Guest Writers

Guest Post by Clay Morgan: Lessons From a Pop Teacher & a Few Zombies

Today’s guest blogger is Clay Morgan from Besides being one of my very first cyber-friends in the bloggersphere, Clay is an amazing educator. He is a revolutionary. You know that game six-degrees of separation? Well, in the world of bloggers, it seems nearly everyone knows Clay. He gets around. Today he is sharing his thoughts about using Pop Culture in the classroom.

As a teacher, I’m often amazed at what pools of knowledge I must dive into in order to effectively communicate with my students.

Just the other day I was giving a lecture on Europe after World War II. Many of the students were fading and staring blankly in my general direction. I was about to explain one of the most important parts of the entire course and needed them alert and free of mental paralysis.

Good thing I know so much about zombies.

I’m not referring to the students although any teacher doing the job for a while knows what it’s like to stand before a room of pupils imitating the undead. I’m talking about the zombies of culture, specifically movies.

See, I needed to explain the crisis of Germany after Hitler’s death in 1945. Nations like America and England recognized the importance of a strong German nation, strength that was critical to European recovery. At the same time, someone had to keep an eye on nasty Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union.

But those pesky Russians and their nervous cohorts in France were sick of Germany. They despised the nation that had brought war on them twice in a quarter century. Tens of millions had already been killed. They thought letting those Germans come back again was just asking for global destruction. Plenty of folks wanted Germany turned into a parking lot surrounded by fields.

History as Yawnsville

So I’m teaching this anti-German plan named for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Students must understand these events to get a grasp of the Cold War, our centerpiece for the rest of the semester. They didn’t seem too enthused. Then I remembered Zombieland.

Most of my students haven’t seen the greatest films ever made about WWII such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Life is Beautiful.

But they have seen Zombieland, a 2009 flick in which Jesse Eisenberg (the guy from Social Network) plays Columbus—a college student trying to survive in a zombie dominated world.

Columbus lives by about 30 rules, the most famous of which is probably #4: Double tap. You might not know what that means, but my college students do. It means shoot twice when the walking dead want you to join them. It means be certain that the monster you just defeated doesn’t get back up.

History that Pops

Do you see where I’m going with this?

My class was alive and kicking when I told them that the Morgenthau Plan was the 20th century attempt to double tap. Germany was the zombie. This analogy led to a great discussion on world power and how we should handle those responsible for human atrocities. My students will never forget the stakes of the post-war world with such a powerful visualization. Based on past experience, I have a feeling I’ll get an email in a couple years thanking me for a good class and joking about double tap.

Some education types say that movie references have no place in an academic setting. My question to them would be whether or not they want to connect with students or not. The past couple generations have been saturated in culture. It’s long been in our heads and now it’s in the palm of our hands.

Students live and breathe this stuff, so why not make it work for us? The best way to teach someone what they do not understand is by using what they do. You wouldn’t walk into a Chinese classroom and expect the students to understand your English. Same thing goes in Western classrooms. If you fail to speak their language, you will not be heard.

Applications for using pop culture in educational settings are only limited by our creativity. That’s why a bunch of us started, to pool together the best ideas out there so we’ll have a nice reservoir of ideas to dive into.

I expected opposition and ignorance from naysayers. I was even prepared to double tap their arguments. I did not expect such a fabulous response so quickly.

Clay Morgan, Superstar has already been featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I’m now being asked to speak at collegiate conferences about these ideas. That’s pretty funny because my pedagogical strategy consists of a) showing up for work and b) being myself.

The best response has come from dozens of teachers—grade school to higher ed—who are eager to share their experiences and ideas. More email comes in every week.

Teaching as a career is a grind that can wear us down. Then we risk getting tired and disconnecting. We lose effectiveness when that happens. Why not have some fun and dive into our bountiful culture? You never know where the interests of others will lead a discussion. You might even find a way to bring a group to life by talking about the undead.

So what do you think? Do you like the way Clay thinks? Would you want to be a student in his class? Have you ever been in a class where the teacher used Popular Culture references? What do you remember? Or do you think this kind of approach dumbs down our educational system?

Clay will field your comments today.

36 thoughts on “Guest Post by Clay Morgan: Lessons From a Pop Teacher & a Few Zombies

    1. That would be an amazing way to discuss war, historically. I had not seen that, but I can imagine any history teacher at the secondary level (or beyond) going to town with that!

      There are so many epic battles that can be identified via these food fights. Weird. And Pop Culture perfect! 🙂

    2. WOW! What a great way to get students talking about war, stereotypes, history, and so many other topics. Great link!

  1. Drawing parallel from past and present helps students see relevance of history understanding. The fact that Conrad Adenauer was able to avoid the gestapo must have been fate’s blessing to Germany by having such a fine man replace such an evil man for the reconstruction era and Cold War leadership. Hitler wanted Der Alte big time but never got him. Unfortunately, today’s unemployment and a oppressed economy (megabank and megacorp strangulation) is the perfect example to teach the Great Depression. Except for the wealthy elite, every family in the country has been affected.

    1. Hi Carl,
      I definitely have had an easier time teaching the 1920s and 30s since the 2008 meltdown. History really does repeat itself constantly. Malcolm Muggeridge said there are no new ideas, only old ideas happening to new people. True on that.

  2. About a hundred years ago when I was learning how to be a pastor, I learned a piece of advice that has carried me through many career reinventions of myself. His advice, “Go to where your people are…But just because you go to where they are doesn’t mean you leave them there.” You take what people know and use it to get them to know what they need to know. Let me see, in educational language, we access students’ prior knowledge. When I wanted my young music students–especially the boys–to sway and move with flow to music, we pretended to be hockey players skating around the ice with our hockey sticks. Our names were announced and we stepped onto the ice to the applause of our fans in the arena.

    Before I knew it, I had a class of skaters–figure and hockey–dancing, twirling, and shooting goals around the music room in time to the music. And the music concept they learned??? Moving with flow, one of the elements of Laban dance movements that helps with beat, phrasing, musicality, tempo, style. All this from tapping into what my young students had learned from playing hockey! I started where my students were and took them to where they needed to go in their understanding of music and movement.

  3. That is a phenomenal example (and awfully PopTeacher worthy I must say! ;-))
    The use of culture is all about building that bridge so they will come across with us. Thanks for your thoughts. Great stuff.

  4. Why should history have to stay in the past? Great method and reference!

    Clay already knows I have a similar style, comparing Interpersonal Communication to everything from Eeyore to Fight Club. I would love to get a grant for pop culture research, to stay on top of the connections. Any interest in putting together a proposal?

  5. It’s sad to me that anyone calling themselves an educator would disagree with you. It seems so obvious that you have to meet people where they’re at, whether they are kids or adults. Not only does it grab their interest, but if you tie into pre-existing wiring in their brains, it gives them a boost on understanding the new stuff you’re presenting. When I’m president, I want you to be my Secretary of Education. 🙂

    1. Sweet! You should totally be president. Although my first act as Secretary of Education might be to eliminate the Dept. of Education. That could be a problem for my job stability. 😉

      1. That’s the best possible reason for making you Secy of Education. What a self-serving dinosaur that department has become! As Secy of Education, please eliminate the Dept of Edumbification and form a committee the size of your choosing based on MERIT and EXPERIENCE, not political affiliation, to keep tabs on the state of education in America and around the world. Please advise me of anything you think I need to know and make recommendations. We’ll use the money we save by eliminating the Dept of Edumbification to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes, and create student exchange programs for all the wannabe thugs trapped in middle school and high school hallways. We can send them to classrooms in Africa, Guatamala, Bangladesh, or any third world nation in exchange for pupils who actually understand that school is a privilege, and who WANT to learn. . . . Wait. . . . Was that my first social media rant? . . . Yes. I think it was. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. 🙂 Won’t make it a habit.

  6. I would absolutely go back to school if I could be in Professor Morgan’s class. A guy who says “pedagogical” and “double tap” in nearly the same breath is a guy worth listening to for sure.

  7. I’ve got some very funny pictures of my future daughter-in-law, her twin brother and a legion of Seattle undergraduates reenacting Zombieland on some Seattle streets last Halloween. Hey, kids are passionate enough to stage a zombie city coup, mix the energy into a WWII lesson.

    The looks great, smart idea. People should remember that lots of new movies, comics, Pop Culture projects hold the essential storytelling (beginning, middle, climax, ending frame) or somewhat parallel historic events. In the 70’s a lot of us read Simon & Garfunkel for poetry in high school. This was a bridge for the next year to discover Edmund Spenser’s The Fairy Queen and Wordsworth. This stuff works.

    I checked out the Maus comic series for both my boy and girl when they were about 11. I thought an introduction to WWII holocaust history. I think these would be good in school.

    This was an interesting topic. Thanks for being guest blogger. Good luck to you with your site and all the teachers here. I tried teaching and failed. I’m not ashamed of that, not one bit. Teaching is so much more daunting than anyone imagines and on top of that it takes a certain personality to abide.

  8. Thanks for those thoughts Annette. Don’t think of it as failing as much as figuring out something that didn’t work. That’s what I tell myself.
    I used the history example here, but PopTeacher is for every subject at every level. The real goal is better communication. Pop culture is just a tool I’ve chosen to run with after spending a few years in the classroom and figuring some things that don’t work myself.

  9. Great use of pop culture and meeting your students where they are. In a world where our students need information “yesterday” and can find out a quick overview of history via wikipedia (do not get me started) or some iPhone app, we need to find ways to reach out and drawn them into face to face group discussion and conversations. What better way than a great comparison to a pop culture reference many of them will know? This technique also allows students who might have learning issues, are confused about a subject, or simply did not do their work the chance to participate and gain an understanding of the material in the process.

    It also helps to reference an AMAZING movie, but I might be a bit biased as I love a good Zombie flick!

  10. I think Clay needs to use more Canadian examples. Just sayin’ 😉

    Professor M has been instrumental in making me think more about how I use (and can use) pop culture in my classroom. This ain’t Cold War or anything, but today with my Grade 8 English class, I managed to go to IMDB and pull up the cast list for The Hunger Games movie which is in pre-production. We talked about characterization and casting and book vs. movie. It was noisy. And Senior High students were looking through the window, which must mean something.

  11. I taught ESL during the Titanic years. If they couldn’t understand the concept or a word, I would think of a scene in that movie and they could all follow me. By the end of my master’s degree, I had that movie down scene by scene. I do wish I could pick which movies would be really popular, though. I could do without Titanic flashbacks!

    1. That’s a great example Marianne. Another fun thing about using pop culture in this way is that the top films/show/whatever always change just like the faces of students from year to year. That’s one of the nice things that built into education: dynamism.

  12. In my opinion, anything that will get kids interested in learning about whatever they’re supposed to be learning is a good thing…

    I got great grades throughout high school, but I spent a lot of time being bored out of my mind (and none of the teachers looked like that guy from Tangled either!). Getting kids excited about anything in these times of instant gratification and multimedia overload must be really difficult…kudos to those teachers who can!


    1. Thanks Mark. I have some pretty fun conversations with past students. I always crack up when they tell me the things I said that they remember. Zombieland is fun and has a pretty legendary cameo.

  13. Will you come teach history at UT, just so I can take your class?

    History teachers in general, are the worst of the teaching lot, mostly because they lecture about the world, run off on tangents diffrent to what the test will be on, and drone on and on, no enthusiasm, with nothing to relate the past to the present.

    Pop culture, when you find the perfect analogy, is a brilliant way to bridge this gap.

    You da man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop