Six-Word Memoirs: An adaptable, Innovative Tool for Teachers

An illustration by one of Cathy’s student’s interpreting Martin Luther King Jr.’s
I Have a Dream speech

Cathy Dyer has used Six-Word Memoirs as a classroom tool for teachers every year since 2009: “This is the only ice breaker activity that I’ve stuck with,” she explains. As a tenth grade English teacher at McKeel Academy of Technology in Lakeland, Florida, Cathy’s first activity of the year is to write a Six-Word Memoir, accompanied by a backstory and a small illustration. These are then shared and displayed on her classroom walls.

Six-Words is an innovative teaching tool because of its adaptability. In one of the first lesson plans of the year, Cathy has her students analyze Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic I Have A Dream speech and create a thematic Six-Word Memoir based on the speech’s message. That Six-Word Memoir is then used as a title for their own written piece that pulls textual evidence from Dr. King’s speech and creates a springboard for their interpretation of his words.

Six-Word Memoirs is just one of many examples of teaching tools, but, over the years, its one of the few class tools that has remained a staple in Cathy’s classroom. Cathay says its the most effective way of teaching her students to keep their ideas and analysis concise. “I started using it as a way to get the students to arrive at theme. When we read something, I have them figure out the theme and put it in six words,” she explained. “I think the key for why it works so well is that it really gives a laser focus, since you’re only using six words.” Cathy believes Six Words fits so well as an educational tool for students because “it’s so unintimidating, especially for your struggling writers. I’ve gotten some of the most profound Six-Word Memoirs from the students that struggle the most.”

A student’s Six-Word Memoir characterizing Lady MacBeth from Shakespeare’s MacBeth

Cathy’s use of Six-Word Memoirs extends far beyond her own classroom. In 2013, Cathy and some of her colleagues were awarded a $250,000 Innovative Best Instructional Practices grant. The grant allowed Cathy and her colleagues to travel throughout Florida for two years, sharing their favorite instructional resources for teachers to engage students through reading and writing. One of Cathy’s presentations focused on Six-Word Memoirs as a teaching tool for teachers, encouraging teachers in 48 counties to use the format in their own class plans. Cathy has gotten great feedback and ideas from teachers in other disciplines: “Math teachers have emailed me back and said ‘Hey, I’ve used Six-Word Memoirs to get kids to define shapes.’” She continued, “Or, instead of having kids copy down the exact dictionary definitions, [a teacher] made them put their science terms in Six-Word Memoirs.”

Cathay has been working hard in her own classroom, as well as classrooms across Florida, sharing Six-Word Memoirs, and, more recently, using it as an effective online teaching tool. We’re thrilled to be an icebreaker for academia and a springboard to learning!