A dancing police officer. A Founding Father with a wig made from sweat socks. And a physics professor, in a jester cap, on a pogo stick. These are some of the many characters from American schools who blew up on social media in 2019. Here’s our unranked list of 10 of the most notable viral learning, teaching and school-related moments of the year.
Good sportsmanship (188,000 views on Facebook, 4.7 million on Twitter)
The scene: a middle school wrestling match in Anamosa, Iowa, between Austin Scranton and Lucas Lacina, who has cerebral palsy. You see his taller, stronger opponent treating him with care and gentleness. With encouragement, Lacina pins Scranton down and wins the match. “I wanted to help some kid that loves the same sport as me and to help him be really happy,” his 14-year-old opponent told the local news.
Beat of a different drummer (2.9 million views on Instagram)
Justin Heideman is a dancing drum major for Jefferson Davis High School’s marching band in Montgomery, Ala. He’s also white, while most of his bandmates and classmates are African American. A clip of him strutting his stuff went viral when paired with commentary from a black Instagram personality, Pubby Longway.
Tara Conley, a scholar of social media at Montclair State University, says race can be an unexamined factor in what kind of content gets attention online. “A lot of the critique coming from my circles is that, OK, the mainstream media is covering this because he is a white kid engaging in this African American tradition. … Why isn’t local news covering the thousands of talented black kids who are also drum majors, drum line majors and so on?”
Heideman himself told the local news that the whole band deserved the credit because of “the hard work we do,” and that “I just see it as I’m somebody that just happens to be a different race doing what other people have done.”
Physics explosion! (27 million views on Twitter)
He jumps on a pogo stick and zooms on a skateboard. He makes ice cream out of liquid nitrogen. He lies down on a freaking bed of nails. This compilation shows that there’s seemingly nothing that David Wright won’t do to get his students at Tidewater Community College in Virginia excited about physics.
Wright tells NPR he has been teaching here since the college opened its doors in 1974. “When I first started out, I had a fairly traditional education in physics. I could do problems and knew the ideas, but I’d never done anything with demos.” But over the years, he got more and more excited about different ways to illustrate concepts such as velocity, acceleration, pressure and convection for his students — most of whom have never taken physics before.
Wright’s been on camera before, starring in an educational video series for NASA in the early 2000s. But it’s fair to say that he would never have reached so wide an audience without two of his students, Erica Church and her best friend Kierra Brothers, both 18-year-olds training to be ultrasound technicians. Church shot the video throughout the semester, and Brothers encouraged her to edit it, adding emoji and comments, and post it on Twitter. “I think it just shows that, like, learning can be so much more,” Church says. “It doesn’t always have to be just PowerPoints and boring. It can be fun.” And showing budding media savvy, when asked why she thinks it’s been so popular, she adds, “I think that the video is just … it’s heartfelt and it’s just so adorable and cute, and it’s just good-quality content.”
TikToking history (hundreds of thousands of views per video)
TikTok is a social network with 1.5 billion users made up of videos that are typically 15 seconds or shorter. Thanks largely to a Twitter thread by a young Democratic staffer named Nadia Jaferey, the world has learned that teens sometimes use it to post teeny tiny takes on world history.
Conley of Montclair State says she is “fascinated” by young people’s creative uses of the network, which she calls “another form of personal essay” in a new communication medium. “They’re taking some of these serious controversial historical issues and spinning it, in a way that is critical and satirical, but also makes a valid statement about the history of this country, especially when it comes to colonialism and race,” Conley says. “I’m a fan.”
Dancing in uniform (117,000 views on YouTube)
Wearing a tactical vest packed with gear and even a weapon strapped to his thigh, Ryan Tillman is surprisingly light on his feet, performing a slick routine in unison with students in the auditorium of Don Lugo High School in Chino, Calif. The school resource officer told the TV show Inside Edition that he planned the dance as a farewell to his students after getting a promotion.
When school resource officers — police stationed inside schools — have gone viral in the past, it’s sometimes been for intervening with excessive force or, in the case of Parkland, Fla., not showing up when needed. Tillman wanted to turn that image around. He’s started a foundation dedicated to creating better relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Slang dictionary (165,000 retweets on Twitter)
For years, James Callahan has kept a running list of unfamiliar terms used by his students at Lowell High School in Lowell, Mass. — like “bops” for good songs, or “high key” for obvious. One day, a student snapped a picture of the document with her phone and put it up on Twitter (since deleted), and it promptly went viral.
“I’ve bookmarked the document,” Conley says. “It’s a great resource.” She also wants to make sure that people understand that this isn’t just an example of “Gen Z slang,” as much of the media reported. As a scholar, most of the terms read to her as examples of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.
Callahan told NPR that he agrees. And as a “middle-aged white guy” teaching a class of students from all over the world, he doesn’t try to use the terms himself. “That would immediately make them not relevant.” He’s just in a quest to better understand his students, which fits in well with his subject: sociology.
Chart-toppers and their littlest fans (tens of millions of views)
“I just took an ELA test, turns out I’m 100% that smart,” Dorothy Mallari’s second-graders whoop on video at Los Medanos Elementary School in Pittsburg, Calif., doing a school-friendly take of Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.” Lizzo expressed her appreciation in a video message after the kids appeared on Good Morning America.
Meanwhile, student versions of “Old Town Road,” the biggest hit of the year, went viral several times, in Birmingham, Ala., Swartz Creek, Mich., and Mayfield Heights, Ohio. After seeing the last one, Lil Nas X himself showed up and played a concert for his fans at Lander Elementary School.
Conley says that while the joy of these moments can be infectious, it’s also important to think about student privacy, especially with younger kids. “I celebrate the fact that young people are able to do all this stuff. But at the same time, I want to make sure that, you know, they’re not putting themselves out there and we’re not exploiting the learning that young people are doing.”
Students speak up! (20,000+ listens on SoundCloud)
The winners of NPR’s first Student Podcast Contest hail from Bronx Prep Middle School. These eighth-grade girls decided to break silence, stigma and shame to talk about (Sssh!) periods in their episode of the same name.
After they were featured on NPR, they landed on NBC’s Today show and even got a sponsorship from the feminine products company Always to continue producing their podcast, talking about everything from dress codes to teenage homophobia.
Check out some of our other favorite student podcast entries here.
A powerful embrace (5.4 million views on Twitter)
It’s a riveting drama told in about a minute. It played out at Parkrose High School in Portland, Ore., last spring. A surveillance camera shows a school hallway. Parkrose football coach and security guard Keanon Lowe backs out of a classroom, with one arm around a boy and the other arm holding a shotgun. He hands the shotgun off to someone. Then he wraps both arms around the boy, 19-year-old student Angel Granados-Diaz, who is wearing a black trench coat. They stay in that embrace for more than 40 seconds. Granados-Diaz appears to be crying.
No shots were fired that day. A court later found Granados-Diaz was having a suicidal episode and struggling with substance abuse and did not intend to harm anyone other than himself. Lowe told NBC, “I just wanted to let him know that I was there for him. I told him I was there to save him. I was there for a reason and that this is a life worth living.”