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Six-Word Memoirs in Schools

[caption id="attachment_19107" align="alignright" width="346"] Our founder, Larry Smith, and his Six-Words team holding up 6 and representing BE THE ONE with Heideman's students.[/caption] Dawn Heideman, a math teacher at Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Ohio, had read about Six-Word Memoirs, but it wasn’t until she heard Six-Word Memoir founder, Larry Smith, speak at a conference on diversity and education that she realized how her students could benefit from digging into the form. Heideman thought the simple six-word structure could help her students tell their story—no matter how difficult it can be to do so—without feeling like they needed to write a book or hit a big word count.

Cayla Tangney, an art teacher at Minisink Valley High School, first came across Six-Word Memoirs when she and nine other teachers in her district took a “Teaching Tough Topics” professional development class. The course educated Tangney and her colleagues on speaking about topics like sexual orientation, immigration, and race and ethnicity respectively and proactively with their students. The class offered an overview of stereotypes and injustices throughout history, and how they still persist today. Six-Word Memoirs was introduced as a strategy for Tangney to use to provoke her students’ thoughts about identity and global awareness. “Many students ask great questions and we all wanted to learn how we can educate them by addressing these questions rather than avoiding them,” says Tangney. “We are trying to open their minds and broaden their thoughts on the world.”

Jamie Neufeld, an English teacher at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, Colorado, had first heard of Six-Word Memoirs as an idea floating around various teaching forums. She never considered bringing it into her own classroom until two things happened. One: After teaching in an integrated classroom with a Social Studies teacher for 12 years, she had begun teaching a non-integrated classroom on her own, giving her more wiggle room to explore new ideas. Two: While perusing google and social media, she stumbled upon Six-Words again and Larry Smith, founder of Six-Word Memoirs, and realized she remembered him from her college days. From there, her interest was piqued and it led her to the Six-Word Memoir website. "I went to the site and was taken by the variety of work it does—with kids, veterans, anyone—and I found the memoirs funny, relatable, inspiring," says Neufeld. "The first thing I did was post my own Six-Word Memoir about my dog dying. The memoir wasn't great, but it was really cathartic to write and post it."

Paul Ackers, a Year 3 teacher at Brookes Moscow International School in Moscow, Russia, first discovered Six-Word Memoirs after he and the rest of the school's staff were asked to think of an activity or competition that could appeal to the entire student body. Ideally, the challenge needed to engage with their diverse student population— students, local and international, ranging anywhere from ages 2 - 18. As an English teacher, Ackers started researching word-based activities. He humored spelling bees and word puzzles; still, nothing stuck. Eventually, he stumbled upon the Six-Word Memoir and things started to fall into place. "After reading several examples online, I realized that it may be too difficult for students (and staff!) to tell a story in six words a la Hemingway," says Ackers, but he didn't want to give up on the format. He wondered if there was a way to reframe this task to make it more fun, accessible, and open-ended for everyone. Luckily, Ackers found our Six-Word Memoir website and realized the format could be more engaging and flexible than he originally thought.

Sara Olding, an English teacher at Sidney High School in Sidney, Ohio, first came across Six-Word Memoirs while searching for a creative way to begin her high school seniors’ last semester of high school. Olding wanted to help her students reflect and gather their thoughts with high school graduation on the horizon. Still, she never imagined the impact this project would have on the entire school. “Originally, I used Six Words as a method to capture how seniors felt about the next chapter in their lives,” explains Olding. Students spent time reading others’ memoirs and having classroom discussions to learn how to construct a solid Six-Word Memoir. Then they started their own project by writing their memoirs as confessions in a writer’s notebook. The notebook created a safe space for students to express themselves, but as the project grew, Olding invited students to share with her and the rest of the class in a classroom mailbox. “The kids loved it because it helped them find some clarity in their goals and take control of their narrative,” says Olding.

[caption id="attachment_18241" align="alignright" width="225"] Six & Ten: Mark Hannon has taught Six-Word Memoirs in his high school English classes for the past decade.[/caption] Mark Hannon, an English teacher at South Side High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is no stranger to the power of a memoir. Hannon took his first dive into the genre when selecting novels for his literature class back in 2008. He chose to center his course around three memoirs:  The Color of Water by James McBride, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. While learning about the art of the memoir, Hannon’s students were simultaneously educated on writing style. He explains: “I was also teaching students to be concise in their writing: to say as much as possible with as few words as possible.” Enter: The Six-Word Memoir. Hannon first heard about Six-Word Memoirs from one of his colleagues as a way to help his students achieve their goal of concise writing. Since that pioneer class, Six-Word Memoirs have remained a staple in his classroom. This year, two of Hannon’s English classes got to take their turn at crafting their own short life stories.

Lauren Zucker, a teacher at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey, first came across Six-Word Memoirs through the power of social media. Zucker, a professional in the world of literature, was already familiar with the legend of Hemingway and the six-word novel: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” However, it wasn’t until she came across a fellow educator’s post on Twitter that she discovered Six-Word Memoirs, and the important role it could play in her classroom. [caption id="attachment_18145" align="alignright" width="300"] Photo Credit: Kendall Shirvan[/caption] Zucker decided to test out the Six-Word Memoir assignment on her Honors Modern Fiction and Nonfiction class on the very first day of school, where she turned Six Words into her own version of a back-to-school icebreaker: “I asked students to write a six-word story to introduce themselves to the class,” says Zucker, “the story should reveal something about who you are.” She then went on to describe the assignment by explaining the Hemingway story to her students. As students of literary modernism, she hoped this particular example would resonate with her class. Then, before providing any other details, she instructed the students to create their own memoirs.

When Tabitha Cooper, an English teacher at Metamora Township High School in Metamora, Illinois, first came across Six-Word Memoirs through a fellow educator, she knew at once that it was a project she had to pursue with her students. [caption id="attachment_17958" align="alignleft" width="219"] Jack K.[/caption] Before introducing the Six-Word Memoir to her students, Cooper first led them through a reading of another powerful memoir, The Year We Disappeared, co-written by the father-daughter pair of Cylin and John Busby. “We talked a lot about tone and word choice, and about how these two points of view are so different.” Cooper then presented the idea of the Six-Word Memoir to her students. She continued her discussion on point of view by showing examples from and asking her students to interpret the story behind each memoir. Cooper even shared her own powerful memoir about her mother’s passing. Then, she asked her students to consider: “What event in your life got you to here, and how can we tell that in six words."

Three years have passed since Associate Professor John Ferry first discovered Six-Word Memoirs on NPR, and the idea has since become a staple in his illustration class each year at the Kansas City Art Institute. This spring marks the fourth year that Ferry will lead his class through his own twist on the Six-Word Memoir, where he is able to uniquely combine elements of both illustration and writing. [caption id="attachment_17582" align="alignright" width="218"] Image by Haley Gookin[/caption] In his “Image and Form” class, Ferry begins by explaining the concept of the Six-Word Memoir using the original Hemingway memoir (For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn), as well as examples from for inspiration. Then students get to craft their own Six-Word Memoir. Finally, Ferry asks his students to incorporate their memoir into a self-designed image. In this way, Six-Word Memoirs is able to give his students a medium for their artistic vision, while also giving them a voice. Even though Ferry has been using Six-Word Memoirs for several years now, he says that the assignment itself hasn’t undergone much, if any, evolution over the course of his teaching: “The project doesn’t need to evolve at all, because you just get a whole new group of students, who are usually getting something like this for the first time, so it’s still a new