Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project

I wish I’d had a tape recorder last Friday. My students were huddled in their writing groups looking at feedback from their peers—penciled remarks and notations from the other students in the class—on fourth and fifth drafts of essays each group had written. They’d traded their essays with each other, passing them around the room round robin style. In just two weeks, their work goes to press.

The manuscripts the students were looking at so intently this past Friday are the culmination of three intense months of research, interviews, and writing that they have done about individuals in our community who have met their definition of a hero. The students’ essays will be published in a book that we hope will be acquisitioned (as the previous two volumes have been) by the public libraries in our town and by the historical societies here and in our state capitol, Indianapolis.

The writing these students have been doing is for a real audience, a real purpose—and the impact of authenticity on their work has been nothing short of phenomenal. Their growth as writers has been off the charts.

Here are the sorts of things they were saying as they bent over their manuscripts, excitedly deciphering their friends’ comments and evaluating the merits of the various proofreading notations:

• They say we need to move this phrase so what it modifies is clear. They’re right.
• They think this should be a comma, but I don’t. I think it should be a semi-colon.
• Look! This is the subordinate clause rule Mrs. Powley just taught us!
• I don’t understand this comment. Emily! This is your handwriting. What do you mean here?
• Three people said “proper” water doesn’t sound right. What word should we use? We mean you can’t drink the water. Is there a word for that?
• What do we do to make this fragment into a sentence? Oh look! It connects to the noun at the end of the sentence before it. Oh! It’s an adjective clause!
• Look at this. We’ve started three paragraphs in a row the same way. We need to switch it up.

Ninth graders. Urgently resolving their own grammatical errors, punctuation mistakes, stylistic quandaries, and word choice confusions. How did this come about?

The story starts several years ago, in 2009, when I was a Fellow at the Lowell Milken Center in Ft. Scott, Kansas. I spent time there that summer planning the project that my 9th grade students have worked on now for three successive years: Unsung Heroes in Our Community. The mission of the Lowell Milken Center is to promote, through education, respect and understanding for all people. The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” To accomplish its mission, the Center supports project-based learning endeavors that feature unsung heroes—people who have acted to repair the world.

The idea that drove the design of Unsung Heroes in Our Community is a reality that has bothered me for a long time: Too many young people today are without positive role models. They are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals in the world who have made a difference extends to celebrities and sports stars, occasionally to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have gone out of their way to help others.

This year’s collection of student essays is the third one that profiles people in our town who have stepped forward to “repair the world.” My hope when I began this project three years ago was that these people would inspire my students, and my hopes have been fulfilled. Indeed, the “heroes” have become role models and mentors for them.

Here are a few of the comments the student made in their reflections on this project:

• We learned so much about suffering going on in the world—and not very far from us, either. [These students were writing about a couple who volunteer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.] But we also learned that there are those that care and are willing to step up to the plate and do something about it— and they live right in our own community.

• This project has inspired me to become involved in community affairs and volunteer for organizations such as Riggs [a community health care center].

• Another thing I have learned through this project is the true definition of a hero. A hero is not just someone wearing spandex and flying high in the air with his cape trailing behind him, but someone who has a passion to help others and makes a difference without expecting any reward.

• In getting to know my hero, I have learned that, no matter what struggles life may give me, I should keep moving forward and never look at the challenges as some type of disability or setback but as a chance to prove myself and my own strength.

• With each new revision, I was inspired to make something truly great. In a sense, to make something that would do justice to what Mrs. Yates [the writer’s hero] does. I wanted to make her proud.

So, on Friday, listening to my students’ conversations, answering their questions, cheering when they figured out how to solve a writing problem by themselves, I was as happy as I’ve ever been as a teacher. My students have internalized the formal English lessons they’ve learned, they’ve successfully accomplished an enormous and meaningful task, and each of them feels the pride of achievement. They’ve learned immeasurable amounts about their community and the amazing people who live here—people who, not surprisingly, went out of their way to help 9th graders with a school project.

Most importantly, from my point of view, my students now know real heroes. In the future, when these 9th graders confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I don’t just hope they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of their “heroes” and model their responses after them, I believe they will.

And finally, because the work they did—the research, the writing, the revision—was all for an authentic purpose, intended for a public audience, they took their writing task seriously. They really cared about the outcome: about telling their heroes’ stories accurately and well, about crafting sentences and paragraphs that are clear, coherent, correct, and even eloquent.

What could make an English teacher happier?

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