Small Stories With Superpowers

Inspired by a Teaching Tolerance story, this educator asked her third-grade students to create original superheroes modeled after themselves. 


“Gotta know how to save people.”

“And fight evil!”

“You need special superpowers.”

“A cape and tights!”

I stood before an easel and chart paper, rapidly recording the eager responses of my third-grade students as they generated a growing list of answers to the question, “What does a superhero need to be successful?” It was our weekly Say Something Do Something meeting, and there was energy in the air. Spring had finally arrived, and I was pleased to recognize that, for the most part, the third-graders in my class had become a strong community of learners. The idea of creating their own superheroes to protect our beloved school was captivating to the soon-to-be fourth-graders.

Each week, one period in every classroom of our school is dedicated to the implementation of a district-mandated anti-bullying curriculum. In these Say Something Do Something Meetings, students in grades K-8 engage in teacher-led discussions and activities designed to develop a common language and provide explicit instruction in an effort to address and prevent bullying behavior. While the curriculum is generally sound, accessible and age appropriate, the lessons have at times felt a bit hollow, without the presence of real-life stories, our own stories. So when I read “Behind the Shield,” a Teaching Tolerance interview with Vishavjit Singh, I was excited to have found a story and perspective that I felt certain would resonate with my students and provide a solid framework worthy of consideration.

Singh drew cartoons that told the stories and experiences of Sikhs in the United States. Who doesn’t love cartoons? Eventually, Singh even donned tights and branded a shield to become Sikh Captain America in an effort to tell his story to a wider audience. Students sighed audibly at the part of the story when Singh, overcome with misgivings at his skinny stature said, “Man, this is not going to work.” Then, they cheered loudly when his wife countered, “If you’re going to do Captain America, you go out as who you are.” The tentative leap from small, ordinary person to powerful superhero seemed perfectly plausible and outrageously heroic all at the same time. The kids were hooked!

And so, armed with a list of superhero traits and a second list of school values they had deemed important, students got right to work creating original superheroes. Some had no difficulty whatsoever adding costumes and powers to renditions of themselves, while others struggled to find the hero within. Some sketched and drew their super character first, while others chose to write detailed descriptions or punchy dialogue. The conversation around the room flowed freely. The superheroes-in-the-making were vulnerable, rather small and remarkably full of power. They had names and feisty personalities. “Bully Freeman” stopped bullies in their tracks, made them listen to sound advice and sent the bullies home happier than before. “Writer Woman” used her powerful pencil to promote the kind of understanding that evolves into friendship. “Invisible Wondergirl” whispered strong, positive thoughts to give other girls courage in the face of bullies.

Singh says,

I think for a lot of kids and even adults, they might not realize it, but just by seeing [an] image on a poster or on a computer screen, it goes in our subconscious and it’s like this new data point that creates a new universe where now we can envision a black Captain America or a turbaned, bearded Captain America. … It’s a fictional image, but when we see it [there’s] a real-life transformation.

At the end of every Say Something Do Something lesson, our class would compile a final list of new or changed thinking titled “Guess What I Think Now!” Below is the list we posted in the classroom following our superhero project:

  • Beneath every superhero is an ordinary person.
  • I have qualities in me that a superhero has.
  • Once I create an image or story [about a superhero], the story I tell can have special superpowers.
  • Telling our own stories and listening to other people’s stories connect us and help us understand more about each other.

Fueled by their own experiences and the stories of real people like Singh, my third-grade students had the opportunity to gain new insights by creating superheroes meant to protect our school values and keep our community safe. If our fictional superheroes have the courage to say something or do something, perhaps the small, ordinary people beneath the cape and behind the shield will as well.

Hsu is a recently retired third-grade teacher who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.