Thursday, July 30, 2009


This has been a "re-thinking" summer for me. One of the things I've thought about a lot is the role of popular culture in the classroom. First, I've thought about popular culture in connection to G, the little guy I've been tutoring three days a week. G is a third grader reading at a beginning first grade level. He is also an ELL, who speaks primarily Spanish at home. G struggles to remember basic sight words like with and want, but he loves the Transformers, and doesn't have any trouble with Decepticon or Optimus Prime. He also loves lowriders (it's a kind of car, for the uninformed) and can read engine, hydraulics, chrome, and velvet and suspension with absolutely no problem.

Secondly, I've been reading Tom Newkirk's incredible new book, HOLDING ONTO GOOD IDEAS IN THE TIME OF BAD ONES (if you have not read this book you definitely should- I will be posting about it in the next few days). Newkirk has a whole chapter on pop culture as a literacy tool. He says:
All education, particularly literacy education, is a trade. There are skills and texts that, as teachers, we endorse and are committed to teaching. But these must connect, in some way with the attitudes and tastes students bring into class. Schools do not reproduce popular culture- but it is self-defeating if they ignore or dismiss it. The surest way to alienate any group is to indicate that their allegiances and interests are not respected (p. 109).
Ouch! So much for my high and mighty beliefs about children's literature!

I've also thought a lot about one of the readers (or nonreaders) living at my own house. Son #2 is an incredibly bright kid. When it comes to technology, he's the man. He has a terrific sense of humor and is very clever with words. He's a budding entrepreneur, who swears he will be a millionaire before he's 25, and I suspect he is right.

Much to my chagrin, though, he does not like to read, not at all, not one little bit. He CAN read. He reads the newspaper each morning, or at least part of it. He reads magazines and tennis shoe catalogues. He reads the obligatory thirty minutes I require each night, but he would never, of his own accord, choose to read a book. Son #2's passion is video games, and if he had his way, he would spend all of his waking, and non-sporting hours, with a controller in his hands. Son #2 is a lot like many of the kids I teach. I can surround them with wonderful books, read aloud and talk books until I'm blue in the face, even MAKE them sit quietly with a book for 30 or 45 minutes, but I can't MAKE them love books.

With all this in mind, I've found a new series for these kids. The first two books in HERO.COM/VILLAIN.NET just came out this Spring. The books in the HERO.COM series are about heroes, and VILLAIN.NET are about bad guys. I just finished HERO.COM: RISE OF THE HEROES, and I think it's definitely a book that will interest some of my video game loving kids. In the opening chapters, four middle-schoolish aged kids- siblings Lorna and Toby, and their friends Pete and Emily, are on the computer in the middle of a terrible lightning storm. The computer is hit by lightning, and when it reboots, these very ordinary kids are on a website, HERO.COM that they have never seen. A disclaimer at the bottom of the website says the site "is not responsible for any damage, destruction, or loss or property…The site does not condone the use of powers for monetary gain, selfish or evil pursuit…" The children try out the website and discover they have superpowers- things like flying, xray vision, invisibility, reading people's minds, etc. Of course, along with these powers, come encounters with bad guys, and the four unlikely heroes find themselves embroiled in a battle with the evil Dr. Tempest. This battle takes them to the farthest ends of the world.

This is not a book I would describe as outstanding children's literature. It's mostly plot, plot, plot, with only a few hints of real character development. Even so, it's a series that I can't wait to put out this August, because I think some of my reluctant fifth grade/middle schoolish readers are really going to love it. And if it helps some of those kids cross the bridge from their world into mine, I'm all for it.

HERO.COM/VILLAIN.NET also has a fun website. Kids can take a quiz to decide whether they are heroes or villains, create superheroes/villains, and view book trailers. I think my video game kids will love this site.


Kyle said...

OK this looks really cool.

Mary Lee said...

I think I started to understand the role of school in reluctant learners' lives a little more this summer as I tried to get back into Tai Chi. You've inspired me to post about this. Great always!