October 23, 2023

Using Current Internet Culture to Support Student Creativity

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 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”.

This is Just to Say

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


This lesson plan includes:

  • a narrative tense practice activity
  • an imitative writing exercise
  • a wrap-up activity

I’ve found that students engage well with the content, and it has been a lot of fun.

Narrative tense practice activity

To start the lesson, I begin with a grammar awareness activity, since I have noticed that my students at the 102 level still struggle with perfect tenses in relation to past tenses. This step-by-step activity is designed to facilitate their comprehension of these tenses:

  • Students are presented with a scrambled version of the poem. They are asked to reassemble the sentences, which were printed and cut out line by line, then placed in an envelope.
  • Students identify the verb phrases and verb tenses within the poem.
  • Students examine the use of perfect tenses in conjunction with simple past and past progressive tenses.

Finally, we engage in a discussion about how changing the verb tenses would impact the meaning of the poem. For example, substituting the simple past for the present perfect in the first sentence creates a different meaning. “I have eaten the plums” is immediately relevant; “I ate the plums” is a more distant perception.

Imitative writing activity

For this imitative writing assignment, students are asked to modify the poem to reinvest their understanding of it and its grammar components. They are offered 2 options. They may either:

  1. reuse the format and change the content
  2. reuse the content and change the format

In the 1st option, students keep the same narrative pattern while replacing the core concept (the plum story) with a concept of their choice.

Samples from an imitative writing assignment written by students. It reads: “Sample 1 / I have eaten / your homework/ than was on / your bed /And which /you were probably / supposed to hand in / Forgive me / it was disgusting / and your teacher won’t / believe you/ Sample 2 / I have taken / your car / which was in / the garage / And which / you were probably / saving / for the family / Forgive me / it was so nice / so fast / and so furious / Sample 3 / I have eaten / the heart / that was in / the icebox / And which / you were probably / saving / for the patient / Forgive me / it was delicious / so fresh / and so alive”.

Samples from an imitative writing assignment written by students, using the same narrative pattern as the poem but replacing the core concept with one about homework, a car, and a heart.

For the 2nd option, students reuse the content (the plum story) while changing the format in which it is presented (the poem). From my experience, the students prefer having some level of guidance on the format as too many options can leave them feeling overwhelmed and anxious. For example, I usually provide a format suggestion, such as rewriting the poem in the style of a popular song. However, for those students who want to go wild, I allow them to reinvest the plum story in almost any way they see fit.

Samples from an imitative writing assignment written by students as popular songs. It reads: “Sample 1 / Sometimes all I think about is plums… / Late night in the middle of the icebox / Heat waves were so delicious / Forgive me for not saving the plums / Sample 2 / Sexy Plums / Yes, I can see them /Cause everyone in the icebox wanna eat them/ Oh, there’s plums / I feel the same and I wanna eat them”.

Samples from an imitative writing assignment written by students, using the same narrative story as the poem but written as popular songs. Sample 1 was inspired by Heat Waves by Glass Animals and sample 2 by Sexy Bitch by David Guetta.

In this sample meme created by a student on the poem “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, there is a close-up picture of a cat staring at a camera with a somewhat human-like polite expression on its face. It reads: “When you have to tell somebody that You ate all their plums, and you say: But they were so delicious”.

Sample meme created by a student about the assigned poem “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams and based on the popular meme known as The Polite Cat.

Wrap-up activity

To motivate the students and to generate meaningful discussions, I collect their work and tape it up in stations around the classroom. Then, to encourage peer feedback and interaction, I provide each student with a few sticky notes on which they can jot down their comments regarding their peers’ work. Students then have the freedom to move around the classroom, sticking their comments beneath the works they are discussing.

This activity is an engaging and motivating way to close the lesson because there’s direct interaction on their own work that mimics social media interaction. Because they have the option of sharing their memes and comments anonymously, this lesson also helps them to get used to sharing without being too self-conscious.

I usually use this 2-hour lesson early in the semester. It generates great in-class discussions on novelty, creativity, and simple stories. It is also an effective way to review narrative tenses and reinvest concise narrative forms. Moreover, as this is the kind of activity that is easily repeatable, it can eventually serve as an evaluation tool.

From TikTok to fanfiction

There are so many ways to integrate current internet culture into teaching practice.

For instance, the lesson I presented can easily be extended. Indeed, it’s endlessly repeatable with a different concept from the current internet culture, be it a popular TV show, a trending TikTok video, Reddit posts, or any other relevant source!

The versatility of this approach allows for easy adaptation to different ESL levels. For lower-level students, focus on descriptions and processes (explaining how to do something). For example, ask the students to select a meme and provide an explanation, outlining the process and the structure required to create a successful meme.

Using visual cues

As part of my daily teaching practice, I enjoy incorporating visual cues, such as memes and recurring images, in my PowerPoint presentations. While it might sometimes bring humour into the classroom, every visual cue has a pedagogical purpose. There is a link between the visual elements and the content I intend to teach in that particular class. Consequently, students are engaged and try to discover the intent behind these cues.

This practice has cultivated an anticipation among my students, as they come to expect something unique in every class. They eagerly await the visual cues I have in store. These seemingly small things have a big impact on student attention and participation.

Even if these visual cues come from my personal interest in current internet culture, a teacher who may not share the same interest can still harness it as a teaching tool.

In short, if you are even slightly aware of online trends and culture, try to integrate them into your day-to-day teaching as a point of connection with your students. I am always on the lookout for new ways to integrate internet culture into my daily teaching practice, so I invite you to share your own ideas and experiences below!

About the author

Elise Mitchell

Elise Mitchell has been teaching ESL at the Cégep de Chicoutimi since 2001, and also gives English literature and writing classes at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. She loves creativity, reading, writing, and the internet, not necessarily in that order, and enjoys changing the meme on the title slide of her PowerPoint every week.

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