Students Explore Identity With a Helpful Six Word Writing Activity

"I dance to tell a story."

Caroline Carty, a 9th grade English teacher at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, New York, finds Six-Word Memoirs an ideal writing activity for students to explore the theme of identity.

“The focus for the first part of the year was around identity,” explains Caroline. As part of her students’ pre-writing activities, Caroline had them brainstorm the concept of their identity. “We went through moments, memories, and experiences, until the students felt that they had a good grasp of how those adventures could or did shape their identity.” Then, the class jumped into the creative writing activity by turning their experiences into Six-Word Memoirs.

As freshmen, most of the participants didn’t know each other well. So, adding a creative writing group activity component on identity, helped Caroline build what she called “classroom community.” The students performed read-arounds and shared their projects to spark more ideas and to learn more about one another. For Caroline, she was pleasantly pleased with her student’s memoirs, but the highlight of the writing lesson idea was just how much her students had surprised themselves.

“Doubt me…Motivation to be greater.”

One student’s backstory offers encouragement through identity: “I hope that anyone who feels doubted could see this memoir and feel like they could use that negative energy to do better.” Another student grappled with perception in identity and what it means to be truly happy: “The part of identity this memoir captures is a moment in my life I pretended to be okay and actually felt the opposite.” Some students embraced going against the grain: “I am what you call…a loner.” Others described changing themselves, including one self-effacing student: “As I became older I looked at what I did wrong, and avoided choices that I had made in the past.” The students’ backstories are laced with wry humor and filled with discoveries.

With such a positive initial response, Caroline propelled the project further by having her students create backstories - a longer written piece - and an accompanying image to illuminate their Six-Word Memoir. These backstories allowed her to learn even more about her new students, but, more importantly, they really made the freshmen’s Six-Worders “come to life.” Caroline also encouraged her students to dig into the Six-Word Memoirs website itself as a student publishing site. Having places to publish student writing, which shows students how their project connects to the outside world, Caroline says, “made the lesson an even more authentic experience for the students.”

"My family who I call strangers…”

Caroline’s students are currently reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. In the way of more academic writing activities, her class will perform a case study on cultural identity, using the protagonist's journey as an example. Between assigned readings, students will compose Six-Word Memoirs discussing and analyzing the protagonist and where his “identity” is in the story. At the end of the novel, Caroline will have students look back at their pieces to analyze the character’s growth throughout the course of the novel.

Caroline believes that her classroom’s success was due in part to being allowed a voice in their choice: “Students get to choose what they write about and what words to use.” More importantly, she noted that SWM, as a creative thinking activity for students, allows them to experience identity through themselves. This particular project allowed her students to creatively explore a character’s identity by analyzing Alexie’s work, while also learning more about their classmates, and expressing themselves creatively through the Six-Word format.

“Me: Shy, quiet, but DETERMINED inside.”