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What Makes a Hero?

The "heroes project" might just be the perfect seventh grade unit: personal, aspirational, creative and challenging.

Conceived by Art Chair Karla Matheny and the Humanities faculty more than a decade ago, the Heroes Project tasks seventh graders will choosing a personal hero, writing a persuasive essay about that person, and then creating a realistic portrait of him or her using craypas on cardboard. It's an interdisciplinary unit that challenges students to reflect on their developing value system and to make meaning of the personal journeys of people they admire.

This year, seventh graders chose an especially diverse crop of individuals as their heroes, say seventh grade Humanities teachers Sheila Lavey and Susan Neitlich. The heroes included a wide range of individuals who overcame disability of gender, racial or religious discrimination to achieve greatness in science, activism, sports, politics, fashion and exploration.

If there's a single unifying thread, says Susan, it is the power of perseverance. "Students frequently pick figures who they think have been particularly courageous or hard working or determined in some way."

Adds Sheila, "They are still at an age where they believe in heroes, and that's a good thing. Being able to have role models is a really wonderful thing."

Below is a sampling of students' heroes portraits and excerpts from the accompanying essays.


Minnie Minoso, First Black Latino Player in the MLB

Most people look up to someone who is strong, kind and inspirational. Minnie Minoso was all of those things. ...As the first black Cuban player, and debuting only two short years after Jackie Robinson, Minoso faced discrimination and prejudice while struggling to learn English (he was a native Spanish speaker)....I admire his perseverance through a time that was not kind to Latinos, and even worse for African Americans. Minnie Minoso was a kind and strong man who helped pioneer and cement the place of both African Americans and Latinos in baseball.

—Teddy W.


Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer

Matthew Henson was the first black man to reach the North Pole. ...When I found out about Matthew Henson, I was fascinated that a poor orphan could turn out to be a well school Arctic adventurer. ...Henson has invaluable skills, including being a skilled hunter, craftsman, navigator and an expert dogsledder. He later became fluent in Inuit. ...His story inspires me that anyone can do anything if they try hard enough. I know it sounds corny, but his story proves it's true.

—Octavio B.


Anne Frank

Anne Frank's diary is emotional and teaches wise lessons about survival and maintaining happiness. I am also Jewish, so Anne's story is quite touching to me. ...Her optimism, despite horrific circumstances, has encouraged me to help those in need in my own community. For my Bat Mitzvah project, I sold food that refugees made from their home countries and all the money went back to them. It helps immigrants and refugees earn money to support themselves and their families while pursuing a foothold in their new community.

—Lauren S.


Mohandas Gandhi

Peaceful, revolutionary. Indian. That was Gandhi. ...Gandhi is my hero because he stayed humble and lived a simple life while still accomplishing historic feats; most prominently he freed India from British rule. In addition, Gandhi believed in defeating the British with peace, not violence. As he once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." I respect Gandhi for his peacefulness, humbleness and believe in unity that led India to freedom.

—Kiran M.


Christine Mann Darden, NASA Scientist

Christine Mann Darden's story shows how, with persistence and resolve, anyone can do anything. She had planned to be a teacher because, at the time, female scientists, especially African Americans, were often looked down upon and could find it very difficult even to find employment. Despite this, she followed her dream and became a NASA engineer. She was instrumental in boosting Apollo 11 up to the moon and in the development of research in sonic booms. ...But more importantly, she opened up the door for other young women all over the world to do the same.

—Florence P.


Malala Yousafzai

When Malala Yousafzai was only 11 years old, she made her first speech as an activist. It was titled "How Dare the Taliban Take Away my Basic Right to Education." I wonder if the journalists in that press club in Peshawar, Pakistan could tell, watching that young girl speak her mind for the first time, that she was going to change the world. I wonder if even Malala herself knew how much power she had. ...What sets some people apart is their courage, tenacity and passion. These people will fight for something no matter the cost. I love how Malala supports education for all. Even more than that, though, I admire how she will not sit back and wait for someone else to fix the problem, fill the need, or change the narrative. Malala spoke truth to power and raised her voice in a time of hatred and fear. She showed us that anyone can make a difference.

—Sophia P.


Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente was not only an outstanding baseball player, but one of the most caring human beings ever. ...I aspire to be like Robert Clemente, as do many other young athletes. It is difficult to dedicate oneself to a sport and still have time for the other aspects of life. ...In addition to being a professional baseball player, Clemente was a father, a humanitarian, and an activist for minority rights. Juggling all of that alongside a baseball career is extremely difficult. ...Whenever I want to just stop or take a break, I think of Clemente and say to myself, if he could to what he did, then I can do what I need to get done.

—Isak H.


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