It was a meme (rhymes with “team”) that started a trend. You could say 2012 was the “year of the meme”.

So What the Heck is a Meme?

A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Wikipedia

Memes in the classroomStephanie Richter introduced memes to her colleagues at Northern Illinois University with a Prezi, identifying a meme as a snippet of culture, a thought, behavior, or artifact it spreads via transmission and adaptation, sharing and imitation, and is something everyone has seen or recognizes.

Memes, of course, have been around forever.  According to Memes in English Language Learning the “most important point about a meme is that it propagates”.  Smithsonian Magazine likens memes to human genes, since “ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve.” Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel report in New Literacies: Changing Knowledge in the Classroom that geneticist Richard Dawkins even believed that memes cause actual biological changes in our brains.  Memes are part of the collective consciousness, part of our vocabulary, and they seem to arise spontaneously and simultaneously, filtering through our email, our Facebook pages, and even on commercial TV shows and advertisements like a contagion.

Memes have also been described as “the product of every teenager’s desire for self-expression, sarcasm, and humor, combined with the pervasiveness of technology and this generation’s unique, slightly quirky culture, stemming from the fact that geeks are becoming slightly more mainstream”.

Identifying Memes

Even if you don’t know what a “meme” is, you’ve most likely seen one:

Gangnam Style: popular dance video parodying "Gangnam Style," a Korean term similar to “swag” used to describe upscale fashion and lavish lifestyle associated with trendsetters in Seoul’s Gangnam district

Ermahgerd – engendered a new vocabulary (remember pig Latin?) based on the use of an orthodontic retainer. For a related activity, see the Ermahgerd Translator.

Photobombing Stingray – an accidental meme based on a school teacher's vacation photo gone awry

LOLcats – funny cat pictures – need I say more?

Rebecca Black – Friday – a monotonous sounding music video, with over 11 million views in four days.

Meh – while not strictly a meme, the expression (first popularized on the TV show The Simpsons), meaning “bored” or “indifferent” is often used to caption photos (often combined with LOLcats).

Makayla is Not Impressed – United States gymnast McKayla Maroney was photographed with a scowl on her face during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. In a show of his knowledge of popular culture, President Obama mugged with Makayla during her November 2012 visit to the White House.

Any wedding dance (Macarena, Hustle, YMCA) or the first dance

Some of the best memes have been created to define various professions. This series, entitled What Teachers Do – the “What I Really Do” Meme includes the six panel memes for What Teachers Do, What Science Teachers Do, What IT Teachers Do, What Librarians Do, What Science Students Do, What Computational Quantum Chemists Do, and What Tech Support Do.

Look at this school parody on Gangnam Style by Holy Trinity School as posted on Literacy Gangnam Style by professor Alec Couros who says, memes are “an emerging information literacy and their study is important for comprehending the way in which information flows through systems.” Couros references the many educational spin-offs the video has spawned:

Creating such joyful events at school are vitally important for an overall healthy learning environment. Combine this with complex, project-based work that seamlessly integrates new literacies through media development and your institution has just made great strides toward the development and modelling of a positive digital footprint (for the institution and for the individuals involved).

Memes as Lesson Plans

Creating a meme is easy. Stephanie Richter suggests you start with a photo, add a funny (or punny) caption, mashup (combination from two or more sources to create a new product or idea, word, etc.), different genres or topics, use current events, or inside jokes.  Here are the steps:

  1. Go to flickr.com (or any photosharing site)and choose a Creative Commons photo
  2. Go to Wikipedia (or any online database or news source-try news.google.com) and get a random article
  3. Go to quotationspage.com or http://www.bartleby.com/quotations and get a random quote

The assignment bank from DS106 is “an anthology of new media projects” from which you can select or randomly choose assignments (like this buddy photo project) that were originally part of an open online digital storytelling course.  There are the requisite cat memes, TED talks, comics, creepy movies, trolls and hero’s quest – all fodder for a high school literacy/art/social media course.

Other suggestions for a general overview lesson (from Memes in the Classroom):

  • Define “meme”
  • Identify popular memes
  • Learn to recognize memes versus truth (try Snopes.com)
  • Define the audience (“remixers”, “sharers”)
  • How was this meme spread?
  • Why did the meme spread?
  • How was the meme created (skills required)?
  • How was the meme remixed?
  • Discuss the collaboration, modification and sharing of memes
  • Identify counter memes
  • Create a remix of a favorite meme or create a counter meme

Heck Ya! Educational Memes, a blog dedicated to collecting memes, was started as a class project. Sample memes explain the difference between e.g. and i.e.; irony and paradox; drank and drunk and other grammar-related stumpers.

In Meme’s the Scene! Using Memes in the Classroom, educator John Wick takes a popular Facebook posting and re-interprets it for the classroom, creating a learning goal that incorporates technology, appropriate use of Wikipedia, copyright and creative commons, and graphic design concepts.

Create your own meme with the template at U think I do or take a look at themed memes for different jobs, sports, people, countries, sports and hobbies, the project manager, or more teacher memes. High schools can post their student created memes at hsmemes.com.

10 Final Exam Memes By People Wasting More Time Than You are examples of what people do when they should be studying/taking tests, and Study Tips from Memes, generated from a Google search, shares a similar point of view.

The Lostfrog.org activity is based on the internet meme it started in 2004 in which someone posted a picture of a flier pleading for the return of a lost frog named “hopkin green frog” (read the Wikipedia article for the surprise ending). New Literacies (referenced above) suggests clicking through each of the images at lostfrog.org (you may not see arrows or other indicators to advance to the next picture – just continue clicking on the image to see the next one).  Have students:

  1. Identify intertextual/media references (e.g. Hopkins Green Frog listing on iPod, Uncle Sam poster, got frog?, etc.)
  2. Compare lists and discuss how popular culture and even objects influence students’ recognition and reaction to the various memes.

Memes in the Content Areas

Try to think of a good chemistry pun. All the good ones argon.

This science related meme is posted on Higher Order Thinking Through Meme Building which includes a link to School Appropriate MemesEasy Memes for Every Subject recommends using HaikuDeck or Mematic (an app) to have students create their own subject area related memes:

  • Write a riddle for math over a picture of Albert Einstein
  • Pose a science question over an image of Marie Curie
  • Summarize the main idea of a text over a snapshot of a book’s cover

Students can also check out Social Studies Slogans: Make Your Own Memes,  try to figure out these math memes on Pinterest, create their own memes on Cheezburger Make a Meme LOLBuilders or “like” Classroom Memes on Facebook.

If you have any doubt about whether that viral email you received contains a meme, or you just want to search for one to share, check out Know Your Meme - the internet meme database – devoted to “documenting Internet phenomena: viral videos, image macros, catchphrases, web celebs and more.”

Have fun trying out these classroom activities.  And remember – all your base are belong to us!