“There will never be a first graduating class again. They have trailblazed. They are setting the path. They will establish many of the traditions that will continue on for years to come.”
—Peter McKnight, Principal of the Drew Charter School Senior Academy
Education and opportunity are essential to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. What began as neighborhood revitalization has become a cradle-to-college pipeline with the inaugural graduating class of Charles R. Drew Charter School as its pioneers. Drew Charter in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded in 2000 as the first charter school in the Atlanta Public School System through a groundbreaking partnership that included the East Lake Foundation and other community stakeholders. With the goal of closing the achievement gap in education, Drew Charter has become a national model for educational success. This remarkable story extends beyond the classroom and plays a central role in Purpose Built Communities—a nonprofit whose vision “guides neighborhood revitalization by creating pathways out of poverty for the lowest-income residents, and building strong, economically diverse communities.”
Drew’s first group of high school seniors are fittingly known as the Legacy Class because they would make history by bringing the school’s mission to fruition. As these young students worked diligently to complete high school and prepare for college, we suggested Six-Word Memoirs as a useful tool to help them reflect on their journeys and their achievements, both academically and personally [Editor’s Note: Shauna Greene, Six-Word Memoirs Associate Editor and author of this post, is a Drew parent.]. The timing was serendipity—Drew’s graduation committee was looking for a way to showcase students in their upcoming commencement ceremony. Rachel Kaney, Drew’s Director of College and Career Readiness, believed that Six Words would add value to the senior class experience.
Kaney and 12th grade Social Studies teacher Barbara Manwell collaborated on a lesson plan, which began by reviewing the general idea of a memoir and introduced the concept of storytelling in six words. Students were presented with examples of relevant Six-Word Memoirs, including “Be a doer, not a dreamer.” by Emmy-award winning writer Shonda Rhimes—featured in our 2015 book, The Best Advice in Six Words (a six-word sentiment which captures the essence of her celebrated Dartmouth College commencement speech). Then Kaney and Manwell got to the heart of the assignment by posing the question: “Who are you as a result of the community who shaped you?” Students were able to define community for themselves, whether that meant their Drew community or extended to family and other personal networks.
Brainstorming guided students who were struggling to narrow their personal narratives to six words. Starting with, “How would you describe yourself?” students then added people or things that were important to them. The instructors wanted students to identify characteristics about themselves and who or what was meaningful, but Kaney cautioned, “we didn’t want them to end up with six adjectives—the important part is to tell a story.”
Students found the project to be meaningful and fun. Instead of rushing to pick six words and be done, they took ownership of crafting their Six-Word Memoirs—particularly when they realized their six words would be presented at graduation. Some students wanted to keep their memoirs private until graduation day, while others wanted feedback from classmates. Kaney enjoyed watching them collaborate: “They went peer-to-peer, asking ‘Well, who do you think I am?’ which gave them a perspective about how others see them, and helped them recognize, ‘Yes, I really am energetic, or honest, or things like dance or engineering really define me.’”
There are nearly 90 Six-Word Memoirs in this collection, one from each member of the Legacy Class. Each memoir showed insight and maturity, capturing some aspect of the students’ personality or distinguishing experience. For some that meant redefining expectations (“Overcoming the doubters, I made it.”—Tatynia Long) and asserting their place in the world (“Trilingual smile with a global reach.”—Zora Ponder-Jones), or realizing that struggles are surmountable (“Ups, downs, to cap and gown.”—Brandon Miller) and the paths they blaze today open doors for others tomorrow (“Role model first; my success second.”—Tyler Sturdivant).
Kaney reflects on what a valuable tool Six-Word Memoirs were for the graduation ceremony: “The project enabled personalities to shine in a ceremony that often times doesn’t capture the individuality of students. Graduation is such an exciting time and the ceremony is typically about celebrating the collective. Six-Word Memoirs made it very personal—more than just announcing each name; by featuring each student’s memoir as he or she crossed the stage, it made it really special for every graduate. Six Words provided that window of opportunity to showcase each student in a succinct and meaningful way.”
Although it’s the end of an era known as high school for these students, this milestone is simply a continuation along their cradle-to-college path. We salute the young men and women of Drew’s Legacy class. Six-Word Memoirs is honored to help them preserve their stories and celebrate their achievements.
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. Contact us (concierge AT smithmag DOT net) if you would like a copy of our free teacher’s guide.