Lowell — It’s Elvis’ hips, Muhammad Ali’s fists, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Seinfeld’s wit. It’s ET’s finger, Michael Jordan’s dunks and MTV hits.
The list goes on and on. Culture over the decades is a timeline punctuated by milestones, scandals, turning points and public figures capturing the nation’s attention. In teacher Max Pennock’s new Cultural Literacy class, Lowell Middle School eighth-graders are learning how to consider those elements through a 2023 lens.
Pennock is introducing just a fraction of the many influences that have shaped and reshaped U.S. culture. His curriculum focuses on music, movies, TV and sports — linking the pop culture, major events and history of the past to today.
“It’s important to have the context, so you can greatly understand what is going on around you and you can make references back to those points,” said eighth-grader Logan Shores, who had the enviable assignment of watching and analyzing the 1990 mafia movie, “Goodfellas” to end the trimester class.
Students study cultural changes over the past 200 years, exploring impacts and shifts. “The focus is how it has affected today, how people have seen the world at different times and how we have changed as a society,” said Pennock, who modeled the class after a similar one he took in high school.
Classic Movies, Iconic Quotes
In mid May, students watched the 1989 school transformation movie, “Lean on Me”. Earlier in the trimester they analyzed satire in the 1987 movie, “The Princess Bride” and 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove”. They also watched the groundbreaking 1960 horror film “Psycho”.
They’ve learned iconic quotes that are ingrained in the cultural lexicon, “No soup for you,” and “Life is like a box of chocolates,” to name a couple, and they’ve learned that boy bands existed before Justin Bieber. They’ve debated whether Conor McGregor or Muhammad Ali is the greatest.
‘It just kind of opened my perspective a lot, understanding other people’s cultures.’— eighth-grader Finn Bredin
As a final project, students selected a movie to watch on their own with parental permission from a list Pennock provided. They wrote about what the film addresses in American culture and its potential impact.
Throughout their research, they noticed interesting differences in social standards.
“It was a lot more sheltered back then (decades ago),” added Finn Bredin. “Elvis was considered controversial for many people at that time. Nowadays, you see (rapper) Nicki Minaj.”
They also watched popular TV shows, noticing racist content that would be unacceptable by today’s standards, such as the words of Archie Bunker in the ’70s sitcom “All in the Family.”
“A lot more things are acceptable these days, and other things aren’t,” said Finn.
That’s the kind of insight Pennock, who also teaches social studies, wants students to gain from the class. History is complicated; change has always stirred up controversy; norms shift. He also wants students to realize the universal impact of youth.
“The youngest people are the rebels trying to change things. That’s nothing new,” he said.
Consider Others’ Stories
Throughout the course, Pennock weaves the theme of empathy. Consider different viewpoints, the context of people’s lives and circumstances, he instructs.
“We always try to look at every side of everything,” he said. He teaches, “Don’t just apply empathy to one side, but to all involved.”
Pennock said empathy is an important component because today’s media consumers receive information in a divisive, polarized climate. He encourages lots of class discussion.
“We live in a world today where everyone is really tough on Facebook,” he said. “We have to learn to talk. I will never know what it’s like to be a 65-year-old female from Southern California, but I can try to learn why they think in a certain way.”
‘It’s important to have the context, so you can greatly understand what is going on around you and you can make references back to those points.’— eighth-grader Logan Shores
From studying world-famous country crooners and their stories, Finn said he has developed a deeper respect for country music.
“I used to never understand why people like country music. Now I do. It just kind of opened my perspective a lot, understanding other people’s cultures.”
Ella Halfmann learned that major league baseball players were segregated by race. “It surprised me how people were treated back then,” she said.
Gracie VandenBerg, a country music lover who enjoyed learning about Loretta Lynn and George Strait, said she also learned about other musicians’ stories.
“We learned about people’s backgrounds, especially in music, when there were rappers who came from difficult backgrounds,” she said.