Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

What Makes a Hero?

Created October 1, 2010


The Lesson


What Makes a Hero?

Ty Cobb baseball card

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.

A common lament one hears today is that young people lack heroes to emulate. Is that true? Do your students have heroes? Who are they? What qualities of a hero do they represent? Which historical figures would students recognize to be heroes? Are there contemporary or even local figures with similar qualities?

Guiding Questions

  • What are the qualities of a hero?
  • What historical figures do students consider to be heroes?
  • What contemporary or local figures do students consider to be heroes?

Learning Objectives

  • List the qualities they consider necessary in a hero.
  • Describe the lives and deeds of national, state and/or local heroes.
  • Identify historic figures who have exemplified good citizenship; started new businesses; made contributions in the areas of civil rights, women's rights, military actions or politics; or who took risks to secure freedom.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson in this unit and select archival materials you'd like to use in class. Bookmark these materials, along with other useful websites, if possible; download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Before Activity 2, type up the list of heroes the students generate in Activity 1.
  • This unit is designed to allow you to meet your curricular goals through your choice of the historic individuals students are to profile.  Activity 6 should be customized to your curriculum and your class. Students can be assigned specific historical figures or categories of individuals (people living at the time of the American Revolution, immigrants, and people from your home state; see Suggested Categories and Individuals for Student Research below for more ideas), or they can self-select individuals.
  • Before Activity 7, devise an appropriate culminating project or select one from the suggestions offered.
  • In this unit, students will decide what qualities make historical figures heroes for them. EDSITEment offers a complementary lesson, More Amazing Americans, in which students choose historical figures who match the criteria for inclusion in the Library of Congress's  America's Library's Meet Amazing Americans. If you complete more than one unit in which students learn about the lives of historical figures, these lesson plans offer two different but related approaches.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Do Kids Have Heroes?

Discuss with students the controversy about young people and heroes. Is it true that kids these days have no heroes or that the "heroes" they do have are not good role models? Do young people today have heroes? Who are they? What makes them heroes? Are they all contemporary figures? Are there any historical figures whom students recognize as heroes? What makes them heroes? What traits must someone have to be considered a hero? (Note: Make sure to take notes during your discussion for review and revision at the end of this unit.)

Ask students to write down the name of up to five personal heroes; they can also choose to record no names if they have no heroes. Students should not be required to include their name on their paper. Collect the sheets and type up the list. Note how many students had no heroes at all.

Activity 2. Are All Heroes Created Equal?

Share the list of student heroes generated in Lesson 1 with the entire class. Allow some open discussion. Then, begin the first draft of a class list of what makes a hero. Continue to refine this list as you proceed through the unit.

Next, ask the students into what groups they would classify the people on the list (for example, freedom fighters, entertainers, parents, and so on). Do heroic qualities differ depending on the category? Is there a category for sports heroes? Continue by focusing on some of the sports figures who made the list. Why were they included? Is a player with excellent skills automatically a hero?

Share the very concise biographies of Ty Cobb and Roberto Clemente — two Hall of Fame baseball players — by links from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.

Clearly, they were both excellent, Hall-of-Fame-caliber baseball players. Does one appear — by virtue of his athletic skills — to be more worthy of being considered a hero than the other? On The Sporting News, a link from Internet Public Library, Cobb is ranked number three on the list of the 100 greatest players of all time, and Clemente is ranked number 20. Does that mean Cobb is more of a hero?

If practical, access the Hero Search of My Hero — a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library — where you can search the site's featured archive of heroes. Search for Ty Cobb and Roberto Clemente. Clemente has an entry, while Cobb does not. Why? Is this a case where both are baseball heroes, but only one is a good role model? Is that a valid distinction? Which contemporary sports figures qualify as excellent athletes and role models?

At the bottom of the page is a listing of more featured athletes. If desired, students can research why these athletes are included. Do these featured individuals have qualities beyond skill on the playing field that earned them inclusion?

Try searching the Guestbook.

Most people would agree that we look for qualities beyond ability when determining a hero. But, what are those qualities? Revise the class list at this point, if desired.

Activity 3. Can a Kid Be a Hero?

Share with your students the five brief summaries from What Some Kids Have Done to Help the Homeless, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. Are these kids heroes?

Now students will attempt to identify kid heroes. Give students a few days to find examples of heroic kids from their own experience or from the media (Internet, TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio). Ask everyone to come up with at least one heroic kid.

Continue to clarify what the students believe makes a hero.

Activity 4. Do Adults Have Heroes? Did They Have Heroes When They Were Kids?

Did any students in your class include parents or other important adults in their lives on the class list of heroes? Do those parent heroes have heroes? Give students an assignment to learn about the heroes of at least one of the important adults in their lives. Students should ask questions such as the following and record the answers:

  • Who are your heroes now?
  • What makes them heroes to you?
  • Did you have any heroes when you were my age?
  • What made them heroes to you at the time?
  • Has your idea about what makes a hero changed?

Students should analyze and then share the results. Do parents have any of the same heroes as the students? Do parents have similar criteria for choosing a hero? Were parents able to remember who their early heroes were? Did their heroes change over the years?

Take another look at the class criteria for a hero. Revise as necessary.

Activity 5. Looking for a Hero

To prepare your students to begin researching historical figures, allow them to explore the categories used to classify heroes on the Directory of My Hero, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. Read about a few heroes, historical and contemporary. If students have insufficient access to technology to review the site on their own, download the main page and biographies of some heroes from a few categories.

Do students feel that My Hero has good categories? How would the class's list of categories differ? Are there different criteria for a hero depending on the category? Should the class list of criteria be divided into categories?

Activity 6. Heroes from History

In this Activity, students will research historical figures. Customize the assignment as needed for your students and your curriculum. Select appropriate criteria for student research, such as people living at the time of the American Revolution, heroes of the West, immigrants, people from your home state, heroes of technology and so on. Depending on your students, you may wish to assign specific historical figures to specific students or allow students to discover their own. In the Suggested Categories and Individuals for Student Research section below, you will find an extensive list of links to biographical information available through EDSITEment resources.

To help students better understand their assignment, you can use a rubric that incorporates the class's own standards for determining whether a particular historical figure should be considered a hero. Using a rubric designed with your students' skill level, class curriculum and the specific goals for this assignment in mind will help your students understand what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. A sample rubric is provided below. You may wish to use it when designing your own. Keep in mind, however, that it is not intended to set a universal standard for what makes a good presentation. Review the rubric and your particular standards in class before students begin working on their presentations.

Click here for a downloadable version of this rubric in rich text format.

Sample Rubric for Presentation:
Is ____________ a Hero According to the Class Criteria?

Name: _____________

Date: ______________
Exemplary presentations have all the positive qualities of very good and satisfactory presentations.
Very Good Satisfactory Needs Revision
Did the presentation:
  • grab the audience's attention (strong lead)?
Opening gave and withheld information effectively. The ending and opening connected. Opening effectively got the audience's attention. Had a lead. No lead.
  • clearly introduce the proposed hero?
Listeners wanted to hear more about the individual after the introduction. Listeners learned about the subject in the introduction. Listeners recognized the subject after the introduction. Listeners were unsure of the subject after the introduction.
  • give support (three reasons) for the hero's inclusion/exclusion?
Three (or more) reasons built a strong case for inclusion or exclusion. Three (or more) reasons were supported by specifics. Reasons were stated. Reasons for inclusion or exclusion were not present.
  • contain a conclusion?
Used the points made in the presentation to clarify the conclusion. Conclusion restated the main points. Had a conclusion. No conclusion.
Did the presentation:
  • refer to the class criteria for a hero?
Ways in which the individual did or did not match the criteria were very well supported with specifics. Presentation made it clear in what ways the criteria did or did not match the individual. Did refer to the criteria, though the connection may have been unclear at times. Did not refer to the criteria.
  • convey biographical information about the subject?
Information systematically built a strong case. Included information related to the conclusion. Information could be understood and did relate to the subject. Information could not be understood or did not relate to the subject.
  • make connections between the subject's life and the reasons for inclusion or exclusion as a hero?
Connections helped build a strong case. Effective connections were made. Connections were made, but not always effectively. No connections were made.
  • employ audio-visuals?
Audio visuals added to the support for the conclusion. Audio visuals helped maintain audience attention. Used audio visuals. No audio visuals.
Was the speaker's:
  • voice loud enough?
Speaker varied voice level effectively. Speaker could be clearly heard. Some words could not be heard, but without interfering with audience's ability to understand. Speaker could not be heard.
  • pace appropriate?
Speaker varied pace effectively. Speaker's words could be clearly understood. Speaker spoke to quickly or too slowly at times, without interfering with audience's ability to understand. Speaker could not be understood due to speed.
  • posture relaxed?
Speaker was able to gesture effectively. Speaker appeared relaxed. Speaker may have swayed, appeared stiff, or moved nervously, but not to the point of distracting the audience. Speaker swayed, appeared stiff, or moved nervously, distracting the audience.
  • delivery smooth?
Speaker's delivery helped convince the listener by conveying conviction. Speaker's delivery was smooth. Speaker may have stopped and started, but not to the point of limiting the audience's understanding. Stopping and starting limited the audience's understanding.
  • delivery enthusiastic?
Speaker varied expression effectively. Speaker used good expression. Speaker did not speak in a monotone. Speaker spoke in a monotone.
Overall Rating:
Very Good
Needs Revision

Working in small groups or independently, students should complete online and traditional research to either:

  • Discover one or more historical figures they consider heroes and to assign them a category (see Activity 5), or
  • Learn about an assigned individual to decide if the person is a hero according to the class's standards and, if so, to assign a category of heroism in which the individual belongs.

When research is complete, students (or student groups) should make presentations to the class arguing why the individual should or should not be considered a hero.

Activity 7. Our Heroes

Any number of possible activities would make exciting and appropriate culminating activities for a unit on heroes. Precede the assignment of the culminating project with a class discussion about what students have learned. Which historical figures did the students decide were heroes? Were there any surprises? Did any individuals make a particularly strong impression on the students?

Review the criteria for a hero and the individuals the class had discussed at the very beginning of the unit. Would the students' lists of criteria and heroes be different today? Why or why not?

Now, assign the culminating project. Use one or more of the following suggestions, or create an assignment of your own. (Note: These ideas could also be used as extensions of this unit.)

  • Challenge students or student groups to craft mini-museums or dioramas of their hero(es). Display all the projects to create a Hall of Fame within your classroom. Invite guests to the official "museum opening."
  • Conduct a "biography parade," in which each student plays the part of particular hero, and audience members — given a list of all the names, and perhaps a few red herrings — have to guess his/her identity
Activity 8. Local Hero

My Hero, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library, features many local heroes — individuals generally known only in their own communities or families. Here are some examples:

Share these and/or other stories with your class. Then challenge your students to identify local heroes, from their own experience or from the media.

Extending The Lesson

  • Students can conduct more in-depth research on any particular individual using EDSITEment's vast resources. Many of the sites are searchable.
  • Activity 7 contained several suggestions for biographical projects. Those you did not use for the culminating project could become extensions of this lesson.
  • Complete the activities in the EDSITEment WebQuest More Amazing Americans.
  • Students can research and debate the story of Jessica Dubroff, who died in 1996 attempting to become the youngest pilot to fly across the United States. Is she a hero? For in-depth coverage of Jessica's story, consult The San Francisco Chronicle and CNN.com, both links from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.
  • Sports-minded students who are interested in defining what a hero is can research the story of Pete Rose, one of baseball's greatest players, who has been banned from Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame for gambling. Should the ban be lifted? Start your research online at The Sporting News, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
  • Your students can become heroes. The Millennium Youth Project, available via a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library, enables youths as young as 11 to create a service project. As part of the project, your class will be given companion groups in other countries to make friends and share news of your local plans. (Note: The projects can be quite simple; for example, a class in Canada recorded books on tape.)

Suggested Categories and Individuals for Student Research

Note: All of the following resources may be found on America's Library, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, unless otherwise noted.

Historical Figures Who Personified Good Citizenship

Historical Figures Who Took Risks to Secure Freedom

Historical Figures Who Worked for Civil Rights

Historical Figures Who Were Heroes of Sports

Historical Figures Who Worked for Women's Rights

Historical Figures Who Were Adventurers

Historical Figures Who Were Artists, Performers or Writers

Historical Figures Who Were Military Heroes

Historical Figures Who Were Heroes of Politics

Historical Figures Who Helped the Environment

Historical Figures Who Were Inventors or Captains of Industry

Selected EDSITEment Websites
American Memory Project
The Library of Congress
Africans in America
The American President
TheNational Archives Education
The Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library
The Five Star Learning Center
Harlem 1900-1940: An African-American Community
An Introduction to the Exhibit
The Internet Public Library (kid-friendly, not searchable)
My Hero
The Electric Franklin
The Millennium Youth Project
The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Noble Peace Laureates
Notable Women Ancestors
San Francisco Chronicle
Martin Luther King, Jr.
National Portrait Gallery
The New Deal Network
New Perspectives on the West
Papers of George Washington
Thomas A. Edison Papers
U.S. Women's History Workshop

The Basics

Time Required

5-8 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Summarizing


Activity Worksheets