Heroes Among Us:
An Exercise in Evaluation
Brenda A. Dyck
The world doesnt run on Magic Johnson, it runs on all us little heroes.
Rabbi Jeffrey Leynor1
At a time when young people are struggling to find good role models upon which to pattern their lives, educators have a prime opportunity to guide students through the steps of defining what good role models look like. Young people too often glorify distant, misdirected rock stars like Kurt Cobain (who committed suicide) or Marilyn Manson (who toys with sociopathy), so there is value in redirecting their thinking towards honoring, in a proactive way, heroes who are right in front of them.
Such thoughts prompted me, in the fall of 1999, to design the Heroes Among Us assignment for my sixth grade students at Masters Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I began by passing out an assignment sheet that provided students with clear benchmarks that were very specific and were directly connected to the rubric that would be used to mark the assignment (available online at www.expage.com/heroesamongus). I encourage students to use this sheet as a checklist. It helped keep them on track toward meeting all of my expectations throughout the assignment. I reinforce the importance of this document by requiring students to attach it to their finished assignment.
What Does a Hero Look Like?
When adults think of heroes, world figures like Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, or Helen Keller often come to mind. These people accomplished great things, and their names have become household words. But rather than providing a ready-made list of names to my students, or asking them to list heroes, I started with a more abstract exercise. We set out to discover what characteristics heroes shared. What, after all, does a hero look like? How do we know one were to appear in our lives?
To begin, students brainstormed, listing the traits that they might observe in a hero. For example, students said:
During this brainstorming session, I wrote each individual trait on a card, then taped the cards (thirty-five in all) around the perimeter of the room.
Then I asked students to choose their own five most important criteria for being a hero. Students referred back to the cards on the wall as they decided which traits fit their definition of hero. They pointed to, weighed the importance of, and discussed each one. I asked students to write down their five choices on a Traits of a Hero sheet. This document formalized the set of criteria that would become the foundation for their writing assignment.
Writing From the Heart
I encouraged students to consider as candidate heroes people whom they knew, not pop stars, or sports figures, or presidents. As we considered people and heroic traits, students shared beautiful memories of ordinary people. The discussion helped students solidify their own reasoning as to why their candidates were indeed heroes. With this conviction in their hearts, it was much easier to begin the writing process.
To commence the writing assignment, I gave students a working paper, which broke the writing process down into small steps. This useful scaffolding not only assisted the struggling student, it also helped refocus those who felt overwhelmed or distracted. Because the purpose of the assignment was always in front of the student, there was less frustration or wasted time.
The working paper required students to take their five chosen criteria, elaborate on them, and then use them to explain why their candidate was a hero. For each criterion, they needed to give a concrete example of that person exhibiting that trait. This part of the assignment challenged students to make use of higher level thinking skills as they analyzed and evaluated their hero, using their own criteria for heroism. Sometimes they were not be able to substantiate their claims and needed to go back to the criteria cards that were taped all around the room, looking for a more suitable trait that fit the person they knew.
The working paper provided the support that students needed to move them through this challenging step. The process of identifying criteria and using them to measure something was an exercise that I gave my students several times during the year. Each time they used these skills their need for support lessened and the depth of their thinking increased.
Sharing Good News
Providing a place to exhibit student learning is an important step in any project. Students need to know that what they write is valuable and worth sharing with others. On the World Wide Web I found an exciting venue for my students to further honor the people that they had chosen to write about. A free, online template was available (from www.myhero.com) for posting student work as well as graphics and relevant web links. Submitting their work to this website set my students off on an additional learning journey that helped them develop new skills such as scanning pictures of their hero, uploading graphics from websites, and searching for Internet links about heroes and good citizenship. If ever there was a tool that increased student interest, this was it! The finished product was an impressive and concrete representation of student learning. I used printouts of pages from the Heroes Among Us and My Hero websites (including my students posted work) to construct a bulletin board display, which I referred to during parent-teacher interviews. This bulletin board also commanded much interest from parents and students walking by our classroom.
While there were many concrete curriculum objectives met through the Heroes Among Us assignment, what was more interesting to me was the student learning that would not be so easy to assess. How do you measure these qualities of character?
One student told the story of her grandmother working for several years to finance a trip to Disneyland for all of her thirty family members. Another student wrote about her uncle, who makes monthly trips into the Ukraine to share his faith in war-torn Croatia. Many students described teachers from their past and shared stories of the difference these adults had made in their lives. One girl honored the doctor who saved her life, just two months before. Ill never forget the girl who apprehensively talked about her dad, who had died tragically several years before. Her story was mixed with pride and grief, and it was clearly useful to her to share these feelings. By the end of this assignment, it was very evident to all of us in the classroom that heroes were indeed among us!
Providing students with the ability to assess something based on a set of criteria is a life skill that they will be able to carry into their future. This assignment was about more than heroes. It was also about how to establish criteria for making important decisions. It was about developing higher level thinking skills that will be needed as one makes more complex decisions in the future. I hope students will use the skills learned in this assignment to help them make important decisions such as:
Answers to these questions can be approached through the very same process followed in our Heroes Among Us project. Using this model in other projects will give students ongoing practice in the art of using a preset group of criteria to make a decision. These skills may be as important as the factual content of the lessonand maybe more so.
Heroes Online and at Home
Does anyone have any ideas for a heroes unit? This question from an online teacher bulletin board prompted me to post an answer offering my Heroes Among Us material to other teachers. Within 24 hours of the posting, I had responded to over one hundred e-mail messages, each requesting the Heroes material. Every time I checked my computer there were thirty more requests. I knew I had to find a more time-effective method of responding to teachers as close as Alberta and as far as Australia. I decided to construct a simple web page containing the Heroes Among Us assignment. Within a week, more than 500 people had visited the site.
One has to wonder why educators are clamboring for ideas on this topic. Is there an underlying sense that a shortage of positive role models for our youth is somehow connected to the restless, negative, despondent generation that we are now seeing in our classrooms? One teacher wrote that she no longer asks her students who their heroes are because many of the students have such a hard time coming up with someone they look up to or admire. I hope she will reconsider, and challenge her students to look more closely at the people in their lives.
In his book, Heroes of My Time, the late Harrison Salisbury wrote,2
We do not live in the age of heroes. This is not the era of Jefferson, Lincoln, or Commodore Perry. Nor even of Charles Lindbergh. The politicians of our day seldom remind us of Franklin D. or Eleanor Roosevelt. Athletes signing five- and ten-million-dollar contracts do not resonate as did Babe Ruth.
So we must look somewhere other than the big stage for our heroes, but maybe this is not such a bad thing. When we hear about regular, everyday heroes who have a quiet resolve, it makes us stronger and more determined to do the right thing in our own lives. We see their strength and the peace they have within themselves, and we begin to see the world in a more positive way. Most important, we begin to believe that perhaps we can acquire some heroic traits ourselves. Nurturing this belief in the classroom will help create citizens who will want to make a positive difference in their world.3
Perhaps teachers instinctively know that the heroes we view somewhere out there, in the pages of a book, on television, or in the movies, may be admirable, but they can never take the place of personal experience with the real thing. Each generation must discover its heroes anew. Maybe we need heroes among us.
1. Leslie Barbar, Dallas Morning News, September 12, 1993.
2. Harrison Salisbury, Heroes of My Time (New York, Walker, 1993).
3. Documents and handouts from the Heroes Among Us lesson described in this article can be accessed free at www.expage.com/heroesamongus.
Brenda A. Dyck teaches sixth grade at Masters Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has written for various educational periodicals and is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.
Using an easy template, learn how to profile your own hero on the World Wide Web. This free, interactive educational site will walk students through the steps of honoring the own personal heroes.
This privately sponsored site uses five preset values to evaluate a series of explorers, writers and missionaries. Not only are the strengths and successes of these heroes examined, so are the warts and failures.
This colorful site profiles everyday Americans who go beyond their routine responsibilities to caring for the well-being and safety of their fellow man. The unlikely sponsor of this site is Mimis Café, located in Southern California.
This site contains the Evergreen Curriculum, which includes curriculum guides, bibliographies, foundation documents, web resources, and discussion areas related to the topic of heroes. Sponsored by the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada.
The content for this Life magazine website came out of an eighth grade classroom from Concord, New Hampshire. Student writing on this site will inspire both adults and young people alike.
This lesson-planning article from the quality Education World site provides many ways for teachers to implement the heroes theme into their classroom teaching.
Education World profiles the Giraffe Project, based in Langley, Washington, that shares news of individuals who are making a difference in their communities. Find out about real-life heroes who really stick their necks out for others.
Documents and handouts from the Heroes Among Us lesson described in this article can be accessed free at this website.