Makin’ Memes

Technology is certainly changing our world today, and if we allow it, it can change the learning in our classes.

one-way-street-362172_1280One important difference in the media today from yesterday is the participation factor. When I was a child watching TV and movies, I sat passively taking it all in. The active part came in playing with the themed toys that marketers smartly targeted to kids. But the world of the media was mostly a one-way road.

Then came the Internet.

With people now able to upload anything from text, to pictures, to videos, the world of the Internet is now our world, too. In a fascinating TED talk, Why Video’s Go Viral, YouTube trends manager Kevin Allocca notes that one significant difference in the media today is that people can participate in the conversation, partly why, he explains, videos go viral. The media is no longer a one way road.

I wanted to get my kids participating, and in the recent unit on satire, I finally saw a way: Memes. In class we came to understand that satire humorously points out the flaws in society, government, religion, etc. Then we followed this sequence:

1. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood what was meant by memes. I had to avoid an open search for memes because some of the them are not appropriate for high school. I preselected some for them to view and posted links on the class web site: Why Women Live Longer Than Men, If Alcohol Labels Told the Truth, Welcome to Parenthood, and Magazine Pictures Vs Others.  We could have talked a bit on which ones served as satire and which ones just humor, but I needed to keep the pace of the lesson quick.

2. Next I wanted them to see the just how participatory and influential memes could be, and the summer World Cup gave us lots to look at. Because it is a class on media, I wanted them to study the structure of articles as part of the lesson. So we doubled the task, looking at information on the influence of memes and news article structure. This article titled, How the World Cup Became a Cup of Memes,  from the Wall Street Journal served nicely. (If you have Spanish speakers, they could look at the many Spanish memes referenced in the article.)

3. Now for the kids chance. The students could use the meme generators available at and Both have lots of pictures from which to choose. I also provided an image to get them going if needed; they could use Preview on their Macs, which allows the addition of text to any jpeg. This images was taken by the tech department when an unnamed teacher tried to get more toner our of a toner cartridge. He did, but not in the way he expected.

meme copier

4. For the collection of the memes, I created a Google Presentation and gave them editing rights. They easily made their own slide, put on their name, and pasted in the meme. After watching the show, the kids wanted more–especially more on an IB theme (We’re an International Baccalaureate School), but they wanted to share their favorites that they had read online. So we added more slides.

5. Sharing with the community. I wanted other students and teachers to see what the kids created and how valuable it was to show the kid’s creativity and sense of satire. So I made a bulletin board in the hall. I know, its anachronistic, but it would get to my audience. I’m hoping that the other teachers would be impressed, and maybe, inspired to find ways to integrate memes into their lessons. (Imagine memes of historical characters? Literary characters? An atom talking to an enzyme?)

Student Created:

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made! (A summative is a test or assessment of any kind.)

Student made! (A summative is a test or assessment of any kind.)

Student made!

I found this student made meme particularly poignant. This kid is under a lot of pressure.

Teaching Tone II

The first time I knew my bags were searched during a peaceful and relaxing flight, I was a little upset. Knowing that someone opened my bags and went through my stuff was annoying. The only way I knew was a little message left behind by that TSA employee: the “Notice of Baggage Inspection.”

TSA English

As I read the notice, I was impressed by its crafting. It anticipated my emotional reaction and attempted to dispel my anger with a calm and reasoned voice. It understood my need to know “Why?” by answering that question right away. It stayed in the conditional, not commanding or demanding, but reassuring. I wanted my students to see this, so it became part of the lesson on tone.

1) After the music introduction (see Teaching Tone post), I have the students play around with words, noting especially their denotation and connotation. After defining those two words, we look at house and home. What feelings do the words evoke? After a few moments the kids hone in on home, its warm comfortable relaxed feeling. Home is where you belong; a house is where you live.

To further cement the difference, we try out common phrases using home, but with house replacing it. This always gets laughs:

House sweet house.

Welcome to the house.

A house is where the heart is.

2) Now that we are rolling, I have them try to scale words based on their strength: weakest to strongest. You can choose whatever list you want. I like to use this list: abhor, detest, dislike, hate loathe, revile. There is some discussion over how to sequence them, especially when meaning overlaps, but in the end, most kids sense the words that have a more powerful connotation.

3) Next we move the analysis into sentences. I explain loaded language and how connotation plays a role. Their task here is to find the words that use connotation to influence the reader in a biased manner.

“The young governor seems to think that his so-called plan will lower the taxes at the same time as increase revenue.”

“The draft-dodger candidate managed to keep himself out of harm’s way by running off to college rather than defend democracy.”

4) Now onto the TSA notice. With copies of the notice in hand, the students annotation the whole text looking for how the author uses connotation to influence the reader.

The analysis can be extended beyond connotation to layout (font choice, font size, placement), sentence construction (introductory phrases, conditional clauses), levels of language (polite, legal), elements (logo, motto), etc.

After this guided practice, I will either give them another document to analyze on their own, or move to the essay writing process with the TSA notice as their text. Another idea is to have the students flip the bias in a text by using words with the opposite connotation.

For those in a school with large numbers of Spanish speakers, the TSA notice comes in Spanish too. An interesting activity would be to compare the connotation of the Spanish with that of the English. Which allays fear and anger the best?

TSA Spanish

Great material can be found in the most surprising places, even in a suitcase after a long flight. Keep your eyes open!

Teaching Tone

Getting students to be aware of tone in writing can be challenging, but I have found that taking them from the familiar to the unfamiliar is a great way to introduce tone as an element for analysis.

We start with a clear definition of tone and a long list of the words that express tone. The kids can take turns reading a word out loud putting the emotion in their voice that matches the meaning if they’re feeling brave.

Then the media comes in. Every student has a developed taste in music, so getting them to comment on the tone in songs is really fun. The challenge is for them to use language as accurate as they can to describe the complexity of the emotions in the songs. The activity can move from a more familiar sound to something less familiar. Or, the students can be the ones to choose the music, and the rest of the class have to describe the tone. There are so many ways to vary the activity to give the students more engagement in tone analysis.

I like to start with U2 because their sound is so complex and often kids have heard some of their music. The song “No Line on the Horizon,” album title the same, is yearning, dreamy and powerful. Most kids respond well to it. “Get on Your Boots” works well for a more gritty pulsing sound (but watch out for the meaning–depending on your school).

Here is an alternate, the theme song for the movie Borne Legacy called “Extreme Ways.”

I follow the contemporary music with Mozart’s Requiem. The tracks I use are: 1) Rex Tremendae, because the Rex jumps out so powerfully, and as an expression of grief, you can’t get much more dramatic.

2) Lacrimosa Dies Illa, because of the fast shifts in tone from morose to angelic, which opens the conversation to times when authors switch tone in texts.

By this time the students are relaxed and have the sense that they can hear tone and have words to describe it. To drive it home, the kids could choose the songs and lead the lesson.

For less advanced students, the teacher could limit the words used to describe the tone, print them out on cards, and have the kids match the words to the songs as they are played. My low level ESL kids were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet during the lesson–they loved it, because it was so accessible. There are so many ways to use music to understand tone.

The next step is to move the analysis to the written word. For more, see Teaching Tone II.