For many K-12 students, history class is a dreaded period of memorizing facts, reciting dates, and recalling events that often seem irrelevant to the present day. I can vividly remember listening to an hour long lecture on Medieval History during my freshman year of high school, the teacher reading diligently from a clipboard about the origins of the Renaissance. Sitting in the back of the class, I remember wondering “why does this stuff even matter?”
Now that I'm older, I appreciate the significance of teaching history in schools. Educating students about the history of our world is important in many ways. It helps us understand how our society came to be. It provides us with a sense of identity and teaches us about decision making. History helps us understand change, mistakes, and redemption. It provides us with a lense to evaluate ourselves and the world around us.
Even though most schools value their history programs, many educators still struggle with how to teach history with engaging and applied methods. It’s a challenge to make facts and figures from centuries ago relevant to students’ everyday lives.
However, there is one cultural movement that has risen with the 21st century that could be a great opportunity for students to put historical ideas and information into a present day context: the internet meme. In this article, I describe how history teachers can use memes to teach and how students can make memes to study history.
What are Memes?
At its most basic form, an internet meme is a concept or idea expressed through pictures, gifs, symbols, words, or anything else that is relevant to the creator of the meme and the audience they are sharing it with. Many of the most popular memes over the years have included images and emotions that most anyone can connect and empathize with.
Below, a popular internet meme from 2012 depicts “Bad Luck Brian,” a guy who is unable to catch a break in life. The unluckiness of this character is something that everyone can relate to, laugh at, and put their own creative spin on.
Using Memes in a History Class
Meme making requires creativity and empathy. This exercise can be useful when learning about history. With memes, students no longer need to question why they are learning about a certain historical event, because it can suddenly relate to familiar media, emotions, and images.
I recently spoke with my sister, a junior in high school, and asked her how she learned to memorize and understand material in her United States history class. She laughed and pulled up a folder on her computer, one that was full of memes of her own creation, all relating to the topics she was learning in history class. Memes are more memorable than flashcards, and students are more invested since they flex their digital media skills.
Here’s one she made that depicts a decision made by George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The image — a car swerving off of the freeway at the last second — visualizes the haste and bravado of Custer’s decision in that moment. This humorous and relatable meme will help my sister remember the content longer and has allowed her to interact with it in a much more personal way.
My sister isn’t the only one who has taken advantage of the meme in the classroom. Many teachers and students are beginning to understand the power that memes have to foster storytellers and connect students with experiences and individuals from the past.
How to Make Memes in Schools?
In order to bring these memes to life, students need to be able to access the tools necessary to create them. This is where Kapwing comes in. Kapwing is an online image and video editor that’s simple enough for students of all ages to explore. It’s free and works on every internet connected device, including Chromebooks. There are no distracting ads or related content, and there’s a gallery of meme templates to browse for inspiration.
Start by going to Kapwing’s Meme Maker. Then, upload an image or video or choose an existing template to make a meme that represents an event, concept, person, or setting with a humorous, memorable spin. Once the meme is done, download it to share or share the URL. You can share this tutorial on how to make a meme with your students!
My sister, like many students, is looking for ways to engage with material in history class. I remember being in her shoes – the long textbooks, the endless note-taking, the decks of flashcards, and the feeling of disconnection from most historical material.
But after seeing her face light up as she scrolled through a library of her creations, I began to believe there is a way to empower students to take part in their historical education. Harnessing the power of the internet meme, and utilizing easy accessible tools like Kapwing to make them a reality are small steps that educators can take to empower students with the means to make their own connections and contributions to history.
Thanks for reading! For more ideas for digital media lessons you can teach in the classroom, check out Kapwing’s article on video + project based learning. We’re always looking for teachers to talk to about how they use multimedia in the classroom, so please reach out with your ideas!
Gallery: History Memes
Below is a gallery of history memes that students have made using Kapwing. There’s a link to the template in the caption of each image so that you can make your own!
You could make memes from GIFs, images, or videos to illustrate a lesson, historical time period, person, or interaction.