National Writing Project

A Conversation with Ernest Morrell

Date: March 31, 2011

Summary: The Boston Writing Project speaks with author and academic Ernest Morrell, the keynote speaker for the 2011 Urban Sites Network Conference, about bringing literary theory and popular cultural into the high school classroom.


The Boston Writing Project at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, recently spoke with Ernest Morrell, the keynote speaker for the 2011 Urban Sites Network (USN) Conference, to discuss his book Linking Literacy and Popular Culture: Finding Connections for Lifelong Learning .

Boston Writing Project: With the Hip-Hop Research Project at South Bay High School in Torrance, CA, you had students do research. What readings did you choose, and how did you guide students through the process? More specifically, how did you teach a research-methods course to high school students?

Ernest Morrell: The research project process is more intuitive. All research starts with a problem or question for the students. For instance, what are things in the community you would like to see changed? What role would you like to take? How would you go about answering that kind of question? They do a good job with that; they get it. They do surveys. Once we help them understand the research design, we go into the various research methods, e.g., field notes, teach them how to look at statistical databases, criminal justice data, visual sociology, and film and photography. We explore how you use these within research. Then they do research. We provide the space for students to do research, and we give them the space to create projects.

Boston Writing Project: You state in chapter 9, "Teaching Popular Culture in an Age of Standards and Censorship": "I advocate that teachers use critical literacy theories such as Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism to approach classical and popular texts in ways that ... help all students learn about the power of texts to affirm or degrade those who are classified as 'selves' or 'others' in the texts" (141).

How did you teach Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism in one year? Was it organic? How do you distill theory into curriculum without taking away its essential elements and complexity?

Morrell: Literary theory goes in cycles. There was a cycle when people would do a Marxist reading and a post-colonialism reading. I wanted to teach students the terminology associated with these theories. Sometimes they are interrelated.

People should not feel hampered or hindered by these literary theories. For example, the Penguin Dictionary Literary Terms and Literary Theory has really short definitions for different literary theories. You can photocopy that page for the kids about what people say about any of those theories. What classroom instruction entails is that we sometimes just jump right into a text. They may look at how women are portrayed in magazines or look at popular text and how race is portrayed in it.

Boston Writing Project: You also state in chapter 9: "The sleeping giant within the educational discourse at present are the two and a half million teachers with powerful stories of classroom practice and amazing potential as educational advocates" (144). How can you help these teachers share their stories and become effective educational advocates?

Morrell: We need to share our stories. There were things in my classroom that were out of the ordinary that drew attention, interest, whether it was innocent or not. Questions were asked like "What are you doing, and how do you know it is working?" If I was going to create a space for myself and students, I would need to share it with others. What if I videotaped class discussions or put together a portfolio? What if I had students come and talk about it? It became quite effective. At that level, that is when it clicked for me. What happens in American classrooms is a secret. You get bits and fragments. Teachers need to communicate what they do and share it. What are great teachers doing, and how can we learn from them?

I spent some time in Boston with the Boston Plan for Excellence. We were at a few schools. It was a group of teachers who decided to create action research projects in our classrooms. We need to weave this into our profession; we need to integrate it more. It is not difficult to learn how to do it, but more so about the time. We need to make action research a priority. We need sticky fingers to start this, whether it's a blog or a more formal conference.

Teachers need to communicate what they do and share it. What are great teachers doing, and how can we learn from them?

Boston Writing Project: In chapter 10, "Teachers as Activists and Researchers," you write: "I must, however, warn against the tendency to use the popular texts in these multimedia texts as 'bridge' texts or jumping-off points into the more rigorous and intellectually stimulating classical work" (147). How do you make the case to administrators and English teachers that popular culture is as valuable as the texts of the canon?

Morrell: It's hard. It is more of an ideological debate where you can present facts, but you can present history. Nonwhite writers were excluded. We need to understand how texts made their way into the canon, such as Shakespeare and Dickens. In every era there is a debate as to who stays and who goes. These conversations have not necessarily been objective. If The Odyssey can sit next to Walt Whitman, then Toni Morrison can sit next to them too. The question is really, what is within these genres that allows us to make these decisions? If we can ask questions that are more objective, we can democratize the canon. I try to make this case. I am a "both/and" instead of an "either/or."

Boston Writing Project: You write in chapter 6, "Teaching Mass Media": "Whenever possible, schools should be creating newsletters, pamphlets, brochures, websites, radio stations, and television broadcasts that portray young people in the roles of cultural producers" (101). What does that role look like?

Morrell: It can be defined by genre, but I see it as identity. We can say pop culture facilitates that. It is also an identity. We need to go back to the drawing board. I look at it in terms of how we shape these kids to have these identities. Who is this person, and can she do this? It is more central to develop the tools identified with that identity.

To the degree that they see themselves as not able to do it affects motivation. Motivation is a function of relevance and confidence, so if students don't think they can do it, they will not have motivation to do the work. But if they have it, then the internal student dialogue is: "I can write this blog, and that's because I can write. It is also because I am in the mode of the cultural producer and because I have the tools and the knowledge to be successful."

Boston Writing Project: How would you convince a teacher, who is used to thinking of classical texts as more rigorous than popular culture texts, that studying popular culture is in fact just as challenging? In other words, how does your book make the case that popular culture texts are as important, if not better, to teach as classical texts?

Morrell: It has to do with planning and how you present the unit. If we stop presenting units based on the book and instead present them based on theme, then it gives us the opportunity to make complex connections and go deeper.

For instance, in Native Son, the students are questioning if there is justice for Bigger Thomas and if there is justice in society. I don't think one is more of a challenge over the other. Let's look at it this way: English is not easier to grasp than Russian. It's just that English is your first language, so it is easier. It's the same way with our students and popular culture versus classical text. You can reinscribe the hierarchy of the canon. It has to do with the kinds of questions you are asking.

Boston Writing Project: In chapter 3, "The Case for Popular Culture in America's Classrooms," you outline several arguments, including "popular culture is relevant to the lives of adolescents, popular culture is embedded with relevant literacy practices, popular culture can help students make connections to academic texts and concepts, and popular culture fosters greater motivation among students" (37). What happens if students don't have those skills? How do you scaffold concepts for kids?

Morrell: It doesn't have to be taught. Part of it is natural, and part of it is scaffold. I coach football, basketball, and track. I can have an athlete who has talent, but that doesn't mean he doesn't need to be coached.

Boston Writing Project: You state in chapter 4, "Teaching Popular Music": "Teaching hip hop as a music and culture of resistance can facilitate the development of critical consciousness in all youth" (61). How are you increasing students' critical-thinking skills? How do you scaffold instruction?

Morrell: Part of it is changing their relationship to all the text that they consume. Being an active consumer or an active reader, you ask questions: Who wrote this? How do you know that from what they are saying? The teacher has to give students a license and set of tools to do that. I feel like, partly, they believe that is not their role. Part of making students be critical thinkers is letting them be critical. For example, we will have a series of questions that lead to that critical thinking. That is important. Many of the questions are those that students think they aren't supposed to ask. That is what critical thinking is—asking those difficult questions.

Boston Writing Project: "Teacher as activist," "advocate," "socially conscious"—do you see yourself in these terms? Do you want students to see themselves in these terms as well?

Morrell: The terms may be overly publicized. I either want to "de-publicize" them or cast the terms in another way. I do feel that, for many reasons, teachers and students in the inner city hold those positions. If you are in a school where you feel people are not treated equitably, you have more of a need to be an advocate on your behalf, to have the courage to speak about your own ideas and your own passions. No one can call himself an activist—that is left for others to define. You should not think about how others define you; it is about the action. Am I someone who stands up for myself and others? Can I speak on my own when others are being wronged? That is my goal. I cannot worry about if someone thinks I am an activist. That kind of empowerment is what I am teaching.

The questions were developed by the 2011 USN local host site conference planning team and the Boston Writing Project: Barbara Barros, Peter Golden, Steve Gordon, Kelly Koushan, Valerie Librizzi, Director Glenn Mitchell, Caroline Occean, Denise Patmon, Emilie Perna, Ling-Se Peet, Katherine Petta, and Team Leader Chris Tsang.

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