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Memes: Fun waste of time or incredible literacy integration tool?

We all love a good meme. Visual. Easy to understand. And just the right amount of snark.

But can we use them as part of our instructional designs? Or are they just a questionable way to spend way too much time online? Ask me that question five years ago and I probably would have said waste of time. Fun, sure. But a waste of time.

Now?

I’m starting to believe the combination of visuals and text needed to create a good meme can be used in a variety of ways.

So . . . today, a few meme / social studies / literacy integration ideas:

We know that historical thinking involves a balance of foundational knowledge and process. And we know that for foundational knowledge such as vocabulary to stick, students to need to experience that knowledge in context multiple times. Simply having kids copy definitions from the textbook glossary isn’t going to have much of an impact.

We’ve all used the Frayer and Verbal / Visual Word Association tools. Both ask students to create personalized and visual connections to ideas and vocabulary.

I think we can have students use memes to create similar contextual and personalized visuals of foundation knowledge. So ask students to create a meme on migration or democracy or the Treaty of Paris and post their completed meme on a shared classroom Google Doc. Have them include more specific examples / non-examples to create their own glossary of terms.

As another category of foundational knowledge, historical characters seem like a perfect fit for memes. Try having students use memes to highlight basic personality traits and characteristics of specific people – perhaps from different perspectives. What would a meme look like of FDR if created by a 1930s Democrat? Republican? Unemployed person? Displaced Okie? How about the different social classes of feudal Japan and medieval Europe? Or Tories and patriots in 1776? Wrap up the lesson by having students write summaries of the historical figure, describing their impact and explaining the meme’s text.

A good meme is the 21st century version of a newspaper political cartoon. So have students analyze historical and current political cartoons. Have them create a meme version that says the same thing as the cartoons. Discuss the impact of cartoons and how they’re typically used versus how memes are spread and used. What are the similarities and differences? Advantages and disadvantages to those creating the cartoon and meme?

Have students create memes based on historical events. They research an event, select a photo or painting, and insert text. Perhaps have students exchange memes via social media or a shared Google Doc and have them interpret and explain each other’s memes.

Teachers could ask students to create a meme as an exit card activity – this can encourage kids to distill ideas and concepts down to the basics. You can ask students to expand their thinking the next day after more reflection.

On the other end of your instruction, memes work great as a discussion starter or as an intro to a specific lesson.

Megan Nieman

You can create your own memes to highlight classroom norms and explain steps in the historical thinking process. What would a meme look like that explained the Stanford History Education Group’s sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading steps?

There a ton of meme generation tools out there. I’ve used these three before:

As with most online tools, it’s always to good to check for NSFW stuff on these sites. And while they do make the creation a bit easier, your kids could always use Adobe Spark Post or Google Drawing works just as well.

As an opening activity several days ago, the ESSDACK social studies PLC had 15 minutes to develop their own education related memes. I’ve pasted my faves below to give you a bit of an idea of the possibilities:

Lisa Sabala

Mark Schmidt

Beth Wash

Mary Smith

Jill Weber

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