Video games have often been thought of as the antithesis to education, with parents and teachers urging students to put down the controller and pick up a book. However, in today's digital world, it seems less and less likely that our children will grow up without exposure to video games. Not only will children be exposed to the games, but it is likely that these games will have an impact on their lives. As such, Kurt Squire (2008) argues that games can provide spaces in which "we have the opportunity to develop skills, engage in creative practices, participate in virtual organizations, and otherwise explore identities unavailable...in other places, such as in schools (Squire, 2008, p. 119). Therefore, if Squire is to be believed, it is the responsibility of educators to explore gaming as a legitimate form of teaching.
In his article, Squire points to the many ways in which video games are a specific form of education, in which "learning and pleasure are closely connected, with many players believing that learning is naturally fun" (2008, p. 117). This is a far cry from traditional school, where I don't think anyone would argue that many students do not find learning fun. As such, those of us who teach in traditional settings need to leverage this type of interest and somehow bring it into the classroom. Gaming culture is not something for educators to turn up their noses at, but instead something that we can learn from to improve our own practice.
I think that more and more teachers are using games and game culture in the classroom in an attempt to find new ways to engage students. With access to technology becoming more available, trying to leverage the enthusiasm for games like Minecraft and connect them to curricular content is becoming easier to do. But it does take time and effort on the part of the educator, along with a willingness to try new things. I don't think we can simply tell our students to play Minecraft and leave it at that. There has to be intention and planning in place so that the games have a meaningful place in the classroom. If we want our schools to better represent the futures that our students will be walking into, which at this point look to be very technology-infused, then perhaps it is time to dive into a game and see what we can learn.
Squire, K. (2008). Critical education in an interactive age. Counterpoints, 105-123.
The decided lack of accountability for one's virtual self is something that gets talked about a lot...when something happens that sparks the discussion. For example, when teens commit suicide because of cyber bullying (see https://nobullying.com/six-unforgettable-cyber-bullying-cases/ for some examples). In those moments, communities come together and parents speak out about how open the internet is for situations like these to continue. Sometimes laws are passed or people are charged. And then it all goes away again until the next time something happens.
At the end of the day, we live in a very "sound-bite" or "click-bite" culture that uses the Internet to cycle from one story to the next without time for deep thought or at least consideration. In her article, "Mirror Images," Suzanne de Castell points out that "if this were a real frontier, would anyone send his or her children into it without taking the time to build a habitable, humane world?" (deCastell, 2015, p. 219). When these tragedies happen, there is a lot of talk about making things better and how to combat cyber-bullying, but there is no talk about changing the "virtual world" itself. deCastell points out, I think rightly, that "there is no money to be made by doing it [creating a humane and habitable cyberspace]" (deCastell, 2015, p. 220).
So where does that leave educators? We are heavily encouraged, and I would argue invested, in utilizing virtual tools in the today's classroom. We are given access to wi-fi and iPads/tablets/laptops/projectors/Apple TV to push more and more technology into our lessons and activities. I myself have my students using the online journal "SeeSaw" to post their work in class, mostly so parents can see what is happening at school. How are we going to make a safer, "habitable" virtual world if no one is invested in doing so? Educators are required to teach about cyber-bullying and proper online conduct and other specific topics to help students navigate the online world, but at the end of the day nothing is really going to change unless a large demand is made that cannot be ignored. deCastell puts forth a call for action, in my opinion, and gives us a lot of food for thought as we move forward in these two, increasingly undivided, worlds.
de Castell, S. (2015). Mirror Images: Avatar Aesthetics and Self-Representation in Digital Games. In M. Ratto, & M. Boler (Eds.), DIY Citizenship (pp. 213-222). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
It only takes a moment for one to look at current pop culture to see how much influence the past has on the present. For example, it seems like every time one turns around another Spiderman or Star Trek movie is being made, or another British television show is being re-made for American audiences. This type of remix culture can have great influence on education, and the ways in which students demonstrate their understanding of topics being studied in class.
"Put simply, copying is how we learn. We can't introduce anything new until we are fluent in the language of our domain" (Ferguson, 2011). Elementary education is basically one long copying session. Students copy how to read, write, follow mathematical procedures, scientific theories and procedures, and historical events. However, as teachers we are constantly encouraging our students to be creative and try something new. The ease with which we can "remix" these days perhaps makes it more possible for students to apply creativity as they copy.
So how can we remix with young students? The ease with which technology can be applied in the classroom (of course assuming the appropriate budget is in place, which is another issue for another time) makes it possible for students to create their own remixes in any number of forms. For example, students as young as third-graders can create songs using popular melodies about what is being studied in class. In my own third-grade class, students created songs about environmental awareness when studying the physical regions of Ontario. Students can also make simple videos using any number of platforms, including Lego Movie Maker or on the SeeSaw app. Having students retell a story using Lego Movie Maker is a form of copying, but with an element of creativity and remixing involved as they experiment with a new form.
Giving students the opportunity to copy and remix in the classroom will perhaps allow for deeper understanding to occur, as students tinker with the elements to create something of their own. This could also (hopefully) make room for more interest and excitement about a variety of dry topics (the physical regions of Ontario...) and bring current culture into the classroom.
Ferguson, K. (Director). (2011). Everything is a Remix [Motion Picture].
One of the critical skills that teachers attempt to facilitate in students at the elementary school level is collaboration. It is one of the six "Learning Skills" on which students are graded each term, and is therefore seen as an important part of the education process. However, students do not just arrive at school in Kindergarten and naturally collaborate effectively to complete a task. This is a skill that needs to be honed and taught throughout their time at school, the needs of which change as the students grow older and mature. Online collaboration is a relatively new area for students and teachers, and collaborating in this sphere can prove to be both rewarding and challenging.
However challenging the idea of online collaboration is, I would argue that it is an essential skill to develop in our young students. Children interact online in a number of ways; everything from simply "liking" another person's picture on Instagram, to helping build a world together in Minecraft. Deborah Fields argues that "online spaces offer young adults around the world an opportunity to interact and collaborate with others around a shared passion (Fields, 2014, p. 20). But what is appropriate collaboration and interaction online? For teachers to address these kinds of issues, they need to embrace and utilize the online space for teaching and learning.
An example of very simple online collaboration used in a primary classroom could be the See Saw app. This app allows students to upload content, such as videos, photos, or written work, to their "Journal" for students in the class and teachers to see. Within this application, there is the option to "like" another student's post and an option to "comment" on the post. In my classroom, we are currently working on how we can frame our comments to each other so that they are both respectful and helpful to the creative process. Using sentence stems, for example "I really like that you..." or "Next time you might want to include..." helps the students to frame responses that are intended to give constructive feedback. This feedback can then be used to improve the product or applied to the next journal post. If we start explicitly teaching students how to collaborate and provide feedback online from very early on in their school careers, perhaps the skills will transfer to more mature online forums like "Scratch" or "Figment" and provide students with the words to create something meaningful as a collective.
Fields, D. A. (2014). DIY media creation. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 19-24.
Understanding hip-hop not only as content, but also as an "aesthetic form" (Petchauer, 2015) is a shift that allows this culture to be more legitimized in the eyes of the education world. As an aesthetic form, hip-hop can be thought of as a guiding principle or pedagogy to be used in classrooms or schools, rather than just as another form of content. The question that remains, after re-thinking hip-hop in this way, is how can this apply in an elementary school? Is hip-hop and its culture an appropriate pedagogical practice to be bringing in to an elementary classroom? On the flip side, how can we ignore this vibrant and relevant culture that reaches out to so many of our students?
Looking closely at some of the hip-hop concepts that Petchauer brings into her article, it becomes clear that they are dealing with mature themes. For example, the concepts of layering and sampling are rich and broad, but are they available to young children? "Sampling is a creative method or framework...[that] requires cultural workers to rearrange the symbols, phrases, rhythms and melodies...into something completely new" (Petchauer, 2015, p. 82). It could be argued that activities are available that make room for children to do some "sampling," be it taking words or phrases from poems or songs and re-working them into their own piece of art. But is this going deep enough? If one is going to adopt the hip-hop pedagogy and use it whole-heartedly with students, it has to be more than just lip-service. It can't just be about looking at some rap music lyrics and discussing their meaning. It has to involve a strong look at the whole culture, and an exploration of how that culture can be brought into a school setting.
The school Petchauer discusses in the second part of the article, "Hip-Hop High," is so called because of its adoption of "the sensibilities and aesthetics of hip-hop - such as sampling, creative resourcefulness, and innovation due to limited resources and circumstances" (Petchauer, 2015, p. 89-90). It could be argued that an elementary school could also adopt these sensibilities and aesthetics, especially around the creative resourcefulness and innovation. However, looking at hip-hop pedagogy in that light, does it mean that any location that is creative and innovative is embracing hip-hop culture? I feel that Petchauer would argue that there is more to hip-hop culture than that, but what is the more and how would this be used for our younger students?
I am left mostly with questions at the end of this article, about how hip-hop culture really fits in with educational practices and how we, as educators, can utilize this framework in appropriate ways. I can see adopting elements of the culture, such as innovation, resourcefulness, layering and sampling many things to make something new and unique. However, I also wouldn't want to trivialize a culture into something trite and meaningless. I feel that more work needs to be done to explore how this culture can be brought into our elementary classrooms in a rich and meaningful way.
Petchauer, E. (2015). Starting with style: toward a second wave of hip-hop education research and practice. Urban Education, 78-105.
Star Trek is a huge cultural phenomenon, there is no question about that. The original show spawned many subsequent TV shows and movies, and has created an entire sub-culture of fans. The show has even had a hand in creating a new language, Klingon, which people have created and now can be learned by anyone wishing to do so. "Trekkies" love their Star Trek, and it is often cited as having had a major impact on the television landscape with respect to issues such as gender and race (e.g., featuring the first multi-racial kiss, a multi-racial crew) (Day, 2003). However, when picking apart the over-arching themes of the show, has it really portrayed a positive view of humanity's future with respect to these major issues? Therefore could it be used to articulate themes of racism, sexism and colonialism in the classroom?
Using Star Trek in the classroom can be a very accessible way to explore issues of race and gender with students. Unpacking the show can also be linked to unpacking U.S. cultural history stemming back to the original show in the 1960's. At its most basic level, Star Trek deals with the crew (the "Federation") and the aliens they discover along the way. One such alien is the Klingon, whose language can be learned and has been used to translate seminal texts like Shakespeare and the Bible. Klingons are aliens: they are dark-skinned, they have ridged foreheads and are defined as "a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid warrior species" (Klingon, 2016). Klingons can be viewed as the "other" to the Federation's "good guy" imagery. "Klingons, by contrast, being an agressor species allow one to be arrogant and obnoxious. It's a safety valve - the dark side can get out" (Anijar, 2000, p. 133). Thus, Klingons are the "dark side" to the Federations "light" side, bringing to mind images of good versus evil. What does this portrayal of aliens say about mainstream white culture's views of anyone who is presumed to be "other?" Does this imagery of a dark, barbarian connect with how Americans view people from other countries such as Africa? Is this how Americans view those people trying to "invade" their country via borders like those found in California? Looking at Star Trek episodes in this way can start a conversation about what societal assumptions could be linked to popular culture, and a discussion about how destructive these assumptions could be.
In Star Trek, one piece of thematic imagery is that of the alien invasion. Looking at history, for example, there are many instances where "others" invaded countries or territories that were not originally theirs. One could look at the Borg on Star Trek as an example of how white society "took over" various countries or territories (e.g., Africa, North America), and proceeded to make them their own. The Borg "are a menacing collectivity without any subjectivity. They share a common identity and collective consciousness and a seemingly overly determined biological or cyberbiological drive to assimilate everything in their paths" (Anijar, 2000, p. 173). Is this white society? Is this what was done to other cultures and peoples as the British Empire, for example, steamrolled its way to control over various colonies and territories? These would be fascinating conversations to have in the history classroom.
In short, Star Trek provides educators with another example of pop culture that can be used to begin difficult and layered conversations. If Star Trek is of interest to students, or provides a bridge to more complex themes throughout history, why not use it as the battleground for exploration and discovery.
Anijar, K. (2000). Klingon as Curriculum: Militias, Minstrel Shows and Other Language Games. In K. Anijar, Teaching toward the 24th Century: Star Trek as Social Curriculum (pp. 128-155). New York: Falmer Press.
Anijar, K. (2000). Resistence is Futile: You will be Assimilated into the Predatory Jungle. In K. Anijar, Teaching toward the 24th Century: Star Trek as Social Curriculum (pp. 156-190). New York: Falmer Press.
Day, D. (2003, December 17). Star Trek as Cultural Phenomenon. Retrieved from US Centennial of Flight Commission: http://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Social/star_trek/SH7.htm
Klingon. (2016, October 12). Retrieved from Wikepedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon
Fan activism can be defined as "forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself" (Jenkins, 2015, p. 65). Fans often come together through a shared appreciation for a certain show, book, or game, and using this appreciation to develop activists within a community seems to be the next step of this culture. This is no different from using appealing entry points in a classroom to engage the students in the topic at hand, for example using a book like "The Hunger Games" to enter into a discussion of political parties and organization. In fact, using fan culture to engage students has proven effective in motivating more political activism among people who would otherwise feel ostracized from the political process, for example in the case of the Harry Potter Alliance.
The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) connects fans of the books with real-world issues, such as poverty, suicide prevention, and global human rights issues, by using elements of the story to "puncture" into these real problems within the global society (Jenkins, 2015, p. 69). It is by mapping the book onto reality that students or fans of the books become engaged in politics that they would otherwise be on the sidelines of. This brings to mind the music of the 1960s, which brought political issues like the Vietnam War into mainstream pop culture, and motivated the listeners to become involved in protesting government decisions. This music was branded as "counterculture" and became a "space for cultural and political conflict and dialog" (Candaele, 2012). In the case of the HPA, this is also a place for dialog and action, with the books as a context within which real-life issues can be discussed.
Using fan culture in the classroom seems to be a natural progression. Students are engaged with popular culture, due to the fact that much of the content is aimed at them and their interests. Starting with content that students are familiar with, and layering on the content expectations for certain subjects could bring about a deeper level of engagement than is otherwise experienced in traditional "textbook" classes. Not only are students more interested right away, they also feel more confident discussing topics that they have experience with and know something about. The teacher then becomes the "guide on the side" as they organize activities and insert content links such that the students are discovering for themselves how the history or geography or science connects to the pop culture.
The question then remains, why aren't teachers doing this on a wider scale? Is it because this type of instruction is seen as "counter culture" or "anti-establishment?" Using Harry Potter to teach politics is certainly not traditional, in the same way using zombies to explore how viruses work could be seen as inappropriate. So does this type of "DIY citizenship" need to become part of the discussion at an instructional level? Or by doing so, by accepting this into mainstream teaching, would we be going against the very elements that draw our students in?
Candaele, K. (2012). The Sixties and Protest Music. Retrieved from The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/sixties/essays/protest-music-1960s
Jenkins, H. (2015). Fan activism as participatory politics: the case of the Harry Potter alliance. In M. Ratto, & M. Boler (Eds.), DIY Citizenship (pp. 65-73). Cambridge: MIT.
In his article "Imperial Imageries: Employing Science Fiction to talk about Geopolitics," Robert A. Saunders (2015) encourages the use of Science Fiction ("SciFi") to provide an avenue to make geopolitics more accessible to students in higher education. But what about students in elementary school? Can SciFi, or pop culture in general, be used to develop critical thinking around land use and other topics in the Social Studies curriculum?
Saunders writes "students possess a helpful fluency in popular culture...[which] allows for the employment of an intellectual shorthand that accelerates learning, facilitates critical analysis, and enables thoughtful discussions and debate" (Saunders, 2015, p. 150). In fact, it seems as though students spend much more time engrossed in popular culture than they do in their studies for school. Thus, it seems natural to use popular culture to engage students in the less entertaining topics set for study at school. Pop culture is something students know about and feel comfortable with, which makes it easy for them to talk about with confidence. If we as educators can link these familiar topics to the required curriculum, perhaps students will feel more comfortable and become more engaged at school.
In Grade 4, for example, students are required to "assess some key ways in which industrial development and the natural environment affect each other" (Ministry of Education, 2013, p.102). The teacher could use a movie like Wall-E and select certain scenes which highlight the impact industrial development had on the planet Earth (in Wall-E the planet Earth has been abandoned due to human destruction and garbage, leaving only the robot Wall-E behind). The students could discuss and debate the issue, and then move on to applying this knowledge to how different regions in Canada have been affected by industrial development.
In Grade 3, students are supposed to "investigate some of the environmental effects of different types of land and/or resource use" (Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 90). The teacher could turn to a novel like "The Martian Chronicles" to discuss how Earthmen affect Mars as they conquer it, and then how the land affects the Earthmen in turn. Or even a popular movie and book, Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" tells the story of what happens when someone harvests all of the resources with no thought for the future. Again, these provide links into the challenging Social Studies curriculum that may hook students into the topics required.
The point here is that SciFi and pop culture are not just for teens and university students. Elementary school children benefit just as much from teachers making links to pop culture in order to unmask some of the deeper themes of the Elementary Curriculum. In fact, when teachers begin with pop culture movies, books, and games they can make a very dense curriculum into something manageable for our younger students. This can then help to lead children into deep discussions about land use, interactions between people of various cultures, and how their actions as citizens can impact the world around them.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). The Ontario Curriculum: Social Studies: Grades 1 to 6; History and Geography Grades 7 and 8. Queen's Printer for Ontario.
Saunders, R. A. (2015). Imperial imageries: employing science fiction to talk about geopolitics. In F. Caso, & C. Hamilton (Eds.), Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, Pedagogies (pp. 149-159). Bristol, U.K.: E-International Relations Publishing.
Students today are inundated with advertising from any number of sources, including television commercials, online advertisements, billboard and print ads. These advertisements are carefully planned to appeal to certain age groups, and make it seem as though the consumer can't live without the coveted object of their desire. Meanwhile, students are also faced with texts at school which seem to be the exact opposite. They are not marketed to appeal to student interests, and bring to light the "contradiction that exists between the educational system and the sociocultural environment into which students are born" (Funes, 2008, p.166). Schools need to shift their thinking and begin helping students become literate in the ways of audiovisual advertising.
It is no longer up to the teachers to be the ones with all the knowledge, while the students happily consume what they are told. It is more important than ever for our students to develop critical literacy skills. Teachers need to embrace the cultural norms of today, and use them in their teaching practice, rather than turning back towards the teaching methods of the past.
This means adopting new practices that go beyond simply reading and writing, and incorporate mediums like online texts and images. Schools need to meet students where they are, and bring the outside world of Instagram and Twitter into the classroom. Students are in need of guidance about how to navigate our sound-bite, image-obsessed culture. School should be the place where we provide our students with guidance about how to navigate the world.
An example of this is using commercials for popular products, for example McDonald's food or iPods, to develop critical thinking schools. The goal is to present the images or commercials free from any implied bias on the part of educator and allow the students to reflect on what they are seeing. "The aim is to achieve an action-reflection-action process in which the student starts from his or her own experience...The teacher's role is to stimulate the analysis and reflection process" (Funes, 2008, p. 170). Instead of being the all-knowing disseminator of knowledge, the teacher steps back and allows students the freedom to develop their own ideas about what they are being presented with. In this way, our schools need to become places in which students are guided as they learn how to think for themselves and become savvy analyzers of culture rather than innocent consumers.
Funes, V. S. (2008). Advertising and Consumerism: A Space for Pedagogical Practice. In D. Silberman-Keller, Mirror Images (pp. 159-177). Peter Lang AG.
Further Ideas for the Classroom:
If ideas were fashion, would our students become more engaged? Is there a chance that ideas and knowledge could become as important to our students as Minecraft and Shopkins?
In their article, "If Ideas WERE Fashion," David Wong and Danah Henriksen propose the idea that the world of fashion can be used as a template for how teachers can make education more engaging and relevant to their students (Wong and Henriksen, 2008, p.180). It is no surprise to teachers that their students would rather be somewhere else a lot of the time. My students in grade 3 would much rather be playing Minecraft or Lego or Shopkins than learning about place value or how to find the author's message in a story. So it is up to me, the teacher, to find a way to engage the students in curriculum expectations so that they care enough to do their best work.
Wong and Henriksen give several reasons why they think using ideas from the world of fashion might be helpful to education. First of all, they point out that "the attraction to fashion has been evident in a wide variety of people for long periods of time" (Wong and Henriksen, 2008, p. 180). Therefore, as an educator, I need to look at they why and how of the ways the world of fashion attracts people's attention in order to utilize these tools in the classroom. I do want my students to be absorbed and interested in what we are learning, however, here is where I hit a roadblock. How likely is it that my third grade students are going to be as engaged and absorbed in adding two-digit numbers as they are in playing video games? I can picture engagement happening with some content-area subjects like Social Studies or Science, where there are issues, people and hands-on experiments to connect with. But when it comes to something like Math, I feel less engaged myself. It is a tool that is necessary in order to move about in the world, certainly, but I am hard-pressed to think about any math topic that is as engaging as the latest Nintendo DS.
With respect to specific products, Wong and Henriksen point to the Apple iPod and its advertisement "Silhouettes" to emphasize the power of images in getting people's attention and making something "in fashion." (Wong and Henriksen, 2008, p.188). I can definitely see using more powerful images to attract students' attention in class, and to make connections between the student and the content. But once again, I am struck with how this idea fits better with some subjects than with others. Showing students images of artifacts can be deeply engaging, as students use the images to bring to life the story of what it was like in the early days of life in Canada. What images would I show them in math class to make subtraction more exciting?
In focusing on teaching, by using the show "What Not to Wear," I felt a connection with the idea of there being no one-size fits all solution to the fashion problems of the contestants on the show (Wong and Henriksen, 2008, p.191). The hosts fabricate specific plans for each person, in order to personalize the experience. This is definitely possible in education, as we think about differentiating our instruction to meet a variety of students' needs. This also puts emphasis on the idea of the educator making a connection with each student, so that they can gauge what works well for each individual. Looking at our students as individuals rather than a collective is definitely in line with each person fashioning an education for themselves.
Wong, D., & Henriksen, D. (2008). If Ideas WERE Fashion. In P. Lang, Mirror Images (pp. 179-198). Diana Silberman-Keller et al.