Six in Schools: Collaborative Classroom Tool to Get Students Writing Quick

Our founder, Larry Smith, and his Six-Words team
holding up 6 and representing BE THE ONE with Dawn’s students.

Dawn Heideman had read about Six-Words, but it wasn’t until she heard SWM founder, Larry Smith, speak at a conference that she realized the form’s true potential. As a math teacher at Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Ohio, writing in the classroom wasn’t really in Dawn’s wheelhouse. But the conference, which was on diversity and education, made her realize that Six-Words was more than writing - that it could be adapted for student collaboration - and that her students could benefit from digging into the format. She also realized that the simple six word structure could be used as a collaborative writing tool for students, a way to help them tell their story—no matter how difficult it can be to do so—without feeling like they needed to write a book or hit a big word count.

“It is not intimidating… only six words. Yet your words have to be carefully chosen,” she says. “No wasted ‘chatter.'”

Larry visited Dawn’s classroom to talk about the origins of Six-Word Memoirs and to inspire a spirit of collaborative writing in the classroom. Students talked about sports being their only hope for a better life, while others told stories about the BE THE ONE program Dawn founded and how it had inspired them. The students were at their desks, huddled around in a circle for the collaborative writing activity, speaking some of their truths—six words at a time.

“Dawn’s students warmed up quickly to this stranger with big hair wearing a t-shirt with a Six-Word Memoir on it. They were everything she promised they would be: intense, funny, vulnerable, quick to learn and love six-word storytelling,” Larry remembered. “Spending a morning with her students reminds me of the best part: the power of the six word form to engage students and watch them shine.”

Larry & one of Dawn’s talented student wordsmiths.

Even students who normally stayed quiet and kept to themselves in the classroom participated in the collaborative story writing activity.

“Now I have another avenue to get students engaged and communicating,” says Dawn. “It is very effective. I watched the students pass Six-Word Memoir books around the circle. Students that would typically pass a book on quickly were reading.”

After Larry’s visit, Dawn challenged students to write more Six-Word Memoirs about their lives. Among her writing prompts was to describe what their school program, BE THE ONE, meant to them. Dawn founded the program to help her students—at-risk kids who have gone through trauma-like domestic violence and homelessness—give back to their community and say no to violence. It’s a pact, says Dawn, between her and her students to help them achieve a brighter future.

Students shared memoirs about some of the hardest parts of life: “Domestic violence made me even stronger” and “My family is a twisted story!” They spoke of their resilience when the odds were stacked against them: “The struggle only made me strong.” They all wanted to achieve something, as encompassed in one student’s memoir: “Being understood is not my goal.”

Through the BE THE ONE program’s community service initiative, students met and bonded with a Ronald McDonald House patient named Orian and decided to give him a gift. Inspired by Larry’s presentation, they collaboratively wrote and bound a Six-Word Memoir book—a collection of their personal memoirs and ones about the BE THE ONE program—for Orian.

“Orian was severely bullied so we kind of took him under our wing,” says Dawn. “We made the book for him and sent it to Maryland to lift his spirits.”

Ronald McDonald patient, Orian, with
his Six-Word Memoir book.

According to his mother, Orian reads the book every night before bed.

Six-Word Memoirs has given Dawn’s students an outlet to share their struggles, resilience, and dreams. Dawn plans to continue to use Six-Word Memoirs as a collaborative writing strategy in her classroom to help them express themselves and connect with others on a deeper level. “This tactic of getting kids to write, share and express,” she says, “will be used a lot!”