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Classroom of the Month: Cayla Tangney’s Studio Art Classes at Minisink Valley High School in Slate Hill, New York

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.”

Tangney introduced Six-Word Memoirs to her students with an “I Wonder” activity utilizing the Fresh Off The Boat (FOTB) memoirs on the website. She laid out large pieces of paper on seven tables with a FOTB memoir written on each and broke the class up into groups. The students traveled around the room, literally and figuratively, and discussed all the memoirs they encountered. After they cycled through all the memoirs,  everyone regrouped and shared their thoughts about what they meant, what they made them feel, and if they, the students, could relate to anything that had been said. Then Tangney asked them to compose their own memoir.

“I made sure to focus them on solely FOTB concepts such as heritage, nationality, cultural identity, language, cultural family experience, religion, and race,” says Tangney. “The results were beautiful.”

Since students were already working on self-portrait paintings and backgrounds in the style of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley, Tangney decided that the art projects paired perfectly with the students’ memoirs. The project was meant to help them communicate their identities regarding nationalities and ethnicities—their backgrounds were primarily made up of country’s flags and flowers. It was as if the stars aligned perfectly to pair their art with their stories.

“Before completing their backgrounds, they were asked to complete the Six-Word Memoir as a catalyst for their visual ideas,” says Tangney. In other words: the memoir was the cherry on top.

Students wrote about feeling like their identity was misunderstood (“Why aren’t you dark like them.”) or underrepresented (“Mostly American. The rest is lost.”). Some wanted to take control of their own story (“I am Spanish. Not from Spain”), and others shared what they were made of with confidence (“Irish, Italian, Russian, Puerto Rican. Me.”). One student embraced her whole self and heritage simply when she wrote: “Family is love, Family is life.” They all shared what made them, them, and, as Tangney said, it was beautiful. So beautiful, that the results will be displayed in May at Minisink Valley’s District Art Show in their high school cafeteria and auditorium.

Reflecting on the experience, Tangney thought the project helped refined their skill and technique along with idea development and personal connectivity with their work. Students took time to interact with their heritage. Prior to the project, students either know almost nothing about their nationality or claimed they knew everything. Needless to say, the clueless were enlightened, and the self-declared know-it-alls were caught completely off guard.

“When they returned they were excited to tell me they had discovered so much more about who they were,” adds Tangney. Six-Word Memoirs gave her students a chance to learn more about who they were, and a means to express that newfound identity.

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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