What do you do when you’re teaching a year-long course, First Year Seminar, and pick up some new students in the spring semester? Have students make memes to explain the previous semester!
I’ve told a few people about this exercise, and they seemed interested in learning more, so I thought I might as well write up a longer explanation of how this lesson plan works. I believe it could be adapted to a number of different educational contexts, depending on your goals as an educator.
So, at the university where I teach, all entering first-years must take the year-long course, First Year Seminar, regardless of which major they’ve declared. The main goal is to teach about reading, writing, critical thinking, public speaking – basically, “welcome to college” skills – through a lens of liberal arts education as well as any topic the instructor chooses. Obviously mine is on fairy tales, and we spent the fall semester building a basic literacy in concepts from folklore, folk narrative, and fairy-tale studies, while also deepening our writing and critical thinking skills.
In order to increase the relevance of my chosen topic in, well, 2020, I made sure to connect fairy tales with global pandemics and Black Lives Matter. We started off by learning about the Decameron, itself a plague narrative incorporating folktales and sorta-kinda early fairy tales. As the semester progressed, we covered many of the classic fairy-tale authors and collectors – Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen – and then we ended by reading Kalynn Bayron’s new novel Cinderella Is Dead which puts classic fairy tales in conversation with LGBTQ+ and Black identities (fantastic book, highly recommend! plus my students reported finding it really engaging!).
In short, we covered a lot of material last semester, and I repeatedly praised my students on how much they’d learned.
Now, imagine that you’re plopped into this environment in January. How can you keep up with the students who’d already had one semester of this stuff?!
Oh yeah, and due to condensed semesters in order to try to address COVID-19 concerns, we had a longer winter break than usual. So even the students who were with me in the fall might be a little shaky on remembering everything.
My solution? Meme this class. Specifically, I choose around a dozen of the most important class concepts from the previous semester, made a list and provided definitions of them each, and asked my students to make memes of them, to refresh the memories of those who were in the class previously and to teach the newcomers. (since I didn’t think exams were the most useful way of evaluating my students’ progress last semester, instead we did reading responses, participation credits, and papers, and it was mandatory to use class concepts correctly in each of them, so that was my way of “testing” students)
I’ve also got memes on the brain, since my research on the last election cycle’s Biden mems was just published (with my coauthor and friend Linda J. Lee) in Folklore and Social Media, an excellent book I’d encourage you to check out if you have any interest in the topic.
The memes are still rolling in, since we’ve just completed the first week of instruction, and so far they’re delightful. Again, another instructor might provide different concepts to meme and/or a different set of instructions, but I basically linked to a bunch of meme generators online, gave my students the list of class concepts with definitions, and told them to create at least 1 meme explaining a class concept (or, if they weren’t in this section last semester, they could do a more general university-related or college-writing-related meme).
Depending on what you’re teaching, and what your teaching style is, you made need to provide some additional guidelines. For example, I told my students that if they wanted to venture into more edgy corners of the internet, they should keep in mind our guidelines for civil discussion: basically, no bigotry, and no punching down. I also had a somewhat informal, low-key teaching style, so I told them it was fine to gently poke fun at me (and some did, with rather humorous takes on how harshly I cracked down on them saying “the original” tale in the fall semester).
Below are some of the other memes I made to explain class concepts.
Anyway, this was a fun exercise, and I think it provided students with a way to creatively engage with class concepts and also interact with one another over them, as I had us explain the memes we made in an icebreaker discussion AND post their memes to a class forum, requiring them to comment on a classmate’s post in order to get full credit. If anyone else teaches with this, please let me know how it went!