As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Cégep de Chicoutimi, I integrate current internet culture into my daily teaching practice to enhance student engagement and foster creativity.
From grammar exercises to classic poetry, I build lessons where students will eventually create memes to reinvest their understanding of a poem. Additionally, I suggest various ways of incorporating internet culture in the classroom, including exploring fanfiction and TikTok videos, to help students achieve their learning objectives.
Creative approaches: originality versus novelty
As teachers, we often emphasize the importance of originality when it comes to writing assignments. But there is a misconception that originality is essential to creativity. The problem is that originality is a binary concept: one is either original or not. My experience running writing workshops for teachers tells me that most teachers are uncomfortable when asked to produce original work, and it follows that students feel the same. If an assignment prompt generates discomfort, the learning process is often blocked.
In order to get students to produce creative work and attain learning goals through that creative work, I’ve shifted my focus from requesting originality to encouraging novelty. Novelty is more accessible because the creative process starts from an existing format. For example, all action movies have a protagonist, an antagonist, explosions, fight scenes, and plot twists—but within that framework, there are always new ways for these to be used and arranged.
Full disclosure: this is part of my quest to move away from the standard academic essay toward wider varieties of writing. Inspired by Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture, I believe this allows students to attain 21st-century competencies, such as critical thinking and creativity.
I myself began writing fanfiction (creative work based on existing intellectual properties) seriously while I was working on my doctoral dissertation. It provided a much-needed break from the strictures of academic writing and connected me with a larger community of writers. It was, and continues to be, an incredibly exciting creative experience. Students can use a song, story, or movie as a starting point, and add or change elements in their creative work. This allows them to experience a link to a creative community while starting their work on a strong foundation of existing narrative. It steers the students toward creative approaches such as novelty and authenticity. It helps them find ways to express themselves in ways that feel comfortable.
Writing elaborate stories in a 45-hour course can be daunting for students. However, there are other, less time-intensive options that demonstrate the difference between originality and novelty and allow teachers to access and support student creativity. Memes, “a unit of cultural transmission,”, or, less frequently, “a unit of imitation” (both defined by Richard Dawkins) are something that all students are familiar with. They make an effective and engaging starting point for creative work.
Even if many students are very familiar with memes, providing them with a few examples is always helpful. An accessible resource for finding memes is knowyourmeme.com. This site provides solid context. It is essential, because:
- the life cycle of a meme is relatively short
- memes often have backgrounds that can be racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic
That said, there are many classic and hilarious memes that can serve as a touchpoint to help students understand the difference between originality and novelty. As students are usually familiar with the classics, they understand that memes aim for novelty and entertainment but not originality. When reading a meme, they know what to expect because of the predetermined structure, but the underlying concept remains alterable and adaptable.
Sample lesson: poem analysis
As part of my Langue anglaise et culture course (604-102-MQ), I’ve created a 3-part lesson plan using internet culture and the base principles of transformative work to explore the classic poem “This is Just to Say”.