Mary Tyler Moore to Tori Amos: Teaching Pre-Service Teachers the Uses of Popular/Media Culture in Secondary Language Arts Curricula

Lane, Rich

Popular culture is a natural subject for composition because it greatly shapes the way the cultural memory is formed, how public and private identities are constructed, and how lifestyle decisions are promoted.

—Diane Penrod, Miss Grundy Doesn't Teach Here Anymore 12

Despite having taught English for eight years in an inner-city high school and English Education to pre-service teachers for seven years in two regions of the country, the resistance to the teaching of popular culture and the media in secondary Language Arts classes still puzzles me. Of course, twenty years ago, when I went through a pre-service program myself, and the theoretical movements of postmodernism and multiculturalism were just beginning to demonstrate their material impacts at the postsecondary level, the explanation was simple. Secondary teachers and administrators, for the most part, were deeply entrenched in distinct notions of high and low culture. The general public still believed that family and school, along with the great literature of the canon had the greatest influence on our children. And, the superficial "defeat" of the values most popularly associated with the late 1960s was championed by many in our public schools, as "back to basics" became the battle cry against the multicultural and socially diverse site that American schools had become.

We have all come to realize the influence the media and popular culture has on all of us. As evidenced by recent studies that have revealed that many young people receive their political news from late night television shows such as The David Letterman Show, the impact of the media and popular culture on the formation of our identities can no longer be disputed or ignored. Many state secondary Language Arts curricula also reflect this change in influence from the written to the more visual and audio textual forms of language. However, within classrooms there still remains a strong resistance to teaching these texts as language, as rhetorical weapons and tools for social, political, and individual change. My own pre-service students often listen to my call for more attention to the texts of media and popular culture with semi-deaf ears, knowing (rightly so) that despite the outlined curriculum the reality of the classroom will limit their abilities to teach these texts. The reasons for this are too numerous for this article, but the importance of teaching the texts of media and popular culture becomes increasingly urgent to sustain and increase the literacy of our students as citizens. Henry Giroux (1994) expresses the tension that my pre-service students feel as he describes his own contentious relationship with popular culture and schooling during his secondary years: "Teaching was exclusively centered on obscure books and the culture of print. [. . .] The language we learned and had to speak was different, strange, and usually verbose. [. . .] Popular culture was where the action was—it marked out a territory where pleasure, knowledge, and desire circulated in close proximity to the life on the streets" (ix). I believe that popular culture is no longer (if it ever was) simply the language of the streets as Giroux implies. The languages of academia and the streets, the corporate and the popular have intertwined and blurred so much in the past twenty years that developing the abilities to read, critique and transform both "sides" is essential to every secondary student's experience. As John Fiske has pointed out: "Popular culture is always in process; its meanings can never be identified in the text (only), for the texts are activated, or made meaningful, only in social relations and intertextual relations" (3). It is my hope here to discuss some ideas about what Language Arts may look like when popular culture and media literacy are taken seriously, and offer some exercises that may aid beginning writing teachers in helping students understand the social and intertextual relations of the popular discourse of the everyday.

Literacy & Language Arts

Although many pre-service teachers have been exposed to the more progressive strategies in writing pedagogy of the past twenty years during their own secondary experiences, many more have gone through traditional and static language arts curricula that have changed little since their parents' days in school. The literary anthologies employed in secondary schools have added more women and minority writers and a writing curriculum that includes more varied and narrative forms of written expression. But for the most part, these texts are still viewed by my pre-service teachers as parts of the curriculum that are in addition and subordinate to the traditional close reading of the canon and the mastery of expository forms of writing. Many of my students comment that they were, in high school, exposed to exercises in reading advertising, for instance, but they portray these experiences as ones where they were "taking a break" from the "regular" tasks of the curriculum. Therefore, my first task in preparing teachers to employ critical methods in teaching media and popular culture is in establishing definitions of literacy and Language Arts that allow these texts to be taken seriously. The ways in which secondary students view these terms, I contend to pre-service teachers, will establish what the texts are that are considered valuable and how these texts will be studied. These definitions are, at times, radically different from those my students anticipate but mesh, ironically, with state and national guidelines. Discussions of these terms often serve to highlight the discrepancies between written philosophies and classroom practices.

I present a view to my pre-service teachers that, as we head into the 21st century, the missions, the technologies, and the needs of the students are clearly different than for previous generations. The historical precedence of the literary approach will be hard to penetrate. Yet, we can begin to advocate a new process, one that presents a type of Language Arts that explores the power and agency of language in many arenas. Stephen Tchudi (1996) points out in The New Literacy: Moving Beyond the 3Rs that we need to begin to teach our teachers ways to present various textual and communicative forms, to interrogate different discourse communities, and to deal with both the consumption and production of these texts. Additionally, James Berlin (1996) asserts: "Our historicist perspective on current English Studies hierarchies enables us to regard all manners of discourse as worthy of investigation, including film, television, video, and popular music" (xvi). I would add other cultural and popular texts to this list, such as body language, ritual behavior, explorations of everyday discourse, interrogations of public space and public speech. Tchudi also looks at the literacies of school, politics, and business. It seems not only important in our media saturated culture that students are able to both interpret and produce discourse in these forms, but an essential and ethical part of a Language Arts education. Preparation in the production and interpretation of all of these texts, intertwined with an appreciation and understanding of literature, seems paramount in our changing society.

The expansion of texts in the content of courses and curricula is also important because as the "discourse of the everyday" is studied, so too can the ethical, political, and social effects of these discourses be interpreted. Teachers must be equipped with an overall structure of Language Arts whose goals are linked to civic participation and responsibility. An epistemic view of language and Language Arts stresses the power and agency of discourse in such ways that challenge students and teachers to think about the results of their speech. It is vital that teachers begin to deal with issues of media responsibility, and its ties to rhetoric -- that students in secondary schools are exposed to the ways media language is used to argue, to persuade, and to manipulate. During this development, we must be attentive to using various rhetorical situations, to exploring the diversity of literacies that exist for our students today, and, finally and most importantly, to integrating the practice of service with the consumption and production of texts.

Stephen Tchudi offers a working definition of rhetoric that can be employed effectively in our pre-service courses:

Rhetoric, at its best, is the study of discourse – language -- and how it operates in a variety of contexts. Rhetoric thus subsumes the work and the language of the scientist and the mathematician; it examines the words and methods of the historian. It is equally effective for examining the medical jargon of a doctor, the pitch of a TV salesperson, or the love-letter prose of Romeo to a Juliet. . . one simply cannot separate ideas from the language in which they are composed, from words in which they are written, spoken, broadcast, phoned, or faxed. (33)

What is advocated here is the study of rhetoric, of Language Arts, truly as the study of language, of discourse. Future teachers need exposure to and practice in the interpretation and production of a variety of textual and rhetorical situations, including media and popular culture. The study of these discourses should come alongside literature, with the emphasis being on reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing practices within these various discourses. Critics will say that adding discourses will only complicate teachers’ missions in their future secondary classrooms, but in my own classes I see the teachers becoming more clear about their missions.

Often, teachers are unclear on the value of teaching a literature-based curriculum and are unable to answer the student question: why are we doing this? In our age, this is an important, if not the important question to be able to answer for students and for the teachers themselves. By using literature as just one of the chosen components in a Language Arts curriculum, teachers can more accurately place the crucial location of literature within the language practices of American and global cultures. At the same time, teachers can explore and celebrate the value of discourses of other disciplines, other mediums, and other rhetorical situations. This type of change in the content fosters appreciation of different ways of speaking, viewing, and expressing oneself both for the individual and community, and prepares students to better understand and produce communication in their daily lives. It is with this understanding that my students begin thinking about strategies for integrating the texts of media and popular culture into their language arts classrooms.

Teaching Media & Popular Culture

The goal will be to teach a critical media literacy which will empower individuals to become more autonomous agents, able to emancipate themselves from contemporary forms of domination and able to become more active citizens, eager and competent to engage in processes of social transformation.

—Douglas Kellner, "Reading Images Critically: Toward Postmodern Pedagogy" 60

The aim of examining media texts and the texts of popular culture is to help secondary students begin to understand how texts, already familiar and important to students in their everyday lives, both reflect and produce cultural ideas, values and morals. Through learning to "read" these texts students gain an understanding of the ways in which these texts are produced and consumed. In closer inquiry into the structures, images, and languages of cultural texts, students gain confidence in their abilities to form critical stances in relation to the texts. Students also begin to produce critiques that make them more active participants in the consumption of film, television, advertising and other cultural products. One of the ultimate goals of this examination is, through developing the abilities to read and critique, to produce and transform the cultural practices and languages of these texts. These goals are especially important for secondary students, since they are the both the major corporate targets of popular culture and the media and major players in the composition of popular culture. The skills learned through these examinations, in addition to creating more empowered citizens and consumers, can aid in the more "academic" tasks that will face students going on to college.

"Reading" these texts critically involves learning how to appreciate, decode and interpret images and cultural/popular practices--how they operate in our lives and what they communicate in concrete situations. By learning to "read" media and popular texts, students learn about the construction of writing and how writing, consciously and unconsciously, reflects and produces specific values and points of view. Understanding the assumptions that produce writing is crucial in the production of a more self-conscious and informed approach to composition and an awareness of writing as an active and influential practice.

"Critiquing" media and popular texts can be a difficult and often painful process for students. Little time is spent in the secondary curriculum on genuine critique. In fact, many students learn to become silent and accept the critiques of scholars and teachers rather than form their own. Here, critiquing involves looking at and "reading" texts from a critical standpoint. I try to stress that this does not mean that only the negative aspects of the texts are to be examined. A critique involves choosing a perspective, examining the texts in relation to it, and then producing a text which supports, investigates, and interrogates the text from that perspective. I discuss with my pre-service teachers that they will almost certainly encounter some resistance here in the form of students' beliefs that we are "over-analyzing" films, television, advertising, behaviors and cartoons. A student once expressed this frustration to me saying, "consciousness sucks." She was both frustrated and felt betrayed by a culture that treats texts like her childhood cartoons as harmful and vacant of meaning and ideology. Cultural critic bell hooks has a useful response to these types of objections:

One issue that surfaces when teaching the skills of radical cultural critique to students is a sense of conflict between pleasure and analysis. Initially they often assume that if you are critiquing a subject it must mean that you do not like it... In any liberatory pedagogy, students should learn how to distinguish between hostile critique that is about "trashing" and critique that’s about illuminating and enriching our understanding... we must do more than express positive appreciation for [others'] work; to engage it critically in a rigorous way is more a gesture of respect than is passive acceptance. (Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics 7)

The development of critical stances can be best approached through the use of some basic and more general concepts. I advocate the use of some definitions and questions associated with cultural studies approaches to writing that may help teachers present the materials more effectively:.

  • Ideology: The conscious or unconscious beliefs, habits, and social practices of a particular society. These often seem true, correct, and universal to the members of that society, when in fact they are relative and specific to that society. Ideology pervades every aspect of our lives from our table manners to our politics; it is reflected in the kinds of clothes we wear just as much as in our religious and educational practices. Ideologies are continually in conflict within any society; at a given point, however, certain ones are always dominant.
  • Decoding: The process of "reading" any text critically. Examining a text in terms of binary oppositions and positions within the text, examining the underlying assumptions (warrants), analyzing the particular values or interests within a given text, and examining a text for its particular ideologies.
  • Historicize: To analyze a text within its historical context. The attempt to assess the roles that technological, economic, political, legal, regulatory and aesthetic factors played in the creation, reception, and impact of a text in a particular society. (Adapted from McCormick et al., Reading Texts: Reading, Responding, Writing, 285)

I feel that these basic terms are not too complex for secondary students to grasp, and the terminology will both prepare and challenge students, treating them as active and serious critics of popular culture.

I also point out that in the interpretation and decoding of cultural texts, teachers do not want to present the view that a single interpretation of a text is created; rather the decoding process provides a web of meaning. On the one hand, the text results from a network of previous arguments, assertions and meanings that can be examined through the process of historicizing and, on the other hand, it opens up unlimited possibilities for new arguments, assertions, and interpretations coming from new readers. A text does not create just one interpretation. The meaning depends on perspective, positioning, and the decoding process that the reader chooses to use.

Finally, we discuss that teachers do not want simply to leave students at the point of critique. While critique itself may be liberating in some respects, students often feel a sense of helplessness at the point of critique. They often feel that they have discovered the power and manipulation of cultural texts only to simultaneously experience little hope of transforming undesirable practices and discourses. This is why it is key to encourage the production and transformation of these texts. This transformation may come in the form of critique -- an exposure of a previously overlooked aspect of a text, or in the form of producing texts (written, video, audio) that actually attempt to transform the perhaps oppressive practices already in place. It is important to remember that students will be the future composers of media images whether advertising, film, or popular music. These, rather than and in addition to more academic texts are the forms of composition secondary students will increasingly produce in the 21st century.

Strategies and Exercises

In this final section, I present some ideas and exercises on the uses of the media and popular culture that my pre-service teachers take with them into the classroom. They derive from my own work in composition at the secondary and post-secondary levels and the strategies and experiences of the secondary teachers with whom I have worked and have observed throughout the years.

Textual Questions

Questions about media texts in general can aid both teachers and students as a guide to these media/popular culture texts. Students can also refer to these questions as they begin to produce and critique their own texts:

General Textual Questions

When looking at a text in this class, as we have discussed, we need to develop our skills of close examination. Here are some questions to guide us through each text. Keep in mind that these questions are just the beginning of our investigations:


  • Where and when was the text produced?
  • Does the text belong to a specific genre, mode or form?

Key Features

  • What are the key elements [language, visual techniques (sound, lighting, camera shots), specific musical techniques (tone, rhythm, presentation), represented in the text?
  • How does the text organize these elements?

The Reader

  • For whom was the text produced? Under what circumstances is the text usually consumed?
  • What is the reader's relationship to the text? Are the characters and situations familiar to the reader?
  • What part does your social position play in your reception of the text?

Ideological Features

  • What social, economic, or political interests does the text appear or intend to serve?
  • What beliefs, values, attitudes, and assumptions does the text address, reinforce or subvert?


The popular text of cartoons (whether they be newspaper comics, comic books, or animated cartoons) is a good place to begin with secondary students. Most students are very familiar with cartoons from their childhood experiences, and they come to an examination of cartoons with the idea that they are simple, innocent, and value free. These beliefs give teachers the opportunity to share an examination with students that produces various stances, uncovers ideological agendas, and demonstrates to students the influence and power of cartoons in the construction of children's identities.

Most of what students have been taught about elements of the short story or the novel can apply to the examination of cartoons. Students recognize plot, characterization, setting, and dialogue in the cartoons. Teachers can suggest that students pay close attention to the genre and the symbolic names of the characters. Are they animals, humans, or transformative (changing from human to animal) characters? Other questions include:

  • Are the plot-lines fables, adventure, comedy?
  • Do the characters or situations represent ways of life or philosophical stances?
  • How have cartoons changed over the last decades?
  • Why have feature-length cartoons such as Batman and Roger Rabbit and the explosion of Disney animation had such recent success?

Most importantly, teachers can stress questions about the link between cartoons and their target audience, children.

  • Are children's views about life and each other influenced by these cartoons?
  • In what ways does this influence work?
  • Is this a positive, negative, or neutral influence?
  • In what possible ways can this influence change the ways in which we write?

Cartoon Exercise

These questions can be used with videos of any popular cartoon on television, in comic books or comic strips. Teachers may want to begin with some "oldies" that they may be more comfortable analyzing. Below are some questions teachers and students can apply to clips dealing with The Roadrunner, Charlie Brown, and others.


  • What is the difference between the two characters' philosophies?
  • With which do you identify?
  • How is the creator attempting to shape your perceptions?

Speedy Gonzalez; Buddy and The Woodsmen

  • What are the stereotypes portrayed?
  • How do these shape our perceptions of other people?

Winnie The Pooh

  • What are the differences in the characters' philosophies?
  • With whom do we identify?
  • Why is the Pooh character so well liked?


  • At what time and under what conditions was the cartoon produced?
  • Why and how does its presentation contrast with or upset the "norm"?

Charlie Brown

  • What philosophies is the creator attempting to reinforce or subvert?
  • Notice the vocabulary. Can a child understand what is really going on?
  • What is the Great Pumpkin a symbol for?

After working with cartoons as texts in class discussion, students are ready and eager to produce critiques of their own. Below is a short writing exercise students can use as they work toward a larger final project.

Short Writing Exercise: Cartoon Analysis

Now that we have practiced an analysis of some of the more popular cartoons, it is your turn! In the next few days, use either a comic strip from the newspaper (here, a series of the same "toon" would be more useful), a comic book which you read as a kid (or still read), or a TV cartoon. Utilize the issues and questions that we have discussed and write a 1-2 page analysis of the "toon" of your choice. The possibilities are endless (Powerpuff Girls, Pokemon, Doonesbury, Batman).

Remember to ask:

  • Who is the audience for the cartoon?
  • How is it the same or different from other cartoons?
  • What are its key features and what do they reveal about you as a reader and society as a consumer?
  • Finally, think about how these texts affect your own writing processes. Do they have an influence on the patterns of style or the underlying ideas in your writing?

Using Television and Music Video

The impact of television on cultural practices and discourses is obvious. Students usually have even less resistance to television's influence on their lives than they have to cartoons. Much of the time, we are all passive viewers of this medium. The goals of these exercises are to begin to "read" and decode television programming and music videos. I suggest that my pre-service teachers pick and choose the readings and activities that best suit their students. As they may not watch the same shows as their students, ask them to ask students what they watch.

In order to set the stage for either the television or music video exercises, I encourage my pre-service teachers to spend some time in class working with students on the analysis skills needed to breakdown television texts. While, it seems that picking a show that students are already watching would be beneficial, I suggest that teachers pick an older show, a show that will be entertaining, yet not distracting. Students will be able to better concentrate on a show they have not seen and may have less preconceptions about its content and characters. I often use the first episode of Cheers to focus students on the language of each of the characters and what the language can tell us about the nature of the characters, the setting, and, most importantly, the larger culture. This exercise in discourse analysis sets the scene for the breaking apart of the text, the attention to focused and specific detail, and the move to taking these details and making assumptions about the larger culture. Students can then interrogate these assumptions, taking into account that the text is a television show, and compare them to the shows of today. The exercise below encourages this type of analysis and gives students opportunities to look at a text like television historically.

Short Writing Exercise: Television as Text

Television as a reflection of our culture and as a producer of the beliefs and values of our culture generates a great deal of discussion for students. Here,as in the other exercises, there are a number of options and possibilities for short writing, as well as longer assignments. You may assign a topic dealing with racial representations, gender issues, age, consumer issues, class portrayals, or historical representations.

For example, have students investigate early portrayals of various minority cultures on television--research the influences of a show such as Julia that depicted a single black working mother in the late 60s and early 70s, or shows such as Mary Tyler Moore or Rosanne for their influence on the our attitudes towards women in the midst of the 70s and 80s feminist movements. You may want to bring in a video of certain shows for critique and comparison, or form groups which work on combinations of programs. For example, you could historicize the shifting family ideologies through Father Knows Best, The Brady Bunch, All In The Family, Full House, Married With Children, Murphy Brown, or The Simpsons. Or examine class issues in Rosanne, Home Improvement, or Malcolm In The Middle; gender issues in Judging Amy, NYPD Blue, or Friends; race issues in Cosby, 90210, In Living Color, or soap operas. Shows such as America’s Most Wanted lead to questions about increasingly blurry lines between news values and entertainment values. Finally, the new trend of "reality" based shows pose questions of the reality of our own lives and how much of "real life" is "genuine" and how much is created or influenced by popular media.

Music Videos

Examining music videos is fun for both students and teachers. Sometimes students will know a good deal more about the media than a teacher and so will have the pleasure of doing some of the teaching. Interesting representations of gender and race within the videos are often glaringly stereotypical, and issues of teenage culture as well as questions of the social, economic and political interests of MTV can lead to great discussions. Music videos also raise interesting questions about form. Consider narrative structure; visual codes; relationships between words, music, and picture; and conjunctions (or cuts) between images. Students in my classes have produced some of the most interesting critiques in examining this form of popular culture, as well as produced their own videos that sought to transform the medium in various ways.

Once again, beginning with older videos may be more comfortable for teachers. A few suggestions might include using John Cougar Mellencamp's Jack and Diane for discussions of the shape of modernist narratives (beginning, middle, end), or pairing this video with something like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in examining the differences between the narrative structures, the geographical influences on both the videos' stories and formats, or the ideological differences the songs and the videos depict about teen culture. Elsewhere, I have written about the opportunity to discuss the concept of learning about intertextuality through music video.[1] Students can often pick out cultural references to other texts, such as Madonna's use of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" in her "Material Girl" video and learn from the ways that intertextuality is counted on by the artist and employed to produce a video.

In-Class Activity/Exercise: Music Video as Text

* This exercise is most useful if it balances current and less current videos. Teachers must do their homework a bit before jumping into this – poll students on current videos—Update consistently!

Most of the following are taken from the top 50 videos of all-time on MTV. They represent a cross-section of musical tastes and represent a number of cultural perspectives. An historical examination can also be done here. Each video is approximately 4 min. 20 sec. Pick only a few for use in class; you cannot hope to use all of them during a class period:

  1. J. C. Mellencamp – "Jack and Diane"
  2. Nirvana- "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
  3. Wall Street Blues - From the film Bob Roberts
  4. INXS – "Need You Tonight" / "Mediate"
  5. Bob Dylan – "Subterranean Blues"
  6. REM – "Losing My Religion"
  7. Madonna – "Express Yourself"
  8. En Vogue – "Never Gonna Get It"
  9. Motley Crue – "Girls, Girls, Girls"
  10. Arrested Development – "Everyday People"
  11. U2 – "One"

Some tips on the possible use of these videos:

  • The first two selections can be used as a set examining teen ideology in different historical periods and from different geographical regions. Basically, how do teens view their world? The physical images of the videos and their structures also differ significantly. The Mellencamp video is straight narrative -- with the use of the family pictures. The Nirvana video is utter chaos and is engulfed in steamy images and chopped up visuals.
  • The next three selections are also designed to be used as a set. Each video is a reinterpretation of the other. However, each comes from a different historical moment and poses different political viewpoints. The students find this interesting and questions of intertextuality come up. Why would INXS or Bob Roberts use a Dylan takeoff?
  • The rest of the videos present a random sampling of various genres. The En Vogue and Motley Crue videos are helpful when talking about gender representations. The Madonna video raises questions of class and the selling of sexuality. You’re on your own with the last two!

Remember to deal with these as texts. The structure and organization is as important as the messages. Most videos have multiple interpretations and many run counter to themselves within the video. Take a preview look the night before - take some notes and then see what the students come up with -- you will be surprised.


Many secondary teachers have reported success in using advertising as one of the texts examined in their language arts courses. The ability to read advertisements, in fact, is required on many recent state assessment in language arts. Once again, students come to this examination with far from a blank slate. Students are aware that advertising has an effect on their cultural practices, but as Kellner (1991) and others have pointed out, much of the time Americans remain passive consumers. This passive practice becomes so prevalent that often times we lose sight of our own habits and choices. Ads now sell lifestyles in addition to products, and students need to be able to read, critique and transform advertisements in order to both reveal and act on the influences these ads exert. Sure, "sex sells," but should it? This section offers teachers a couple of exercises designed to get students to actively participate in the consumption of advertising. Many students have developed final projects using this type of text, ranging from producing their own advertising campaigns to critiquing the use of minorities in Esprit ads. I also recommend students look at an organization called Adbusters, who create satirical ads and campaigns that address the social responsibility of advertising and corporations.[2]

Short Writing Exercise: Case Studies

Write a brief 1-2 page case study of an ad or commercial for a project. First describe the approach. Then explore why the company uses this approach. What"image" or effect does the approach give to consumers? How is this image portrayed in the words and pictures of the advertisements?

Short Writing Exercise: Gender Representations

Write a brief 1-2 page discussion of one specific ad and the ways the ad represents men and women. Attach the ad to the assignment. Describe how and why you feel the ad represents both men and women. How do its words enhance the representation? How do its images? Remember, even though there might be only a male or female in the ad, both genders are being represented! How is that so in your ad?


Finally, I would like to cover "covers." Recently, I have found that the use of cover music (remakes of older songs and theme music) can be a very entertaining and effective strategy for discussing and practicing issues of tone, meaning, and intention in the production of student's written and visual texts. While many re-makes seem to intend to reproduce an original song or theme song as closely to the original as possible (which can produce interesting discussions of the value of the practice), many recent "covers" have reinterpreted the songs from which they come. For students to realize that this process of composition may not simply be an updating of the tempo and style of music, but a significant change in the tones and meanings of these songs is significant in understanding the power of their own writing practices.

One exercise I offer to my pre-service teachers is one in which various versions of the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Love is All Around" are examined. Students listen to the original version of the song, ironically sung by a male voice, and then two versions or covers by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Husker Du. Students begin to see the composition of the original is not simply reproduced but changed based on the historical moment, intention of the artist, and the varied ways the song is received by the public. For instance, this theme song is changed significantly in its feminist meanings when sung by Joan Jett. Students notice the "softer" version produced for the television show and begin to brainstorm and research why choices in beat and voice were made. In the more "alternative" version by Husker Du, students must investigate why this particular song would have meaning for an alternative group and how that meaning is expressed through their version. Similar exercises can be done with versions of the classic Don McLean song "American Pie" and versions by Madonna and Tori Amos. Tori Amos also produced several other remakes of classic songs which offer interesting comments on tone and meaning. Her recent remake of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" challenges students to think about the difference gender makes in the production of a text, as well as how a significant change in tone--in this case from a grunge rock to a slow and soft folk tone--makes a significant difference in how the song is received and consumed.

Cover Exercise

As I have outlined above, the use of covers can take many forms. I recommend to my pre-service teachers that they use covers to illustrate an argument. Teachers can ask students to view the "original" song and the covers as musical and lyrical arguments. I employ this exercise after students have an understanding of the elements of argument such as claims, supports, and warrants. Students can be directed to pay particular attention to the songs as arguments first, for the use of the song itself. Why remake this particular song at this particular historical moment? Students can also be directed to take notes on the following elements:

Beat        Tone       Attitude       Gender

  • What are the literal differences between the covers?
  • What arguments are implied by these different versions?
  • Why does the artist cover this particular song?
  • How are the artists’ arguments supported?

Possible Covers

  • "Love Is All Around"—The Theme to the Mary Tyler Moore Show (discussed above)
  • "American Pie"—(discussed above)
  • "Smells Like Teen Spirit"—(discussed above)

Tori Amos has recently (2001) released a CD of covers, Strange Little Girls, that has some very intriguing selections, including the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and Eminem’s "97’ Bonnie and Clyde" In the latter selection, Amos covers this disturbing song of the murder of a wife and mother by her husband (who brings his daughter with him to hide the body) by changing both the tone and point of view. She tells the story from the point of view of the mother instead of the husband.


The question may still remain: Why teach popular culture and media literacy in already overburdened Language Arts classrooms.? For me as an English Educator, the answer is simple. Whether we wish to face it or live with it or not, popular/cultural texts and the media, primarily in a textual mixture of visual and verbal forms, have displaced traditional written, text-based forms of expression. These traditional forms continue to have great value to our students and society. Thus, I am not advocating the banishment of great literature in order to study the Flintstones. To help students become literate, active, and socially conscious citizens, teachers of Language Arts must begin to rethink the "language" of Language Arts, particularly at the secondary level where popular texts are consumed daily Teachers of Language Arts have always given lip-service to the teaching of reading, writing, speaking, and listening as their major objectives. It is time to add viewing to the list and treat it in more diverse and serious ways. Teachers must face, and listen to, the music of the streets so that students can become active instead of passive agents.


[1] I have written on the use of videos in first-year composition courses in the article "Location, Genre, and Intertextuality: Music Videos in the Composition Classroom" in Miss Grundy Doesn't Teach Here Anymore: How Popular Culture Has Changed the Composition Studies Classroom. Ed. Diane Penrod for "Cross-Currents" series. Boynton-Cook: 1998.

[2] The ads and campaigns can be found at

Works Cited

Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.

Giroux, Henry A. Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture. New York. Routledge, 1994.

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