Six-Word Memoirs Challenges High Schoolers to Tell Their Own Stories

College acceptances for Charles R. Drew Charter School’s Legacy Class

Education and opportunity are essential to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. What began as neighborhood revitalization has become a cradle-to-college pipeline with the inaugural graduating class of Charles R. Drew Charter School as its pioneers. Drew Charter in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded in 2000 as the first charter school in the Atlanta Public School System through a groundbreaking partnership that included the East Lake Foundation and other community stakeholders. With the goal of closing the achievement gap in education, Drew Charter has become a national model for educational success. This remarkable story extends beyond the classroom and plays a central role in Purpose Built Communities—a nonprofit whose vision “guides neighborhood revitalization by creating pathways out of poverty for the lowest-income residents, and building strong, economically diverse communities.”

Drew’s first group of high school seniors are fittingly known as the Legacy Class because they would make history by bringing the school’s mission to fruition. As these young students worked diligently to complete high school and prepare for college, we suggested Six-Word Memoirs as a useful tool to enhance writing skills for high school students. A tool to help these students reflect on their journeys and their achievements, both academically and personally. The timing was serendipity—Drew’s graduation committee was looking for a way to showcase students in their upcoming commencement ceremony. Rachel Kaney, Drew’s Director of College and Career Readiness, believed that Six-Words, as a creative writing activity, would add value to the senior class experience.

Rachel and 12th grade Social Studies teacher, Barbara Manwell, collaborated on a lesson plan of activities to teach creative writing, including the introduction of a memoir and the concept of storytelling in six words. Students were presented with examples of relevant Six-Word Memoirs, including “Be a doer, not a dreamer.” by Emmy-award winning writer Shonda Rhimes—featured in our 2015 book, The Best Advice in Six Words. Then Rachel and Barbara got to the heart of the assignment by posing the question: “Who are you as a result of the community who shaped you?” Students were able to define community for themselves, whether that meant their Drew community or extended to family and other personal networks.

Brainstorming served as an exercise to improve writing skills through word count, as it forced struggling students to narrow their personal narratives to six words. Taking their role of teacher in developing writing skills seriously, the teachers had the students start with “How would you describe yourself?” The instructors wanted students to identify characteristics about themselves and who or what was meaningful, but Rachel cautioned, “we didn’t want them to end up with six adjectives—the important part is to tell a story.”

Students found the project to be meaningful and a fun strategy for developing writing skills. Instead of rushing to pick six words and be done, they took ownership of crafting their Six-Word Memoirs—particularly when they realized their six words would be presented at graduation. Some students wanted to keep their memoirs private until graduation day, while others wanted feedback from classmates. Rachel enjoyed watching them collaborate: “They went peer-to-peer, asking ‘Well, who do you think I am?’ which gave them a perspective about how others see them, and helped them recognize, ‘Yes, I really am energetic, or honest, or things like dance or engineering really define me.’”

There are nearly 90 Six-Word Memoirs in this collection, one from each member of the Legacy Class. Each memoir showed insight and maturity, capturing some aspect of the students’ personality or distinguishing experience. For some that meant redefining expectations (“Overcoming the doubters, I made it.”—Tatynia Long) and asserting their place in the world (“Trilingual smile with a global reach.”—Zora Ponder-Jones), or realizing that struggles are surmountable (“Ups, downs, to cap and gown.”—Brandon Miller) and the paths they blaze today open doors for others tomorrow (“Role model first; my success second.”—Tyler Sturdivant).

Rachel reflected that Six-Word Memoirs was a valuable tool for how to improve writing skills in English for students, which was crucial to the graduation ceremony: “The project enabled personalities to shine in a ceremony that oftentimes doesn’t capture the individuality of students. Graduation is such an exciting time and the ceremony is typically about celebrating the collective. Six-Word Memoirs made it very personal—more than just announcing each name; by featuring each student’s memoir as he or she crossed the stage, it made it really special for every graduate. Six Words provided that window of opportunity to showcase each student in a succinct and meaningful way.”

Although it’s the end of an era known as high school for these students, this milestone is simply a continuation along their cradle-to-college path. We salute the young men and women of Drew’s Legacy class. Six-Word Memoirs is honored to help them preserve their stories and celebrate their achievements.

Drew Charter School’s 12th grade Legacy Class on graduation day

“There will never be a first graduating class again. They have trailblazed. They are setting the path. They will establish many of the traditions that will continue on for years to come.” —Peter McKnight, Principal of the Drew Charter School Senior Academy