Six-Word Memoirs: Students Learn How to Tell Their Own Stories in Six Words
In August 2020 and 2021, two middle school classrooms at Mohave Middle School in Arizona spent a week weaving the world around them into a six-word narrative on their lives. When arranged on a linear timeline, the difference in the tone of the memoirs speaks for itself — the world is yet to return to its pre-pandemic state, but the intensity of 2020 has notably faded since.
April Goodman, a 6th grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Mohave, stumbled across the Six-Word Memoir website in the summer of 2020. Intrigued and inspired by the personal depth that could be communicated in just six words, April decided to present the concept to her classroom as a way to combat the unending problem of a faceless digital classroom. “A lot of the memoirs ended up being…just honest. There’s something about writing when you’re limited on time and words. People get right to the heart of things.” April also explained that her students were expressing anxiety about making the jump from primary to middle school while quarantined at home. Her students’ memoirs reflected their uneasiness.
April came up with a simple writing assignment to ease the class into the semester: students had to describe themselves in six words. First, the class spent some time answering the question of ‘what is a memoir?’ They then watched Crash Course Crayon’s two minute video where Larry Smith defines the features of a Six-Word Memoir. Next, they had to learn how to write a memoir, so the class reviewed some personal memoir examples as well as short memoir examples for students. April’s assignment spanned the course of approximately a week, and the students were told to create a presentation slide that adhered to two general components: telling their story in six words and being visually creative with their presentation. The class also discussed background pictures, fonts, color, and other visual elements that could contribute to their six-word stories.
Students in her 2020 class wrote about not being able to see friends, the dilemma of social distancing, and the frustration at not being understood. But they also shared stories about perseverance, individuality, optimism, and expressed their gratitude for the things they were grateful for. April was surprised by the maturity that shone through the way her students were coping with the pandemic. Mixed in with the typical sentiments of middle school life were proverbial truths that reflected their idealism. “The wisdom these kids were able to express in just six words was just awesome.” They wished for a longer summer and to see their friends, but also acknowledged the finite gift of life in the face of a global pandemic.
All the memoirs were arranged in a slideshow that the class looked at together. Noticing a tonal shift between memoirs written in 2020 vs. 2021, April reflected on the way time influences a collective consciousness. “The memoirs from last year shine a direct light on the newness and shock we were feeling from the pandemic. Whereas this year, not as many students were focused on COVID.”
In the end, April was pleased with the outcome of her Six-Word adventures. Optimistic about the future, she intends to keep using Six-Words in her curriculum and has some new ideas on how to use the format. “As a teacher, I like things that are simple, but powerful,” April says. She goes on to note the literary potential for the format, especially when considering how Six-Words approach encourages honesty. “I feel so fortunate to teach English language-arts because I get to read my students’ writing. Their writing allows me to learn more about them and what’s important to them.”