"My mom is a hero," Alfredo said, cutting me off one sentence into a picture book about Martin Luther King, Jr. His chubby second-grade body perpetually squirmed on the rug where my 32 students were seated. "She brought us here from El Salvador by herself. Me, my two sisters, and our baby brother. We walked."
"My mom is a hero too," said Catalina. "She brought us from Mexico. But we came in a truck."
"The desert was hot," Alfredo cut her off.
"The truck was hot," Catalina said. The two began to argue. I closed the book. Other students had started telling stories about grandparents and parents who had immigrated. Some listened to each other and engaged in conversation; others talked over each other.
This was my first year teaching, a year when the majority of my lesson plans looked completely different when they were implemented. I had failed to activate my students' prior knowledge and ask them what they already knew about heroes. When Alfredo cut me off, I recognized this.
"Ok," I said. "Why don't you write down the names of all the heroes you know. Let's see who is on your list."
Students wrote furiously.
"Now, what makes a hero?" I asked. Twenty voices shouted out, and I couldn't understand anything. I clapped, trying to regain control. "Talk to your neighbor about what makes a hero. Write down four things you both agree on." I set my timer. "You have five minutes. Go!"
We generated a long list that included the neighborhood grocer (who had given free food to the family of one of my students after they were burglarized), our principal, many relatives, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We talked about honoring our heroes, how we tell stories about them and remember them as a way of respecting them.
"Let's have a party for our heroes!" shouted Alfredo. "I want to bring my mom to school. Can we have a party? We always have assemblies for famous people but not for boring people even though they're heroes, like my mom. Can we, please?"
Again, the lesson plan took another turn.
"What do the rest of you think?" I asked my class. They cheered, as you might imagine. Of course they liked parties.
"You'll have to make invitations," I said. Sneaky strategy; I planned to extract more writing from them.
"We can do it! We'll do it now!" They shouted.
"And you'll have to make speeches and tell everyone who comes why they are your heroes," I added.
Again, same response. They were up for the challenge, these second graders who were barely reading and writing. I was always trying to find ways to get them to do more, to ignite their intrinsic motivation.
"We could make a class book about them," offered Catalina. We'd done this earlier in the year when we'd learned about endangered animals.
"Ok," I said. "You guys have great ideas. Let's do it!" Cheering.
I leaned the book about MLK on the blackboard. "We'll read this later this week, ok? And today we'll start planning our party." Applause.
Our celebration of "Heroes Everywhere" was a huge success. More than 75 family and community members joined us one evening for snacks, stories, poems, speeches, and a lot of applause. There were tears, hugs, and very proud parents. "I've never had a chance to come to my daughter's school and feel like I was welcome and respected," said Catalina's mom. "I also never knew how much she recognized what I've done."
This is corny, but I'm going to say it: My students were my heroes that year; those who took the risk to shout out and tell me what was on their minds, who offered suggestions that led to authentic learning, and whose spirits yearned to appreciate the heroes in their lives. I remain always grateful to my students, for this was only one of hundreds of instances in which they taught me more than I taught them.