A Challenge for National Day on Writing: Write a Six-Word Autobiography

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I teach at a high school in the mountains of North Carolina, and in the spirit of the annual National Day on Writing, I would like to share something always works well with my students, who are extremely comfortable texting and tweeting each other.

On the first day of school, I assign a short writing piece to introduce students to each other and to the kinds of creative writing they will be doing and sharing with each other in our class. The assignment, stolen from one of my college professors, Deidre Elliot, at Western Carolina University, is called the “6-Word Autobiography.” It was inspired by the (perhaps fictional) story about Ernest Hemingway’s response to a challenge for him to create a story using only six words. Supposedly, he wrote: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

To prepare for the assignment, I challenge students to think about their lives and the people and events that have shaped who they have become. Then I share examples from former students.

  • Converse in a crowd of stilettos.
  • Oldest of six, I’m moving out.
  • Jewish father. Christian mother. Atheist. Surprised?
  • Fell far from the family tree.
  • Went looking for love. Found feminism.
  • Perpetually refusing to walk the line.

When students return to class with their own six-word autobiography, I pass out index cards and ask them to print their six words on one side and their name on the other. I post all of the autobiographies on a bulletin board and let the class walk around and look at what others have written. Each day I pull one card from the board, read it aloud, giving the class an opportunity to guess who wrote it. Then I hand the card to the author and ask the student to explain why he/she wrote those six words.

I like this assignment because students really enjoy sharing the autobiographies and learning about other students in the class. It also makes them aware early on that we will do some fun and interesting writing in our class, and that I expect students to share their work. It also transitions into an autobiographical poetry writing assignment that models George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From.

Laurie Calvert
Teaching Ambassador Fellow

Laurie is a high school English teacher and a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, which established the National Day on Writing in 2009.