Superheroes & Educational Reform
Spiderman was an
amazing blockbuster at the theatres this spring (2002), far exceeding the
success of former “blockbusters”, even Harry Potter and the latest
Star Wars movie! While Spiderman was making it big at the movies,
TV-Land began running the Batman television series of the 1960s.
Fantasy and superheroes
are very popular right now, which is evident not only in the huge
response to the movies, but is evidenced also in clothing, cereals,
toys, stickers, cartoons, television commercials, books, web sites,
etc. Superheroes are everywhere today.
Life in the new
millennium finds us immersed in a media culture
We have learned
through our own experiences, and it has been documented by recent
research, that students today are not engaged in learning the
curriculum as it is being presented.
[ii] As John Dewey
told us 100 years ago – we must connect the curriculum to the lived
experiences and interests of our students! This would demand, then,
that we pay attention to and make use of the media culture to
implement our curriculum.
We now know of many
“best practices” in curriculum and instruction which serve to
motivate students, engaging them fully in the curriculum. These
practices include Project-Based Learning, addressing Multiple
[iii], Service Learning
Learning, Critical Pedagogy, many alternative modes to delivery and
authentic assessment, and Thematic Curriculum which is addressed in
this paper. The thematic curriculum which I design includes the
attributes of all the best practices listed here.
One way of making the
curriculum more meaningful is to present it thematically. An
interdisciplinary curriculum based upon a meaningful theme –
sometimes serious, sometimes fun and fantasy, and frequently both –
is an excellent way to motivate your students. I believe that the
theme of Superheroes could be used to create an exciting unit which
would be highly motivational for students and fun for teachers. As
William Glasser once said, “Learning is serious, but it doesn’t have
to be grim.”
There are of course
many concerns today regarding accountability. The new Leave No
Child Behind Act, signed in January of 2002, has increased
bureaucratic pressures upon school districts, teachers and students
to perform better on standardized tests. Although these laws demand
our attention, doing so does not mean that we must abandon quality
curriculum and instruction. In fact, recent research confirms for
us that students actually learn more and perform better on
standardized tests when engaged in meaningful curriculum. Many of
the state and national curriculum standards could easily be included
in such a unit.
A unit of curriculum
based upon the theme of Superheroes can include all the disciplines,
and also provides a foundation for the investigation of values. If
the purpose of education is to enable our students to be productive
participants in our society, part of that responsibility entails the
ability to look at what is, what could be, and to devise and
implement plans for personal and social change. Our superheroes
provide an excellent backdrop for this type of exploration.
It goes without saying
that students will be developing multiple literacies, from reading,
writing and speaking to social, financial, scientific and
mathematical literacies, media literacies – and many more. The
Superhero theme provides opportunities for the development of
critical media literacies
critique and production of texts in multiple forms of media,
Investigation of the media in social and historical contexts
of the media culture and consumerism,
literacy will develop as students unpack the economics of our
The following pages are
a brief sample of what could be done with the Superhero theme. I am
currently developing a unit which could be adapted according to the
grade level of the class using it, and it will be added to my web
site soon. The following pages are online, and the blue text
indicates hyperlinks which take you to additional information or
which simply offer some interesting and amusing sights and sounds.
Please visit this page online and enjoy!
For a sample of what
could be done with this theme, please see
Robin to the Rescue - or, Media Culture, Superheroes and Educational
Reform. Be sure to click on all the links and have fun!
Links to Resources for a Superheroes Unit.
See the works of
Douglas Kellner, in Social Sciences and Comparative
Education at UCLA.
I highly recommend his chapter entitled "Multiple Literacies
and Critical Pedagogies - New Paradigms" in Revolutionary
Pedagogies - Cultural Politics, Instituting Education, and
the Discourse of Theory edited by Peter Pericles Trifonas,
published by Routledge in 2000.
Learning in Deed - Making a Difference Through
Service-Learning. A Report published by the National
Commission for Service-Learning, chaired by Senator John
Glenn. Visit their web site to request free printed copies
of their full report and a wonderful video on
service-learning, which is not the same thing as :"community
service". John Glenn says he prefers to call it
"Academics in Action".
works of Howard Gardner.
recommend Senator John Glenn’s work as chairman of the
National Committee for Service Learning and their recently
published report entitled “Learning in Deed - Making a
Difference Through Service Learning”. This report was the
result of a nationwide one-year study of American schools;
the committee concluded that students are NOT engaged in the
curriculum and that it MUST be connected to student’s
lives! You may order a free copy of the report and an
excellent video from them.
Constructivism is often related
to the philosophies of Dewey and Rousseau, and inspired by
Piaget and Vygotsky.
William (1998). The Quality School: Managing Students
Without Coercion, Harper Collins Publishers.
Written by Anne Shaw, 2001
Batman photo from
Spiderman photo from