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Six-Word Memoirs in Schools

During the fall quarter of 2020 at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, thirty upper division students gathered online to rant, share their experiences and opinions on life in COVID-19 times in — you guessed it — only six words. The discussion was part of an icebreaker in a class entitled Civil and Human Rights Law for Disabled People, taught by UW Part-Time Lecturer Stephen Rosenbaum. “Succinctness is always a good thing,” Rosenbaum says, “I tend to be verbose myself, but always encourage my students to be succinct in their writing.” After reading The New York Times article “The Pandemic in Six-Word Memoirs” by Larry Smith, Rosenbaum had the idea of skipping the small talk and asked his students to share their opinion on the hottest and most relevant topic that was currently looming over their heads as they logged onto Zoom. “People went back and forth, and I replied to some and tried to get them to post elsewhere, knowing that this really had a life of its own.” He encouraged them to read the article, reflect, and come up with their own memoirs based on where they were in their personal lives.

At Ashe County Middle School in Warrensville, NC, more than 400 students created Six-Word Memoirs for a unique multimedia project. Julie Taylor, curriculum director for the Ashe County Schools, has been a fan of the Six-Word Memoir form since she first discovered our teen book,  I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets. "As a teaching literacy specialist of 25 years, I have seen the many powerful ways that this  ‘American Haiku’ format can unlock students' creativity," says Taylor. Using the simplicity of the six-word format, Taylor conducted a range of lessons on the power of words. Syntax, diction, and connotations were essential learning tools as students wrote memoirs about their middle school experience. Taylor noted that once her students got the six-word bug, some students didn’t want to stop after their first Six-Word Memoir and kept writing.

At L’Anse Creuse High School in Harrison Township, Michigan, English teacher Michelle Wolff and her students craft personal Six-Word Memoirs and reflect on the one-year mark of remote distance learning. Wolff is no stranger to writing memoirs— since 2012, she has written over two thousand Six-Word Memoirs and has been featured in our Six Words Fresh of the Boat book ("The other kids never had grebble"). For the past eight years, her students say that Six-Word Memoirs is one of their favorite projects. [caption id="attachment_24499" align="alignleft" width="329"] "Sharing my joy with my students." —Mrs. Wolff[/caption] For her freshmen students, Wolff asks them to write memoirs for novel characters, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Her creative writing seniors engage in Six-Word Memoirs as an introduction to a longer memoir unit. Her classes learn about the process through the Six-Word Memoirs books and founder Larry Smith's TED talk. Wolff’s seniors had been juniors when the school began remote learning. They endured a year of social distancing, wearing masks, and constant rules and restrictions. Their reflections on the pandemic, as well as personal life experiences and drama, are inspirations for their memoirs.

This year, at Metamora Township High School in Metamora, Illinois, English teacher Tabitha Cooper’s class read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a stirring memoir about the author’s unusual upbringing and dysfunctional family. Walls' dedication offers, “Everyone who is interesting has a past.” The inspiring quote became the motto for the senior year students as they tackle writing their own personal stories. Cooper has been using Six-Word Memoirs for the past few years as students read memoirs like The Glass Castle and Cylin and John Philip Busby's The Year We Disappeared. At the beginning of the second semester of senior year, her students reflect on their journey so far, and goals for the future. Many of these students come from challenging backgrounds and, with the support of the school administration, her teacher-directed class provides extra guidance and support to help the students succeed.

AT THE ARROWHEAD UNION HIGH SCHOO in Hartland, Wisconsin, Becca McCann’s classroom walls are covered with colorful memoirs written by her past students. The impact of Six-Word Memoirs, however, was already thriving in other classrooms. When she first arrived at the district, her colleagues Terri Carnell and Elizabeth Jorgenson had already been participating in SWM for more than a decade and suggested similar assignments. For the past six years, McCann has utilized SWM as an icebreaker project to 11th and 12th graders as a perfect opportunity to learn about her students. She shares a SWM video and a New Yorker article, the latter which inspired SWM in other classroom, and then asks the class to discuss and analyze the articles before writing their own memoirs.

AT HIGH POINT ACADEMY IN AURORA, COLORADO, eighth grade English Language Arts teacher Emily DelRoss hoped to have a conversation with her students about police brutality. After police officer Rusten Sheskey brutally shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in September, and the story gained national coverage and upset, DelRoss checked in with students in her class to ask how they were feeling. “It was clear to me immediately that my 13 and 14-year-old students didn't know how to talk about it or didn't want to,” DelRoss says. So she offered them an assignment to work out their thoughts and feelings. If they weren’t able to share out loud, perhaps they could express themselves through writing. 

IN UNALASKA, ALASKA, A CITY WITH a population of just under 5,000, new junior high English teacher Dan Smith introduced his class to Six-Word Memoirs. At the end of a slideshow designed to introduce himself to the class, Smith included a slide about writing about yourself in only six words. For the first writing assignment of the year, students were asked to write Six-Word Memoirs as a “get to know you project.”  “The Six-Word Memoir is a good balance of being accessible to any student yet challenging, and of course offers unlimited creativity and self-expression,” says Smith. “My students really thrived with them. They also created visuals to accompany their memoirs, some of which were just as amazing as the words.”  Smith gave an overview of the assignment by sharing examples from the Six-Word Memoir website and asking students to discuss what about each example made the story meaningful. He asked them to write about what they felt would show something important about themselves. “But other than that I gave my students full creative control—I did not edit their work in any way—and was impressed with their results, from content to style to creative punctuation used to save precious words. We have a diverse student population and some chose to write in other languages, like Tagalog, further emphasizing their individuality.”