LAND O’LAKES — Kim Vreeland never expected her six-word memoir assignment to take off.
To help her juniors with word choice and sentence structure, the Academy at the Lakes teacher took inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, well known for his succinct yet insightful prose. She gave the teens several questions to consider, and just six words to respond.
The only real rule, aside from the word limit, was that the memoir should evoke a back story that gets readers thinking. Punctuation mattered, but would not affect the character count.
Most homed in on a single prompt: How are you doing with the pandemic?
“All of a sudden, this lesson in diction and syntax became a platform for their voices,” Vreeland said. “What the children had to say is truly profound.”
As her students began putting their thoughts to paper — some with illustrations — the idea circulated through other classrooms. And before long, children and teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade had joined in the endeavor that head of school Mark Heller began calling “One school. One community. Six words.”
Junior Vishnu Malhotra was among the first to participate. Initially, he said, it seemed like a simple assignment.
But as he worked through his thoughts, he found himself writing and rewriting to find the right blend of a message. He wanted to capture the sense of loss that the pandemic imposed on life, without sacrificing his optimism that things will get better.
His final submission, printed in blue ink on white paper: “Through our pain, we experience happiness.”
Seventh-grader Amanda Soler said the project caused her to reflect on all she had done during the time of social distancing, remote learning and quarantines.
“I thought it would be super easy,” she said. “But it turned out to be super hard.”
Part of the issue was paring an idea down to so few words. Most of her thoughts required many more to make sense, Amanda said.
After sharing with friends and classmates, though, her six words came to her like a bolt from the blue. They would focus on what she did the most.
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“Alexa, change bedroom TV to Netflix,” she wrote.
She recommended the sitcom “Fuller House” as a top find from her binge watching.
Sixth-grader Ian Wells got the assignment just as he turned 12 years old. He couldn’t have much of a celebration stuck at home, unable to go hang out with friends because of the virus threat that loomed.
“Being in quarantine felt like a super long time,” Ian said, “almost as long as I’ve been alive. Most of the time it just gets boring.”
Each time he started his memoir, he struggled to come up with a concept. It struck him that maybe boring was the message.
He wrote: “12 years alive, 1,200 years home.”
Sixth-grader Sabrina Cannistra had no trouble choosing a topic, after her teacher recommended thinking about things that were most important in her life.
“My nieces and nephew mean the world to me. They were the first thing that popped into my head,” Sabrina said.
The pandemic meant spending more time with family, she said. As a result, she got to watch her young relatives grow up over the months, influencing the way she viewed the world herself.
After whittling down her feelings from several sentences, Sabrina submitted, “Three little humans changed my life.”
Vishnu said he was inspired by all the ways his schoolmates expressed themselves in their memoirs and their range of emotion and introspection.
Some of the highlights in the hallways included:
“Before isolation, I loved being alone.”
“Welcome to a new kinda tension.”
“Say, your microphone sounds very interesting.”
“Repetitiveness became intrusive. I craved reality.”
“The most productive I’ve ever been.”
At the same time, the junior found the assignment had another welcome side effect: It included everyone’s voice. That’s in part because it started without speaking at all.
“All the quiet kids in our class, they expressed their feelings way more than we expected them to, and way more than when they are in class,” Sabrina observed.
Many students stay silent on a regular day. During the pandemic, Vishnu and others observed, it became even easier to hide behind a mask and a mute button.
“I saw some of the quietest kids in my class coming up with the most insightful sentences,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t hear them, and you miss out on a lot.”
The upshot, he suggested, was the reconnecting of classes fragmented by remote learning, social distancing and the separations that coronavirus brought.
Vreeland said she was thrilled the lesson resonated as it did.
“I am so proud and in awe of what they created,” she said. She’s already looking for new ways to incorporate six-word memoirs into future lesson plans.
Next time, though, she expressed hope that the pandemic will no longer be a topic.