Category Archives: Pop Culture

Allusions and Cultural Literacy

I continually hear from my fellow department members that kids today are not as intelligent as kids 10 years ago, and I admit that I have seen a distinct difference between the general students of today and a decade ago; however, I also see a marked contrast between the top 10% of my school’s students today and 10 years ago.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t think the change is intelligence. If anything, in math, students today are a year ahead of the high school students of the early 2000s. Still, my Language Arts students are not as proficient as they once were.

My thinking now is that the students of today lack the cultural literacy of yesteryear. Kids struggle to catch allusions to historical events, biblical figures, and current events. Even in my non-honors classes of the late 90s and early 2000s, kids could explain who King Solomon was when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This year I have four classes of American Literature of different levels and only two students could identify King Solomon. No one this year knew the Dauphin (a bit more understandable), only a quarter of my juniors knew Hamlet was a Shakespearean play, and (maybe) 10 students knew what decade the Civil War occurred much less that Reconstruction followed it.

I just don’t think today’s kids, on the whole, read as much or are exposed to as much of what is typically defined as “culture.”

Anyway, after seeing this lack of cultural literacy while reading Twain’s novel, I decided to test the kids’ cultural literacy. I have a book about cultural literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and I had six kids shout out a page number. I wrote these on the board, and I then opened to those pages, wrote down the first item I saw, and had the kids try to identify each item. The ones I chose the first time were:

  • The Battle of Hastings
  • coup d’tat
  • Robert Oppenheimer
  • Babe Ruth
  • Canterbury Tales
  • gulags

After the pseudo-quiz I polled the students to see how they did, and the high score was a single student with four correct answers, two students got three correct, and the rest of the students correctly identified 2 or fewer items.

It would be easy to complain and shrug my shoulders and move one, but I decided to try and help increase the students’ knowledge base. I talked with my students, and they liked the cultural literacy quiz so we’re going to try it once a week throughout the second semester.

Also, I started projecting a political cartoon, a comic, or a short music video with allusions. Each day I project the item onto the front screen, give the kids a minute to think about what is seen, and then I ask someone to explain the joke and/or allusions. They love it!

Does anyone do anything similar?


Here is the comic I provided on Thursday with two obvious references to Snooki and Kim Kardashian as well as an allusion to Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote (and I had to explain what a timeshare is):

15 Minutes of Fame

















On Friday I shared this comic which uses Angry Birds and The Three Little Pigs:

Angry Birds & The Big Bad Wolf


Today during Harry Potter Day at my school, a student told me I reminded him of Dumbledore. I’m hoping that means I’m wise and not just old.

Last year a student gave me perhaps the highest praise I’ve ever received when he thought I was like Atticus Finch.

I like to think I’m fair, teach valuable lessons, and fight the good fight, so I’m going to enjoy the compliments and end the day on a high note. 🙂

Find An “In”

I have many, many areas in my teaching that needs work, and I try to do something each year that improves my effectiveness. However, one area in which I’ve had great success is creating a rapport with students. Of course, no one method works well, so I try to reach my students in various ways.

I posted previously about my first day of school where I allow my students (anonymously) to guide the first day by asking questions about my classes and my background. One year I started with a classroom version of The Match Game. These types of activities are great introduction activities, but I prefer some indirect ways of talking with students.

One of my favorite rapport builders is having a couple items of trivia on the board each day. At first I thought it was really for me more than students–since I’m a huge trivia nut–but one day I forgot to put up the new trivia and student after student walked in and asked me where the trivia facts were. They were genuinely disappointed that the factoids were not on the board. More importantly, the kids’ curiosity would sometimes initiate brief discussions on different topics or entice them to look up additional information on the bits of trivia. I now receive suggestions for topics and even receive requests to put up their own factoids. I included a fun link to a trivia site for the The Simpsons on Friday.

I also really like an idea by Dana Huff at that I may explore.

Another rapport builder in my classroom is what I call my Happy Wall. I take a corner of my classroom every year and reserve it for pictures and notes I have received from students. Having taught for slightly over a decade, I now have amassed a fairly large collection, and my students enjoy looking at my former students’ pictures and their messages to me as well as their reflections on the class. Some of them like looking for their older siblings and seeing what their experiences were like.

Lastly, I try to rotate the posters in the room, the student works I display, and the themed bulletin board I keep. I started the year with a Harry Potter wall which became a Lord of the Rings wall. It became a science fiction wall and then a student project wall. The students enjoy expressing their enjoyment of the themes and exploring the articles, pictures, maps, and brochures centering on the chosen theme. Right now it’s blank and I need to decide on the next theme to be displayed to start the 2nd semester.

Teacher Salaries, Unions, and The Pezz Principle

I think I should create a new humorous law like Godwin’s Law.

My law would be called the Pezz Principle which would read something like this: “As an online discussion lengthens, the probability that the union is blamed–no matter the original issue–reaches one.”

Or how about this one for the Pezz Principle: “As an online discussion lengthens, the probability that teachers will be declared overpaid–no matter the original issue–reaches one.”

Maybe we could adapt these principles to include how teachers get “summers off”, don’t have “real jobs”, or don’t live in the “real world”. I think the Pezz Principle has potential.

On a serious note, I do worry about the perceptions the public has of teachers, especially public school teachers. I have had trouble putting my concern into words based on the number of articles and discussion boards centering on teacher salaries and declaring teachers need pay cuts or benefit cuts, but then I heard a phrasing that helped me formulate my thoughts.

People once saw someone with a solid government job which was better than their jobs and said to themselves, “I need to get one of those.”

Now people see someone with a solid government job which is better than their jobs and say to themselves “He needs a pay cut.”

Instead of people wanting to improve their situations, too many people appear to want to bring others down to their level. Solid government jobs–like teachers–now seem to be symbols of corruption instead of signs of middle class strength.

Has the prosperous and comfortable suburban dream of Leave It To Beaver become the nightmarish, low-income expectation of Roseanne?