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“There are stars whose light reaches the earth long after they have disintegrated and are no more. And there are men whose scintillating memory lights the world long after they have passed from it. These lights which shine in the darkest night are those which illuminate for us the path.” ~ Hannah Senesh, Hungarian poet and Holocaust victim~

Real life stories—with their power to teach and inspire—make great subjects for a unit study.

Reading accounts of men and women who overcame great odds or survived difficult ordeals inspires hope and courage in the readers. Studying biographies and autobiographies allows students to see how one individual can enrich the lives of those around them—even many generations later.

In Senior English, I often teach a unit entitled, People Who Change Us, which features true life stories. Here are nine books I’ve included in this unit over the years.

Real Life Stories to Inspire Students

  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Sports writer Mitch Albom recorded life lessons from his beloved, dying professor and compiled them into a book. Morrie’s wisdom covers such issues as marriage, career choice, what makes a quality life, family, forgiveness, fear, love, and more.
  • The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. A native of Holland, Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie hid Jews in her home during World War II until they were arrested and sent to several concentration camps. This book shares the lessons Corrie learned early in life and how those lessons helped her survive the worst ordeal of her life.
  • Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot. Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of her young husband and his four friends who attempted to make contact with an Ecuadorian tribe of killers. The brief lives of those five young men changed the tribe for the better for generations to come.
  • The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. Helen Keller became blind and deaf when a few months old. The story of how language unlocked her brilliant mind and enabled all she accomplished after that is truly inspiring.
  • Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America by Joan Wehlen Morrison and Susan Signe Morrison. “This diary of a smart, astute, and funny teenager provides a fascinating record of what an everyday American girl felt and thought during the Depression and the lead-up to World War II.” (Amazon)
  • Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II by Darlene Deibler Rose. Young Darlene Deibler accompanied her missionary husband to the jungles of New Guinea. Their work was interrupted with the start of World War II, and Darlene ended up in a Japanese prison camp. Her survival story is harrowing and inspiring.
  • Gifted Hands by Ben Carson. Ben Carson shares life lessons as he narrates the story of how he overcame poverty and prejudice to become one of today’s leading neurosurgeons.
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Young Anne Frank shares her hopes and dreams as she details daily life spent in hiding from the Nazis in World War II Holland. A classic.
  • Night by Elie Wiesel. “Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps.” (Amazon)

To emphasize the impact of these life stories, I lead discussions about the works, assign comprehension and thought questions as homework, watch the movie version of the book (if available), and assign an essay project related to the specific book we’ve read.

Your students will be inspired by the nobility, compassion, integrity, and courage of these men and women.


Resource List:

16 Great Biographies for Kids

Famous Leaders for Young Readers

25 Fascinating Biographies Every College Student Should Read

Tuesdays with Morrie, DVD

The Hiding Place, DVD

Amazing Grace (William Wilberforce bio), DVD

The Miracle Worker (Helen Keller bio)


Renee Ann Smith teaches literature in a Christian high school by day and writes stories by night. She reviews books and shares inspirational posts on her blog Doorkeeper at http://reneeannsmith.com/. You can also find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ReneeAnnSmith.

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