Six Word Challenge: Creative writing prompts for middle schoolers

At Trinity School for Children in Florida, English Core teacher Jenny Hess likes to start her school year by learning more about her middle school students through writing prompts. So, in August 2021, after brainstorming writing topics and writing prompts for beginners over the summer, Jenny started a three-day lesson in introductions using Six-Word Memoirs. The creative writing prompts for this classroom project enabled her students to showcase their abilities in writing and illustration, but also gave them the opportunity to mine for the essence of their personalities. By the end of this self reflection activity, her students were not only aware of the literary influence of Papa Hemingway, but they learned how to write a memoir, and discovered the power of their individual voices.

Jenny discovered the Six-Word Memoir website while searching for online platforms that could showcase and motivate writing prompts for students. Both inspired by Six-Word Memoirs’ literary history and Hemingway’s influence on the concept, as well as determined to get to know her students better, Jenny introduced the format as a three-day classroom activity.

Day One.

The first day was spent brainstorming ideas for the creative writing prompt, “Six words to sum up you.” Since adolescence is typically the time most tweens begin their journey in self reflection and introspection, Jenny suspected that her students summing up their identity in six words would be a feat. The other challenge lay in her interest in “hearing more about their heart, rather than what they do.” So, Jenny encouraged her students to go beyond the roles they donned outside the classroom — playing an athletic sport, for instance — and digging deep into the core of their personalities. “A lot of my students just wanted to just hide behind a sports title, so I had to start asking deeper questions to narrow down what was unique about them.”

Weirdness is welcome in the world. - Madison Valder

Day Two.

On the second day, the class moved on from brainstorming creative writing topic ideas to packing their personalities into a six word sentence and an accompanying illustration. The students focused on word choice and vocabulary, while Jenny coached them through the process of finding the right words. And then they used those six words to illustrate what they discovered about their unique personalities.

Day Three.

On the last day, the students showcased their work. Since raw self-expression can cause feelings of vulnerability, Jenny offered her students the opportunity to opt out or share anonymously if they didn’t feel comfortable presenting their memoirs publicly. By and large, this was not the case. “A lot of them were proud of what they wrote and wanted to showcase their work. They wanted to share it with their peers,” Jenny says.

“Art: sketching, painting, digital, always creating.” — Anonymous student

"Drawing until numb (really long time)."  —Hiram

“On the water we are zen.” —Carsyn

“Music, the language of the soul.” —Heidi

“Apricot concrete makes me calm.” —Cameron

“A veterinarian to forever help animals.” —Lauren

“Family is always in the background.” —Wilson

“What you believe, you can achieve!” —Samuel

In the end, the three-day activity - and Jenny’s self reflection, story writing prompts - was a success. Jenny noted how Six-Word Memoirs opened up “a sort of unity that the students had with one another — that they saw each other for who they were, and for their unique abilities.” One student in particular used her voice to represent the Black community as a whole through her memoir, and to send a powerful message about the difference in cultures. “I just thought that it was really powerful of her to think of that and to drive home the message that people are different, and we need to accept and understand one another’s differences.”

Jenny is enthusiastic to keep the Six-Word experiment going and plans to incorporate the form in future assignments. While acknowledging the various obstacles that go hand in hand with putting pen to paper, she reflects that “If you don’t love writing to begin with, Six-Words is a great starter. It’s a way for students to say, ‘Six words? I can do that!.’” The whole activity - from writing prompt ideas to student’s presentations - highlighted the important underlying message, that, as she believes, “each student can be an author, even if it’s just six words.”