Foreword to Bring It to Class
By: Kylene Beers
Date: May 2010
Summary: Students’ backpacks bulge not just with oversize textbooks, but with paperbacks, graphic novels, street lit, and electronics such as iPods and handheld video games. Bring It to Class is about unpacking those texts to explore previously unexamined assumptions regarding their usefulness to classroom learning.
While at the 2008 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)convention, I answered an AP English teacher honestly when sheasked me what I had read during the previous month. I don’t rememberall the books I listed, but I do remember one, not because ofthe book but because of her response. After I mentioned one of theHarry Potter novels, she interrupted me and said she was surprisedto hear I wasted my time on such “popular fiction” when there wereso many great classics to be enjoyed, “such as War and Peace.”
BeforeI could offer a response, she continued her lecture on the value of”real” literature and how popular literature could only be seen asa stepping stone to “better” books. To her, popular literature—”DaVinci Code books”—appeal to the less-educated because they demandso little. She called young adult literature and popular adultfiction “drive-by books” because, as she explained, readers ought todrive by them on their way to the classics. Finally, reading my face,she stopped mid-sentence. After a brief moment of silence she said,”Well, perhaps because you’ve never taught AP English, you don’treally understand the great literature students are capable of reading.Perhaps the students you work with really ought to stick to popculture. Perhaps that’s all they can read.” And then she left.
While I was disappointed at her abrupt departure, I wasn’t surprisedat her attitude. In too many places and too many times, popularculture texts are seen as “easy reads,” “fads,” or “teen reading,” oreven “inappropriate” texts—whether print, film, or music. In 2007, ata state English/language arts convention, when I asked the audience of about 500 secondary teachers to define popular culture texts, themost common response was, “What the mainstream media provides.”Most of the teachers agreed that, “It’s what kids read outside of schoolbut isn’t appropriate for school.”
When asked why it’s not appropriatefor school, the answers were equally divided: “Pop culture is easy, sokids don’t need help understanding it”; “Pop culture is what’s popularfor the moment, so there’s no reason to study something that willchange so quickly”; and “Pop culture contains language and imagesthat are not appropriate for school-based discussions.” Though someteachers did point out that rap was being used more often as a part ofpoetry discussions, most said that kids “got” rap without instructionso there was no reason to spend valuable instructional time discussingthis genre. Another group pointed out that for reluctant readers,pop culture texts offer “a way in,” but these teachers, as the one wholectured me earlier, also stated that these texts are still best used asspringboards to “real” literature.
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I wish I knew then what I know now, after reading Bring It to Class:Unpacking Pop Culture in Literacy Learning. I wish that back in 2007and 2008 I had understood the concept of turn-around pedagogiesand the literacy of fusion. I wish the three authors of this book hadalready handed this text to me so that I would have been betterequipped to talk about how 21st-century demands, today’s “anytime,anywhere” learners, multimodal texts, standards, and homeand school literacy practices all intersect, creating nothing less thanan educational mashup that clearly reveals the value of using textsthat connect—pop culture texts, school texts, and student-createdtexts. I wish I could share with the AP English teacher at the 2007NCTE convention and the secondary teachers at the 2008 conventionmany of the activities offered in Bring It to Class because allstudents—not just the ones who struggle to read, but all students—will benefit from the critical, evaluative, collaborative, and creativethinking activities in this book.
Margaret Hagood, Donna Alvermann, and Alison Heron-Hrubygo beyond offering some ways to bring popular culture texts into aclassroom. They challenge our understanding of what it means toread, of what defines something as a text, of what it means to constructmeaning—of what culture is. They remind us that in today’sworld, “attention—not information—is in scarce supply,” a sentence that caught me up short and became my cornerstone for constructingmeaning throughout the rest of the book. If I agree—and I do—that attention is what is in scarce supply, then I would be smart towonder how popular culture texts, which already have students’attention, can be a part of the curriculum. The authors would argue,how can it not?
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Recently, Thomas Friedman (2006) announced that the world is flatonce again. “In the future,” he said, “how we educate our childrenmay prove to be more important than how much we educate them”(p. 301). He is reminding us of a principle that may have faded intothe background as we have been pushed by NCLB and other forcestoward a type of accountability that is measured by neatly bubbledexams. Yet, in a world of 21st-century demands, we need studentswho know how to think collaboratively, solve problems, createsolutions, share widely, listen intently, and act ethically. We needstudents who possess literacies that are, as explained by NCTE,”multiple, dynamic, and malleable.”
Indeed, we float on the edge of uncharted waters in this flatworld, toward barely imagined possibilities for our students and thefuture they must navigate. The direction we take from here will determinethat future and the destinations that await us. If our teachingis flat, our understanding insubstantial, and the experiences we offerstudents one-dimensional, we will fall into old ways and old results.Bring It to Class offers a “how-to” guide about new ways to educatethat offer new results. It helps us develop the multiple, dynamic, andmalleable literacies our students need. It is a guide on these unchartedwaters of this flat world, one I’m glad to hold close.
—Kylene Beers, Ed.D, senior reading advisor to SecondarySchools Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College,Columbia University; president, National Council of Teachersof English; author, When Kids Can’t Read: What TeachersCan Do
Friedman, T. (2006). The World Is Flat (Updated and expanded ed.). NewYork: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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