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Six-Word Memoirs in Schools

[caption id="attachment_21061" align="aligncenter" width="479"] Above: Christina Mayes' Peer Mentors help facilitate her college seminar, "Mastering College." This was taken after discussing how the class went with their first-year students. Students presented their Six-Word Memoirs as well as their personal backstories. [/caption]

Christina Mayes, a professor of a first-year "Mastering College" seminar class at the Dominican University of California, has been supporting students’ healthy transition into college life through Six-Word Memoirs for the last eight years.

[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.