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Incorporating popular media into social studies learning

Instead of trying to compete with phones and other technology, why not tap into students’ love of popular culture and make it work in the classroom?

6 min read


Incorporating popular media into social studies learning


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Students spend a large amount of time staring at their phones. In a short amount of time, an entire subculture has developed around these devices, with students regularly sharing content they find funny or interesting as a means of connecting with others. 

Some students even create their own content and draw large numbers of followers. It’s not unusual for top high school influencers to have thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of followers.

As teachers it’s hard to compete with that. As a result, I began incorporating video clips in lessons early in my career, and became a member of the Discovery Educator Network. Eventually I earned a masters in Education Technology, and became a tech integration teacher, presenting locally and nationally on the need for varied, visual and interactive curriculum, particularly in social studies.

My perspective is this: instead of trying to compete with phones and other technology, why not tap into students’ love of popular culture and make it work in the classroom?

Here are five ways I’ve found to leverage popular culture to make social studies more interesting for digital native learners.

Use warmups to build engagement

Most teachers spend the first few minutes of class getting students to focus their attention. Bell ringers, or warm up activities, can be a great way of doing this. Bell ringers can take an event or day in history and relate it to what is being taught. For example, “National Fly a Kite Day” can be tied to the influence of Chinese culture or Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The anniversary of the start of the Watergate investigation can be used to discuss the role of the press or articles of impeachment. The goal is to have students make connections, and compare their world to another time and place. The key to making bell ringers relevant to students is finding multimedia, like music videos or historical news footage, that can get the conversation going.

Assign videos as homework

What student is going to complain about having to watch an engaging video for homework? Teachers can assign short readings that introduce a topic, and accompany that with a brief, relevant video clip that illustrates the concept to be learned. Excerpts from TV shows, movies, and internet channels work great for this, as long as it is pertinent to the subject content. Class time is precious, and this approach allows for meaningful class discussions that challenge students while helping build their critical thinking skills. Students prefer this to teacher lectures, as well.

Make it about adulting

Social studies can be boring to students. However, social science topics can become quite meaningful to young adults and their families. The study of economics and personal finance is crucial to students getting jobs and preparing for life after high school, while a better understanding of history and civics helps them make decisions about how/where they should live and the type of governance in those communities. Luckily, popular media is awash in stories of adulting” that will be interesting to students. Take the popular comedy series Friends — the entire series is about a group navigating the path of adulthood, careers, and relationships, while demonstrating the important role civic and economic knowledge plays in becoming more mature. Find young adult examples from popular culture to help ground the lessons for teens and even younger students.

Use a variety of media

To avoid boredom or burnout on one type of media, mix in different genres. Clips from movies, news, TV sitcoms and dramas, period dramas, late night comedy, TikTok videos, as well as audio clips of important speeches, can all be effective. The trick is to give students the opportunity to relate to the topic. For example, the Women’s Rights movement can be illustrated by clips from the movie Sense and Sensibility, which highlights the struggle of unmarried women who are dependent on men for their financial security, juxtaposed to the sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is about an unmarried career woman.

Avoid documentaries

It’s easy to follow a TV show even if you’re not directly watching it. That’s because they rely on dialog to advance the script. The same is not true for some movies and documentaries, which aspire to immerse the viewer in the visual aspect of the film. The slow pace of documentaries especially can make it difficult to maintain the attention of students. In addition, many documentary stories may be created with bias. Teachers should want to enable students to master the facts, understand the issues, and then form their own opinions. Comedy, on the other hand, can teach important lessons by pointing out ironies and truths in a lighter, more coherent way.

If the idea of finding all this popular media sounds exhausting, have no fear.  There are online curriculums that have already done this for you. For instance, I have used the free eBooks from Certell, and have written two new courses using Certell eBooks. Certell also offers lesson plans, bell ringers, tests and quizzes that teachers can use if desired. You can also see what other teachers have done in similar situations through their social media channels and relate it to what you have upcoming in your lessons.


Darcy White taught secondary social sciences for 20 years in Jacksonville, Fla., and in northern and central Arizona. She now is a Social Studies Curriculum Developer in southern California. 


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