I started teaching in 2001. As a Social Studies teacher THE cool project in this early internet era was the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” project.

music video 80s GIF

The Billy Joel song came out in 1989-90 so the song was right in the cultural wheel house of the young & hip teachers of the early 2000s. For you young-un’s out there that don’t know the song it was basically an unorganized string of people and events from the early Cold War era. Billy Joel, a Baby Boomer, seemed to be responding to criticism about the Boomers from the Greatest Generation. I don’t really know what the point was but teachers loved adding this pop culture moment into their classrooms. There were variations, most projects involved some form of researching 5 or 10 of the referenced events listed, and if you were into the song it might be a really cool project. I think there was a disconnect between the teacher and student though.

We Didn’t Start the Fire made it to #35 on the Billboard top 100 in 1990.

That means that when I began teaching in 2001 the song was 11 years old! The equivalent songs for this same span of time in 2021 would be…

I… I… I don’t know one of these songs and would be willing to bet the students don’t either.

So this leads to a conundrum. My pop culture references are outdated – even as a young and hip rookie my pop culture perspective were be skewed. The alternative is to try and use the students’ pop culture to make connections. Maybe… could be condescending. It is an elusive ever-changing target. There is also a whole mess of issues with making assumptions about which kids might connect best with which cultural items. There are issues of cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping, traumatic role-playing, gender bias, and more. Representation matters in terms of allowing students to see themselves in the characters and images and games used in the classroom but it is a short jump to problematic applications.

This is why one reason I try not to directly apply modern games to the classroom preferring to instead breakdown games into the engaging elements and applying those to the curriculum. Among Us has been a very successful game among middle school age kids during the 2020-21 school year but is there any expectation it will be popular next year? I just had a student today call out that he now understands Call of Duty: Cold War because of our discussion in class. There is no way I would bring that game into the classroom. Still both of these games have elements that can be stripped out and used to engage students effectively. Gamification and game inspired designs helps us to understand player motivations that can sidestep some of the time consuming or problematic issues.

I’m not cool but I also don’t need to try…