Here's How to Use Six-Words as a Creative Exercise with Your Students

“They used to make me smile.” — Jaycee Womack

The students in John Ferry’s sophomore illustration class at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) in Kansas City, Missouri have once again delighted us with their work.

Associate Professor John first discovered Six-Words while listening to a story on the project on NPR. He was inspired by the idea and introduced his first Six-Word creative exercise for students to his “Image and Form” class. It’s a drawing exercise and activity that promotes creativity.

(L) “I made the decisions I made.” — Alex Churn
(R) “Do you pray with that mouth?” — Gabriela Pabon

John begins his creativity exercises by educating his students on SMITH Magazine and the SWM website. He shares the legendary Ernest Hemingway six-word novel (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”) that first inspired SWM founder, Larry Smith, to challenge anyone and everyone to write their personal novel with a twist. John then reads aloud memoirs from SWM books to help his class get a sense of how granular or far-reaching a Six-Word Memoir can be.

Delivering a clear message in a brief moment—in words or images or both—inspires the creative thinking activity for students. John wanted his students to realize that there are no boundaries to the types of art they can create. Each student begins by drafting a number of Six-Word Memoirs, and eventually choosing one from the exercise to spark creativity for an illustration. “While all of my students may not consider themselves writers,” says John, “the six-word form has proven to be a tool to help them express themselves in ways that many never expected.”

“Wish I didn’t need to sleep.” — Shelby Noel

Some of the memoirs deal with universal ideas and desire (“Wish I didn’t need to sleep”). Others touch upon forcing yourself to display a facade that doesn’t reflect who you truly are (“They used to make me smile”). Many are whimsical (“Panini press hands, toasty sandwich time”). As a whole, the work is striking, heart-wrenching, and clever.

“This exercise for creativity has helped me learn more about my students,” says John. “This makes me a better professor; the more I know about them personally, the better I can help them figure out what they want to do with their work.”