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Classroom of the Month: Dominican University of California first-year seminar expands students stories

Above: Christina Mayes’ Peer Mentors help facilitate her college seminar, “Mastering College.” This was taken after discussing how the class went with their first-year students. Students presented their Six-Word Memoirs as well as their personal backstories. 

Christina Mayes, a professor of a first-year “Mastering College” seminar class at the Dominican University of California, has been supporting students’ healthy transition into college life through Six-Word Memoirs for the last eight years.

Laughter my savior – Life my teacher.” – Christina Mayes

Mayes discovered the Six-Word Memoir in 2011 when teaching a college 101 seminar and her guest speaker led the class through developing their own Six-Word Memoir. On Oct. 7 2019, Mayes shared a backstory on our site about the first Six-Word Memoir she wrote. 

“At the time I wrote, ‘Laughter my savior, life my teacher.’ I was coping with the loss of my biological father, was on the cusp of marrying my high school sweetheart and just thought, Wow, life can be funny and sad all at the same time. Now here I am, eight years later, using this exercise to connect with my students and these six words still resonate with my heart. I have continued to move through more loses and still more laughs. Crying probably involved in both.” 

She says that now she has two children and wonders what ups and downs they will encounter. “I hope I can guide them enough to understand my renewed sense of my Six-Word Memoir [‘Life my teacher, laughter my savior’] she says. “While this subtle rearrangement of a few words may not mean much to others, for me, I take this to now mean first ‘life’ will happen and hopefully I will learn and hopefully I will still laugh.”

“Life my teacher, laughter my savior.” —Christina Mayes

Now, Six-Word Memoirs are a large part of her story, a story that she hopes to share with her students. Mayes believes that this short for of storytelling offers an accessible, tangible space for students to engage in her class. She says that the concept is simple to deliver, yet it can be somewhat challenging—in a good way. 

Mayes posted her students’ Six-Word Memoirs on the wall and then lead an open discussion on values and identity. Photo courtesy of Prof. Christina Mayes

Mayes’ seminar class is co-facilitated by two trained Peer Mentors, shown in her visual syllabus. Covering topics from “Self Care” and “Budgeting-Financial Wellness” to “Values and Identity,” She reports that the students are starting to feel the burnout of college. Toward the end of the class earlier this fall Mayes introduced the Six-Word Memoir. The students quickly understood the concept. She could sense that this would be a creative and fun way to enter the following week’s curriculum on “Values and Identity.” 

“We all have a story to share and I have found it immensely important to support students in sharing their stories with one another,” says Mayes. “I introduce this concept at about the midpoint in the term when students seem vulnerable or overwhelmed. The exercise seems to ground and recenter everyone and connects students back to their personal foundations of strength and resilience.”

Mayes believes that it’s a special project in that through the use of words, anyone can respond. One can keep their six words private as a tool for personal discovery, or decide to choose to share with various audiences as a way to create an open dialogue. 

“I open myself up to students and acknowledge how much life our students have already experienced before coming to our university,” says Mayes. “I have great respect for our emerging adults. Now having reached a personal milestone in age, I reflect on my own human development and see that we are all works-in-progress no matter our age or lived experience.”

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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