by Fred Smedley
Dr. Dennis Denenberg recalls the epiphany he experienced nearly 12 years ago.
Visiting numerous classrooms as a supervisor of student teachers, Denenberg was struck by the number of cartoon characters adorning walls and giving life lessons to elementary students.
“I would see all of these cartoon characters and wonder, what are we doing?” he explains. “Why couldn’t these kids see real people? After all, they were already drowning in cartoon figures outside of school.
“It was as if only furry creatures could have compassion.”
Thus began Denenberg’s crusade.
It started innocently enough with an article published in the December 1989 edition of Teacher Magazine entitled “DeALF the Classroom!”
Then came the incorporation of heroes into his own classroom, the creation of the now-incredibly successful Heroes Fair at Millersville, the publication of the book, 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet, and a speaking schedule that finds him winging to all parts of the country.
Still, Denenberg himself smiles, “I never imagined it would develop into this kind of crusade.”
The fact that it has, however, re-affirms a crucial trend.
“Schools are now, more than ever before, in the character-education business,” Denenberg says. “Of course, they were before, but they were only one part of it. Now, schools are spearheading the effort.”
Dr. Thomas Lickona, a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, who sits on the board of directors of the national Character Education Partnership, agrees.
Discussing character education in Early Childhood Today, Lickona says he believes qualities “such as honesty, compassion, courage, kindness, self-control, cooperation, diligence or hard work [are] the kinds of qualities that we need to both lead a fulfilling life and to be able to live together harmoniously and productively.
“Character education,” Lickona explains, “develops these virtues through every phase of school life. In our work, we promote what we call a comprehensive approach to character education. We encourage schools to think about the moral life of the classroom in the school or center as a whole.”
And what better way than to use real heroes?
“The strongest way,” Denenberg emphasizes. “is to teach the lives of people who exemplify traits we admire.
“Through them we teach that real people can be honest, that real people can be compassionate.”
So when Denenberg’s book explores the life of Roberto Clemente, it begins with his most important baseball statistics. “But if that’s all you know about him, you don’t really know what makes Roberto Clemente a hero,” the book cautions. “It’s more than MVP honors. It’s the quality of his life and his giving.”
From there, Clemente’s biography delves briefly into his childhood then moves directly to how Clemente was killed when the airplane, chartered to deliver food and supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua, crashed shortly after takeoff.
Highlighted within the text is a box of “Power Words” featuring this statement from Clemente himself: “Any time you have the opportunity to accomplish something for somebody who comes behind you and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Straightforward and active narratives help the heroes leap off the page.
“On November 5. 1872, Susan B. Anthony broke the law,” begins the section on America’s renowned suffragette. “What horrible crime had Susan B. Anthony committed? She and fifteen of her friends had voted.”
Teachers who use heroes as role models endorse Denenberg’s philosophy. The key, they say, lies in making real heroes come alive in the classroom.
And making those heroes come alive means using “hands-on, content-rich” projects.
“The Internet has made it even more critical that kids are grounded in history and literature,” Denenberg declares, explaining that only analytical and critical thinking skills will help them separate the electronic wheat from chaff.
Those two passions — the importance of using real people to teach character education and the need to challenge students with content-rich material — lie at the heart of Denenberg’s book, 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet.
“The goal is to show that heroes can be in any field of endeavor, from any race, ethnicity or gender and from any background,” Denenberg explains.
When he first approached the project, he had a list of 175 heroes. His co-author, Lorraine Roscoe, brought a list of 125. Paring their final list down to 50 meant making difficult choices. The list is wide-ranging (from Cal Ripken to Yo-Yo Ma; Matthew Henson to Albert Einstein)
“We make it clear in the introduction that this is only our list, Denenberg explains. “In fact, now in my own classes I ask students to eliminate some and propose their own.”
That’s where the character education comes in to play.
Descriptions of the heroes and their deeds are filled with questions that challenge the students to look at things from different perspectives.
“We wanted the text to be interactive, Denenberg says. Each brief biography also includes a “Dive In” segment that lists further reading material or websites where students can find additional information on the book’s heroes. Research into verifying the websites ran right up to the last minute and Denenberg says the background checks probably proved to be some of the hardest work in the five-year writing process.
Yet, feedback Denenberg has received about the book (two of its subjects — Jimmy Carter and Cal Ripken, Jr. sent letters thanking Denenberg for their inclusion and endorsing his philosophy) fortifies his beliefs that character education must be pursued.
And when he speaks to groups across the country, Denenberg notes, “the audience has been overwhelmingly supportive. No one has ever come up to me to tell me I’m way off base.”