Creative Writing for AP English: How to Build Student's Self-Awareness in Six Words

In November 2021, a classroom of 11th graders at Harrison High School in New Jersey shared the depths of their souls while simultaneously juggling the brevity that comes with Six-Word Memoirs. The brave act of exposing their inner lives to each other and the class, using creative writing exercises for students, surprised AP English Language teacher, Lauren Rodriguez. She has been teaching high schoolers - and creating activities for writing skills - for over two decades. “I think just the fact that they can admit sometimes that they’re unmotivated, or overwhelmed—it usually surprises me that they’re willing to write about that.”

While this does mean she has seen it all, her students continue to reveal a new standard for the meaningfulness that can be derived out of easy, daily writing exercises.

Rodriguez stumbled into the Six-Word world when she came across the Six-Word Memoir Instagram page, which inspired her to do creative writing exercises for beginners with her current poetry class. Rodriguez typically introduces Six-Word Memoirs to her classes by first asking them to interpret Hemingway’s legendary, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” story. “A lot of them would say things like, ‘Oh well, you know, the baby grew out of the shoes,’ and none of them would ever say anything about its dark reality—so it would open up such conversations … and we would talk about how we all bring different baggage to what we’re reading and how we all have different assumptions; so the fun creative writing activities really helped me get them going on analysis.”

In preparation for the memoir segment of the semester, Rodriguez ran the gamut of creative writing activity ideas. In the end, she decided that the theme for the academic year of 2021 was for all students to tell the story of their current life in six words. Rodriguez didn’t shy from emotion and communication throughout the semester—every Friday she would set time aside to talk about life beyond the classroom. 

Rodriguez appreciated certain truths about motivation and work ethic that her students were willing to admit about themselves. “What surprised me most about this work [from the last academic year] was how willing they were to open up about some of the things in their lives — divorce, death, sickness; but also show hope for their futures.”

For this assignment, she had her class bring out the crayons and colored pencils to do some therapeutic art on an outlined template of a silhouette. The colors were supposed to be a direct representation of their emotions and an abstract story of their memoir, which would be written inside a speech bubble. “It felt like it was them writing about themselves … and they liked coloring. Even high school kids like to color!”

"All beautiful things go through change." - Anonymous student

“I love how this student recognized themselves as beautiful because I know confidence can be an issue with teenagers, especially after a year of having to look at yourself on the computer screen. Not easy for anyone,” says Rodriguez.

"I am my own worst enemy." - Anonymous student

“This student recognized the fact that they are responsible for their own successes and failures. Not all 11th graders are as self-aware and this particular example sparked discussion in a number of students when they were viewing all of the projects,” says Rodriguez.

"Easier to start than to finish." - Anonymous student

“This particular example puts into words what so many of us in education (teachers and students) have felt over the last year and a half. Projects are started because they seem like a good idea but then actually being able to finish them or to put them into action is such a struggle,” says Rodriguez.

"I wish you could have stayed." - Anonymous student

Rodriguez notes the journey that her students go through with her assignments: “They get so frustrated; but when they’re done, they’re always so amazed by what they write.” She adds that the students also share their memoirs with each other. These creative writing group activities often tend to open up a range of exciting new perspectives they hadn’t initially considered. When the challenge of being conservative with words is finally overcome, the students learn that quantity does not necessarily have to equal depth. “The best thing about this assignment though was that my students got so much out of it—especially when they walked around and looked at other people too, they all felt like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I was able to say this and it makes sense,” says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has furnished her yearly curriculum with guided writing worksheets, including the Six-Word Memoir concept, for six consecutive years. Each year, after gauging the class, she’ll move some things around, but Six-Words have stayed constant. “I love doing this because it really pushes them to realize, ‘I can say a lot in only six words … I feel like kids—and adults—think they have to say all these things, but really they don’t. Less is more!”