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Classroom of the Month: Meg Burke and Scott Swindell’s 12th Grade Literature Lesson at North Penn High School in PA

A visit to Rome, via Google Expeditions.

According to William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar ended his life with these six famous last words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!” For Margaret Burke, an instructional coach in the North Penn School District in Lansdale, PA , those six words weren’t enough. When planning the final assignment for Scott Swindell’s 12th grade literature class at North Penn High School, Burke and Swindell wanted take a different approach to teach the story of Julius Caesar to younger students. The senior students usually created a traditional PowerPoint for their ending project, but this year, Burke and Swindell chose to take their students to Rome to rewrite Julius Caesar’s last words.

Using Google Expeditions technology, the 12th grade students were able to virtually travel through Ancient Rome, where they had just 42 minutes to record as many details and images as they could to create six new parting words for Caesar. Burke left it completely up to the students’ imagination to craft their own six words: “I didn’t even show the students an example, because when teachers over-explain things to kids, it hinders their creative process,” she says. “They get into this mode where there’s only one right way to do it.” Instead, Burke kept it simple, “I just said, go and create. And here’s the deal: you get six, and that’s it.”

And create they did. The students shared what Caesar would’ve seen (“Gorgeous ocean views with rocky remains”), and what he would’ve heard (“Cannons blasting, my flag soars high”). They gave a sense of his humor (“That was totally not cool, guys”; “Veni Vidi Vici now I’m out!”), and his wisdom (“Endless times are just timeless ends”). Some declared that Caesar desired an everlasting presence (“Yet, I still rise above all”), but others claimed he was quite willing to depart (“I think I’m better off dead.”)

The impact of the Six Words assignment was unmatched. When faced with daunting research papers and immense essays, students at North Penn High School were often hesitant to write. According to Burke, the Six-Word Memoir assignment “changed their perspective on what writing can be.” Instead of being reluctant to write, these students were even writing after the bell rang. It is a place where 12th grade students can stand next to Shakespeare, the master of the playing field himself — and even rewrite his narrative — Six-Words Memoirs levelled the playing field. Swindell’s students learned how to connect with complex literature and writing, as well as tell their own story, with the help of Six Words.

The assignment had such success that Burke has already expanded the Six-Word Memoir project into the culture of her district, from having new teachers sum up their year in six words, to writing Six-Word Memoirs into the curriculum framework as a way to teach narrative writing. For Burke, it’s all about empowering students: “I am out there because I believe kids need a voice, and sometimes that voice doesn’t appear in five paragraphs.” Sometimes, all it takes is six words.

Teachers! Since we first launched the Six-Word Memoir project, educators across the spectrum have found Six Words 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 here.

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