I was doing a lesson on medieval Japan and I wanted to check student understanding on a particular idea. We had finished life in Europe during the early middle ages and I wanted students to compare life in Europe versus life in Asia. There are lots of options out there to check understanding. Jay McTighe, in the 2010 video Designing curriculum, instruction, and assessment: Summative assessment, listed off quick check options like quizzes, whiteboards, hand gestures, exit cards, etc. These are all great ideas. But, I wanted to use one that was engaging and would challenge students.
That’s when I came up with the idea of using memes.
What’s a meme, you ask? The official definition concerns the spread of ideas within a community. But today, memes are much more specific. Memes, in today’s cyber world, are popular images accompanied by text. They are generally funny (or at least they are supposed to be) and tend to follow existing formats and reflect recurring characters/characteristics. Bad Luck Brian, for example, is used to communicate a situation where someone experiences very bad luck. Scumbag Steve is always used to tell the story of someone behaving badly. Students, as internet regulars, are very familiar with these archetypes and many are familiar with the meme-generation sites necessary to make them.
Students linking memes to their learning would seem to be a no-brainer recipe for laughter. The journey, however, was surprisingly an uphill one. More students than I thought struggled with the mental and creative connections necessary to convert dry knowledge into something interesting and funny. It was definitely not a rote memorization activity! I overheard one student complaining “Wow, I need to be so creative!”
In terms of engagement, using memes really had an impact on productivity. I asked for only one meme, but most students created more. This rarely happens as a teacher, but I really had to work hard to stop students working! It was awesome!
Despite the challenging nature of the activity, I am sure some may think the exercise is academically light. Nevertheless, it definitely supported key Social Studies standards, including
- Time, Continuity and Change
- Access, Organize, and Evaluate and Use Information in Various Formats
In addition, this activity deepened 21st Century skills, such as Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Communication, as well as Information, Media and Technology skills. And, it did so in a way that students were already familiar and engaged with.
In terms of humor, the transformation of dry knowledge into something funny was an important part of the challenge. Humor, although often taken lightly, activates (and builds important connections between) key parts of the brain. Dig further and you can read more about humor and the brain.
If you are not familiar with memes, check them out. And, if you already are, consider ways you can use them to more-easily communicate to your students or have your communicate their ideas to others.
Here are some samples of their work: