They Need a Hero!

Using hero stories to build academic skills and character in adolescents.

At the heart of every great story is a hero who triumphs over adversity.

Hero stories, including Greek myths and legends, empower students with the knowledge that others have faced and overcome similar challenges. They provide opportunities for students to identify with a hero and his or her story. Greek myths and legends are especially powerful to incorporate in middle grades classrooms where students are struggling to discover or create a sense of self, a place and meaning in their world.

AMLE talks with authors Baneck and Anthony about Heroes in the Middle Grades

Consider Theseus, the mythic king of Athens, for example. A mere mortal, he faced a variety of challenges young adolescents might identify with, including a father who did not care about him, high expectations for his success on the battlefield, relationship problems, and the consequences of some very poor decisions. This particular story demonstrates how perseverance leads to success in the end.

Heroes in the Classroom

Hero stories typically focus on the hero’s quest. Joseph W. Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, presents a common hero quest cycle. Heroes:

  • Are faced with a challenge.
  • Choose to accept that challenge.
  • Take on a quest.
  • Meet helpers along the way.
  • Resolve the conflict.
  • Bring about good for others.
  • Face more challenges.

With that in mind, we developed a three-lesson unit that weaves heroes from mythology with modern-day heroes and then connects them to students’ personal lives.

Students in David Nicholson’s fifth grade gifted class at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School in Starkville, Mississippi, discuss the attributes of a hero.

Lesson One: Hero stories introduce students to mythological heroes such as Hercules, Theseus, and Penelope. Students read a Greek myth and then identify the attributes of a hero. Heroes in the myths should appeal to both boys and girls, the accounts of the heroes should be age-appropriate, and students should have access to multiple accounts of each myth.

Before reading the myths, the students list the attributes of heroes in general. In our experience, the students list all positive attributes and identify as heroes those who do acts of service for others.

After reading the accounts, the students realize Greek heroes, and maybe all heroes, have both good and bad qualities.

Next, students identify and illustrate a quest cycle of one of the heroes, then write their own definition of a hero.

Students study historical figures and decide if they qualify as heroes.

Lesson Two: Students study historical figures to determine, based on their own definition, whether those historical figures qualify as heroes. They once again see both positive and negative attributes. To foster discussions about what it means to be a hero, when we implemented the lesson, we incorporated historical figures whose hero status is debatable, such as Robert E. Lee or Christopher Columbus. Students had the opportunity to discuss whether the good brought to society outweighed the bad.

To expand students’ understanding of heroes, we also included Maya Angelou in our unit. Although heroes are typically associated with acts of physical strength, Maya Angelou possesses mental and emotional strengths that make her heroic. She overcame both personal and societal challenges to positively affect the world. This different perspective of a hero was important to include in order to provide heroes who were relevant to every student in the classroom.

As students analyze each historical figure’s quest cycle, they realize that there are always helpers participating in a hero’s quest and that the completion of one quest often leads to another.

This knowledge empowers students to see life’s challenges in different ways. Realizing that challenges are a normal part of life and that overcoming challenges reaps benefits for both the individual and society teaches students the importance of perseverance.

Hero/Heroine Chart
Attributes Mythology—Theseus Modern—Maya Angelou Me—How can I be a hero?
  • Brave
  • Strong
  • Helps others


  • Firemen
  • Police
  • Soldiers
  • Brave
  • Overcame
  • Intelligent
  • Strong
  • Wise
  • Took risks
  • Helped others
  • Courageous
  • Caring
  • Forgetful
    (forgot to raise the white sails and his father died)
  • Uncaring
    (left Ariadne after she helped him)
  • Overcame
  • Helped others
    with her writing
  • Brave
  • Strong – emotionally and mentally
  • Talented
  • Fought for what
    she believed was right
  • Stand up to
  • Do my best
  • Listen in class
  • Help the

Lesson Three: The final lesson connects the concept of heroes to students’ personal lives. Students discuss heroism as it relates to their own lives and what it means to be brave in the middle school.

They explain how they could be a hero in their school or community. In written narratives, they focus on a challenge they might overcome, the benefits for others, and their personal attributes of a hero or heroine.

The focus turns to the students’ future. They identify a future goal and create a quest cycle to help them understand the struggles, helpers, and benefits that may arise in their future. One of our students whose goal was to become a professional athlete, identified social media as one of the struggles he would face on his quest. He explained that many athletes post things that get them into trouble, and he wanted to avoid that. He saw coaches as helpers and, with some guidance, expanded the list to include teachers. This caused a shift in students’ minds as teachers moved from being authority figures to being helpers who prepare them for life’s challenges.

Developing Life Skills

Hero stories challenge and empower adolescents’ transition from childhood to adulthood. Through hero stories, students learn about sacrificing to a greater cause, venturing into the unknown, and dealing with hardships. Using heroes as a part of character development is a logical step, as long as heroes are examined and their merits are discussed. Rather than students having a list of heroes’ names, they add in-depth analysis of personal characteristics for each one. This analysis can help students foster the positive skills necessary for character development and the perseverance to carry on through any challenge life throws at them.

This We Believe states that educators should value young adolescents; make curriculum challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant; and ensure every student’s academic and personal development is guided. We believe teaching with heroes from Greek mythology accomplishes all of these things.

Recommended Resources

The Children’s Homer by Padraic Colum (grade levels 5–9)

A Wonder Book: Heroes and Monsters of Greek Mythology by Nathaniel Hawthorne (grade levels 3–8)

Classic Myths to Read Aloud (ages 5+)

A Child’s Introduction to Greek Mythology by Heather Alexander (grades 4–7)

Basher History: Mythology: Oh My! Gods and Goddesses by Simon Basher and Mary Budzik (ages 10–14)

Everything Mythology by Blake Hoena (990 Lexile)

Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaires (1070 Lexile)

Eyewitness: Mythology by Neil Philip (IG1130 Lexile)

Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton (1040 Lexile)

The Golden Fleece: And the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum (1070 Lexile)

Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli and Christina Balit (860 Lexile)

Heroes and Monsters of Greek Myth by Bernard Evslin and Dorothy Evslin (870 Lexile)

Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch (1190 Lexile)