Exploring the Power of Language with Six-Word Memoirs
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What do the words we write really have to say about us? In this lesson, students examine the power of word choice as they write six-word memoirs of their lives. After manipulating the language of their memoir with an interactive tool, students reflect on synonymous words that they have explored and choose the best one to use to tell the story of their lives.
|Word Matrix: This interactive allows students to explore the similarities and differences among words typically considered synonyms and encourages more precision in word choice in student writing.|
From Theory to Practice
In "Register and Charge: Using Synonym Maps to Explore Connotation," Darren Crovitz and Jessica A. Miller argue that students' typical understanding of the word synonym as meaning "'a word that means the same as another word'" is "at best an oversimplification and at worst a way to end thinking about what words actually signify" (49). They advocate for investigations into language and word groups to allow students to discover that "the subtlety of just how and to what extent [words are] similar makes all the difference when it comes to choosing the best word for a given purpose" (49). This lesson encourages students to explore the subtleties of shifting connotation and meaning affected by word choice.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Word Matrix student interactive
- Video: Six Word Memoirs by Teens
- Video: Six-Word Memoirs, the book
- Video: “Six Tips for Writing Six-Word Memoirs”
- Computers with Internet access
This site includes six-word memoirs written by a variety of authors on life stories. Also included are videos about the memoirs and information about Six-Word Memoir books.
On this site, students can explore memoirs and join thousands of storytellers to have a chance to be in a future book of Six-Word Memoirs.
This wiki includes six-word memoir films created by students, for students.
- Locate one or more copies of the Six-Word Memoir books. Familiarize yourself with the content within the book(s). You may wish to choose a few memoirs to share with and/or point out to the students.
- Preview the following videos and decide which you will show and/or are appropriate for your students:
- Test the Word Matrix student interactive and make sure that you have the appropriate software installed for it to run effectively. You will need computers with internet access for each student to use this interactive. If computer accessibility is a problem, print out paper copies of the interactive and make enough copies for each student. If you need additional help with this interactive, please visit our Technical Help page.
- Photocopy the Choosing the Best Word: Six-Word Memoirs handout for students.
- Familiarize yourself with the ideas of synonyms, connotation, register, and sound/rhythm. Additional teacher information on synonyms and language can be found in a variety of articles from English Journal, Vol. 97, No. 4, March 2008, with the issue theme “Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary in High School.”
- define synonym and consider the implications of multiple word meanings for authors attempting to choose the most effective word in a given situation.
- investigate the similarities and differences within word groups on the basis of connotation and register.
- create, reflect on, and revise a memoir, taking into account word choice and message.
- Begin a class discussion with students about memoirs and their “life stories.” What do students consider to be their “life story”? Would they need to write a novel to explain everything, or could they tell about one event that helped shape them as a person? Explain to students that they are going to be writing memoirs of their lives, but there’s a catch—they only have six words to portray themselves however they wish and to get a message across.
- Introduce the idea of six-word memoirs by projecting Six Word Memoirs by Teens or Six-Word Memoirs, the book. You may also wish to have some Six-Word Memoir books available for students to peruse after the video to see more examples.
- To get students thinking about their own memoirs, have a class discussion that includes the following questions (adapted from the Teaching Guide for I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets):
- After reading/seeing some six-word memoirs, what surprises you about this form?
- What’s the difference between a story and a memoir? Why do we tell stories? Who knows your story best?
- How is it both possible and impossible to distill the essence of who you are into six words? Which author do you think does the best job of it and why?
- Again, explain the parameters of the assignment: students must write a personal memoir in only six words. To give students a bit more information about what’s required, show students the “Six Tips for Writing Six-Word Memoirs” video. Allow for students’ questions and then ask that students spend some time brainstorming and writing down different possibilities for their own six-word memoir. Eventually, ask students to choose one memoir that they deem their “favorite” and they would like to use for the remainder of this lesson.
- Ask students to write down a definition of the word synonym and provide several examples.
- Arrange students in small groups to share their definitions and examples. As they share, ask them to look for similarities and differences in their definitions and examples. Have groups share their findings with the entire class and create a class definition of the word synonym, to be written on the board or chart paper.
- Facilitate a discussion on how a poet or author might choose the "best word" for their piece of writing when there may be several words in the English language that express the same, or nearly the same, idea or concept.
- Guide students to an understanding that synonyms do express similar meanings but they also vary according to connotation, register, and sound/rhythm. You may wish to write these definitions on the board or chart paper for students to refer to in later activities.
- Connotation: the emotional or personal associations the word carries, beyond its literal definition.
- Register: the level of formality or informality associated with the word.
- Sound and rhythm: the way words sound and scan contribute to their appropriateness.
- Remind students to keep the memoir that they chose to use for the remainder of this lesson. If they wish, they may continue brainstorming and working on their memoir outside of class, as long as they bring their chosen memoir to the next session.
- Give each student a copy of the Choosing the Best Word: Six-Word Memoirs handout. Ask students to take another look at the six-word memoir that they chose to use for this activity. Ask student to choose one “focus word” from their memoir for which they will explore possible synonyms. Ask students to write that focus word on the handout. As students record their focus word, walk around the classroom to review students’ choices, making sure that their word choice will work for this activity (for instance, they shouldn’t choose the word “the” or “and”).
- Note to the Instructor: Synonyms can be any part of speech (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions), as long as both members of the pair are the same part of speech.
- Give students a few minutes to make their list of synonymous words (they may use a thesaurus if necessary) and think about how they actually differ in regard to connotation and register. Ask students to share examples and explain the differences they see.
- Inform students that they will be using an online tool to explore the ideas of synonyms, connotation, and register further by arranging words that have the same meaning as their focus word but vary according to connotation and/or register.
- Direct students to the Word Matrix tool online and ask them to select the option to organize words by connotation and register. Students will need to create a new concept that includes their focus words and the synonymous words in their list. You may wish to model this process before having students work independently.
- After creating their concepts, each student should arrange their words according to relative charge in connotation and formality of register. Point out that there are not right or wrong answers to this activity. More important than where the students end up putting words is the explanations they write about what the words mean and how they relate to each other. They should indicate their thinking by double-clicking each word and writing a brief justification for its placement.
- Explain to students that they can access online resources and get more information about connotation and register by clicking on the orange question mark within the tool. They should use the back navigation within the tool (not the back arrow in the browser) to get back to their work within the matrix.
- Have students print their completed matrices. Review them before the next session to gauge student understanding of connotation and register.
- Ask students to rewrite their six-word memoir by substituting each synonym in the place of the focus word that they originally chose. Thus, they should have multiple examples of the same six-word memoir with a different synonym replacing the focus word in each example. Students should complete this activity before the next session.
- Ask students to take out their list of memoirs within which they substituted different synonyms for their focus word. Have them take a moment to review the different memoirs and how they changed the meaning of the memoir.
- Have students take out their Choosing the Best Word: Six-Word Memoirs handout, on which they originally wrote their focus word and their synonyms. Ask them to reflect on how their word choice affected the meaning of their different memoirs. They should write about their thoughts and the memoir they prefer (with reasoning) on the handout under the Reflection Question.
- After all students have completed the handout, have students take turns sharing their experience. They should share their original memoir, what their synonyms were, and the final memoir they decided on (along with their reasoning). Allow for other students to ask questions about the students’ word choice if they so choose.
- Finally, have students post their final memoir to share with their classmates. Choices for sharing include:
- create a class book of memoirs;
- produce a video of your students’ memoirs, much like the videos they watched at the beginning of the session; or
- have students submit their own six-word memoir at www.SMITHteens.com.
- Allow students time to study their classmates’ memoirs and ask questions to get to know each other better and build a stronger classroom community!
- Make six-word memoirs a part of your classroom routine. Do warm-ups or exit slips that ask students to write six-word memoirs. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn about students based on their memoirs!
- Present other short form writing choices for students to experiment with such as Haiku. Have them follow the same steps of substituting different synonyms into their writing to focus on word choice.
- Expand on the idea of a six-word memoir while still focusing on word choice and story elements. Have students increase the length of their memoir by writing an Espresso Story.
- Connect six-word memoirs to a literature activity by having students write literary characters’ six-word memoirs.
- Have students produce a video of their memoirs to post to You Tube or another video site. Use the video as an electronic scrapbook of the students in each class.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Provide formative feedback through the completed matrices, synonym lists, and any other student work prior to the project.
- Evaluate students’ understanding of the project and completion of all of the steps during and after their oral presentation of their findings.
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