If you’re a history buff, you may already know that Cleopatra had a substantial amount of rizz. King Henry VIII, on the other hand, could be considered the Tom Sandoval of his time. Meanwhile, Czar Nicholas II struggled to, well, pick a struggle.
All three of these historic royals have been the subject of “Gen Z Teaches History,” a viral video series created by Lauren Cella, who teaches 10th grade history. In it, the California educator assumes the persona of a Gen Z teacher from the future, delivering overviews of historical figures and events using a hilarious mix of opaque (if you’re a Millennial or older) slang and Taylor Swift lyrics.
“A positive compliment that I hear sometimes from my students or from people on the internet is like, ‘Oh my goodness, you make history so interesting,’” Cella explains. “And I always say, ‘History is interesting.’ I think other people make it boring. I’m not making it interesting. I’m just telling you what happened.”
Check out our Gen Z slang dictionary below.
What began on a lark on social media has earned Cella millions of views across TikTok and Instagram, along with the admiration of students and commenters who appreciate how much they learn from each installment.
“Thank you for helping me get my PhD in 20th century history,” wrote a commenter about Cella’s explanation of the Cold War.
Behind the lighthearted series is Cella’s real love of history and desire to make it more accessible, just as her own teachers did for her.
“I think other people make it inaccessible,” she says. “I think other people purposely want to not tell different sides of the story, they want it to be an easier narrative, they purposely use vocabulary that only encompasses upper academia. They don’t want other types of people to be able to have access to the curriculum, and that’s done on purpose — especially in social studies.”
How It Started
Cella loves a good story.
It’s why she studied history and journalism as an undergrad, and why teaching history appeals to her. Before that, Cella grew up hearing stories from her paternal Hawaiian grandparents — who are also of Chinese and Puerto Rican heritage, which Cella says is a common “hapa” mix of backgrounds — about their lives and the family’s history. They shared stories about what they witnessed during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and they also regaled her with the history of Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taino people.
“Then on my mom’s side of the family, all the elders would tell stories about how the family came from Mexico,” Cella recalls. “From a really young age, I was really interested in Liberty’s Kids and the American Girl series. I should have known I was going to be a history teacher.”
It’s a lack of connection to the past that Cella sees as a barrier to students finding their own love for history.
“A lot of these things were 100 years ago, 200 years ago, and maybe if you’re reading about it from a primary source, it can be really difficult to understand,” Cella explains. “I’ve had teachers of different ages that were able to break it down in a way that we could understand, and that made me fall in love with history. So the series is really just an homage to that.”
It was Cella’s students who encouraged her to start posting history lessons online, and she finally gave it a try during the pandemic.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m too old. Nobody does that,’” Cella recalls thinking about the notion of taking to social media to teach lessons. “And they’re like, ‘No, Miss, they do. You can actually learn a lot of stuff. People go on it to learn.’ So I started kind of posting more and just experimenting, and I noticed that my stories about teaching or my reels about history were getting a lot more engagement than anything else I was posting.”
Her first viral hit was a Gen Z history lesson on the Russian Revolution, which gained 1 million views on Instagram and then another million views on TikTok. Cella says that she chalked it up to luck, but then her next video on the French Revolution reached 2 million views. Subsequent history videos continued to perform well.
Most of her online audience is made up of people her age or older, Cella says. While they might not understand all of the slang, she muses, they’re drawn in by the format and pleasantly surprised to end the videos knowing more than when they started.
“Literally have never understood WW1 until right now,” a commenter wrote on her most popular TikTok video to date.
Cella likes to “trick” people into learning when they think they’re just watching a funny social media post.
“Of course, it’s an oversimplification. The videos are a minute long, but it gets people interested,” she says. “I’m really just doing the same thing on TikTok and reels that every great teacher does, and that’s just connecting with their students and breaking it down into a language that they could understand in a way that is inclusive and maybe a little bit fun.”
Fun can be hard to come by for teachers these days. Cella hopes that her videos offer an example to fellow educators about how, despite the difficulties of the profession, they need not always let worry dominate.
“If you’re worried that you’re not doing enough, you probably are. Because the good teachers that I know are always trying to do the best for our students,” she says. “So if that’s where your heart is, 99 percent of the time, you’re probably already doing enough.”
Behind the Scenes
There are a few recurring elements to Cella’s Gen Z history videos: She’s sitting behind a desk or podium, sunglasses perched atop her head, iced coffee in hand.
Cella says she never intended for the iced coffee in particular to become a staple of the format, but there’s no going back now. That’s because it signals a pivotal moment in her videos, when she shakes the ice-filled cup, switches hands, and introduces important context for the story with a pointed, “Meanwhile…”
“This is so embarrassing, but sometimes it takes me a few takes and the ice would melt, and then I would have water. And I’m like, ‘What do you do?’” she recounts. “I would go buy another one, but then I was all hyped up on coffee. So I have fake ice in the iced coffee now.”
Cella is a student of her time. As a high schooler, she was a fan of comedy history shows like Drunk History and Epic Rap Battles of History — series that approached dry subject matter with a comedic slant that earned them wide appeal.
But her influences now include her students, who give her ideas for new slang to incorporate and keep her up-to-date on the ever-evolving Gen Z — and now Gen Alpha — lexicon.
It was her students’ frank way of speaking about the world that inspired the character Cella plays. Cella says that if she’s making fun of anyone, it’s herself and not the kids.
“The way we were taught [history] was so boring and so dry and only told one side of the story, and Gen Z is not about that,” Cella says. “So when they actually get to be the history teachers, that was the inspiration. They’re going to really give us the tea, they’re really going to tell us how it is.”