Influences of the world – Popular culture in the classroom?

Part of our identity and indeed the Australian identity can be seen to have been influenced by people, culture and popular culture from all over the world. Behan (2006) sees popular culture playing a major role in shaping young peoples’ behaviour and motivation and that it (popular culture) should be encouraged and embraced as a way to engage students and to teach and encourage critical thinking. I know that our upbringing, the things we are exposed to and the influences that those around us bring, all shapes who we are. This got me thinking about my background and how it has influenced me and my language, culture and experiences. My parents immigrated to Australia from the United States in the early 1970s and moved in the early 80s to the multicultural city of Darwin where I grew up. My friends included people from Australian, English, Chinese, Greek, American, Timorese, Portuguese and Czechoslovakian backgrounds.

My Heritage - Photo by Author

My Heritage – Photo by Author

My memories of school include those of the conflict in language nuances such as the pronunciation of the letters  H and Z. I recall a teacher I had making me spell Puzzle a number of times until I realised what I was doing wrong – it wasn’t Z(ee) he wanted to hear but Z(ed). In contrast at home I was to use Z(ee) and pronounce words such as potato and tomato and cordial in the American way. Celebrations such as Halloween are something my parents introduced us to at school although we did not trick-or-treat as this was not common in Darwin at the time.

Halloween Animated GIF, retrieved at:


At Christmas we always had a live tree and Christmas dinner consisted of ham leg, creamed corn, sweet potato, sour cream mashed potatos and beans with bacon. While we did not have a TV in our house until I was in grade 10, I was an avid reader and loved music both that was played by my parents (on record) which was all American and that of my peers and what was played on the radio. My Dad always read to us at bedtime covering a wide range of genres. I have lived as an adult in Australia and have also spent short times living in the US. All of this has come together to shape my identity as an individual and as an Australian.

I found the following video quite interesting in terms of the way it looks at how stories we read help to shape our culture and our ideas of how the world should work. While the books and ideas presented in this video are familiar to me and perhaps you as you watch it, they will be very foreign to many others.


Reflections on my journey to who I am today and the influences that shaped me led me to a couple of lessons on popular culture. The first was a year 9 NSW History lesson on American and British cultural influence on Australia in the 1960s. I found this on the Skwirk website and while it looks specifically at the 1960s it was interesting to see the influences of the British and American cultures on Australia. These influences are seen in the entertainment, food, fasion, sporting culture and social values and attitudes which to begin with were dictated by British culture due to Australia’s colonisation by the British. From the second world war onwards a drift towards American culture became apparent. This altered the way in which Australians “spent money, entertained ourselves, dressed and socialized” (Para. 4). It concludes that while British and American influences have played a major role in shaping Australian identity that other influences including the unique landscape and the arrival of migrants bringing new stories, traditions and perspectives have all had an impact on making us who we are today. Finally, the development of global culture is seen as a challenge to Australia’s unique national identity (para. 27/28).

Another text I found was that of the Pearson History 10 Student Book (Howitt B., 2012) in which a chapter is dedicated to Popular Culture looking at influences such as the increasing availability of the car, air travel, sports, the radio and television, movies, Rock-n-Roll and gangs. It examines popular culture through the generations to the current generation and how technological advances have played a role in its uptake and dissemination. (Chap 4.) While the first lesson has a focus on the 1960s and prior, the second looks beyond the 1960s and does not really take into account the role immigration has played in shaping our country and identity. It seems to me in reflecting on my childhood that the culture my parents brought with them from America played a significant role in the music, books and celebrations I was exposed to, listened to and embraced.

In Australia, over 163,000 people from around the world becoming Australian citizens in 2013/2014 (Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, n.d.) and there were over 17,000 enrolments of international students (over 8000 of these commencing) in the YTD 2014 period (Australian Government Department of Education, 2014). While the background I come from did not greatly affect how I interacted and learned at school, the cultural background of students who are new to Australia and the popular culture they have been exposed to may vary greatly to that of students who have grown up or are 2nd (or greater generation) Australians. In terms of the idea of using popular culture in the classroom, I think that students’ background in terms of culture and popular culture along with other factors not discussed here present a challenge in integrating popular culture into the school curriculum in particular where there are students from international backgrounds.

It is at this point I find myself left with the following questions:

  1. How do we connect with these students who are new to our country, who have grown up heavily influenced by other cultures and the popular culture which is related to that culture?
  2. How do we integrate popular culture into the classroom effectively if we have students who may be new to the country, culture, popular culture and language without the lesson being lost in translation?


Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Border Protection. (n.d.). Australian Citizenship – Facts and statistics. Retrieved September 21, 2014, from

Behen, L. D. (2006), Using Pop Culture to Teach Information Literacy – Methods to Engage a New Generation. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Howitt, B. (2012). Popular Culture. Pearson History 10 Student Book (pp. 160-201). Port Melbourne, Vic.: Pearson Australia.

Internet Live Stats. (n.d). Internet Users Retrieved at:

Australian Government Department of Education. (2014). Monthly Summary of International Student Enrolment Data – Australia – YTD July 2014 Retrieved at:

Wise, J. (2012). How fiction can change reality retrieved from YouTube at:



  1. Sacha, your reflections speak particularly loudly to me. I have been teaching in a state school which has a very high number of international children and children from recently immigrated families. Often up to half the children in the class have arrived very recently in Australia. As a Prep teacher, I have often used fairytales to introduce literary concepts such a character, setting and plot. However, with the current demographic of students, fairytales are not familiar and they are no longer a useful starting point to teach narrative concepts. Recognising that so much schooling in the early years refers to these stories, I have seen some teachers actually introduce a unit on fairytales. We read the stories over and over again and give the children the opportunity to play games, dress-ups and make-believe based on the stories. In these games, the children are building the kind of cultural knowledge they might need to succeed in their primary-school years in Australia. Until I encountered a class of children who did not know the story of The Three Little Pigs, I had not realised how much of our learning relies on pre-existing cultural knowledge. The experience has taught me to never make assumptions about what children may or may not know. And as a bonus, in return for introducing my students to the best-loved children’s stories of the English-speaking tradition, it is a delight when our little students share the favourite stories from their own culture and we incorporate these into our classroom practices, enriching the knowledge of every student in the class.


  2. A very interesting topic Sacha. I like that you are able to use your own experiences with a new culture to help you understand your students. Having lived and worked in 7 very different countries I can’t help but compare Australian culture to wherever I am living at the time. As such a young country I think it is inevitable that our culture is a melting pot, influenced by immigrants from all over the world. Having spent a lot of my time working with ESL students and watching these students as they try to make sense of a new language and new culture, your concluding statement about integrating popular culture into classrooms being a challenge for students from different backgrounds, and the question of how to connect with these students, are of particular interest.

    A lot has been written about the “cultural capital” (Bourdieu, as cited in Luke & Dooley, 2011) and identity (Parry, 2014) ESL students bring to the classroom and the importance of recognizing this. When we value these students own popular culture we not only allow them to retain their identity but we also offer a way of connecting to the new culture and other students. By sharing and learning about each other’s popular cultures, both the new students and the host country students can benefit academically and socially, as Lizzy touched on in her comment about young students sharing stories form their home culture.

    Another advantage of using popular culture with these students is that it is the ultimate example of using language in context. When using any popular culture texts, whether they are fiction books, social media, movies or games, students are being exposed to everyday uses of language, popular views and important issues of the day (Ransdell, 1997). And as the role of an ESL teacher is to equip students with the skills to successfully participate in society, these are the areas that will enable them to do this. So, in relation to your concluding statement, although integrating popular culture into the curriculum where there are students from international backgrounds may be a challenge, I think it is definitely one worth taking on.


    Luke, A., and Dooley, K. (2011) Critical literacy and second language learning. In Hinkel, Eli (Ed.) Handbook of Research on Second Language Teaching and Learning. Routledge, New York, London. Retrieved from

    Parry, Becky (01/04/2014). “Popular culture, participation and progression in the literacy classroom”. Literacy (Oxford, England) , 48 (1), p. 14. Retrieved from

    Ransdell, D. R. (1997). A cultural approach to ESL composition: Using popular culture to teach rhetorical conventions. (Order No. 9729508, The University of Arizona). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 233-233 p. Retrieved from


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