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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.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Zach Coffman's picture
Zach Coffman
High school Social Studies Teacher/ Football and Girls Soccer coach

I really love your idea of the six word Memoir. I do believe it teaches students to think critically. Great idea I will be using this activity soon.

Andrea Olsen's picture
Andrea Olsen
high school Spanish teacher

This is such a great, adaptable project. After viewing Francis Ford Coppola's "My Family," I had my students create 6-word memoirs as one of the characters. Their creations were analytical and insightful. Best of all, they had fun experimenting with HTML, and the ones who got it right away helped their peers as they worked...it was a very collaborative experience!

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl's picture

Thank you, commenters, for the suggestions about using this with characters in literature -- we'll add that idea to our 6-word activities at NWP.

Michael's picture

Using information from the PowerPoint and handout create a 6-word memoir, an explanatory paragraph, and an artistic background for the 6-word statement.
Create a "you" list - fill the page. Pick/circle 2 - 3 items that inspire you to say more. From those items you circled, select one. Freewrite about your idea for several minutes/a full page or two. (HW section)
Produced an effective 5-step paragraph that offers an engaging lead, clarifies, elaborates, offers at least two specific, detailed examples, and concludes in an effort to capture the memoir's meaning from the freewrite. Create a PowerPoint slide or drawing/photo with the six-word memoir so you have a background picture. Print or create by hand your results. Email your slide to me for extra credit. Due Monday.
So, you are producing a "you" list, a freewrite, a 6-word memoir with background art, and an explanatory paragraph. Extra credit if you go online to http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords and publish your effort. Print a copy as proof and turn that copy in.

My example:
Inner cowboy adrift on literate shores
My rural, Cracker-cowboy, Florida childhood took a detour when my parents were divorced, and I spent my teenage years on the beaches of Florida's west coast. My passion for reading led me in and out of college and along twisted paths and hallways of educational institutions. A variety of teaching positions on several levels actually enhanced my appreciation of well-written literature. Teaching Shakespeare, Frost, Poe, and Macdonald have offered stimulating journeys that invigorate the mind. My explorations continue when youthful intellects engage and share the adventures.

Greg Graham's picture
Greg Graham
Writing Instructor at University of Central Arkansas

I've used the six-word memoir in my classroom, but haven't been satisfied with what I've done with it. So thanks for the ideas!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

I think this is such a great idea and can be used in soo many ways. I asked Edutopia's facebook community to describe their life in 6 words and here were the most popular:

"Delinquent girl becomes male social worker."
"Fell nine times, got up ten."
"Would be preacher choses classroom congregation."
"Teaching peace. Opening minds. Loving life."

You can read over 450 more here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151564568559917&set=a.10895704...

Zander Keig's picture

Thank you for providing people with a platform to express themselves!! I am thrilled my #6words memoir was a favorite!

"Delinquent girl becomes male social worker."

Ruth's picture

I love this idea, but after a little time messing around with Thimble find the learning curve to be a little steeper than I anticipated. Any tips on how to help students through it?

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