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Making Memes to Illustrate Readings

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This week I am inspired by Daniel Rarela, an artist whose work I found highlighted in the News.Mic article “Artist creates ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ memes to stop people from whitewashing MLK” (found via Virginia Kuhn’s post on Facebook). Rarela’s memes juxtapose quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s text with images of King from the time period and with contemporary images.

Rarela’s image of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is one of my favorites. The meme pairs an image of Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem as a protest against racism with King’s comments on the purpose of direct action. Together, the words and image communicate a powerful message about Kaepernick’s direct action, about the on-going battle against racism in America, and about the timeless relevance of King’s words:

Daniel Rarela

Beyond the message that Rarela’s memes communicate, they also make a great model for classes working with historical and literary texts. After discussing the visual argument strategies of Rarela’s memes, students can create their own memes, illustrating or commenting on quotations from the texts that they are reading.

Students can use use a free online tool like Canva or PicMonkey to edit their images. I would take time in class to demonstrate how to work with text and images. In particular, students need to understand how to create contrast between the image and their text that they add in the image editor that they use.

To demonstrate the idea, I created the two images below, matching comments from Coretta Scott King with photos taken recently. This first image pairs a photo of Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse in 2015 with a comment Coretta Scott King made on the Confederate flag:

On the Confederate Flag

My second image matches an image of the Women’s March on WDC by Mobilus In Mobili, on Flickr, with a comment Coretta Scott King made on the role of women in America:

Women as the Soul of the Nation

I’m pleased with how these images turned out. In addition to using this strategy for literary and historical texts that students are reading, I am considering how they might be used in other contexts. In a professional writing course, for instance, could students pair comments from a company’s mission statement or annual report with images of workers in the company or its products or services in action?

I think there are a lot of possibilities. What do you think? I’d love to hear about the texts you might ask students to concentrate on with this classroom activity. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.