National Writing Project

Ernest Morrell Links Literacy to Pop Culture

By: Art Peterson
Date: February 28, 2011

Summary: Ernest Morrell, education professor and former Bay Area Writing Project teacher-consultant, examines the relationships between language, literacy, culture, and power in society. He will deliver the keynote speech at the 2011 Urban Sites Network Conference.


Ernest Morrell had a revelation when, in 1994, after finishing his teacher training under the tutelage of the Bay Area Writing Project at the University of California, Berkeley, he took a job teaching high school in Oakland, California. He realized "that academic records don't tell the whole story, that we need to broaden our definition of intellectual activity."

"I'd see a kid considered close to a nonreader walking around with a backpack full of books, or a girl who seldom wrote in class dashing off poems in her personal journal," he explains. Students were learning and making meaning in ways that weren't necessarily recognized in the classroom.

His work in Oakland fortified his interest in popular culture as a road to literacy and led to the publication of his seminal work, Literacy and Popular Culture.

Pop Culture as Research Tool

Morrell, who has just taken a position as director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, will be the keynote speaker at the 2011 NWP Urban Sites Network Conference, April 29–30, in Boston. He'll be speaking on how popular culture can advance literacy and act as a bridge to the communities that urban educators serve.

Community outreach is nothing new to Morrell. During his just-completed tenure as an associate professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education, he worked with high school teens as director of the Council of Youth Research , where he introduced them to college-level research techniques as they investigated issues of concern to them.

For example, students have been researching the changes since the 2000 filing of Williams v. California, a class-action suit that alleged the state and other agencies had failed to provide equitable access to learning materials, a safe and secure campus, and qualified teachers. The young researchers are visiting, observing, and surveying conditions at various schools in the Los Angeles area. They'll present their findings to city officials in August.

On other occasions, Morrell has plugged his young researchers into using popular culture as a learning tool. One year students interviewed and surveyed students, teachers, and families about the influence of hip hop.

They asked students, "What impact, if any, does hip hop music have on the way you see the world?" And they asked teachers questions such as, "How do you define culture? According to your definition does hip hop constitute a culture?"

Popular Culture and Academic Standards

But Morrell's focus is not just on connecting to teen culture. He is very much dedicated to fostering academic standards, and committed to the classic learning and curriculum that underscore these objectives. That's why in his book he demonstrates how he links The Godfather trilogy with The Odyssey, and the themes of T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with "The Message" by hip hop musician Grandmaster Flash.

Hip hop text can also be analyzed for theme, motif, plot, and character development.

"Hip hop texts are rich in imagery and metaphor and can be used to teach irony, tone, diction, and point of view. Hip hop text can also be analyzed for theme, motif, plot, and character development," he says.

Aware that many, even most, teachers are not experts on teen popular culture, Morrell advises them to pay attention to everything that is going on around them. "Teachers should be alert to hallway conversations," he says, in order to be attuned to what is going on with teen culture.

"What a teacher can do is capitalize on the special knowledge that her students do have to build bridges to the curriculum, and to the literacies students need," he says.

This advice is an understanding that Morrell wants to transmit to the university students he works with. One of them, Cliff Lee, a Bay Area Writing Project teacher-consultant and a UCLA PhD candidate working with Morrell, says, "He has made me aware of the funds of knowledge students bring with them. Working with him, my view of literacy in student learning has been constantly evolving."

Students as Producers of Popular Culture

In an interview with Morrell (see below), Lee asked how his thinking about popular culture and teaching popular culture has changed since the publication of Linking Literature and Popular Culture in 2004. Morrell responded that in fact "a lot has stayed the same." Popular culture still has centrality among teens, and the tenets he advanced in the book are still of value.

But in the last ten years students have become producers as well as consumers of popular culture. If I were to do the book again, I'd put much more emphasis on production," rather than consumption alone.

That's why the high school students that Morrell works with are no strangers to blogs, Facebook, video production, and Twitter. All of these formats, says Morrell, are about writing.

A writer himself of poems, plays, novels, and academic books, Morrell often asks the young people with whom he works how they would like to change their world. Many answers come back, and the key tool he promotes to advance all of these goals is always the same: learn how to write.

"Words are power, freedom, the source of revolution—personal and societal. Words define meaning. Words influence thought," he says. Morrell advances an idea of socially engaged writing that is not merely a comment on the world, but rather is a means for changing the world for the better.

At the upcoming Urban Sites Network meeting he will invite teachers, using the content of popular culture and the tools of the new media, to join him in this quest.

Watch Ernest Morrell

Related Resource Topics

© 2023 National Writing Project