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Classroom of the Month: Sara Olding’s Senior English Classes at Sidney High School in Ohio

Sara Olding, an English teacher at Sidney High School in Sidney, Ohio, first came across Six-Word Memoirs while searching for a creative way to begin her high school seniors’ last semester of high school. Olding wanted to help her students reflect and gather their thoughts with high school graduation on the horizon. Still, she never imagined the impact this project would have on the entire school.

“Originally, I used Six Words as a method to capture how seniors felt about the next chapter in their lives,” explains Olding. Students spent time reading others’ memoirs and having classroom discussions to learn how to construct a solid Six-Word Memoir. Then they started their own project by writing their memoirs as confessions in a writer’s notebook. The notebook created a safe space for students to express themselves, but as the project grew, Olding invited students to share with her and the rest of the class in a classroom mailbox. “The kids loved it because it helped them find some clarity in their goals and take control of their narrative,” says Olding.

After seeing how students responded in her own classroom, Olding invited the rest of the teachers in her department to participate. Her peers’ responded enthusiastically; soon Olding and the English Department developed a lesson plan anchored in writing about loss, loneliness, hope, growth, family, and future. Students chose a theme, developed a story, and wrote their memoirs on a note card which were then organized and displayed on a giant memoir wall in the school’s library.

Larry Smith, founder of Six-Word Memoirs, visited Sidney High School in November and was impressed by the students’ work and their memoir wall.  “I don’t know if I can inspire you,” Smith offered during his assembly with the juniors in the first of two assemblies, “but I am here to tell you that no one can take your story—it belongs to you.” Each assembly— one for the freshman and sophomore classes in the morning, and another for the junior and senior classes in the afternoon—ended with a Six-Word Slam, inviting students to share their stories out loud. “The slams were fast and furious and funny and surprising and just a real joy to watch unfold,” says Smith.  

Some highlights on the students’ memoir wall include declarations of individuality (“Yes I’m gay, get over it”) and tips to live by (“Smile always makes my life better”). There were memoirs about love (“Same boyfriend since I was 13”) and memoirs about heartbreak (“Don’t get attached, heartbreaking loss is…”). Some focused on loss (“We were and then we weren’t”) and others embodied hope (“Always live to see another tomorrow…”). In the end, students created a body of work that at once captured individual voices and a larger story of what it’s like to be a Sidney High School student at this moment in time.

In the end, we hope that Six-Word Memoirs not only sparks each of us to share our stories, but to listen closely to those of others. Olding agrees. “This vehicle has helped humanize students,” she says. “It has helped them to appreciate that the students walking next to them in the hallway might be fighting a battle they knew nothing about. It has encouraged compassion.”

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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