How to Use 6-Word Memoirs in the Classroom
Activities in which students have six words to collect their thoughts can help build community and get classroom discussions started.
I launched the Six-Word Memoir project in 2006 with a question on what was then a strange new platform called Twitter: “Can you describe your life in six words?” While I suspected that the constraint of six words would fuel creativity, it wasn’t until I was invited to my nephew’s third-grade classroom to talk about six-word storytelling that I got my first glimpse of the format’s powerful possibilities in school. That morning, a few dozen elementary students shared stories of identity (“Born to be a spy, unnoticeable”), self-worth (“I live bigger than your labels”), agency (“Brainy, talkative, will never be quiet”), and more.
Since then, Six-Word Memoirs has become a valuable tool in many teachers’ toolboxes because it takes away the pressure of a whole blank page while helping kids focus on what’s important in writing: honest and specific storytelling. And what’s important in any young life: an understanding that no one knows or can tell your story better than you.
The six-word form is simple and adaptable and provides a great entry point for almost any subject, grade level, and topic. Below, I share six steps that apply to any Six-Word Memoirs lesson, followed by three classroom lessons.
Teaching Six-Word Memoirs
1. Introduce the Six-Word Memoir concept as a way students can describe their life using just two rules: one, they must use six words exactly, and two, they should be words that the students believe to be true and are exclusively their own.
2. Pick a topic or prompt. “How would you describe your life in six words?” is a great first prompt for any grade level.
3. Show examples of Six-Word Memoirs so students can see a variety of ways to think about the topic.
4. Give them time—either 10–15 minutes in class or as a homework assignment—to write their six words, and have each student read theirs aloud. Remember to share your own.
5. Leave time for discussion, either in small groups or with the whole class. Ask:
- How are your experiences and perspectives similar to or different from those of your classmates?
- What are you noticing about your favorite Six-Word Memoirs? Are they funny, inspiring, surprising, or something else?
- What common themes do you see in these memoirs?
6. If possible, display student work.
1. Playing the “how well do you know your classmates?” game: Two key values of Six-Word Memoirs are that anyone can do it and everyone plays by the same rules. Taylor Swift gets six words (“My diary is read by everyone”), Nora Z., an 11-year-old from Indiana, gets six words (“Mom just revoked my creative license”), and the creator of the Six-Word Memoir Project gets six words (“Big hair, big heart, big hurry”).
Have your students write their six words and then read a memoir aloud and ask the class to guess whose it is. It’s fun and a good way for the class to connect. When students hear, “Life is better with headphones on,” there are sure to be a lot of mental “likes” and classmates saying, “Yeah, me too.” Hearing, “Three schools, three years, what next?” is relatable for anyone who’s been the new kid.
2. Engaging more deeply with curriculum: Once the ice is broken, the six-word format offers a chance to go deeper. You may be looking for a reflection activity for the 100th day of school, an innovative way to explore Black History Month, or an entry point to the study of history, literature, or current events.
Almost every grade studies nonfiction, and if your students are learning about historical figures, you can invite them to write a Six-Word Memoir from a historical person’s point of view. Writing only six words helps students get to the essence of the figure they’re studying and helps them identify with someone who otherwise may seem larger than life. After reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, for example, students at South Side High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, put themselves in the shoes of the narrator, writing, “Rain fell hard; Momma never flinched,” “Dad, put down the bottle, please?” and more.
If your classroom explores current events—transitions in our global economy, emerging political movements, debates about climate or technological advancements—ask your students to write six-word predictions about where they see these trends heading. This exercise helps students get started thinking critically about the issue or trend, and can be used to generate conversation or catalyze independent reflection.
3. Introducing difficult conversations: Teachers know that students arrive at the classroom as members of a complicated, ever-changing world and that they need to process this world and their place in it. One way to make these conversations easier is by breaking down big ideas into small, digestible chunks.
Andrea Franks, a fourth-/fifth-grade teacher in New York City, asks her students to reflect on social justice using just six words. Students have written, “Freedom for all, freedom for everyone,” “Small acts can make big differences,” “Dark skin, light skin, all equal,” and “Ready or not, time for change.” Franks then asks her students to think about how these memoirs reflect what they’re learning about civil rights and which historical figures might approve of these messages: Ruby Bridges? Diane Nash? Martin Luther King Jr? Students then engage in deeper conversations, connecting their own experiences to the experiences of those who fought for all marginalized people.
Many students have struggled during the pandemic, and many educators tell me they have utilized the six-word format to help their students process this shared experience. Hundreds of these were compiled in a book I edited, A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year: Hundreds of Stories on the Pandemic by Students, Teachers, and Parents. Memoirs like “Graduated fourth grade from my bedroom” (Leo F., fourth grade), “Hey Siri, give me social interaction” (Nate M., sixth grade), and “For sale: prom dress, never worn” (Caroline R., 12th grade) helped students express their emotions and gave the adults in their lives a window into their interior world.