How do students get on a path for success when high school graduation is in jeopardy? Mount Tom Academy in Holyoke, Massachusetts, located on the campus of Holyoke Community College, offers an alternative learning program for at-risk high school students. Barbara Cheney, Mount Tom’s lead teacher, recently discovered the value of Six-Word Memoirs as an effective tool in student engagement.
Cheney is contagiously enthusiastic about engaging students in learning. “Our students are mostly 11th-12th graders with a history of academic failure, non-attendance, or some sort of trauma or mental health issue that has prevented them from attending school,” she explains. “Here they can make up the credits they are missing to get on track to graduate with their peers. It’s a very therapeutic environment—a modern version of a one-room schoolhouse. One teacher has students from a range of subject areas and grade levels who are taking different courses to graduate.”
When Cheney first heard about Six-Word Memoirs in 2016, she knew it would be a great activity to kick of the school year; a higher level thinking assignment to help students develop self-awareness and connect with peers. “My 11th and 12th grade students are at the twilight of their K-12 school experience. I wanted to offer them a way to achieve that same goal—getting to know themselves better and their classmates—and also value their ability to think, write and speak abstractly, metaphorically,” she explains.
She had students watch the Six-Word Memoirs by Teens video on sixwordmemoirs.com and then they collaborated to create a Six-Word Memoir about Mount Tom Academy. Their response: “Where it’s easy to learn things.”
This year, Cheney also had students create posters of their Six-Word Memoirs to bring design elements into the assignment. The students gave a “design pitch” of their posters to a designer in the New York City metropolitan area—explaining their word and design choices as well as the project development process—and received individual feedback via a video conference call. “That exchange between the designer and the students, which provided an authentic audience, gave me an opportunity to see my students in a different way and I learned things that I would never have learned in another format,” says Cheney.
High school is a transformative time, particularly for students in alternative high school programs like Mount Tom Academy. Six-Word Memoirs gives students a framework for chronicling and sharing their journeys with others.
Editor’s Note: Enjoy these insights from students about their posters which now adorn their classroom walls.
“The only thing I can relate to, or get along with or feel comfortable doing, is listening to music. It helps me focus and concentrate on things. When I was having anger problems, instead of punching something, I listened to music to calm me down.”
“I prefer to keep a small group of friends. And I chose a Fall image because it’s my favorite season — everything changes colors and is more vibrant. I hope you come away from this knowing more about me.”
“I’ve struggled with PTSD “for a few years, it stopped me from school, social life, and anything I used to love to do before it. This school has really helped me work through the school problems. Now I really center my life around these six words.”
“All my life, I have struggled through everything. There hasn’t been an easy moment, except for now — this is the best my life has ever been. I have anxiety, and before this year and Mount Tom, I was so nervous about everything — the way I dressed, the way I said things, to not get judged. This school has really made a difference.”
“This is about me, but also allowing everyone to fit in their own way. I feel anxious, constantly comparing myself to others and thinking I can improve on something. In 7th and 8th grade, I barely wanted to go to school, I just wanted to stay in my room and didn’t want to talk to anyone. Now, at Mount Tom, I actually want to go to school, to go out, I’m more motivated.”
“This represents the challenges of switching schools and adjusting to a new environment. Jay-Z would go to the labels when he first started out and no one wanted to work with him, but he stuck with it, and once he started to take off, everyone wanted to sign him. When I came here, I wasn’t on track to graduate, but now I’m going to graduate early.”