Teenagers, ready or not, are in the business of becoming adults and they are doing so today in an image-mediated society. In my role as a Graphic Communications specialist, I teach students to make and manipulate images through design software. In design, we sometimes use a technique called a placeholder—a dummy image in which we lay out the structure of a design that will later be replaced with the final image. Today, our media-saturated culture provides a never-ending stream of placeholder images for teenagers who are in the process of growing into their adult identities.
Given that my classroom practice centres around using design software to express ideas through images and text, I have had a front row seat to the media and sources of popular culture that teenagers devour. From Generation X to Millennials to today, we take it as a given that teenagers will express their own cool cultural styles and norms as they instinctively look to forge an identity different from their parents, a process that can run 24 hours a day on their omnipresent cell phones and a host of other screens amplifying the impact of their peers and popular role models, which they instinctively mimic.
Even though I work in a Canadian rural school, rap music is the predominant music of choice amongst many at-risk students. A group of boys in a recent grade 10 class shared their enjoyment of the artist 6ix9ine, an American rapper with a troubled past, supposedly expelled from school in 8th grade. His colourful eccentric appearance and Instagram rise to fame, I believe, taps into the adolescent pop culture fantasy of bypassing adult systems of hard work and the difficult process of growing up. They just thought he was cool.
Of course, adults have been warning of the dangers of rock and roll since Elvis was censored from the waist down due to his suggestive dancing. But it’s not just about music. Today we have identity niches as far ranging as anime characters, professional video players, technology geeks, extreme sports, and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian who construct idealized images of themselves that blur fashion and consumption on social media outlets such as Instagram and YouTube.
I recently had a student who came to class with a fake Gucci bag and would spend time looking up expensive sneakers that cost more than I typically make in a week. Brands are a great starting point for a conversation because brands all have a core idea they are trying to express, and the core idea of branding is about identity. All youth brands want to place their mark on students to convey identity, yet most students have a difficult time articulating what the meaning is behind their favourite logo. For example, students are usually surprised to learn Volcom, the popular youth clothing brand, expresses a philosophy of “youth against establishment,” as basic a script of youth subculture as you will find.
For most students, these identity interests and markers provide a way to explore and develop one’s self and preferences. Most teenagers will participate in popular culture while slowly maturing into adult lives and productive identities. As teachers and adults, we should not, however, overlook that many of these constructed identities speak to a genuine need such as competence, freedom, respect, power, self-esteem, belonging, and perhaps overcoming the limitations and struggle of a difficult home life. The basic code of popular culture is a language of symbols and ideals that promise freedom and escape from the control of authority and the boredom of ordinary life. Perhaps this is why many students who are most at risk within the education system gravitate to music and identities that challenge and promise a pathway to the good life that does not require submitting to the rules and structures.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with vicariously enjoying the idealized symbols of freedom that popular culture promises, the slow path to adulthood always requires growing in awareness of one’s real abilities, and then acting those out in the real world. The danger for some students is that their immature identity acts like a barrier to the adults they need to guide them. What they do not realize is that the “us and them” mindset protected beneath their black hoodie and street slang can slow their process of growing up by blocking meaningful relationships with the adults around them.
As teachers and adults, we are in the validation business. We need to recognize that the placeholder identities teenagers adopt present a clue to their underlying needs. Yes, we must teach curriculum, but we also must engage with students from whatever cultural starting point they present. An understanding of pop culture and its themes will help teachers have one more tool with which to guide students towards adulthood. The student who enters our classroom with exaggerated swagger and his hat precariously balanced might be looking for respect, or the young person obsessed with expensive symbols of wealth and status might have a need to feel valued or important. Recognizing those underlying needs within our teaching practice can encourage one small step leading to the replacement of a placeholder image with the authentic real thing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Humphries is a high school teacher in Manitoba’s Sunrise School Division and previously ran a drop-in centre called the Red Herring Cathedral that connected with teenagers on the cultural fringes of Winnipeg. He is also interested in understanding culture and expressing ideas visually through both traditional and digital mediums. Mark blogs at whatdidimiss.org
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s 2019 Issue.