Teaching with Heroes

Posted by on Apr 10, 2014 in Hero Research & Resources |

Millersville Review, Winter 2000-2001

Dr. Dennis Denenberg knows why the great majority of people remember their high school history class as an experience as joyful as, say, getting their teeth drilled.

“First, history textbooks are deadly dull,” he explains. “History is a story and textbooks eliminate the story. Second is the deadly dull way history has often been taught. Lecture, read the chapter, do the questions at the end…”

His voice trails off and his intent is clear: Anyone in his right mind would be bored to death by such a regimen. Which is why Denenberg’s approach is so successful. “In my classes we have a lot of fun,” he declares.

Denenberg, a professor in the Department of Elementary and early Childhood Education, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in history social study methods for elementary education students. He has delivered his message during presentations in 25 states (“My goal is to hit 50,” he confides.) And has won legions of fans and supporters. He is also co-author (with Lorraine Roscoe) of one book, Hooray for Heroes, a collection of biographies of famous historic characters and 120 activities people can use to bring those heroes alive. A second book, also written with Roscoe, Fifty American Heroes Every Kid Should Meetis due out February 2001 and is already winning favorable reviews.

Both are the offspring from his famous Real Heroes for Kids program, which he developed 11 years ago and has subsequently, he remarks, “mushroomed into my life’s work.” The concept is simple: Bringing heroes alive.

‘Too often, famous heroes are seen as non-entities on a page,” he explains. So each of his students must choose a personal hero” from history and develop two content-rich projects, Then, twice a year, they stage a Heroes Fair for elementary students to come and interact, first-hand, with over 100 “heroes.”

My class motto is a Will Rogers quote,” Denenberg laughs.”You can’t teach what you don’t know anymore than you can come back from where you ain’t been.” They [his students] learn it the first day, it’s the last question their final exam, and we recite it many times during the year.”

In addition to making heroes come alive, the fair has other advantanges. His students, for instance, receive great intrinsic rewards from their work.

“The feedback from the kids is wonderful,” he says. “We receive record numbers of letters from small children” who were thrilled by the fair. Teachers who use the concept in their classes also write letters of thanks.

“It’s heartwarming, to me, to see the ripple effect,” Denenberg remarks.

His message is simple. “For future teachers, this is something that can reallv enliven their classroom,” he notes. But he doesn’t stop there. “This type of leaming should start in pre-school, and in fact it should start at home. Of course,” he adds with a smile, “that’s part of my message, too.”