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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Clarity Through Brevity: Integrating Six-Word Memoirs

Jonathan Olsen

History Teacher & District Curriculum Coordinator/ NY Times Contributor

At its core, the six-word memoir teaches us to be concise but also introspective. Try describing yourself in six words. Not easy, right? So, for English teachers, the six-word memoir is a great way to get students to focus on getting a point across in as few words as possible. Students have to choose words precisely since they can't waste any. The six-word memoir teaches all of us writers a critical skill: words are valuable and have meaning -- don't waste them.

I first learned about the six word memoir from a post by Paul Oh on Digital Is, a part of the National Writing Project. A few weeks ago, I explored its potential in one of the weekly writing activities I publish with Sarah Gross on The New York Times Learning Network. Now, I can't get enough of six-word anything. I love to write six-word memoirs. I even find myself checking #6words on Twitter. It seems like the six-word memoir is everywhere.

Repurposing an Elegantly Simple Tool

So how does the six-word memoir make sense in a history class? As a history teacher, I am always looking to integrate my class with as many different disciplines as possible. I also try to turn my students away from being just consumers of information and toward being global creators of everything cool. When I learned that the National Writing Project teamed up with Mozilla to create a Thimble webmaking application for six-word memoirs, I began to realize the potential this could have in my history classes. Mozilla and the NWP give step-by-step instructions for students on how to use the HTML and CSS needed for creating unique web pages that feature images and their six-word memoir.

My students had just finished a unit on the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, so I thought it would be easy to twist the traditional autobiographical six-word memoir to other people's biographies. I asked my students to create six-word memoirs for the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. If people like Voltaire, Newton and Diderot only had six words, how would they describe their accomplishments? I made the project and requirements simple -- just follow the instructions on Mozilla's Thimble page and summarize the life of a philosophe.

My students produced beautiful memoirs that showed an ability to use the English language creatively and effectively, a basic understanding of webmaking, and knowledge of a historical time period. In about 90 minutes of class time, I was able to effectively integrate English, history, computer applications and art together into one great project. Teachers can tweak this project for virtually any time period or event. My students also had a blast working with Mozilla Thimble. Most importantly, for me, they have created something unique and shared it with the world. Take a look at this YouTube clip to see what they accomplished.

What can your students do with the six-word memoir? Please tell us in the comments section below.

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Faith's picture

I could see using the six word memoir for the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales.

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