Kindergartners at Calhoun recently took part in a project of heroic proportions. The in-depth interdisciplinary study was centered around the theme of superheroes, which served as a vehicle for kindergarten students to become researchers and explore the many possible lines of inquiry a topic may lead to. Through the lens of superheroes, kindergartners discovered the power of their own curiosity and built the skills necessary to investigate their interests.
The project was inspired by the students themselves. Teachers Heather, Destiny, Kyoko and Camille observed superhero play on the terrace, while inside the classroom many students expressed interest in learning about changemakers of the world. Teachers saw an opportunity to marry these interests with a discussion around heroes. As the class reflected on what it meant to be a hero, they drew upon their ongoing study of global changemakers. Kindergarten teacher Heather Jupiter explains, “We discussed what it means to be a hero, and they made connections to people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then we expanded the discussion to heroes that are in our lives every day, like EMT workers and firefighters. It all came down to an understanding that heroes are people who change the world and make it a better place.” A superhero, they realized, was a kind of changemaker. With their study underway, the class began to delve into research.
As the group began to collect more information on their chosen topics, their study opened up more avenues of exploration and sparked conversations about complex topics. Through their research, they began to notice a pattern of who was and was not represented in the world of superheroes. Seeing that most characters were white men, the group felt an urgency to find more diverse characters and quickly began searching for sources that would provide them with the content they desired. “Students were bringing in books about women superheroes, those from different backgrounds and from all around the world. They really took up the charge,” explains Heather. After reading Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, about a young person who conquers the challenges of having a physical disability, the class made a connection to superheroes and their powers. As Heather states, the class came to the conclusion that, “Your disabilities don't have to be your disabilities. They can be your super powers or your different abilities.” Through the lens of superheroes, students were able to engage in foundational conversations about representation and physical differences and approach these subjects in an organic way.
The connections students began making were a direct reflection of their investment in the project and their desire to continue to dig deeper into the topic. The further they explored the world of superheroes, the more these kindergartners strengthened their research skills – skills that will ultimately serve them throughout their academic careers. This sense of empowerment, Heather says, is what the project is all about. “We as teachers ultimately want students to come away with the knowledge that if they're interested in something, they can research it,” reflects Heather. “There are resources in the world that they can use to answer their questions and expand their interests.” These kindergartners took advantage of those resources, continuing their research on their own and bringing in books from home and libraries to share more information with the group. Now armed with a wealth of knowledge, the class was inspired to apply all that they had learned to create their own characters.
To tackle this new task, students looked back at the in-depth identity study they had conducted earlier in the year. As part of that work, students explored the concept of identity and the elements that one’s identity is comprised of. Using what they learned, kindergartners created an identity questionnaire containing a series of questions meant to help define one’s identity. Using the document as a baseline, students began building the unique characteristics of their superheroes. Everything from physical features to costume pieces to special powers became part of the conversation. The process of creating an identity for their character gave students the opportunity to further investigate their own. In focusing on what their heroes’ motivations were, kindergarten students imparted their own values. For example, some of the students’ superheroes protect people, some find lost pets, while others protect water sources. The values each hero holds are a direct reflection of the creator’s values.
Thinking deeply about these aspects of identity gave way for the writing of an origin story—essential for any superhero. The task had kindergartners turning to the ultimate superhero source material—comic books. The exploration of graphic novels created a pathway for students to explore the ways text and images work together to tell a compelling story and draw inspiration for their own written work, allowing them to stretch their skills as writers and express themselves creatively. The diversity in these characters’ stories, abilities and motivations are a true reflection of the work the group has done collectively.
Though the world may have a number of new superheroes thanks to this study, it was the students themselves that ultimately emerged with the greatest sense of power. By honoring their interests and building the tools they need as researchers, students emerged from the project with a sense of pride and empowerment, having seen what can happen when they follow their curiosity with support from their teachers. That sense of pride is something each student will take with them as they move on to first grade and well beyond. Because of their collaboration and curiosity, these students now know that they have the power to continue to drive their own learning and explore topics as deeply as their curiosities run. That, Heather says, was the goal all along. “We want them to walk away with the sense of accomplishment: that they really did something, and built something themselves. It belongs to them, it belongs to us as a group. We did it together.”