who are recruited into the practices they are hoping to learn in such a way that they are able to experience (at the very least, observe) the whole practice from the very beginning of their community affiliation. Their immersion in the whole practice is what makes their learning possible; it allows them to imagine a possible future in which they are doing all the parts of the process (Gee, Video Games; Lave and Wenger). At the same time, though, a new member in a community cannot do all the parts of the practice instantly (not well, at least). There is a partitioning or sequestration of the content that happens (sometimes incidentally, and sometimes in institutionalized ways). The learner gets access to the whole thing but also works through parts of the whole thing in the sequence that has been deemed acceptable by old-timers in the community (Lave and Wenger).

The final tension exposed in our analysis, intentional/inevitable, reflects our understanding that learning can be launched by an intentional act of teaching or can happen incidentally through interactions or experiences in which there is no nameable agent who purposely fills a teacher role. Furthermore, even when there is intentional teaching, there is always (inevitably) some learning that occurs that is not intended (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds). This can be the result of intentional resistance on the part of the learner(s). But even without active resistance, when teachers launch a learning event, they are launching (or better stated, reconstituting) a community of practice, which calls forth a set of norms, practices, discourses, identities (etc.) associated with the particular community. In addition to (or instead of) the intended content of the learning, the learners will inevitably gain facility with their own ways of “doing” this practice: they will learn the rules, how to follow them, how to subvert them, how to use sanctioned aspects of the social language to gain authority in conversation, and much more.

In conclusion, the use of popular culture as a resource in the higher education community can provide a counternarrative to the traditional pedagogical practices usually accepted in academia. We found the common space of popular culture accessible and relatable to all of us, regardless of background or focus. In higher education classrooms, educators often struggle with finding ways to encourage learner agency, authenticity in class work, and a learner-focused curriculum. We contend that the process of examining representations in popular media described in this article helped us accomplish this goal while also informing our understanding of important content that influences our future work as teacher educators.

Through the close examination of our individual popular culture events, we were able to uncover the convergences in our meaning-making, finding ways to assemble the fractured conceptualizations of learning/teaching into a cohesive whole. This pedagogy affords us the opportunity to relearn how we view learning, delving deeper into our beliefs and limitations of the various processes we value in education. We are able to see what is there, not just what we have been taught to see or what we expect to find. Working together to construct our understandings through this process, we step through the popular culture portal into a new area of education. We encourage others in education and related field to engage in similar examinations as a way of developing shared understandings of important concepts in the field, particularly in programs that are interdisciplinary in nature.


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Author Bios:

Kelli Bippert is a third year doctoral fellow at The University of Texas at San Antonio in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching. Her research interests include digital literacy, adolescent struggling readers, and integrating student interests in literacy learning to motivate learners.

Dennis S. Davis is an assistant professor of literacy education at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his PhD in Teaching, Learning, and Diversity from Vanderbilt University. He is a former fourth- and fifth-grade teacher whose research focuses on literacy in elementary and middle school contexts. His bio can be found at http://education.utsa.edu/faculty/profile/dennis.davis@utsa.edu.

Margaret Rose Hilburn is a practicing artist and educator. She holds a BFA and MAE from Texas Tech University. Hilburn is currently pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is currently working as a doctoral fellow, and her research interests include curriculum theory, visual culture, and art education.

Jennifer D. Hooper is a third year doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interest focuses on the achievement gap between boys and girls in science courses. Upon graduating with her PhD, she plans to swim with great white sharks and seek employment in higher education.

Deepti Kharod is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her experiences as a journalist, mother, and elementary teacher inform her current work as an educator. Her research focuses on environmental education, preservice teachers, and elementary students.

Cinthia Rodriguez is an elementary math specialist at Northside Independent School District and a doctoral student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests include effective teaching practices for diverse populations in the elementary school setting.

Rebecca Stortz is an educator and Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. An avid reader and writer, she strives to incorporate technology and multiliteracies into her classroom experiences. Her research interests include literacy identities, poetry, writing instruction, and teacher education.


Reference Citation:


Bippert, Kelli, Davis, Dennis, Hilburn, Margaret Rose, Hooper, Jennifer D., Kharod, Deepti, Rodriguez, Cinthia, and Stortz, Rebecca.“(Re)learning about Learning: Using Cases from Popular Media to Extend and Complicate our Understandings of what it Means to Learn and Teach.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.



Bippert, K., Davis, D., Hilburn, M. R., Hooper, J. D., Kharod, D., Rodriguez, C., and Stortz, R. (2016). (Re)learning about learning: Using cases from popular media to extend and complicate our understandings of what it means to learn and teach. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/relearning-about-learning-using-cases-from-popular-media-to-extend-and-complicate-our-understandings-of-what-it-means-to-learn-and-teach/