Motivating Students Through Role Models

You think school is hard? What if you were blind AND deaf? Hellen Kellen was the first blind/deaf person to earn a Bachelor degree – from Radcliffe no less!

I have read in numerous places about the importance of young people having role models – who look like them and who they related to – who help them see a path towards their goals. Throughout the year, I like to take the time to introduce my students to a person who achieved despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The moral of these character studies is always really clear: if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams regardless of potential challenges.

I like like to teach these mini-lessons by either having students read a synopsis of the person’s life, or reading aloud a children’s book about the person or even watching a quick video clip from a movie about the person. Then I show students a quote from the individual that underscores the importance of continuing to work hard regardless of the difficulties. At that point, ask students to connect with the individual on a personal level by journaling either about the quote or about current difficulties in their own lives. Finally, I create some kind of classroom display to help us remember the lesson we learned from the historical figure’s life. Below is a list of people I have covered in the past as well as resources I have used to teach their lives:

  • Hellen Keller: Students can not get over how she actually learned to speak, write (in multiple languages!) and graduated from college. “While they were saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done.”

  • Nelson Mandela: It is pretty amazing to spend 27 years in prison and then become the first black president of your country. “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

  • Cesar Chavez: Tireless organizing, multiple hunger fasts, long marches in his bare feet – Chavez’s efforts to bring fair treatment to migrant farm workers is inspirational. I love to read the children’s biography of his life “Harvesting Hope” by Kathleen Krull to my students. A portion of this quote is my classroom slogan every year: “There is no substitute for hard work, 23 or 24 hours a day. And there is no substitute for patience and acceptance.” I also love “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community . . . Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

  • Alice Paul: Organized protests and led marches for the right to be able to vote, she was arrested, went on hunger strike and then was force-fed through a tube for over a month! The movie Iron Jawed Angels with Hillary Swank is amazing and I always show the 10 minutes where they are all in prison being force feed and yet singing to keep their spirits up. Also AMAZING is this music video parody of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, check it out. “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

  • Muhammad Ali: The Champion of the World came from humble origins and overcame racism as well as religious prejudice to get and stay on top. What teenager doesn’t love boxing? The Will Smith film is great but I find kids love to look at pictures and read lots and lots of quotes (he was pithy to say the least!). My favorite is “I hated every minute of the training but I said: ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now, and live the rest of you life as a champion.”
  • Other role models can come from specific disciplines (like Madame Curie for science) or be political figures like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr.

The key with really leveraging role models in your classroom is not just to teach them once and then forget about them but to keep refering to the lesson you learned through that individual (ex. “You can write this research paper! Hellen Keller did this without being able to hear or see!” or “I know this is hard but think about what Muhammad Ali said . . .”) Doing these mini-lessons doesn’t need to take a long time but the impact can be huge in terms of student investment and motivation in your classroom.

What role models have y’all used in your classrooms?


One thought on “Motivating Students Through Role Models

  1. […] – if you stick with something difficult, you will understand it better in the end. I teach lessons on role models who showed resilience and I cover the classroom in quotes that underscore the importance of […]

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