minilesson · reading

Pop Culture References Make Minilesson Connections Come Alive

Maggie Beattie Roberts, my section leader for “Tap the Power of Technology and Media to Teach Higher Level Comprehension,” suggested using pop culture references as one way to engage students in minilessons.  (Pop culture references can come from TV, movies, music, video games, fashion, celebrity culture, etc.)  Our “homework,” as part of the Reading Institute, was to write a connection for a minilesson (that we would deliver at the beginning of the school year) using a pop culture reference.

My mind immediately went to the Olympics.  I initially thought of Gabby Douglas and her incredible gymnastics performances.  She’s become so popular with kids and adults alike.  Personally, I have been amazed by her skill (despite the fact that watching her makes me feel old and creaky)!  One thing I know about Gabby Douglas, from listening to the commentators and from watching her interviews, is that she had to maintain her focus in order to win the gold.  In fact, the commentators often expressed concern about whether or not she would be able to focus enough to bring home the gold.

As we know, she did.  Therefore, I thought that using Gabby Douglas and the idea of focus could relate to focus on one’s reading and by staying focused as a writer.  Since I’m at the Reading, not the Writing, Institute, the connection that follows below was written for an upper grade reading workshop classroom.  I anticipate a minilesson on rereading to regain one’s focus would be taught during the first two weeks of the school year.  Here’s the connection I wrote, with that purpose in mind, for Maggie’s class:

CONNECTION:  I eagerly anticipate the summer Olympics every four years.  When I was about your age I wanted to be a gymnast.  I did gymnastics and was decent, but I wasn’t Olympic material.  Even though I never competed in gymnastics, I’ve always watched the gymnasts in the Olympics.  I admire their ability to fly through the air on the uneven bars or flip upside down and land on their feet on the floor.

Give me a thumbs-up if you watched Gabby Douglas win the all-around gold medal at the Olympics?  (Provide wait time to receive a thumbs-up/thumbs-down.)   Wow, I can see many of you did.  I’m sure you were also amazed as she performed her routines.  Well, Gabby Douglas spent years training to compete in the Olympics.  She even moved away from home at the age of 14 to train with a new coach.  She went into the Olympics as the #1 gymnast in the United States, but the television announcers kept saying that she needed to stay focused if she was going to win the gold medal for the United States.  I kept hearing the words “Gabby Douglas,” “gold,” and “focus” in the same sentence over and over again.  This made me think that staying focused was just as important as knowing how to do multiple back flips.  In order to keep her position right in the air and to stick her landings, Gabby would have to maintain her focus throughout each and every routine.  If she felt herself losing her focus – whether it be focusing on another gymnast’s routine or score – then she’d have to work hard to get it back – and fast.

Watch this short video of Gabby Douglas on the balance beam, which is only four inches wide!  Listen for the times the announcers talk about how she has to keep her mind focused while she’s performing her routine on the beam.


Just as Gabby Douglas maintained laser-like focus in order to win the gold medal in gymnastics, we have to maintain a sharp focus as readers.  It’s easy to get distracted when we read, so we have to have strategies to regain our focus when we feel like we’re not following what’s happening in our books.  Therefore, today I want to teach you that readers regain their focus by rereading.

Now that you’ve read the connection I wrote, how could you use a pop culture reference, such as the Olympics, to hook your students during the connection part of a writing minilesson?

15 thoughts on “Pop Culture References Make Minilesson Connections Come Alive

  1. What a treat to read all of your engaging minilesson connections that infuse pop culture! It’s an honor to have Stacey in the course this week, sharing the work with this larger community. The metaphors are powerful and will be such a fun way to begin the school year. Keep them coming!


  2. I totally love what Ryan wrote about Mario Kart and revision-it’s true-I play the game with Kameron and you do revise your choices of character, kart and track to make the winning combination! This is an awesome pop culture connection! Thanks for sharing it!


  3. Stacey,
    Following your gentle nudge here and posting an idea-Pop culture land…
    -I was thinking about Curiosity landing on Mars was pretty pop! And think about all the planning and effort that went in to making that landing happen-just the same with real reading, learning from reading takes planning and effort too!


  4. These are all award winning ideas-use what they talk about every day to show them how to think deeper. Love it! Thanks for giving me such great ideas to begin the year!


    1. I agree! I’m loving all of these ideas. Maybe TWT should have a “Write This Lesson” feature… Lots of talented teachers here to contribute and share… Or maybe a virtual lesson study?


  5. I have also been thinking about connections. I recently heard Kelly Gallagher talk about models. I made a text to text connection between Gabby Douglas and Christopher Paul Curtis’s new novel The Mighty Miss Malone. (I find it funny we both blogged about Gabby today.) I plan to use it as a model in my classroom.


  6. Love Ryan’s connection between video games and revision!
    I’ve been thinking of my 5th graders’ love of The Hunger Games. I was thinking about a connection along the lines of the following:
    Readers, you know how much I love The Hunger Games. Well, I was rereading it last night (don’t you just love rereading books? I always notice interesting details and hints–foreshadowing–I missed the first time), and I got to the part when Katniss has to say goodbye to her sister Prim, just before Katniss leaves to go to the Capital. This is still early in the book, when Katniss thinks she has basically no chance of winning. When she envisions her future she expects one of the tributes from District 1 or 2 will kill her. But Prim has a different vision for Katniss’s future–Prim imagines that Katniss can survive, and she makes Katniss promise to do everything she can to win. And if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know that throughout the whole time Katniss is in the Hunger Games she thinks about Prim and how she needs to do whatever it takes to carry out that promise and win.

    And it got me thinking about what we say we’re going to try to do in this classroom. It’s not quite the same as fighting for our lives, but in a way, when we set goals as readers, we ARE affecting our whole lives–the kind of readers you become really does affect your whole future–so I wondered what it would be like to set goals with the kind of urgency and promise that Katniss did.

    Readers, today, instead of teaching you something, I want to turn you into reading partners who have the same urgency that Katniss and Prim have. I want you to set goals about what your future is going to look like. I want you to think about what your reading partner needs most, and insist that they set a goal that really matters. I want you to insist that your reading partner promises to try with all their might and skill and brains. And reading partners–I want you to really mean that promise. (here I might even read a tiny excerpt from the book when Prim tells Katniss she has to really, honestly do everything she can to win.)

    I’m going to give you a minute right here on the rug to think about what kind of goal you can set for yourself–for your future. Give me a thumbs up if you have some ideas. In just a moment I’m going to have to turn and tell your reading partner what your goal might be. And reading partners–go ahead and get dramatic. Tell your partner that it is the MOST IMPORTANT THING in the world (to be said with dramatic urgency) that they stick to this promise. –And hold them to it!


  7. Fellow Bloggers,
    Would love feedback on this connection – I am trying to weave in technology, more interaction, and pop culture into the connection. Thoughts?

    Writers you have been doing an amazing job drafting your pieces, in fact, I was so impressed that you were able to draft your entire piece in just a single day. You know writers do that, they get everything down, knowing that they are about to move into what Toni Morrison calls “the most delicious part” of writing – revision.

    I used to feel pretty bummed when I would come to the point where I was ready to revise my writing. I would think “But I like how I wrote it the first time or why do I have to change my writing?” Then something happened that really changed the way I thought about revision. I was playing Mario Kart with my nephew and he kept beating me! Give me a thumbs up if you have every played Mario Kart before.

    Well, in this video game you get to select your racecar, character and even racetrack and my nephew was explaining the different combinations lend themselves to different strengths throughout the game. He said, “You have to kind of play around with the combinations to see which works best”. Writers pause for a second – has anything like this ever happened to you? You were playing or doing [something] and someone showed you something or taught you something that made you want to try again?

    Writers, you know what I realized . . . as my nephew and I played and reset the game – trying out different possibilities, we were doing something that writers do all the time – we were revising. It helped me see revision in a whole new way and get really excited about it. After playing for a bit, my nephew showed me a clip on YouTube where different players shared their winning tactics so that we could try them out.
    Option: Teachers can choose to show 30 seconds of clip.

    It totally changed the way I played. Often writers do the same thing – they turn to the experts (kind of like novice players like myself turn to more expert players like my nephew or other gamers like those mentioned in the video) to help them revise their writing. So today (and over the next few days) I am going to teach you that writers study published texts closely to find different techniques that will help them revise their writing.


    1. @Ryan: What a great way to motivate students to revise. I was unfamiliar with Mario Kart, but your brief explanation of the game helped me to understand what it’s about and his it connects to the idea of revision.


  8. Hmm… What about a minilesson on interpreting/inferring feelings based on character action (or dialogue)? You could play a clip from icarly, or the lorax, or princess and the frog… “Small character actions can tell us a lot! What do you notice about how this character acts (gestures, face, body language)? What does that make you think about what she’s thinking, feeling?”. What I like about this idea is that the conversation generated in this lesson would be pretty memorable, and thus could be used as a touchstone for the rest of the year…


  9. I love this post. I appreciate how you incorporated your language, showing how you would weave in the student thumbs up for a quick way to have them show whether or not they saw it without shifting into a bunch of personal stories about it in order to maintain focus on the mini-lesson point. The video is a great inclusion to either refresh students memories or to allow those who did not see it to understand the message more.

    I will be thinking about other pop culture ideas…


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