Six-Word Memoirs for Teachers Can Help Teens with Special Needs

At John F. Kennedy Middle School in Waltham, MA, they recognize that “students undergo an amazing transformation, cognitively, physically and emotionally” during the pivotal middle school years. Cue Kennedy Middle School teacher Katherine Hansen, who was immediately intrigued by Six-Word Memoirs. She recognized the writing curriculum potential for getting her 7th grade students to “go deeper than the standard get-to-know-you activity” at the beginning of the school year.

Katherine began thinking about her creative writing lesson plan while exploring the Six-Word Memoirs website. She discovered two particularly useful tools on the SWM website’s Teens section: the YouTube video “Six-Word Memoirs by Teens,” and our Six-Word Memoirs for Teens book, I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, which she purchased as a reference tool. She showed the YouTube video in class to capture her students’ attention and introduce the Six-Word concept: “It had a fun little song in the background. We watched that before they began working on their own assignments.”

Her Six-Word Memoirs writing curriculum for special education was part of an English lesson plan about word choice. “I am a special education teacher, so I have to make things accessible to my students with learning disabilities or who have hearing or vision issues. Six-Word Memoirs gives them a model to follow,” Katherine explains. This is where I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets became useful as a grammar and writing curriculum: “Looking at examples of what other teens had come up with was very helpful to them. Some of the examples are dark or less appropriate for the age group I teach, but it was interesting and helpful for them to see that other kids feel these things, too. One of our favorite examples: ‘Still waiting on my Hogwarts letter.’”

Using Six Words to examine word choice involves “being concise to convey memory, moment, or emotion — putting their best six words in the best order,” Katherine declares. She essentially built a writing curriculum for struggling writers: some students brainstormed different words they associate with themselves and then generated ideas from these associations. “Some students used index cards, others used a six-column graphic organizer and guided worksheet, or completed the writing prompts ‘I like to ___ ___ ___’ and ‘I feel ___ ___ ___ ___.’ These cues gave them an easier way to get their ideas across,” Katherine illustrates. “Initially they said ‘What, only six words?’ But once they got the concept, they were very excited about it.”

Kennedy is a one-to-one school, meaning each student is issued a device to incorporate technology into their learning. Their iPads have become “a really great learning tool that makes a lot of things accessible to them,” Katherine explains. She decided a technology-driven project would help connect students with their Six-Word Memoirs. Students had the freedom to use any Apple-compatible applications that pair text with images — they created their visuals using the iPad apps Book Creator, Explain Everything, Keynote, and Pages.

Students took their six words, selected a background image to pair with it, then tailored whichever fonts and color scheme they preferred. “One student used emojis to match the words, which was a fun, different way to use imagery,” Katherine reveals.

Over the three days that students engaged with Six-Word Memoirs, everyone discovered that students reveal different aspects of themselves depending on their environment — from one classroom to another, and between home and school. Katherine believes the images helped students make dynamic connections with their memoirs: “Students liked how open-ended and creative they could be. They were very excited that what they did had been noticed by others (via Katherine’s Twitter page), they thought that was really cool.”

Katherine’s enthusiasm for Six Words, and her creative writing curriculum guide, has been contagious: “After I shared the Six-Word Memoir project with a fellow eighth grade general education teacher, she is now planning to use Six Words when her students begin their unit on The House on Mango Street — the writing unit to go with it will be the short memoir narrative.”

Katherine also plans to reintroduce Six Words again during this school year. Her students will be “taking the perspective of characters in novels…students will create Six-Word Memoirs based on those characters, traits, and stories.” The Six-Word Memoir project looks forward to becoming a regular component of lesson plans at Kennedy Middle School.