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Heroes Are Made of This: Studying the Character of Heroes
|Grades||9 – 12|
|Lesson Plan Type||Unit|
|Estimated Time||Six 50-minute sessions|
Washington, Washington DC
- develop an understanding of how texts establish character
- explore the concept of the hero and the heroic in a variety of texts and/or cultures
- work collaboratively to negotiate interpretations of texts
- Divide the class into small groups, and ask them to list as many heroic and unheroic traits as they can.
- Ask each group to share their ideas. As students list their traits, write them on the board, chart paper, or an overhead transparency so that you have a class list of traits. Ask students to copy the traits down for later use.
- Ask the class to infer any heroic traits based upon unheroic traits or vice versa.
- Ask the class to discuss why these various traits are heroic or unheroic. Make a point of identifying which traits the class agrees on and which there is some question about. It is fine if there is disagreement. The point with this exercise is not to create consensus but to explore the idea of heroism which is a culturally constructed concept.
- If desired, as preparation for the next session, you may ask your students to read about some heroes on the Web. Three useful sites are The My Hero Project, Encyclopedia Mythica and Time Magazine's Heroes and Icons.
- Ask students to name heroes—historical, contemporary, or fictional. List the names students share on the board, an overhead, or chart paper.
- Ask students to name some villains—historical, contemporary, or fictional. Again, list the names students share on the board, an overhead, or chart paper.
- Once you have a good list, ask the class to discuss the individuals on the board, using the following questions to guide the conversation:
- Do we agree on who is or isn’t a hero?
- When we disagree about whether someone is a hero, what are we considering? Why do we disagree?
- What makes the heroes heroes?
- And what makes the villains villains?
- Do we agree on who is or isn’t a hero?
- After the discussion, make any adjustments or revisions to the class list of heroic and unheroic traits.
- Ask students to return to their small groups and arrange the heroes whose names they gathered at the beginning of the session into categories other than historical, contemporary, and fictional.
- Come back together as a class, and ask each group to explain what categories they created and who they listed in each.
- Ideally, as this discussion progresses, students may begin to speculate that heroes and heroism are not fixed terms. To introduce or reinforce this notion, share the short article about British and American lawyers holding a mock trial in which George Washington was tried for treason. From an American perspective, George Washington is clearly a heroic figure, but from the British perspective, George Washington’s role in the American Revolution was nothing less than treason.
- If you want to explore this idea of heroes and heroism as being culturally determined, build upon the mock trial of George Washington and explore other American heroes and American valorization of outlaws, criminals, and those engaging in criminal behavior. To get discussion started, you might share some of the following statements:
On the one hand we have violent criminals, such as Bonnie and Clyde, and the Jessie James Gang, who have been, and sometimes still are, portrayed as heroic figures. On the other hand, most Americans today consider the abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad or the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s, such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to be heroes and heroic figures even though they broke the law. Contemporary Americans such as Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush are revered by some and reviled by others.
- If your text requires it, you may need to provide some background and context for your students. For instance, while we rarely consider bragging to be a heroic virtue, in the Germanic culture of Beowulf, a hero is expected to “speak the part.” Beowulf’s boasts are, in a very real way, his résumé. Likewise, while we tend to value honesty and fair play in our heroes, in Ancient Greek culture as represented by the Iliad and the Odyssey, there is nothing wrong with Odysseus winning through trickery and deceit.
- Before your students begin their reading, ask students to brainstorm a list of the ways in which an author can develop the character of a hero. Common methods include appearance, words, deeds, reputation (view of others), role models, competing models, and foils.
- As you prepare your class to read the text, ask them to keep a list of the hero’s traits they encounter while reading, whether we consider them heroic or not, and how we learn about those traits (description, action, dialogue, comparison with other characters).
- If desired, pass out copies of the Reader’s Log and demonstrate how students can use the form to gather details on their text. Alternatively, display the Reader’s Log using an overhead projector, and ask students to recreate the columns in their notebooks or journals.
- If you plan to use the following sessions, also ask students to keep track of the ways that the text or the culture or cultures in the text define heroism.
- Distribute the Word Portrait Handout, and explain that in creating word portraits, the class will define the hero’s physical, mental, social, and moral characteristics.
- Ask students to identify adjectives from the handout that best describe the hero, working individually or in groups of 2 or 3.
- Once the students have filled out their Word Portraits, divide the class into groups of 4-6 students each.
- Ask each group to tally the totals of each characteristic listed on their Word Portrait. If group members have added characteristics to the Word Portrait, ask the group to decide whether they wish to add those characteristics to their list as well.
- Once the characteristics are totaled, each group should rank their characteristics from highest to lowest. If desired, students might write their characteristics and rankings on sections of the board or on chart paper so that the lists can be shared and compared easily.
- Have each group share the list the members have compiled with the class.
- There is likely to be some disagreement, and if there is, ask each group to defend its list.
- If time permits, have the class combine their rankings in a single list. Encourage students to try to come to some consensus. Not every student need agree with the overall class list, and those who do not should be encouraged to defend their position. If you plan to include Session Six, save these lists for that session.
- Use the Character Map in the Literary Elements Map to list the traits for the heroes in their readings. The questions in the Character Map focus on how the image of a character is shaped by appearance, actions, and reputation.
- Using the Character Map, ask students to list the hero’s traits. Remind them that not all heroes are perfect and, therefore, not to forget “unheroic” traits as well as heroic ones.
- Once each student has completed a map, divide the class into groups of 4 to 6 students each.
- Ask each group to compare maps and to tally their traits and create a group map, with those traits ranked from those upon which everyone agrees to those only one group member believes appropriate. Each group may need to negotiate their final list, and they need not include every trait listed in individual maps.
- After each group has tallied their results, have each group to share those results with the class. There is likely to be some disagreement, and if there is, ask each group to defend its map.
- If time permits, have the class combine their rankings and try to come to some consensus and create a class map. Not every student need agree with the overall class map and those who do not should be encouraged to defend their position. If you plan to include Session Six, you and your students will want to keep the maps.
Note: This session builds on Session Five, so be sure to complete the previous session before beginning this lesson.
- Discuss the idea that a text can present an ideal model or conception of a hero that the text’s heroes may themselves not achieve.
For instance, while Lancelot is often portrayed as the perfect Arthurian knight, his affair with Guinevere, which tears the Arthurian court apart, is clearly not acceptable behavior.
- Once your students are comfortable with the difference between a text’s ideal characteristics and individual character’s traits, divide students into small groups to explore the text in more detail. If students completed a Reader’s Log, encourage them to return to the details they recorded as they work on this activity.
- Remind students that the text may define its heroic ideal through both positive as well as negative portrayals.
- Using the Character Maps and lists from Session Five, ask groups to begin defining the text’s ideal heroic character traits.
- In addition, ask students to return to the Character Map in the Literary Elements Map to study alternative visions of the heroic. Ask students to map out traits of different characters who may serve as potential role models for the hero or as competing models within the text.
In many of the Arthurian stories, for instance, Gawain and Lancelot are opposed as different models of knighthood. Likewise, while Bilbo Baggins is clearly the hero of The Hobbit, the novel offers a number competing models of heroism in such figures as Bard, Beorn, Thorarin, and Jane Austen’s protagonists are always confronted with a number of men whom they might marry.
- Once your students have their Character Map completed and printed out, they can use the Venn Diagram to compare characters with each other and/or the text’s heroic ideal. Showing students a Hero Comparison Venn Diagram can help make this task clearer.
- The above activities can be used to compare heroes between texts and cultures. For instance, an entire unit on the hero could incorporate this lesson as a way of comparing a number of heroes. Likewise it could be used to compare characters from fiction, drama, movies, even history.
- Have students use the Profile Publisher to create a profile for a hero. Stress to students that the profile should explore several aspects of the character; they should try to represent the hero’s complex nature instead of settling for simpler representations.
- If students are studying heroes that follow the hero's journey monomyth, have them use the The Hero's Journey interactive to chart the hero's development.
- At each stage, ask students to reflect on both the process and the results of their studies in a journal or reader’s notebook. Encourage your students to reflect upon the process of collaboration and negotiation involved with group work as well as the procedure and their findings.
- You may wish to incorporate the studies of heroic character into quizzes, exams, or papers. Such formal assessment should not look for a narrow range of correct answers but in students’ ability to support analysis of characterization with examples from the text.