pop culture / resources / Teaching Ideas

A Dynamic Exploration of Cultural Appropriation Through Literature and Pop Culture

teaching about cultural appropriation using Elvis

Having conversations in your classroom about cultural appropriation can feel challenging. It doesn’t always have to be, though! With the right resources that are standards-aligned, your students can engage in evidence-based discourse. 

using elvis to teach cultural appropriation. shining lights in the background

For this post, I share a teaching idea you can implement to help students explore and understand the unjust practices of cultural appropriation. This relevant teaching idea centers on Elvis Presley’s appropriation of Black music and culture. Since the Elvis film recently came out, your students will immediately buy into this heavy, but necessary conversation.

Essential Question: How does cultural appropriation negatively impact the marginalized communities involved?

Please note: it is VITAL that you have established a respectful classroom culture. Without positive norms and relationships, any difficult conversation may not turn out as efficiently.

Suggested Starting Points

✨ As students enter class, have Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” playing in the background.

✨ With a picture of Presley up, have students pair-share anything they already know about him.

  • Here’s where our generational gap between students may show (and hurt our old feelings). If they have no clue who he is, give them one minute to make as many guesses as they can about him.

✨ Remind students of your classroom norms, and preface that our cultural awareness needs to be sharpened for this upcoming conversation.

✨ Using the essential question above, ask your students what they know about cultural appropriation.

  • Use Peardeck, Mentimeter, NearPod, Jamboard, or any other interactive tool to get your students independently pre-thinking

✨ In whatever capacity you feel is best, have your students discuss their responses. I suggest a pair-share rather than the entire class if you want to find answers that are respectful and in line with the lesson. 

  • You can listen as students discuss in pairs, and then call on students who have prepared thoughtful responses.

✨ Pose the question: What does Elvis Presley have to do with cultural appropriation? Let the learning begin!

Suggested Teaching Ideas

✨ Start by defining important terms, such as the 4 types of cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, etc.

  • You can use this PDF PowerPoint from Cal State University San Marcos as a starting point to help reduce prep.
  • As an AVID and English teacher, I would have my students practice note-taking skills in this portion of the lesson.
  • CCSS: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials as appropriate.
  • Social Justice Standard: DI.9-12.10 I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

✨ Then, provide students with resource(s) to explore Presley’s history of commodifying music stolen from Black artists who never received credit or compensation for their artistry. 

  • You can use resources you’ve found yourself or any of the ones I’ve gathered below.
  • USA Today’s article, Vanity Fair article, an interview with B.B. King, a brief clip from The View*  
  • I would set various resources up around the room and have my kids engage in a world cafe, jigsaw, or station rotation. Here are other discussion activity ideas you can implement.
  • CCSS: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • Social Justice Standard: JU.9-12.12 I can recognize, describe, and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society. 
  • *We do NOT platform Meghan McCain. I only suggest using this clip to showcase to students that there are folks on both sides of the political scale who believe Elvis’s actions are inexcusable. Depending on your school’s climate, you may choose to not include this clip at all.  

✨ Depending on your students’ skills and grade level, consider providing some resources where Black artists defend Presley against cultural appropriation accusations. Have students discuss the difference between appreciation and appropriation. 

  • To be VERY clear, it is not up for debate that he appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s music because he commodified heavily from it while she did not. The purpose of this conversation would serve for students to understand the difference between being influenced by others and appropriating marginalized communities.
  • Potential resources: a Rolling Stones article, a Music Times article

✨ Provide students with access to the lyrics for Doja Cat’s song “Vegas.” 

  • Explain that a recent film debuted about Elvis Presley, and Doja Cat’s song is featured specifically for the film.
  • You can provide only the chorus to students since some of the content in the song is mature.

✨ Let the musical analysis begin! Have students dissect how the lyrics function as an allegory for Presley’s cultural appropriation.

  • If you have not introduced your students to allegory, I would recommend a mini-lesson on it.
  • CCSS: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
  • Social Justice Standard: JU.9-12.13 I can explain the short and long-term impact of biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws, and institutions that limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups. 

Rationale: Doja Cat, a successful Black female artist, remixes “Hound Dog,” a song Presley stole from a Black female artist. 

  • He gained notoriety for this song, yet never credited Big Mama Thornton. 
  • Doja Cat sings of a fraud who “ain’t the man” and “ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” whose fraudulence won’t stay quietly in Vegas. That phrase is a nod to: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

✨ Analyze the potentially different meanings of who a “hound dog” is from Presley’s, Big Mama Thornton’s, and Doja Cat’s viewpoints. I would recommend a Venn Diagram for this.

  • CCSS: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Social Justice Standard: JU.9-12.13 I can explain the short and long-term impact of biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws, and institutions that limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups. 

Suggested Closing Conversations

Close your lesson by conducting a 3-2-1 exit ticket.

3: Give students a space to reflect on 3 things they have learned.

  • Starting with a more easily identifiable reflection question will boost your students’ confidence prior to asking a text-to-world or text-to-self connection.

2: Ask students for two ways that learning about cultural appropriation can connect to their lives.

  • Don’t be afraid of students who might say, “Cultural appropriation doesn’t connect to my life.” Instead, I encourage them to explain their rationale, using evidence to support why they believe it will not.

1: Have students share one response they wrote with their partner.

  • Optional: have students reflect on their partner’s response in one sentence.

Continue the Conversation

Continue the conversation year-round! Learning about cultural appropriation should not be an isolated incident. If you are looking for a great Halloween activity, students can analyze the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. 

Danielle also has an article activity that focuses on cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. This activity is significant for any time of the year, especially during Black History Month.

If you are looking for ways to diversify your existing curriculums, check out these resources. Each one provides an inclusive list of short stories, songs, poems, etc. recommended for common ELA curriculum.  

Inclusive Short Story Unit Ideas

Shakespeare Inclusive Unit Ideas

The Outsiders Inclusive Unit Ideas

To Kill a Mockingbird Inclusive Unit Ideas

The Great Gatsby Inclusive Unit Ideas

The Odyssey Inclusive Unit Ideas

The Giver Inclusive Unit Ideas

Please share how this activity went with your kiddos! I’d love to know the details. It makes my teacher’s heart happy 💛