Stand In Your Own Hula Hoop

By Toni Poling

The school year begins and 130 fresh faces file through my classroom in one day and I want to get to know all of them.  Let’s just say the struggle is real.  Good teachers know, and the research supports, that students learn better when they feel a connection with the classroom teacher; students learn better when they feel understood and supported; students learn better when they feel the classroom teacher is invested in them.  Good teachers also want learning to occur from the first day in the classroom, so how can we start building a rapport with students on day one?

Over the past thirteen years that I’ve been a classroom teacher, I’ve tried countless methods of building a rapport and getting to know my students.  I’ve journaled with them.  I’ve used student interest surveys.  I’ve designed icebreaker activities with beach balls, popsicle sticks, or toilet paper.  I’ve tried the 2×10 strategy (you spend 2 minutes per day for 10 consecutive days talking with a student on a topic of their selection), which works great with individual students but loses its effectiveness in larger groups.  This year, I decided to do something different.

Though the first few days of school are usually filled with going over the syllabus, classroom management plan, learning expectations, and fire drill procedures, I also wanted to lay the foundation for a positive classroom climate that focuses on learning and a growth mindset.  For the past few years, I’ve used the six-word memoir as an introduction to personal narrative.  I decided to adapt my six-word memoir activity into a one on tone, both identifying author’s tone AND establishing a tone for our personal interactions with others, in and out of the classroom.

I introduced the six-word memoir with some mentor texts that the students and I read and evaluated for tone.

  • Smiling through gritted teeth…smiling nonetheless.
  • Need to say this: Write now.
  • My salad days wilted long ago.
  • Porch swings slow down a conversation.
  • Daughters: the soundtrack of my life.
  • Life’s chaos has stolen my sleep.
  • Revenge is best served in novels.
  • Backyards are more honest than front.
  • Shed my baggage. Life begins now.

And I ended with the famous six-word memoir: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

After our discussion concluded, my students were getting the idea behind six-word memoirs, but one young lady anxiously asked me to model one more.

I took the opportunity to teach a lesson about classroom expectations.  I asked students to close their eyes and visualize themselves standing inside of a hula hoop.  I reminded them that they only things within their control is what is inside of the hula hoop.  As students in this classroom, they can control themselves: their thoughts, actions, and interactions with others.  My six-word memoir? Stand in your own hula hoop.

Next, I gave students an index card to use as a thinking card.  Students were asked to draft their own six-word memoir.  They were encouraged to think about the following:

  • What is going on in your life right now?
  • What is your life motto?
  • What are your hopes for the future?

When my students returned to class the next day, I gave each a ½ sheet of 8 ½” x 11” paper.  I asked them to write their six-word memoir on the paper and to use the art supplies I provided to decorate it.  Students signed their memoirs on the back, and they are hanging anonymously in the hallway outside of my room.


While my students worked on decorating their six-word memoirs, I walked around the room and asked them to explain the meaning behind.  Those quick interactions told me more about my students in 30 seconds than hours spent reading student interest surveys.


WVCTE is wondering…

  1. How do you form connections with your students early in the school year?
  2. If you have utilized the six-word memoir in your class, how has it worked for you?
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Dear English Teachers of West Virginia,

We are a group of passionate teachers who are committed to providing our students with the highest quality instruction and most valuable learning experience we can offer. We believe English teachers throughout our state have a story to tell, expertise to share, and the ability to change and shape the lives of our students. 

We believe when teachers are connected, have a voice, and are plugged in, students benefit. WVCTE provides teachers a professional experience that inspires greatness, so they can reach their students in ways that result in learning that matters and endures.   

Please join us in uniting West Virginia educators. 

Let’s inspire greatness together. 

WVCTE Executive Committee