Six-Word Memoirs: Introducing College Students to Storytelling in Six Words

Christina Mayes’ peer mentors who help facilitate her college seminar, “Mastering College.”

“Laughter my savior – Life my teacher.” – Christina Mayes

Christina Mayes, a professor of a first-year “Mastering College” seminar class at the Dominican University of California, has been supporting students’ healthy transition into college life through Six-Word Memoirs for the last eight years. It’s her answer to the question: what is the importance of using varied methods and strategies in teaching. She discovered Six-Word Memoirs in 2011 through a guest speaker, who ended up leading her 101 seminar through the process of writing their own memoir in six words. The format quickly became one of the professor’s most effective teaching strategies.

In 2019, on the SWM website, Christina shared the backstory to the very first Six-Word Memoir she had ever written. “At the time I wrote, ‘Laughter my savior, life my teacher.’ At the time, I was coping with the loss of my biological father, and on the cusp of marrying my high school sweetheart. And I just thought, ‘wow, life can be funny and sad all at the same time’. Now here I am, eight years later. I have experienced some more losses, and infinitely more laughs - crying was definitely involved in both. But as I used this exercise to connect with my students, my memoir still resonates with my heart.”

Years later, now a mother of two, her memoir has evolved into: ‘Life my teacher, laughter my savior,’ and she wonders what ups and downs her children will experience. “I hope I can guide them enough to understand my renewed sense of my Six-Word Memoir,” she says. “While this subtle rearrangement of a few words may not mean much to others, for me, I take this to mean first ‘life’ will happen and hopefully I will learn and hopefully I will still laugh.”

“Life my teacher, laughter my savior.” —Christina Mayes

Six-Word Memoirs has been a large part of Christina’s story; a story that she has turned into a teaching style and a teaching method and strategy. She now answers the question of how to teach students effectively by using the short form of storytelling as an accessible, tangible way for students to engage in her class. She says that the concept is simple to deliver, yet still challenging—in a good way.

Christina’s seminar class is co-facilitated by two trained ‘peer mentors’, who help her cover topics from “Self Care” to “Budgeting-Financial Wellness.” The seminar’s topics are complex enough that, initially, Christina could sense her freshman starting to fizzle near mid-semester. To combat the burnout, she introduced Six-Word Memoirs as a student-centered teaching method, sensing that it would be a creative and fun way to facilitate the class’ next topic on “Values and Identity.”

Christina posted her students’ Six-Word Memoirs on the wall and then led an open discussion on values and identity.

“We all have a story to share and I have found it immensely important to support students in sharing their stories with one another,” Christina explained. “I now introduce the format at about midpoint in the term, right when students seem vulnerable or overwhelmed. It’s an effective teaching method that seems to ground and recenter everyone, and reconnects students back to their personal foundations of strength and resilience.”

Six-Word Memoirs is a project near to Christina’s heart, one to which anyone can respond no matter their age or experience. She believes it can be used as a private tool for personal discovery, or as a bridge between different ages and audiences, propelling open dialogue. “To be able to open myself up to my students, I first have to acknowledge how much life they have already experienced prior to my class,” says Christina. “I have great respect for our emerging adults. And now that I have surpassed my father [in age, when he passed], reflecting on my own human development allows me to see that we are all works-in-progress no matter our age or lived experience.”