7 Memorable Memoirs for High School Studies

Students collaborate on a laptop.

Helping high schoolers look up from their feeds and put themselves in the shoes of someone else can seem impossible! A good memoir or autobiography offers students a window into another person’s interior world. That’s why we’ve created a round up of 7 memorable memoirs from our digital literacy program that are sure to complement any reading curriculum.

Each of these rich memoirs from CommonLit’s digital library feature unique voices and powerful perspectives on life. These texts create an opportunity for your students to deepen their reading comprehension and pique their thirst to engage around topics such as complicated relationships, growing up, leaving for the unknown and more!

Endless Summer Job” by Carolyn Ferrell (9th grade)

Carolyn Ferrell’s memoir describes her college summer job: working on an estate in the Hamptons. Ferrell shares vivid details of her experience, recollecting the disdain she felt from her employers. Years later, Ferrell has become a successful author and travels to the Hamptons as a guest for the first time. During her trip out to the Hamptons, she bumps into her former employer. During this final exchange, Carolyn is asked to come on as hired help, ending the memoir with intense feelings of shock, shame, and resilience.

Couple this text with the Related Media video “Implicit Bias Matters: Thinking Under the Influence.” Invite students to discuss the following questions: “According to the video’s narrator, what is ‘thinking under the influence,’ and how does it impact decisions at both a personal and system level?” Encourage them to connect their reflections to evidence from Ferrell's text.

What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North” by Harriet Ann Jacobs (9th grade)

In this text, Jacobs provides a true account of her experiences as a slave. Students will be drawn in by Jacobs’s direct and scathing language as she describes the hyprocrisies of both Southern slave owners and Northerners who visited the South. Jacobs shares the ways in which slaves were manipulated by people in the North and South in order to keep them enslaved.

After reading this text, have students reflect on Discussion Question 3, “How can fear be used to manipulate? Use evidence from this text, your own experience, and other art or literature in your answer.”

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Excerpts from Chapters 1 and 7 by Frederick Douglass (9th grade)

This excerpt from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass shares details from Chapter 1 and 7. In the excerpt from Chapter 1, Douglass describes his first overseer, Plummer, and the impact of witnessing so much violence from such a cruel individual. The Chapter 7 excerpt describes his time with Master Hugh’s family, where Douglass shares his experiences learning to read and write.

Students will be awed by Douglass’s hunger for knowledge and the elegance of his diction. Use his journey as an opportunity to engage your students around Discussion Question 3, “In the context of this passage, what is the goal of education? City evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.”

Excerpt from “You Don’t have to Say you Love Me” by Sherman Alexie (10th grade)

This memoir excerpt shares Alexie’s decision to leave the school on his Reservation to make a better life for himself. Shortly after enrolling at his new school, Alexie experiences the loss of his grandmother, sister, and brother-in-law. As a result, he worries his choice to leave has “jinxed” the family. Students are sure to relate to Alexie’s journey, tracing his experience of growing up and choosing his own path.

After reading this text, have students read and analyze the Paired Text “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. Ask students: “How is the narrator in Sherman Alexie’s memoir ‘rag[ing] against the dying of the light’? Is the narrator’s experience  watching his mother grieve in ‘Excerpt from ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ similar to the speaker’s experience watching his father die in ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’? Why or why not?”

A Frontline Nurse for the Vietcong” As told to Tong Thi Xuyen (10th grade)

At only 17 years old, Nguyen Thi Do was recruited by the Vietcong and spent over a decade serving as a nurse during the Vietnam War. This text serves a window into her experience during the war, detailing how she was impacted by the horrible endeavors she describes and sharing her larger fear, “that when my friends, my comrades and I are all dead, our history and stories will die with us.”

As reading this text, have students discuss Discussion Question 1, “Nguyen Thi Do expresses concerns about her history dying with her. Do you think it is important for future generations to know about Do’s experiences? Why or why not? What are some ways her experiences could be kept alive?”

Serving in Florida: Excerpt from Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich (11th grade)

In this text, Barbara Enrenreich details her year-long social experiment of living on minimum wage in Key West, Florida. While this text is easy for students to digest with light-hearted language and a humorous tone, students may be shocked when they dig into the depth of Enrenreich’s struggles to survive throughout the year.

As students read, encourage them to take note of the argument Enrenreich is developing and what evidence she uses to support that argument. These annotations will prepare students for Assessment Question 1, “Which statement best describes how the style of the texts contributes to its persuasiveness?” Assigning assessment questions will also prepare students for grade-level reading assessments!

Excerpt from Notes from a Native Son” by James Baldwin (11th grade)

In this text, James Baldwin, famed American essayist, novelist, and playwright, unpacks key experiences and reflects on his complicated relationship with his father, ultimately leading him to a better understanding of who he was.

After reading this text, invite students to discuss Discussion Question 2, “This father and son shared a complicated relationship. What does it mean to have a complicated relationship with someone? What makes a relationship complicated?”

Next Steps

Want more autobiographical texts to engage your students? Check out our book pairings for amazing autobiographies like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and more!

If you’re interested in learning all about CommonLit’s free digital literacy program, join one of our upcoming webinars!

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