In the past five years, more than 100 students at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) in Kansas City, Missouri, graced the world with their artistic creations inspired by Six-Word Memoirs. This time current students and recent graduated directly collaborated with us on our new book, A Terrible Horrible, No Good Year: Six-Word Stories On the Pandemic by Teachers, Students, and Parents, out in October, 2021.
Professor John Ferry began his journey with Six-Word Memoirs in 2016, after discovering it through a segment on NPR that covered the project. Inspired by the concept and its potential within the art world, Ferry introduced Six-Word Memoirs to his “Image and Form” class, and has been using it in his teaching ever since.
Ferry begins by having his students write and share at least five memoirs, then select the ones they think are meaningful and worth illustrating. It’s a simple process, but requires some introspective decision making. Over the years the professor has seen it all in six-word illustrated form, from the superficial and lighthearted to the powerful and personal.
Ferry reached out to students in various majors and years at KCAI over the summer and explained the parameters of the assignment: the saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this time, they were to be worth six. The specific focus on the pandemic was an interesting prompt for Ferry, whose students are used to simple instructions. “When I give the project, it’s usually pretty open-ended: write a Six-Word Memoir and illustrate it. So I like the fact that this was more specifically about the pandemic.” He encouraged these young artist to reflect on their experiences in a positive light and emerge with insightful lessons about themselves and their lives. Ferry also ensured that his students were comfortable with having snippets of their personal narratives published. “I think in many ways it was very therapeutic for them, to get their emotions and feelings out through their art,” he says.
A professional artist and painter himself, Ferry mentions the benefits of bringing the outside world into the classroom through the project. Aware of the various factors which govern work in illustration, Ferry finds that having specific prompt and illustration guidelines simulates the controlled freedom of working with clients in a professional environment. Students covered themes of productivity, socializing, time, and pop culture through the lens of the pandemic. Ferry recognized everyone who had contributed shared an eagerness for having their work published, and that motivated them to push themselves creatively. “I think having your work actually used in a publication can be a really exciting moment—it was for me when I got my first piece published. A lot of students were really thrilled that I had asked them to do it. It thrilled a lot of them just to have a chance at seeing their work in print.”
As a veteran user of the Six-Word Memoir concept, Ferry plans to continue using it for the rest of his teaching career. “In my years of teaching, this is by far my favorite project to give my students, and I feel like I get the best response from it. For the most part, students really surprise themselves, and the ones who get really engaged start enjoying writing as well.”
Teachers! Since we first launched The Six-Word Memoir Project, educators across the spectrum have found the six word format 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—including our most recent pandemic edition here. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your classroom’s six-word journey and your students could be featured in a future Classroom of the Month.
Want to make your own classroom book? We are delighted to offer a new way for any classroom to make their own Six-Word Memoir book. We provide a free classroom kit that leads teachers through a Six-Word Memoir lesson plan and bookmaking process (it’s a simple one). Parents can buy the book the way they buy class photos, teachers get a free book, and schools receive ten percent of each book sale. Sign up to receive your free classroom kit on our Six in Schools site.