Teaching Character Through Real Heroes

Teaching Character Through Real Heroes

A character model for children By Dr. Dennis Denenberg, Lecturer and Author

This is an article that was printed in The Fourth and Fifth Rs:  Respect and Responsibility, Volume 10, Issue 2, Winter 2004: Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, School of Education, Cortland, NY  www.cortland.edu/c4n5rs


Wonder Woman vs. Rosa Parks.  Batman vs. Thomas Edison.  Which side of these pairings represent the kind of character model you want for your children?  The sad reality is that many young people don’t even recognize the names of genuine heroes.  Instead, they are drawn to the pop-culture icons and celebrities in sports and entertainment.  We need to immerse our kids in learning about real heroes.


50 American Heroes

How quickly can you name 50 authentic American heroes?  Coming up with 50 isn’t easy.  That’s why Lorraine Roscoe and I wrote 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet.  Among our heroes are artists, aviators, activists, journalists, jurists, teachers, musicians, inventors, and athletes.

We can say to kids, “What do these heroes have to do with you?  Everything.  They might be what you want to be when you grow up.  Many of our heroes were a lot like you when they were young.   Many had doubts about their own abilities to make a difference in the world.”

As I speak each year to thousands of teachers, parents, and students around America, they are always touched by the stories I tell of how someone’s life has been forever changed because of learning about a real hero.  Says 5th grader Robby Cox:  “You can make your life so much more by simply reading about these heroes.  They help you use your mind for good things and look toward the future with your head up.”


Olympic Champion & Humanitarian
She was born when the civil rights campaign for black Americans was in full stride.  She grew up in an America where ordinary citizens, black and white, were fighting racial discrimination and insisting that all people should have equal rights.

Home was a crime-infested neighborhood.  “I was constantly surrounded by chances to do wrong,” she said.  At the age of nine, Jackie competed in her first track meet and finished last.  But she didn’t give up.  She didn’t even let asthma slow her down. (Approximately 15 million Americans suffer from asthma, so chances are you know someone who has it.  Jackie Joyner-Kersee has it. Find out more about it by visiting the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at wwww.aaaai.org).  When she was 26, Jackie won two gold medals at the Olympics; four years later, she added another.  Her specialty?  The grueling heptathlon in which each contestant takes part in seven challenging track and field events.  Many call her the world’s greatest living female athlete.

One year before her victory at the 1988 Olympic Games, this dynamite athlete established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation (www.jjkbgc.org/vision.htm) to help city youth.  It provides mentors, gives college scholarships, and has rebuilt the Mary E. Brown Community Center in East St. Louis, where Jackie grew up.  She hopes it will bring young people and senior citizens together to make her hometown a better place to live. So check out the web site.  What can you do to bring something back to your school, neighborhood, or community?  Jackie said it best: “Don’t follow in my footsteps.  MAKE YOUR OWN!”

To learn more about Jackie Joyner-Kersee, check out Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Superwoman by Margaret Goldstein.


  • Make two silhouettes out of white paper – one of yourself and one of your hero.
  • Find some old magazines or newspapers.  Cut out at least ten words that describe important positive character traits of your hero.  Glue them on his or her silhouette.
  • Then have a family member or special friend write at least ten positive adjectives on your silhouette, describing your character traits.  How are you like your hero?  How are you different?  What did you learn about yourself?