Six-Word Memoirs Teaches Teachers How to Have Tough Conversations in Schools

“Irish, Italian, Russian, Puerto Rican. Me.”

Cayla Tangney, an art teacher at Minisink Valley High School, first came across Six-Word Memoirs when she and nine other teachers in her district took a “Teaching Tough Topics” professional development class. The course educated Cayla and her colleagues on speaking about topics like sexual orientation, immigration, and race and ethnicity respectively and proactively with their students. The class offered an overview of stereotypes and injustices throughout history, and how they still persist today. Since the role of teacher in developing creativity and innovation in the classroom is crucial, the Tough Topics class introduced examples of creative thinking activities and how to promote creativity in schools to have those tough conversations. Six-Word Memoirs was specifically promoted as a tool teachers could use to provoke thoughtful classroom discussion about identity and global awareness.

“Many students ask great questions and we all wanted to learn how we can educate them by addressing these questions rather than avoiding them,” says Cayla. “By using activities that promote creativity, we, as teachers, can try to open their minds and broaden their thoughts on the world.”

Cayla introduced Six-Word Memoirs to her students with an “I Wonder” activity - one of her classroom discussion strategies - utilizing the Fresh Off The Boat (FOTB) memoirs on the Six-Word Memoirs website. She laid out large pieces of paper on seven tables with a FOTB memoir written on each and broke the class up into groups. The students traveled around the room, literally and figuratively, and discussed all the memoirs they encountered. After they cycled through all the memoirs, classroom discussion ensued. The students shared their thoughts about what each memoir meant, how the memoirs made them feel, and if they, the students, could relate to anything that the memoirs conveyed.

Cayla then asked them to compose their own memoir. “I made sure to focus them solely on FOTB concepts such as heritage, nationality, cultural identity, language, cultural family experience, religion, and race,” says Cayla. “The results were beautiful.” She noted that the importance of creativity in teaching is that it lends itself to having these types of complex conversations.

“Mostly American. The rest is lost.”

Cayla’s quest for creativity in the classroom paired perfectly with the students’ Six-Word Memoirs: create a self-portrait painting and background in the style of contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley. The project was meant to help them communicate their identities regarding nationalities and ethnicities—their backgrounds were primarily made up of country’s flags and flowers. It was as if the stars aligned perfectly to pair their art with their stories.

“Before completing their backgrounds, they were asked to complete the Six-Word Memoir as a catalyst for their visual ideas,” says Cayla. In other words, the memoir was the cherry on top.

Students wrote about feeling like their identity was misunderstood (“Why aren’t you dark like them.”) or underrepresented (“Mostly American. The rest is lost.”). Some wanted to take control of their own story (“I am Spanish. Not from Spain”), and others shared what they were made of with confidence (“Irish, Italian, Russian, Puerto Rican. Me.”). One student embraced her whole self and heritage simply when she wrote: “Family is love, Family is life.” They all shared what made them, them, and, as Cayla said, it was beautiful. So beautiful that the results will be displayed in May at Minisink Valley’s District Art Show in their high school cafeteria and auditorium.

“I am Spanish. Not from Spain”

Reflecting on the experience, Cayla believed the creative task idea, in addition to refining their artistic skill and technique, helped her students develop their artistic ideas and personally connect with their work. She also noted that projects like Six-Words - and other examples of creativity in teaching - allow teachers to give students the opportunity to interact with complex topics, such as heritage, that they wouldn’t normally encounter.

Prior to the project, students either knew almost nothing about their nationality or claimed they knew everything. Needless to say, the clueless were enlightened, and the self-declared know-it-alls were caught completely off guard. “When they returned they were excited to tell me they had discovered so much more about who they were,” adds Cayla. Six-Word Memoirs showed the importance of creativity in the classroom: it gave Cayla’s students a chance to learn more about who they were, and a means to express that newfound identity.