American Heroes: Diversifying Role Models For Our Students

By: Mollie Safran

My first long-term substitute position was taking over for my mentor teacher from student teaching when she had her second child. On my first day, I asked the students to create something for their teacher and the new baby. We wanted to show her we were still thinking about her-and her love of history. I had each of our 104 eighth graders write a card to her saying “I hope your son grows up to be like [a historical figure], because [a reason that person was awesome].” An example would be: “I hope your son will grow up to be like Wilma Mankiller because she used her pride and determination to help represent her people as chief of the Cherokee Nation.”

I collected the pages with the intent of putting them together in a booklet. Skimming through them I realized that I would have to do some shuffling to spread out the fifteen or so different Martin Luther King Jr.’s. As I spread him and my several Rosa Parks’ out, I discovered that almost all of the remaining pages were white men. I imagined this little baby being born into a world where the only role models would be white men and a few major civil rights leaders, and I realized that is what many of our 8th graders had experienced. My students did not choose white men because they believed those were the only role models for a baby—we hadn’t included enough people of color as role models throughout their education.

I bound the book with green ribbon and a beautiful cover of Mount Rushmore a student had drawn. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson. All names that belong in our history books and the back of our students minds—certainly, you couldn’t teach the progressive era without Theodore Roosevelt. At the same time, we should not teach the progressive era without Lillian Wald, Jeannette Rankin, Ida B. Wells, and Booker T. Washington (not at all an all-inclusive list).

I decided that my job as a teacher would be to present as many voices as possible to my students each year, so that by the time this baby makes it to 8th grade, he will be welcomed into classrooms that honor the voices of all Americans. I urge my fellow teachers to do the extra work in bringing to light underprivileged people in our history alongside me. Show students the women who pushed the boundaries of their time (was Edith Wilson the first female president?), innovators who were people of color, and any persons who speak up in defense of themselves and their communities. There are countless diverse heroes for our students to follow in the footsteps of.

If you’re a history teacher, insist your next biography project not be about a white man. Have a wall of fame in your classroom highlighting people of color. Do the extra research so when you present the textbook material, you can show multiple perspectives.

If you don’t teach history, you can still spread the wealth in your classroom. A science or math teacher who hangs up science quotes or images of famous mathematicians in your room? Make sure to mix it up and avoid a wall of men who look like they could all be related.

Have the students read books from the point of view of Black heroes or that feature ladies with more interests than to just chase boys.

Help be the till of human history so when our students are the ones writing textbooks, future teachers won’t have to dig so deep.


Mollie is a 2015 graduate of the Pennsylvania State University. She is a Social Studies Educator focusing on social justice education and middle level student’s socio emotional growth. She also likes hiking and waterfalls.

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3 thoughts on “American Heroes: Diversifying Role Models For Our Students

  1. Ah I love it! Hope to encourage my students to look past major players in history and look at the ones that seemed to be missed in the process as there are role models everywhere in history! Great article!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Innovation and Risk Taking in Middle School – “It’s not the critic who counts!” | The PD Blogger

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