In August 2021 at Trinity School for Children in Tampa, FL, English Core teacher Jenny Hess spent three days helping her middle school classroom discover their abilities in writing and illustration, mine for the essence of their personalities, and in the process, introduce themselves to her. By the end, her students were not only aware of the literary influence of Papa Hemingway, but also the power of their individual voices.
Hess discovered the Six-Word Memoir website on a search for platforms that could give her students the opportunity and motivation of having an audience for their writing. Inspired by Six-Word Memoirs’ literary history and Hemingway’s influence on the concept, Hess introduced the activity in her class, which took place over the course of three days. The activity was also motivated by an effort to get to know her students better.
The first day was spent brainstorming the prompt, “Six words to sum up you.” Since adolescence is typically the time most teens and tweens begin their journey towards self-actualization, summing up their identity in six words, Hess suspected, would be a productive feat. Interested in “hearing more about their heart rather than what they do,” Hess encouraged her students to go beyond the roles they donned outside the classroom — playing an athletic sport, for instance — and digging deep into the core of their personalities. “A lot of my students wanted to just hide behind a sports title, and it was so many students [who did this] to begin with, that I started asking them more questions to narrow down what was unique about them.”
On the second day, the class moved on from brainstorming ideas to packing their personalities into a six-word sentence which would be accompanied by an illustration. That day focused on word choice and vocabulary, and Hess helped her students find the right words to paint their unique personalities through their illustrations and their words.
The last day of the activity was spent on showcasing, with Hess offering her students the opportunity allowed to opt out or share anonymously if they didn’t feel comfortable with their memoirs making public given the vulnerability that self-expression can reveal. By and large, she reports, this was not the case. “A lot of them were proud of what they did and wanted to showcase their work; they wanted to share it with their peers,” Hess says.
“On the water we are zen.” —Carsyn Eckley
“Music, the language of the soul.” —Heidi Smith
“Apricot concrete makes me calm.” —Cameron Dunn
“A veterinarian to forever help animals.” —Lauren Aultman
“Family is always in the background.” —Wilson Noria
“What you believe, you can achieve!” —Samuel Jorden
In the end, the three-day activity was a success. Hess noted how six words opened up “a sort of unity that the students had with one another — that they saw each other for who they were, and for their unique abilities.” One student in particular used her voice to represent the Black community as a whole through her memoir, and to send a powerful message about the difference in cultures. “I just thought that it was really powerful of her to think of that and to drive home the message that people are different, and we need to accept and understand one another’s differences.”
Hess is enthusiastic to keep the six-word experiment going, with plans to incorporate the form in future assignments. “If you don’t love writing to begin with, six words is a great starter. It’s a way for students to say, ‘I can actually do six words, that’s doable,’ ” she adds, acknowledging the various obstacles that come in the way when it’s time to put pen to paper. Together, the students, their work, and the activity highlighted the important underlying message, that, as she believe, “each student can be an author, even if it’s just six words.”
Teachers! Since we first launched The Six-Word Memoir Project, educators across the spectrum have found the six word format to be a terrific classroom assignment and catalyst for self-expression. At our Six in Schools section, we celebrate students’ work from classrooms around the world. Download one or all of our free teacher’s guides—including our most recent pandemic edition here. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your classroom’s six-word journey and your students could be featured in a future Classroom of the Month.
Want to make your own classroom book? We are delighted to offer a new way for any classroom to make their own Six-Word Memoir book. We provide a free classroom kit that leads teachers through a Six-Word Memoir lesson plan and bookmaking process (it’s a simple one). Parents can buy the book the way they buy class photos, teachers get a free book, and schools receive ten percent of each book sale. Sign up to receive your free classroom kit on our Six in Schools site.