At Branchburg Central Middle School in Branchburg, New Jersey, one of the primary goals for educator Suzanne Updegrove is to get students thinking in innovative ways and developing their problem-solving skills: “It’s not about getting the right answer, it’s about getting them to think creatively or divergently.” Ms. Updegrove teaches students throughout the middle school grades (sixth through eighth), and at all academic levels, with a speciality in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) instruction, as well as enrichment areas.
She has been using Six-Word Memoirs in the classroom for nearly four years. “I use it as an opening activity when kids come into my room. We use Six Words monthly, and sometimes weekly, typically on a Monday or a Friday, just to get them thinking,” she says. “I use different kinds of openers with my students every day: math things one day, brainteasers another day, two-minute mysteries, and spontaneous problems where they have to put word associations together— including writing Six-Word Memoirs.”
Unexpectedly, Updegrove discovered a personal connection to Six Words founder, Larry Smith: “I went to high school [in New Jersey] with Larry for my freshman and sophomore years of high school, before our family moved. We didn’t know each other well, but a mutual high school friend kept in touch with him and that’s how I realized it was Larry who started Six-Word Memoirs.”
The six-word format is a nice compliment to Updegrove’s teaching style. “It’s all about finding the right questions — not about finding answers. It’s about them
— Suzanne Updegrove (@suzupde) September 22, 2016
taking risks by picking just six words and breaking the rules of grammar. Can you leave out ‘the’ or ‘a’ and get your point across? It’s about challenging them to choose their best six words. Sometimes in school, you’re constrained by certain requirements or rules; kids need to think creatively and push themselves outside of their comfort zone.” Updegrove continues: “That’s what we do in my room, a lot of that kind of thinking; to get them going, I often start with a Six-Word Memoir.”
Updegrove receives a range of reactions whenever she introduces Six-Word Memoirs to her students. “Some are very excited and love finding the best six words; some are so frustrated, that they can only use six words; others struggle to find six words.” As a conversation starter and an icebreaker, she explains, “the form makes you think about words.”
Our Six Words team discovered Updegrove’s use of Six Words in the classroom via Twitter. Updegrove likes Twitter’s real-world audience because it makes students take projects personally and really commit to what they’re doing. “If I say ‘I’m going to post the six best memoirs on Twitter,’ it gives this small warm-up activity some validity and purpose.”
Giving students a public audience also another valuable learning opportunity. “The kids love when I post on Twitter because they get feedback and analytics, they can see how many interactions they’ve had, how many ‘likes’ and retweets, and they get kind of competitive about it. Social media is the world they live in. Five years ago, I never thought I would tweet,” Updegrove reveals. “But now, educationally, it’s really valuable in terms of having an audience and being able to make contact. I never would have found Six-Word Memoirs without social media and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Maintaining protocols regarding student privacy and age appropriateness is especially important with middle schoolers; Updegrove achieves this by posting her students’ responses via her own Twitter account: “I tweet their grade level, but not their name, that way we can engage in a public way yet maintain their privacy.”
— Suzanne Updegrove (@suzupde) September 22, 2016
Our SixContests offer another useful way for teachers to connect their students with a larger audience. “I’ve done at least five Six-Word activities with students so far this year. One was a SixContest from September for Character Day. In your contests, you always do a Winner’s Post with the Top Six list — the #CharacterDay2016 Winner’s Post added some honorable mentions and one of them was from my co-worker, Beth Urbanski. She had people tweeting early about it and having their participation featured was really exciting for them. ”
Six Words can be an equalizer because students across classrooms are working within the same constraints. “Ms. Urbanski and I have these students who you might say are ‘outside of the box’ at both ends of the spectrum — Updegrove and Urbanski specialize in GATE and Special Education, respectively — so we often collaborate on these school-wide projects. We try to break those boundaries between labels, because everyone has strengths; it is a great combination, to see other peoples’ strengths and magnify them.”
In November, in conjunction with our Six Words Fresh Off the Boat-inspired contest, “Welcome to America in Six Words (#SixWordsFOTB),” students took on this challenge via their Google Classroom. Updegrove explains the step-by-step process: “Google Classroom is a really useful interface. That’s where I post, ‘Here is you six-word activity for today,’ They post their own Six Words up, then they hashtag their favorite Six-Word Memoirs from those posted — they vote for the ones they like best, so everything is student-driven. Then I copy those and tweet the ones with the most votes. They’re brutally honest. They know which ones resonate, the ones that have strong words and a good rhythm, and a message they think is relevant.”
The #SixWordsFOTB memoirs sparked a conversation about students’ concerns for immigrants post-election 2016. “They wondered, ‘Were people [immigrants] going to come to America? Were people who were here going to feel comfortable being here?’” Updegrove explains. “Perhaps they’ve heard enough from the media or at home to realize it’s a concern, or maybe they simply felt on their own. Either way, it was interesting that it was on their minds. They wanted to talk about it — I just facilitate the conversation. That particular day, the memoir that caught the most attention was ‘Welcome to America. Please don’t leave.’”
— Suzanne Updegrove (@suzupde) November 29, 2016
“We have really enjoyed the opportunity to use Six-Word Memoirs with students; it’s a really great form for kids to express what they think. It’s not overwhelming, it’s not like writing a novel — it’s just six words, which gives them the freedom to take a risk and not fail,” concludes Updegrove. Whatever the assignment, Six Words is delighted to play a reprising role in the enriching and challenging curriculum offered at Branchburg Central Middle School.
Teachers! Since we first launched the Six-Word Memoir project, educators across the spectrum have found Six Words to be a terrific classroom assignment and catalyst for self-expression. At our Six in Schools section we celebrate students’ work from classrooms around the world. Contact us (concierge AT smithmag DOT net) if you would like a copy of our free teacher’s guide.