Standard Lesson

Is Superman Really All That Super? Critically Exploring Superheroes

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 60-minute sessions
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Popular culture texts such as comic books, video games, or even television shows can be valuable tools for teaching students critical reading skills. Comparing these texts with children's literature helps students explore what elements they share in common and how perspective or point of view influences their understanding of the characters. In this lesson, students generate their own list of superheroes from popular culture. They work in groups to read selected books and develop a list of superhero traits from these titles. They then compare the book superheroes with their pop culture counterparts using the online Venn Diagram or the Venn Diagram mobile app. Finally, students explore individual superheroes from multiple perspectives, using a list of guiding questions that encourages them to consider how superheroes might differ depending on audience, gender, or setting.

From Theory to Practice

  • There are similarities in portraits of characters between popular culture texts (including, but not limited to, comic books, video games, song lyrics, and television shows) and children's books.

  • Students' knowledge of popular culture texts should be capitalized on during literacy teaching. For this to happen, teachers need to guide students in critical reading and comparison of popular culture texts with more traditional classroom texts.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Books:

    Books from the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic)

    Books from the Ricky Ricotta series by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic)

    John Henry by Julius Lester (Dial Books, 1994)

    Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs (Dutton Children's Books, 1994)

    Davy Crockett Saves the World by Rosalyn Schanzer (HarperCollins, 2001)

    Big Jabe by Jerdine Nolen (HarperTrophy, 2003)

    Golem by David Wisniewski (Clarion Books, 1996)

  • Computers with Internet access and printing capability or tablet devices

  • Overhead projector and transparencies

  • LCD projector (optional)



1. Before teaching this lesson, make sure your students are familiar with the idea of character traits and character development in stories. You may want to teach "Inferring How and Why Characters Change" or "Charlotte is Wise, Patient, and Caring: Adjectives and Character Traits."

2. Obtain and familiarize yourself with one or two of the books from Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants or Ricky Ricotta series. Choose one of these books to share with students during Session 3.

3. Obtain five or six copies of each of the following books:
  • John Henry by Julius Lester

  • Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs

  • Davy Crockett Saves the World by Rosalyn Schanzer

  • Big Jabe by Jerdine Nolen

  • Golem by David Wisniewski
4. Make copies of My Favorite Superheroes, Traits of Superheroes From Books, Guiding Questions for Exploring Superheroes, and the Exploring Superheroes Chart for each student in the class. Make some extra copies of the chart for groups to use in Session 4 (see Step 9). Make a transparency of Our Favorite Superheroes and Traits of Superheroes From Books.

5. If you do not have classroom computers available, reserve one session in your school's computer lab (see Session 4).

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Access prior knowledge about character development and traits and practice applying that knowledge by defining character traits in superheroes

  • Practice both comparing and using a graphic organizer by looking at and diagramming the character traits of superheroes in popular culture texts and books

  • Engage in critical analysis by exploring what these character traits mean from multiple perspectives

Session 1: Define Superheroes

1. Review the concept of character traits using several examples of characters from a book you have read together recently. You may use some of the following questions to guide this review; make sure you ask students to provide evidence from the text to support their answers:

  • Does this character remind you of anyone? Why?

  • How would you describe this character?

  • What things would make you want to be this character's friend?

  • What didn't you like about this character?

  • What makes this character different from others in this book? In other books?
2. Ask students to define the term superhero and to explain what kinds of traits these characters usually have. List the adjectives students use to describe superheroes on a sheet of chart paper. Remind students that these traits do not all have to be positive. For example, Superman can't withstand kryptonite; other superheroes may have personality quirks, just like real people. Keep this list posted in your classroom during Sessions 2 and 3.

3. Have students share examples of superheroes they like or are familiar with. Write students' examples on a sheet of chart paper that you post in your classroom, being sure to note where the superheroes come from (e.g., are they characters in a video game? a movie? a comic book? all three?). If students choose a superhero from a children's book, list these on a separate sheet of paper.

4. Using the list you have just created, introduce the concept of popular culture texts to students. Explain that a text is not always a book; it can be something that they read, watch, listen to, or play. It can be a book, a comic book, a movie, a TV show, or song lyrics. Video games can also be considered texts because players read the directions given on the screen and watch the images while playing. A popular culture text is a text that many people currently like and enjoy reading, watching, or playing.

Homework (Due at the beginning of Session 2): Students should choose two or three of their favorite superheroes from popular culture texts. If they have game cards or comic books about these superheroes, they can bring them in if your school policy allows students to do so.

Note: In between Sessions 1 and 2, you may choose to do some research on the characters that your students mention, especially if you are unfamiliar with them. You will most likely find websites for many of them that describe the characters and the context that they operate in.

Session 2: Explore Superheroes in Popular Culture Texts

1. Distribute the My Favorite Superheroes handout. Ask students to list their favorite superheroes and then use one or two adjectives to describe the traits of each superhero. You may choose to allow students to see the list of adjectives you created during Session 1, or if you prefer, you can remind students of the types of words it contained, but cover it up and expect them to draw on their own memories of the words when completing this activity.

2. Have students work in groups of five or six to share their list of superheroes and character traits. Each group should identify which two of their superheroes are the most unusual. They can use the following questions to guide their discussion:

  • What do these superheroes have in common?

  • What's unusual or unique about each superhero?

  • What are the backgrounds of the superheroes? Where did they grow up? How old are they? Do they have a family?
3. Gather students back together and ask each group to share the two superheroes they have selected. List these characters on the Our Favorite Superheroes transparency and ask students to help you fill in the additional information about each one.

4. Talk about the superheroes you have listed, using the following questions to guide your discussion:

  • What do these superheroes have in common? What is different about them?

  • Look at the list of character traits we came up with during Session 1. (At this point you should uncover them.) Are there any traits these superheroes are missing? Which ones?

  • Can you imagine what each superhero would be like if he were younger? If she were older?

  • What would these superheroes be like if they came from different places? From Korea, or Italy, or Tanzania, or anywhere on Earth? Would they be the same characters, or different somehow?

Session 3: Explore Superheroes in Children’s Literature

1. Ask students if they can think of any examples of superheroes from books. (If students listed some during Session 1, you can post this list and add to it.)

2. Share the five books you have collected (see Preparation, Step 3). For each book, read the title, show the front and back cover, and ask students to predict what the book might be about. Then page through each book, show the illustrations, and provide an overview of the plot.

3. Ask students to get into their groups from Session 2 and give each group a copy of the Traits of Superheroes From Books chart. Ask one student from each group to read the book aloud while the rest of the group listens and takes notes. Tell students that while they are listening, they should decide which character or characters in the story are superheroes and list some of their character traits.

After the read-aloud, students should share their notes. One student from the group should record the group findings on the Traits of Superheroes From Books chart.

4. Gather students together and ask each group to share its superheroes and character traits. Write down the list on the Traits of Superheroes From Books transparency.

5. Talk about the superheroes you have listed. You may use some of the following questions to guide the discussion:

  • What do these superheroes have in common? What is different about them?

  • Look at the list of character traits we came up with during Session 2. Are there any traits these superheroes are missing? Which ones?

  • Can you imagine what these superheroes would be like if they were younger? Older?

  • What would these superheroes be like if they came from a different place? Would they be the same characters, or different somehow?

Session 4: Look at Superheroes From Multiple Perspectives

Note: If necessary, this session will take place in the computer lab.

1. Model how to use the online Venn Diagram or Venn Diagram mobile app to compare one of the characters from the Our Favorite Superheroes transparency and the Traits of Superheroes From Books transparency. Use some of the following questions to guide the discussion:

  • What are the similarities and differences in how these characters look?

  • Are these superheroes girls, women, boys, or men? Can you always tell? In what ways are they different?

  • What language do these characters speak?

  • Where are these characters from?

  • What are these characters like? Describe their traits.
2. Have students get into their groups from Sessions 2 and 3 and then split into pairs or groups of three. Each pair should choose one of the superheroes they picked during Session 2 and compare it with the superhero in the book they read during Session 3.

3. Each small group of students should complete the interactive Venn diagram for their two superheroes. They should print their diagrams when they are finished.

4. Students should share their diagrams with the entire class. Post the diagrams around the room as each pair or group finishes presenting it. Have students read the posted diagrams and take notes about what they observe.

5. Have students share what they noticed about the Venn diagrams, listing their observations on a piece of chart paper or the board. After about five or ten minutes, introduce the concept of perspective, saying something like:
We all understand things differently because we all have our own perspectives, or points of view. For example, here in the United States, wolves are often portrayed as evil, like the Big Bad Wolf. That perspective comes partly from our history: During the American westward expansion, pioneers were rightly afraid of wolves. However, in some cultures, wolves are seen as strong and mystical creatures. These cultures have a different perspective of wolves. Your perspective comes from your history, your past experiences, your own beliefs and thoughts.
6. After you have discussed perspective with students for a few minutes, ask them to think about how it relates to superheroes. How does our point of view, or perspective, influence our choice of favorite superheroes?

7. Distribute the Guiding Questions for Exploring Superheroes handout and explain that each question is intended to guide students to look at the character traits of superheroes in a more critical way. For example, explain that the question, "Who do you think would like this superhero?" helps examine the superhero from the perspective of the audience (e.g., people who are interested in strength, action, and saving the world will like Superman). The question "Who would not like this superhero?" helps us see that some groups bring a different perspective (e.g., Superman is less likely to appeal to those who do not like violence or to girls who don't identify with this male character).

8. After you have explained what each question means, students should get into their larger groups and choose two superheroes from their My Favorite Superheroes handouts and another two from Traits of Superheroes From Books handout. Students in the group should choose two perspectives from the Guiding Questions for Exploring Superheroes handout to explore the four chosen superheroes. In helping students choose their perspectives, you might say something like:
Superhero X is a tall man with blond hair and blue eyes. He is very strong and very fast and uses his strength and speed to save the day. Now let's say this story was set in Japan and was created by a Japanese writer with a Japanese perspective. Would X still be a superhero? Would he look the same? Talk the same? Act the same?
9. As a group, students should fill out the first column of the Exploring Superheroes Chart. Students will then determine which group members will explore the first perspective selected and which group members will explore the second perspective selected. Group members will work independently to complete their columns of the chart. Once they are completed, students exploring the same perspective should share their results and then finally the entire group should share their charts. The group should complete a final chart to share with the class.

10. After the groups share their charts, encourage discussions of the different points of view. For example, one group might have focused on Spider-Man, saying that he is strong and powerful, while another group may have said that he is witty and smart. Discussion of such differences will help students understand how perspective or point of view can change how people view the same person or thing.


  • Ask students to create a story about one of the superheroes from their My Favorite Superheroes handout or Traits of Superheroes From Books handout. This story should be written with a consideration of multiple perspectives. After selecting a character and considering the different perspectives, ask each student to choose one perspective from which to write the story. For example, if a student's superhero was male, he or she may consider writing the character as female; or if the hero was from the present, he or she may consider setting the story a hundred years ago.

  • Have students create a picture of a superhero who would appear in a children's book, a comic book, a graphic novel, an anime (Japanese animation), or a video game. Students should focus on the visual characteristics of the superhero. Students can then share their superhero pictures in a group.

Student Assessment / Reflections



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