By Susan Riddell
Most superheroes have secret identities. South Heights Elementary School (Henderson County) simply wanted a new one.
As the school was facing academic struggles several years ago, administrators decided to create that new identity. Teachers soon pushed students to be more determined in daily instruction and on assessments. Those efforts paid off, and the school’s new identity eventually became “The 1199.”
“South Heights is located at 1199 Madison St. in Henderson, Ky. It used to be an address associated with subpar standards and low expectations from parents and community members,” intermediate teacher Megan Durham said.
Thanks to what Durham calls a steady diligent effort to change, South Heights Elementary has that new identity, one associated with innovation and a strong culture, she said. To build on that innovation and culture, school administrators have created another identify for South Heights Elementary: The 1199 Superhero Training Academy.
This academy instills a superhero mindset into students that they can do anything. Superhero costumes are common at the school now, as are standards-aligned lessons with superhero themes.
The 1199 is headquarter to four comic superheroes created by comic book artist Nathan Girten. These superheroes are used to motivate and foster an excitement for learning. Blue Blazer is the leader of the superheroes. She accepts responsibility but remains team driven. Determinator keeps rolling no matter what challenges he may face. Spark motivates and inspires the superhero team. Dr. D. uses knowledge to solve problems to achieve his goal of being distinguished.
Sarah Estabrook, curriculum specialist at the school, said the mission of the comic superheroes and the training academy is to train students to “unveil the inner power that lies within them,” she said.
A nemesis for the four superheroes to overcome is in the works, Durham said, and the character will possess qualities that can commonly leave students struggling in the classroom.
“We aren’t about being cutesy or trendy,” Durham said. “We are focused on the story that lies within each character that brings about everyday greatness that will eventually inspire students to change the world.”
Teachers are focused on connecting daily instruction to the four comic superheroes, Estabrook said. “The students are always in training, using their superhero powers to make good behavior choices and by giving their best efforts on assignments and assessments in every subject area.”
Durham has used superhero-themed books in her lessons. One was the book, Superdog: The Heart of a Hero. Students read the book and then had a writing assignment that connected a text-to-self experience.
“Our lessons, comic storylines and teachable moments will be more than just a quick flash of heroism,” Durham said. “It will be a timeless tribute to the power of developing the inner possibilities that every child possesses.”
Primary teacher Kaylen Winter said her students already are showing perseverance in the classroom. When there’s a difficult assignment, students will openly discuss ways a superhero would react.
“Students will come up with comments that relate to the situation and what a superhero would do,” Winter said. “Superhero talk has become a part of our everyday language. Without being prompted, students will say, ‘We are not acting like superheroes right now.’”
Winter said the superhero approach has helped her reach a student who struggled both academically and behaviorally.
“Staying focused has not been particularly easy for him since he began kindergarten last year,” Winter said. “A few days into school I noticed that he was really relating to the idea of being a part of a Superhero Training Academy. He was the first to raise his hand when I asked a question and never needed reminders of how to behave. I would ask him how he knew an answer or why he was behaving so well, and his response was always ‘Because I am a superhero.’”
Teachers model their own superhero abilities for their students, they said.
“We cannot teach perseverance to our students if we don’t possess it as well,” Durham said. “Addressing the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, the superhero theme and power of grit (the ability to complete a goal despite challenges and setbacks) help our teachers excel as we work toward our common goal of reaching every child in an authentic and life changing way.
“We help encourage high expectations, rigor and relevant lessons and strong and nurturing relationships,” Durham added. “This will eventually help with student growth and student voice.”
South Heights Elementary teachers have shared their Superhero Training Academy with others in professional learning opportunities. Durham recommends that teachers looking for similar outcomes focus on creating something that will go beyond day-to-day instruction.
“It’s more meaningful when you develop a specific program that meets your culture needs authentically,” Durham said.
Megan Durham, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 831-5081
Sarah Estabrook, email@example.com, (270) 831-5081
Kaylen Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 831-5081