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No Need to Wait for Superman; How Heroes Inspire Students In One L.A. Classroom

September 16, 2010

Sgt. Jason Thomas, 9/11 Hero photo by Lt. J. Higgins

Being a Social Studies teacher is the greatest job in the world.  You get the privilege of guiding today’s youth in their understanding of today’s world issues, conflicts, and paradigms through intellectual discourse, debate, and analysis.

You get to make history come alive.

Such was the case this week as we hit the 9th anniversary of the September 11th tragedy in New York City, and discussed the effects that event still had on our lives today.

Remembering 9/11 is always such a difficult endeavor because of the unhealed wounds to our psyche and to our nation.  Fortunately, the Social Studies discipline allows students to analyze the event through historical, economic and political points of view, and tries to engender a sense of perspective through the lens of time.

While looking for a way to make the 9/11 commemoration meaningful, I created a curriculum with the around the theme of heroes.  It is still a work in progress.  Students learn the true stories of modern day heroes and write responses in a journal.  The purpose of these stories is to inspire and motivate my sometimes underachieving students by showing them that real people can achieve great things.

In September, we study the case of Sgt. Jason Thomas, a retired marine, who raced to the World Trade Center as soon as he learned of the terrorist attack.  He rescued trapped firefighters, worked at Ground Zero for two weeks, and then went home.  He never told a soul what he did until the World Trade Center movie came out five years later, and he recognized his story being told on screen.

This hero’s story transcends race, class, and status.  He defines the concept of civic duty, something becoming more difficult to teach because today’s students have such a scant social studies background due to reductions in time of this subject in elementary school.

My students are fortunate to be in contact with Sgt. Thomas, who has started his own foundation called Heroes for Humanity.  In his ever-humble way he refers to teachers as being the “everyday heroes who really never get the acknowledgement they deserve.”  That’s a great lesson for the students to learn too.

Tilly Smith

In the upcoming months, my students will study the cases of Tilly Smith, the Tsunami girl, who saved hundreds of lives in 2004 by recognizing the signs of an impending tsunami and warning people to evacuate.  I love this story because the child had just learned about tsunamis in her class in the weeks prior to her vacation in Phuket.  She was paying attention in class, and it saved her life.

We continue our study with the actions of Captain Chesley Sullenberger whose skill, and cool expertise saved the lives of his passengers when he successfully completed an emergency landing on the Hudson River.

Then we examine the life of Jonas Salk, and his decision to donate the polio vaccine to the public for free, forfeiting millions of dollars for the purpose of the common good.

In South Central Los Angeles, the history of the L.A. Riots is not forgotten.  I do not want my students to forget the actions of Reverend Benny Newton either, an African-American man who stopped a violent mob of people from killing a Latino, by throwing his body over him and shouting, “If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first!”

Finally, we will conclude with Jaime Escalante, a local teacher who made magic in the classroom, and took his East L.A. students to unimaginable heights with his creative thinking methods and passion.

What do I hope to accomplish with these students?  To make real the idea that the lessons they learn in class have a purpose and application.  That ordinary people can be heroes at any time if they have the right mind and purpose.  That our society can be great if we act for the good of the whole, not just the few.

And being the sneaky teacher that I am, I will use these compelling stories to segue into the actual skills and methods the students must master to become able social scientists:  to view events from multiple perspectives, understand cause and effect, and make connections between the past and the present.

How great it is to be a teacher.


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