Pop culture in the teen ESL classroom

19th August 2022

Pop culture in the form of movies, songs and other forms of mass media can infuse a whole lot of fun in the teen classroom while also supporting learning.

In one of my early creative writing classes many years ago, I happened to ask my students if they knew what “MTV” was.  The mention of the erstwhile epitome of pop music was received by a collective blank stare from my class of  ten 13-year-olds.

After what seemed like an endless period of silence, one student said quietly , “I think I may have heard of it,” almost as if to console and assure me that I was not the ‘uncool’ one for asking if they knew about the now obsolete music channel. I almost wanted to ask incredulously “ How could you not have heard of MTV?!” Instead, I took a deep breath and explained, “ It was like YouTube on TV with mostly music videos.” Fortunately, I saw a few slow nods.

Teaching teens is always dicey. Add the online component and you have string of new challenges-- cameras switched off, silent break out rooms and frequently flagging interest levels. The last thing you need, therefore, is unrelatable content be it an online or offline class.  

Pop culture references, when used right, can be a great way to engage your teen students and connect with them. In fact, if you use songs and movie clips in your classroom, you are already using pop culture!

Here are some of my top tips of using pop culture effectively in the teen classroom :

Get to know your students’ interests

The ice-breakers and getting- to- know- you activities typically done on the first day of the semester are a great opportunity to make a note of your students’ interests, likes and dislikes which will then help you tailor the content to their needs. 

The classic ‘Would you rather’ ice breaker can be easily adapted to include pop culture references which could raise the fun level a few notches. Here are a few examples :

Would you rather read the Harry Potter books or watch the movies?

Would you rather watch Harry Styles in concert or BTS?

Here’s another fun activity -- let students introduce themselves by writing a tweet of 280 characters. Encourage them to use fun and relevant hashtags. Always remember to do a demo first before you ask the students to do the task. 

It was in one such ice breaker activity I realised my students’ love for Percy Jackson. Knowing this then helped me use some lessons based on the Percy Jackson books, which turned out to be a hit.

One of my favourite activities is around the last few minutes of this incredible video of Akala freestyling a track which has 16 of Shakespeare’s quotes interwoven in them. Watching this has inspired many a brilliant slam poetry performances in my class.

Let students become the teachers

Teens, especially older ones, are on the precipice of becoming adults and often prefer to be treated as grown-ups rather than as children. Allowing them to take the lead at times gives them the sense of responsibility they crave. I have learned to relinquish some control while teaching teens and allow them to lead the class. For instance, while teaching blogging, I used to often show them the usual platforms like Blogger and WordPress. However, it was my students who introduced me to more exciting platforms like Wix and Weebly for which they created accounts under the supervision of their parents. 

Once you become familiar with their interests, use these topics to generate discussions and focus on language points. This blog post on Kanye West could evoke quite a few heated discussions!

Stay cool to be cool

While sharing fun videos and memes in class is a great way to build rapport with students, it is important to ensure that the content is culturally and age appropriate. Additionally, since pop culture elements are largely pieces of creativity, it is also important to check the copyright guidelines related to them. 

So, the next time you want to strengthen the rapport with your new batch of teen students or just zhuzh up the class a bit, don’t be afraid to bring in a little bit of song, dance and even drama!

About Ananya Banerjee


Ananya is a trainer and teacher-trainer at British Council, India, with over seven years of experience and specializes in teaching young learners and creative writing. She has the CELTA and DELTA qualifications from the University of Cambridge. When not working, she can be found reading a fast-paced thriller, practising yoga, or watching reruns of her favourite shows. She can be reached on LinkedIn here.

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