Reading memoirs can help students grow their empathy and understanding of others’ perspectives. Here are 8 memoirs to incorporate into your ELA curriculum to engage your students in the experiences of others, and grow their reading comprehension skills.
“The Drive-In Movies” by Gary Soto (6th Grade)
In this memoir, Gary Soto recounts a Saturday from his childhood. Soto describes how he tried to quickly complete all of his chores so his mom would take him and his siblings to the drive-in movies.
Start a Discussion using Question 2, “In the context of the story, what does it mean to be grown up? In your opinion, is the narrator ‘grown up’?” Prompt students to go deeper with the additional prompt, “Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.”
“Names/Nombres” by Julia Alvarez (6th Grade)
In this memoir chronicling the personal history of her name, Julia Alvarez describes her experience immigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic. Alvarez recounts all of the different names and nicknames she was given when others couldn’t pronounce her name correctly.
To deepen students’ understanding of Alvarez’s experience of immigrating to a country where people speak a new language, show the video in the Related Media tab, “Julia Alvarez - The Writer’s Language.” Ask students to discuss the challenges that Alvarez describes about writing in English, “How did writing in English eventually become an important form of expression for Alvarez?”
“Little Things Are Big” by Jesús Colón (6th Grade)
In this short text, Colón describes a time when his actions were influenced by his identity as a man of color. He tells the story of his experience on a subway car in the 1950s and others’ perception impacted his actions.
To give students a closer look into Colón’s perspective, teachers can start a class discussion with Question 1, “Place yourself in Colón's shoes. How do you think you would have responded in this situation? Has anything similar happened to you?”
“The Terror” by Junot Díaz (7th Grade)
In this memoir, Junot Díaz retells an experience he had in middle school with a group of teenage bullies. The memoir follows Díaz’s experience with fear and shame up until he confronts these feelings years later.
Teaching this story provides a great opportunity to explore how authors portray emotions from a first-person point of view. Use Assessment Question 5 to help students dig into Díaz’s perspective by asking, “How does the author feel about himself when he says, ‘I hated these brothers from the bottom of my heart, but even more than them, I hated myself for my cowardice’?”
“Us and Them” by David Sedaris (7th Grade)
This humorous text describes young David Sedaris’ fascination with an unusual new family in his neighborhood. Despite its humor, this text tackles a major theme about identity and the separation of social groups.
To further explore this theme, assign the poem “Identity” by Julio Noboa from the Paired Texts tab. Have students compare what/who is the “us” and “them” in each piece.
“In My Mom’s Shoes” by Kat Chow (8th Grade)
In this powerful memoir, Chow jumps between years of her life in flashbacks as she reflects on losing her mother at a young age. Chow describes her feelings of grief as she walks in a pair of her mother’s shoes.
Teach this text alongside “New Carolina City” by Sydney Hamilton from the Paired Texts tab. Ask students to discuss how certain images and objects evoke a sense of nostalgia in both texts, and how the different forms explore this sense of nostalgia.
“Hello, My Name is ______” by Jason Kim (8th Grade)
Jason Kim is an Asian American screenwriter and playwright whose memoir details his experience moving from South Korea to the United States as a child. Kim describes how he chose an American name and began to reject his Asian identity for most of his youth.This story is a great springboard for class discussions about identity.
Teachers can ask Discussion Question 2, “In the text, Kim attempts to change his Asian identity. Was he successful? Can you change your identity? Why or why not?”
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