This year, at Metamora Township High School in Metamora, Illinois, English teacher Tabitha Cooper’s class read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a stirring memoir about the author’s unusual upbringing and dysfunctional family. Walls’ dedication offers, “Everyone who is interesting has a past.” The inspiring quote became the motto for the senior year students as they tackle writing their own personal stories.
Cooper has been using Six-Word Memoirs for the past few years as students read memoirs like The Glass Castle and Cylin and John Philip Busby’s The Year We Disappeared. At the beginning of the second semester of senior year, her students reflect on their journey so far, and goals for the future. Many of these students come from challenging backgrounds and, with the support of the school administration, her teacher-directed class provides extra guidance and support to help the students succeed.
The class first examines Ernest Hemingway’s legendary six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” They discuss how the simplicity of six words captivates and provokes an interest to learn more. Cooper then asks her students to consider a significant event in their lives and write the memoir in three different ways. “I really wanted to hit home this idea that a memoir is not your whole life,” she says. “It’s an event that shapes you as a person. It can be positive, it can be negative, but it should be powerful.”
“Inspired to do. No drive whatsoever.” — Brandon
“The next four months are unpredictable.” — Olivia
“Doing things that my family isn’t.” — Jason
“Don’t believe what people tell you.” — Will
During the past year, the small class of seniors became more comfortable with each other and form a tight-knit family. The exceptional closeness allowed the students to share, discuss, and vote on the memoirs. They considered the value of each word, and how it communicates milestones which shape their lives. Once the memoirs are selected, they are posted on a classroom bulletin board.
We featured Cooper’s classroom previously as a Classroom of the Month in 2018. So, we asked if there were any noticeable changes in the memoirs. She says that students today are more introverted and introspective. A few years ago, the students wrote about something that was done to them by another person or circumstance. Now, these memoirs reflect on what the student might have done to themselves. The shift might be an effect of the pandemic because students were isolated and attending school every other day. Cooper observes that her students are much more mature and aware of their behavior and reactions. One of her students, Riley, writes, “Stay patient and trust the process.”
Her students’ memoirs are powerful because of their experiences, Cooper suggests, and Six-Word Memoirs and the storytelling nature of Smith Magazine are valuable tools for sharing compelling stories. Teenagers feel empowered when their stories are heard, especially when they believe their feelings or thoughts are brushed aside.
Cooper says, “Six-Word Memoirs has just taught me that if you sat long enough with a kid and you ask the right questions and you challenge them in the right ways, you will hear a story that you probably never would have imaged. I think everybody comes with some kind of story to tell.” Knowing such positive effects on her seniors, she plans to continue using Six-Word Memoirs in her classroom for as long as she continues to teach.
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 and offer free downloadable teacher’s guides. Share your classrooms’ six-word journey with us and your students could be featured in a future Classroom of the Month.