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Rethinking Popular Culture and Media

reviewed by Holly Yettick - May 21, 2012

coverTitle: Rethinking Popular Culture and Media
Author(s): Elizabeth Marshall & Özlem Sensoy (eds.)
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 094296148X, Pages: 340, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

The authors of Rethinking Popular Culture and Media assign children to watch television. They visit toy stores with clipboards in hand. They debunk Disney princesses, scrutinize SpongeBob SquarePants, and pore over Popeye.

In short, they turn a serious and studious eye on subjects seen by some as so separate from formal education that their artifactsthink Beyblades (Claffey, 2011) or SillyBandz (McGraw, 2010)are sometimes outright banned from schools. This something is popular culture and media, broadly defined to include everything from popular childrens books to TV commercials aimed at kids. In articles brief enough to hook even the busiest classroom teacher, the books authors peel back the pretty pink plastic of commercial youth culture to reveal darker undertones of racism, sexism, and materialism.

Do not expect ideological balance here. The pieces in this book previously appeared in Rethinking Schools, a periodical that embraces a left-leaning vision of school reform focused on issues of equity and social justice (p. ii). Some authors go beyond mainstream concerns about violent cartoons or sexist rap videos to question sacred cows of American capitalism. These include competition, individualism, and American exceptionalism. As such, the lessons described in at least two pieces (Sweatshop Accounting and Why We Banned Legos) attracted unflattering coverage by the conservative Fox News network. A caveat is that educators in more conservative areas of the country might face sanctions if they tried to implement some of these lessons in their classrooms.

Although Rethinking Schools is decidedly left-wing, the teachers described in these pieces do not seem interested in shoving a particular viewpoint down anybodys throat. Even when their students are encouraged to take action, these actions are based on the students own interpretations and views. For the most part, the authors appear to be earnestly trying to encourage children, their parents, and their teachers to identify and analyze the values and assumptions that undergird youth advertising and entertainment.

The book is organized around six general objectives that, in combination, could handily create the framework for a media literacy syllabus. These objective-based sections are:


Study the relationships among corporations, youth, and schooling


Critique how popular culture and media frame historical events and actors


Examine race, class, gender, sexuality, and social histories in popular culture and media


View and analyze representations of teachers, youth, and schools


Take action for a just society


 Use popular culture and media to transgress

In Part One, on corporations and education, former school board member John Sheehan explains why he voted against a lucrative Coca-Cola contract for his Colorado district. Bob Peterson encourages kids to take time off from TV. Bakari Chavanu describes how she encouraged her 11th graders to examine stereotypes and assumptions in advertisements. Antero Garcia explains how he turned MySpace to his advantage by using the social networking site to connect with his Los Angeles high school students. Educator Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin details her efforts to fight back against commercialized age compression that leads young children to imitate negative and/or age-inappropriate adult behaviors. In a gem of a piece packed with snappy one-liners, best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich finds that Disney princesses are a sorry bunch of wusses who make even Barbie look[s] like a suffragist (pp. 4647). In the first of the pieces that describe negative attention from Fox News, Larry Steele describes how he teaches his high school accounting students to consider and quantify global social and environmental costs of business. This piece was particularly interesting in that it describes in detail the resources and approaches a teacher might use if she was interested in taking this approach, which requires high school students to think critically in a manner reminiscent of college coursework. Finally, Rachel Cloues highlights the pros and cons of Nikes partnership with an elementary school where she once taught.

Part Two, with its focus on popular cultures framing of historical actors and events, is perhaps the most academic section. Three of the books most intriguing pieces are contained in this section. Educator/author Herbert Kohl debunks the simplistic and individualistic portrait of Rosa Parks painted by childrens literature. Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow exposes the untruths behind portrayals of Christopher Columbus in childrens books. Educator Ruth Shagoury argues that in their exclusive focus on Helen Kellers childhood, picture books mislead readers by neglecting Kellers lengthy, important, and controversial adult career as a socialist and feminist political activist. Combined, the three pieces are an important reminder that efforts to simplify and sanitize history for children are hardly value free and that they often end up creating a false picture of the past.

In a more personal piece, the late novelist Michael Dorris, who was of Modoc heritage, ruminates on the difficulties of raising his children in a world in which they constantly encountered hurtful and inaccurate images of Native American culture. Disney heroines Mulan and Pocahontas are critiqued by college professors Chyng Feng Sun and Cornel Pewewardy. Debbie Reese and her coauthors expose disturbing inaccuracies found in a popular childrens book that portrays in a positive light the boarding schools that Native Americans were shamefully forced to attend. Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall identify stereotypes in young adult literature about the Middle East. In the sections final chapter, Marshall returns to argue that American Girl products are materialism-encouraging marketing efforts disguised as educational and empowering toys and books.

Part Three focuses on gender, race, class, and social histories, although all these topics are addressed throughout the book. (More generally, although the titles of the books parts are clear and distinct, much of the content found in one chapter could easily fit within others, perhaps because many of the authors address similar subjects.) Of the 12 pieces in this section, six focus mainly on gender. With humble honesty, Kate Lyman describes the mixed results of her efforts to educate early elementary students about gender stereotypes. With similar humility, Lisa Espinosa portrays her attempts to impart the same lessons to students at an urban middle school. Swapna Mukhopadhyay contributes a brief outline for a clever middle school mathematics lesson that asks pupils to compare measurements of their own bodies with measurements of Barbies and male action figures. In a piece she wrote as a high school senior, Lila Johnson describes how the images she saw in cartoons once made her feel defective because, as a tomboy and a female of color, she was neither blonde nor stereotypically ladylike. Andrea Brown-Thirston describes her disgust at ways in which African American females are portrayed in music videos. After conducting an investigation of her own, Sudie Hofmann sends her college students to stores to record examples of gender segregation among childrens toys.

The remaining chapters of the section address race and/or a combination of topics. In the only piece to examine the news media, Bob Peterson proposes lesson ideas on newspaper bias. I found myself wishing that this topic had been addressed more extensively. Although often lumped in with advertising and entertainment, news coverage is really a different animal than, say, a cereal commercial or a childrens cartoon. Barbara Munson follows with a helpful Q-and-A that responds to common objections to campaigns to eliminate Indian mascots. Heidi Tolentino recounts a Black students painful reaction to a lesson related to race. Sudie Hofmann describes efforts to remove racist references from a play based on an Agatha Christie book. Rock critic-turned-teacher Rick Mitchell outlines his approach to incorporating music history into his high school classes. I thought this piece deserved more space. Many of the teachers who contributed to the book work or were working in relatively liberal areas of the country (New York City, Portland). Mitchells approach, which he adopted while teaching in a Houston private school, seemed like it might fly in more conservative environs. Finally, Linda Christensen provides a rich description of how analyzing movies, cartoons, and advertising opened her high school students eyes to embedded assumptions of racism, sexism, and materialism.

Part Four addresses media portrayals of teachers, youth, and schools. I was surprised to find that only one of the books pieces focused entirely on GLBTQ issues because I felt this topic deserved further attention given its prominence in recent years in the media and in K12 schools. This piece is Gerald Waltons analysis of the TV show Glee, which he criticizes for treating homophonic harassment as an individual problem rather than an institutional issue.

In the pieces that follow, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman suggests that the ill-fated show Kid Nation is representative of reality TV culture that encourages class division, cutthroat competition, and consumerism. Chela Delgado finds fault with the movie Freedom Writers for its portrayal of structural problems such as race and class as individual issues to be overcome by a White savior superhero of a teacher. Two additional pieces offer potential antidotes to the Hollywood stereotypes of Freedom Writers by singling out for praise three films that the authors believe present education in a more realistic light. The films are the movie Half Nelson and the documentaries The First Year and Mad Hot Ballroom. The authors are Gregory Michie and Terry Burant. Finally, Wayne Au offers a mixed review of two more education-related movies, School of Rock and The Perfect Score.

Part Five provides examples of educators and students taking action on issues related to social justice. Leonore Gordons elementary school students write letters to toymakers. Robin Cooleys elementary students write letters to Pottery Barn Kids. Margot Peppers elementary school students graph incidences of television violence. Bakari Chavanus high schoolers also examine media violence.

In describing his attendance at an anti-Disney protest, Steven Friedman shares the dilemmas that teachers face when their students shift their community service activities beyond the safe zone of serving in soup kitchens to more controversial political actions. Childcare workers Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin use the construction and operation of a Lego city to encourage children to rethink issues of equity and power. The editors of Rethinking Schools follow up with an epilogue describing the critical reaction to Pelo and Pelojoaquins original article, which includes the books second incidence of negative attention from Fox News.

In the books final section, educators take action of a different sort as they harness forms of popular culture to further visions of social justice. Wayne Au describes how he used hip-hop to raise awareness of poverty, violence, and race. Andrew Reed uses stencils, often employed as street art, to bring history to life. Renée Watson addresses police shootings of unarmed citizens by teaching the poetry of popular Nuyorican poet Willie Perdomo. Linda Christensen also uses Def Poetry Jam contributors to inspire and educate students. And in the final piece of the book, Wayne Au explains how he taught students about Hiroshima by using the haiku of survivors and the animated film Barefoot Gen.

For K12 teachers interested in incorporating into the curriculum this left-leaning vision of social justice, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media is a helpful guide that includes not only the pieces described earlier but also lists of dozens of additional resources. Many pieces would also work as short readings for undergraduate education and communication courses or for high school classes on media literacy. Especially helpful for education students are the real-life examples of what teachers actually do when they embrace social justice in the K12 classroom. For those hoping to assign chapters for courses, an issue is that the book does not include the years in which the original pieces were published. Given that some young people believe that the problems addressed herein (gender discrimination, racism) are quaint artifacts long overcome by the march of time, they may incorrectly assume that the events described in the pieces are ancient history.

For K12 teachers, the book is also useful in that it offers concrete examples of how media literacy can engage children by asking them to apply critical thinking not just to textbooks but also to television. A recent study found that kids spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day engaged with various forms of media, up from 6 hours and 19 minutes 10 years earlier (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). Given the sheer amount of time involved, it seems shortsighted to ignore this aspect of childrens lives. Yet it can seem daunting to incorporate yet another subject into an already packed curriculum. If nothing else, this book provides ideas, big and small, for breaking down the invisible barriers between the computer screen and the chalkboard in real classrooms with real children.


Claffey, J. (2011, January 26). Beyblades toy banned from day school. Westford Patch. Retrieved from http://westford.patch.com/articles/beyblades-toy-banned-from-day-school

McGraw, C. (2010, September 8). Distracting wrist band toys banned from Monument classrooms. The Gazette [Colorado Springs]. Retrieved from http://www.gazette.com/articles/band-104346-toys-seven.html#ixzz1v3PzYSdf

Rideout, V., Foehr, U., & Roberts, D. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/8010.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 21, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16778, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 1:23:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Holly Yettick
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    HOLLY YETTICK is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her dissertation examines how journalists and bloggers decide what kind of educational research and experts to mention in news accounts.
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