Heroism Study Projects
By Jill Ferraresso, Grade 2 Teacher
As morning sun slants through the windows, Helen Keller holds onto Annie Sullivan’s arm, and feels along the wall as she walks into the classroom, finding the big wooden chair with her hand and gently lowering herself into it. She places her right hand on the chair’s arm, palm up. Annie, seated beside her now, responds by resting her fist gently in Helen’s hand. They both smile, Annie’s dark eyes shining out to the audience, and Helen’s blue eyes gazing down to her lap. Dressed in a white lacy blouse and a white skirt, Helen’s hair is gathered up in twists at the temples and gathered in a thick bun at the nape of her neck, She is a vision of Victorian loveliness. Annie wears a sensible black skirt and a simple white blouse, her hair in a smooth bun. She looks every bit the no-nonsense professional powerhouse.
I ask Helen if she is ready for the children to ask her questions. “Being children, they have so many, many questions,” I say. Annie’s fingers move in Helen’s hand, relaying my question through finger spelling. As Helen feels my question, translated from Annie’s fingertips to her own quick mind, she smiles and nods. I can tell that she has a soft spot for the curiosity of children. Helen and Annie answer questions about their lives for the next forty minutes. Helen lights up when she tells the children stories about her life, such as the first time Annie took her to the ocean. She walked in, got knocked down by a wave, but emerged indignant rather than frightened, asking, “Who put the salt in the water?”
“Why did you have so many tantrums when you were a child?” asks one audience member.
Helen responds. “Can you imagine not being able to share your needs, your fears, the things you want, your secrets and dreams, or anything at all with the people who love you?” We talk about babies and why they cry, how without language we must find other ways, sometimes more frantic ways, to get our needs met. As if on cue, a baby in the audience cries out and we all laugh.
When Annie complains that Helen’s parents were “an obstacle to overcome,” because they gave Helen candy to quiet her tantrums, I ask the class what they would do if they were given candy every time they had a tantrum. Faces light up with understanding. “We would keep having tantrums to get candy!” exclaims one child.
Annie’s arrival in her life, we learn, launched Helen’s long journey of learning and discovery that included being the first blind/deaf woman to attend college. She went on to write books, to tour the world as a speaker, to support unions and racial equality, to support women’s rights, to co-found the ACLU, to help boost the morale of soldiers in wartime, to learn to speak four languages, and, in her own words, to become “the most educated blind and deaf woman in the world.”
As Helen and Annie leave the classroom to “return to their own time,” the audience of children, parents, grandparents and friends responds with thunderous applause.
In the afternoon, we will meet Alexander Graham Bell, the very person who introduced Helen’s family to Annie Sullivan! We’ll find out that, although he is still most known as the inventor of the telephone (and is delighted when we show him its great-great-grandchild, the iPhone), what he really wants to be remembered for is his work with the deaf: how he loved to be a teacher, how dear children were to him, especially one student named Georgie. He wants to be remembered as a family man who loved his wife, Mabel, once a deaf student of his, and all his children. He was a scientist, and he was a humanitarian, shyly but proudly, first and foremost.
That was just an example of one Heroism presentation day.
Every day in the month of May, a different child takes his or her turn to step through our imaginary “time machine” to teach us about a heroic person from history.
The second grade Heroism Study Project has been developed over my eighteen years at Atrium School. Over time, it has evolved into a semester-long study. Children read whole piles of books and articles about their hero, seeking primary sources and collecting the most accurate stories and facts they can, learning to take comprehensive notes. Along the way, they complete projects that access many different aspects of their intelligences, from colorful paper collage hero portraits to mathematical timelines; from poetry about their hero to “Invention Packets” that ask children to think about the context of their heroes’ lives in terms of the inventions that existed. They find out which heroes lived before toilet paper, which never had electricity, which never got to vote.
As they study and do classroom and homework projects, I teach history. We do an in-depth study that encompasses the period from The Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement. All of our heroes come from those time periods, and all are connected.
Each of the twenty-five heroes on our list is carefully chosen. Every single one of them, from Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been chosen because they faced tremendous obstacles in their lives, but pushed through them, often MANY of them, to significantly change our world. We stand on the shoulders of these heroes, and though we are always fighting for Civil Rights and trying to make our world more fair for more people, these are people who led the way, who got us this far, upon whose ideas and great efforts we have built.
The heroes in our study are connected to our history study and often to each other. The child studying Louisa May Alcott can talk to the child studying Henry David Thoreau. There are a group of Underground Railroad era heroes that are all connected, and a group of Civil Rights era heroes. We have scientists, inventors, and humanitarians, every one of them someone who has had a positive impact on our world today.
Did you know that Gandhi was so shy that he was afraid to go to school, running out the door to escape it, or that Clara Barton had a lisp and was teased so badly she refused to go to school and was terrified to speak in public?
When these stories come up during research or Heroism Study presentations, I have the opportunity to turn to the children and say, “You see? Who ever thought that Gandhi, too shy to utter a word at school, would grow up to lead a nation and change the whole world? Who would ever think that shy, fearful Clara Barton would grow up to be a teacher, the “Angel of the Battlefield” and the Founder of the Red Cross? Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. Every one of you has the potential to take the world by storm someday. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU.”
The culminating presentation is really the icing on a cake that’s been slowly “baking” for many months. Each child has his or her moment to gather special friends and family members, to come watch him or her step out of the time machine. Last week Clara Barton’s grandparents watched her present via Skype from Kentucky. The silk green dress she wore was borrowed from a former Clara Barton, Katherine Nazemi, now in college at MIT. The dress was handmade by Katherine’s grandmother, a replica of one of Clara Barton’s real dresses. It is worn proudly, year after year, though each child presenting Ms. Barton does so in his or her own unique way.
The presentation itself can feel daunting to children, especially the shy ones. Most second graders have never given such a big presentation by themselves before, let alone a presentation for such a large audience. The nervousness and excitement mix together, giving many children butterflies. This is a good thing. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. “
It is a big deal to be able to look back on the presentation and know that “I did it!” This is something to remember the next time something big and hard comes along. We don’t let anybody fail. We are all there, teachers and classmates, parents and relatives, to support each child who steps through the time machine.
Although this year’s heroes are almost finished with their presentations, I ask them all to hold onto their heroes as role models and inspiration in their lives. When something is hard for them and they want to give up, when they must summon their bravery and fear they can’t, they can think, “What would Harriet Tubman do? Or Sojourner Truth or Cesar Chavez or Nelson Mandela…. What would my hero do?
Years later, when they are all grown up and long past their second grade Heroism Study Project, children remember what it was like to do something so big at such a young age, and how they DID it and the feeling that early accomplishment gave them. They tell me that they brought their Frederick Douglass poster to college, or wrote about Harriet Tubman and their Heroism Study experience in their college essays. They tell me that Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson still inspires them and motivates them to make the most of their lives. They have learned, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, that when it comes to life (and presentations), “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”