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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Trading Hero Cards

By borrowing from pop culture, teachers can create a program that teaches students about values and social understanding.

Most of us who work around youngsters become frustrated, if not alarmed, at the values that we see them demonstrate at times. Our schools, which ought to discourage such negative values as intolerance and cruelty, often become their staging ground instead. These values are not only damaging on their own, but they also contribute to behaviors that impede learning and render schooling ineffective. In fact, the respect for learning itself is a value that students often lack.
It is easy to engage in hand-wringing over the state of our youngsters' values, but what can we do about it? I'm as guilty of having resorted to lecturing as anyone; fortunately, my students demonstrated good manners and merely rolled their eyes while patiently waiting for me to finish my sermon.
Such sermonizing places the teacher on the shaky ethical ground of engaging in propagandizing if not outright indoctrination. This can open a whole Pandora's box about who is to determine which values are the correct ones and by whose authority does the teacher instill them. But if we are to avoid such an approach, how are we as educators also to avoid surrendering our responsibility to contribute to the moral development of our charges? These are the issues that led me to create Trading Heroes, a “values clarification course” that draws on the power of the hero phenomenon and the creative drive of students.

Creating Heroes

Nothing strikes me as more creative and effective than commandeering some item from the contemporary culture of young people and transforming it into an instructional resource. As a fidgety kid, I was often told to “put away those baseball cards and pay attention to the lesson.” “Those baseball cards,” while keeping me from the day's work, were also rich repositories of language skills to be learned from the culturally diverse biographies on their backs, as well as a source of authentic math lessons disguised as batting averages and other performance statistics. When pressed by my teacher, I did put them away but only with great reluctance. They were so much more interesting to me than the textbooks. In Trading Heroes, I use this trading card format, but I never tell my students to put them away and do their work—they are their work.
Trading Heroes begins with dialogue. The teacher poses questions such as What is a hero? What qualities do heroes have? Who is a hero to you and why? Students respond enthusiastically to these questions, which are not easy to answer. The project serves its participants well in starting them on the process of values clarification. Through the give and take of discussion, the issues begin to sort themselves out.
Students select one or more personal heroes as subjects for trading cards that they will produce themselves. They choose these heroes using a set of criteria generated in earlier classroom discussions. Heroes must be brave, selfless, inspirational, benevolent, and they must have achieved something genuinely worthwhile. The students can get ideas for possible heroes from the biography section of the library, interviews of parents or other adults, more class discussions, directed television viewing, or from social studies, literature, and other textbooks.
To make the cards, the students create a short biography and a portrait of their chosen heroes. The portrait can be either a free-hand drawing or a simple tracing or photocopy of a photograph. Although the students must explain the life and accomplishments of the hero quite briefly, the biography assignment offers learning opportunities for composition, grammar, spelling, and word processing skills.
The finished portrait and biography are “pasted up” onto standardized Trading Heroes templates, which I design and provide to students and teachers. The cards are then printed on card stock on copying machines. The finished product has a professional look and feel, yet it is the unique work of the individual student.

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Lessons Learned

The culminating activities say it all about the Trading Heroes program. The teacher distributes the finished cards to excited students. Each student receives a complete class set, which gives each the thrill of both presenting his or her own work to peers and learning from the cards that peers share.
Along with values clarification and social understanding, students also learn language, social studies, art, and computing in a way that may look like a portfolio of performance products to the teacher, but that looks like fun to the students.

Mark Gura has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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