On Six Words Only

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In 2010, writer and longtime NPR commentator on All Things Considered and Washington Post columnist Michele Norris ordered 200 postcards that read: “Race. Your thoughts. 6 words. Please send.” She started leaving them in bookstores, at coffee shops, in the seat pockets on airplanes, without much hope of a big response. She shouldn’t have worried: people started filling them out, stamping them, and sending them, eventually adding up to over 500,000 messages. Norris includes many of them, along—each a little gem of a story—in her Our Hidden Conversations, along with interviews with numerous correspondents and essays by Norris in what the New York Times describes as an “open-mic town hall gone right.”

Here are just a few of the six-sentence responses she received: “I wish he was a girl”; “I’m only Asian when it’s convenient”; “No, really, where are you from?”; “With kids, I’m dad—alone, thug”; “Underneath, we all taste like chicken”; “My beautiful Black boys deserve HOPE.”

Morris reports being surprised that she heard from so many white people, though postcards came from dozens of racial and ethnic groups, as well as from over 100 countries. And while she started the project out of a sense that people at the time were very uncomfortable talking about race, these handwritten postcards proved that they had profound thoughts on race that they wanted to share.

Michele Norris accepts the Peabody Award for "The Race Card Project."Michele Norris accepts the Peabody Award for "The Race Card Project."


In addition to the Peabody-winning narrative archive The Race Card Project and Our Hidden Conversations, Norris is the author of The Grace of Silence and host of the podcast Your Mama’s Kitchen. Her work is accessible and challenging at the same time, and I think students could spend some time doing a little research on her and her publications; they can also listen to her reporting during the dozen years she was a host for All Things Considered, hearing the rhythms and timbre of her voice, which carries so much personality. But in these times when students may feel uncomfortable engaging any number of highly contentious, emotion-laden topics in class, perhaps we could take a tip from Norris, asking students to write six words, and six words only, on a controversial or difficult topic you are dealing with in class. They might also bring in six-word responses from five or six other people. Then as a class, you could choose two or three responses to focus on, first in small groups and then in a whole-class discussion.

Perhaps some of these six-word stories would yield new insights for the whole class to ponder, and lead to some open, honest, and respectful conversation.

Image via WikiCommons


About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.