The Six Word Memoir: An end-of-year writing activity that will save your sanity and deeply engage your students!

For the past three years, I have ended the school year requiring my students to craft one final written piece of work. This writing will require them to think more deeply and work harder than any writing assignment I have assigned throughout the school year- yet, this work will be no more than 6 words in length.

The Six Word Memoir.

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a NOVEL in 6 words. 

His response?

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
 

6 incredibly powerful words that seem to tell an entire story. This is the challenge I pose to my students within the last few weeks of the school year. Write your own memoir in six incredibly powerful, carefully chosen words.

Several years ago, I began my school year with this unit as a way to get to know my students. What I found was a level of engagement that I had not seen before within the first few weeks of school. As we all know, students love to tell their own story. This fact alone is often enough to engage even the most reluctant writer, but something amazing happens when you tell a class of tired teenagers they ONLY get 6 words to tell their story. Ears perk, heads turn and tilt, eyes begin to glisten. When I share Hemingway’s powerful story, and discuss its meaning and message, I can see my group of teenagers itching to create something just as powerful to describe their place in this world. The excitement is nearly palpable.

About four years ago, I had a particularly tough group of ninth graders who began the senioritis slide in March! They had all but quit on me with several, fairly torturous, month of school left. That following year, I decided to hold on to this little gem of a unit until those last few weeks, in hopes of bringing engagement back to my tenth graders. It worked. I, of course, had to stay true to my sarcastic and teasing personality, so I began by telling my ninth graders about this large writing assessment. I heard groans, and saw the blank, disapproving stares; let’s just say that eyeballs rolled into the back of many teenage heads. I told them that they were to tell their story, their own personal journey; I explained that they must write about what defines them as a unique and amazing individual. Then I said, slowly and dramatically, “- and you only have 6 words to do so.”

As you present this to your students, you will likely hear what I heard that day:

“Wait, we only have to write 6 words… total… that’s it?”

But as you introduce the project, you will see true interest- not just in telling their own story, but in the craft of choosing words—the craft of writing! I begin by sharing the legend of Earnest Hemingway’s 6 word novel. We discuss what this might mean, the power behind these words, the purpose and impact of the punctuation, and the focused message given by Hemingway in this novel. This discussion is as rich as it gets within those tough final weeks of middle/high school! I had never seen a group of 9th graders so enthralled with six little words.

Within these final few weeks, I host mini-lessons on a focused/central idea, word choice, and the power of punctuation. I offered these session as a choice to my students in an attempt to personalize learning. I was shocked that nearly all students elected to attend these sessions so they could create an amazing memoir. Finally, I ask students to use PowerPoint to create an image on which to display their memoir.

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I continue to be amazed with the depth and complexity of their overall pieces. After students share their digital image with me, I create a short video (movie maker) of all student projects. The students elect music to accompany the video, and once uploaded to our district website, they are able to download a keepsake of their school year! What a powerful and beautiful yearbook.

 

This is the unit that I have created to introduce the six word memoir. Check it out if you are looking for no plan, easy to print-and-teach materials! Save your sanity and energy in this final stretch of the marathon we call a school year!