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Start the Year With Super-Easy, Tech-Savvy, Six-Word Memoirs

By Christy Crawford on September 22, 2011
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

How do you get the Twitter generation to write a memoir? Start with Hemingway and six words. Novelist Ernest Hemingway didn't tweet or text, of course, but he's inspiring students to write and share their life stories online. Reportedly challenged to write a story in just six words, Hemingway wrote: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." True or not, this legend lives on thanks to SMITH Magazine, home of the Six-Word Memoir project and a series of books, starting with Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith's Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure

You can use this pithy form of the memoir to get students to speak with confidence and build community, and to quickly set expectations for digital projects throughout the year. Read on for a short video excerpt and to scroll through a few of my students' favorite six-word memoirs dealing with issues ranging from divorce and death to self-image.

Above: Isaac, a 2nd grade director, and Emma, a 2nd grade cinematographer, shoot their six-word memoirs.

I am a nobody for everybody. 

     —Bronx New School 3rd Grader


They are two parts . . . so what?

        —Bronx New School 5th Grader


They split and harshly lied. Why?

        —Bronx New School 5th Grader


I love it when it's dismissal.

        —Bronx New School 4th Grader


Thought you would stay on Earth.

        —Bronx New School 5th Grader


My mom can't dance. She's embarrassing.

        —Bronx New School 4th grader 


Saw ghost. They don't believe me.

           —Bronx New School 4th grader 


You'll Need . . .


      1. A Flip or any kid-friendly camera with simple editing software and a tripod.*

      2. A computer and LCD projector or interactive whiteboard for editing video memoirs. (The LCD projector or interactive whiteboard enables all students to watch as student editors work. )

      3. Markers, construction paper, heavy card stock, and glue sticks to create strong word posters.

*More advanced users may choose to display the six-word text as a lower-third caption across the screen. For lower-thirds, you'll need a digital camera and software with chyron capabilities, such as iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, or Microsoft Photo Story 3. 


The Process


Day 1:

Practice with five-word theater. Because simple camcorders such as the Flip use an internal microphone to record audio, students must speak up or risk not being heard. Use the Six-Word Memoir project to help students learn to project, enunciate, and speak slowly and confidently. Do this now and student films, podcasts, interviews and recorded speeches will be a breeze the rest of the year. Begin by having students recite five easy words, "Hello! My name is ___________." You may be surprised how many students cannot complete the exercise confidently the first two or three tries.

Model a stage voice and camera-ready face for students. Push them to support each other. For super shy children, have your circle of students face away from the student. Patiently wait for shy children to express themselves without the pressure of all those sets of eyes. 

Writers dive into their six-word drafts.Day 2:

Define six-word memoir and and inspire students with several examples. Use Hemingway's short story, write your own, or check out "Six Word Memoirs: The Video Story" for older students or "Six Word Memoirs by Teens" for younger students. 

Before peer writing begins, set guidelines:

1. Be specific.

2. Ditch 50-cent words like "sad." Utilize 500-dollar words like "melancholy."

3. Pick moments worthy of memoir (birth of another sibling, loss of first tooth, etc.)

4. Make every word count. Eliminate "I" or useless prepositions.

Give students ample writing time. Insist they number each word to ensure an accurate word count. Allow writers to share their six-word triumphs as a class.

Day 3:

For your class's favorite memoirs, develop production teams with a cinematographer, actor(s), an editor, a director, and an art/props department to create word posters or shoot digital images. Review shooting terms such as "tight shot," "wide shot," "pan," "tilt," and "zoom." Once several rehearsals have taken place, let shooting commence. Directors should remind actors to project, enunciate, talk slowly, and maintain a camera-ready face.

Day 4:

Almost ready to wrap up production? Use the LCD projector or interactive whiteboard to blast your editors' final cuts on a classroom wall. Permit students to talk about what they learned, what worked well, and what they would change. Remind each critic to offer both positive comments and constructive criticism.  

One-take wonders: Angela, Joshua and Jose make shooting six-word memoirs fun! Day 5: 

Celebration! Submit completed memoirs to SMITH Magazine for publication and hold your own six-word memoir screenings. 


Do you dare go shorter than six words? Check out Good Morning America's Your Three Words series. 

How are you getting students excited to write and to use recording devices with confidence? Please share here!


Comments (3)

I just had my eighth grade students write six word stories to hone their story telling skills as we program animations in Scratch. This was a great way to get the students to consider the point of the story in a succinct way. This exercise also brought out the student's humor and they enjoyed seeing their work displayed on the classroom wall.

I am in school PS51 and i hope you guys like were videos.

Many of us do a great job getting students to write and write and write. One of the skills that we don't do as well is getting them (and ourselves) to attend to required restrictions. Assignments that require writers to compose to particular specifications--no pronouns, dialogue only, haiku format, one-syllable words only, or no more than six words. These constraints force us to grapple with our writing in ways that we don't normally do; they help us to be aware of and to strengthen our skills.

An extreme and amazing example is Ernest Vincent Wright's 1939 Gadsby -- a 50,000 word novel written entirely without the use of the letter "e". By the way, writing that eliminates a letter of the alphabet is called a Lipogram (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lipogram). Letter e lipograms are among the most difficult. Try writing even a paragraph without an e.

While these are good exercises to improve our writing in general, they have a practical purpose too. As our students begin to write college applications, seek employment, and vie for competitive grants, they will find that careful attention to guidelines can mean the difference between success and failure.

Your students are developing skills that just may give them the edge they'll need in the future.

--Mitch Bleier

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