Building Teenage Heroes into the History Curriculum


A common complaint about History is that it is dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged men. Or, as Jane Austen put it, “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome”. Much has improved since then in our classrooms, of course. The role and experience of women and racial minorities in particular is being given much more attention. However, whilst sexism and racism are regularly tackled, the issue of “ageism” is largely overlooked: children and teenagers are often relegated to horror stories about child labour in the Industrial Revolution. How can we remedy this to ensure that our students are presented with inspiring and significant role-models in the History classroom?





Teenage Heroes

As a start-of-year project, I like to get students to research “Who is your History Hero?” in which they are guided towards identifying a character for research who demonstrates the qualities they admire most (e.g. creative, generous, determined…) in the favourite field of non-curricular activity (e.g. sport, art, music…). An alternative approach is to allocate each student a historical character from a predetermined list based around teenage heroes like this:

Name Achievement Age
Alexander the Great Founded His First Colony 16
Margaret Knight Invented factory safety device; became first woman to hold a US patent 12
Joan of Arc Declared a saint 19
Mary Queen of Scots Ruled Two Nations 18
Louis Braille Invented the Braille System 15
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein 18
Annie Oakley Champion Sharpshooter 15
Captain Albert Ball Became a fighter pilot 19
Bobby Fischer Chess Grand Master 15
Georges Bizet wrote his Symphony in C 17
Mozart Wrote the opera, “Mitridate Rè di Ponto” 14
Babe Ruth Began playing for the Boston Red Sox 19
Faye Hendricks Went to jail after marching for civil rights 9
Franz Schubert Wrote his First Symphony 16
Garry Kasparov Won the U.S.S.R. chess championship 18
John D. Rockefeller Started his first company 19
Anne Frank Began writing her famous diary 13
Claudette Colvin Refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger 15
Elvis Presley Recorded his first records 19
Marquis de Lafayette Turned the tide of the Revolutionary War 19
Nadia Comeneci Achieved the first perfect ‘10’ in the Olympics 14
Michelangelo Sculpted the “Madonna of the Steps” 17
JMW Turner Gained admission to the Royal Academy of Arts 14
Srinivasa Ramanujan Generated his own theorems in number theory 13
Steve Jobs Begins collaborating in electronics with Steve Wozniak in electronics 19

This research can then be presented as a Knowledge Cube, and / or followed up with a Balloon Debate. Students could also produce a poster of their “Teenage Hero” consisting of an arresting image, a key quote, and a short biography focusing on his or her achievements.

You could also consider naming your classrooms for the term after the characters which the class agrees are the most significant and heroic overall after a discussion based around the qualities they displayed and what lessons they give us about how young people can change the world.