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"I Had a Hero" Lesson

The Budala Women's group from fishpond to community investing.

Students examine what it takes to make a hero in a story about digging a hole for a fishpond.

Supporting resources

Feed the Future Water Project Ghana (Men digging boreholes)

I Had a Hero

A Story by a Peace Corps Volunteer

About the Story
"I Had a Hero" is a memoir about cross-cultural friendship and personal heroism. In it, Tidwell writes about his friendship with the African village chief Ilunga during his service from 1985 to 1987 in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in central Africa. Like other Peace Corps Volunteers who have been moved to write about their friendships with people from other cultures, Tidwell discovered that his friendship with Ilunga caused him to confront important life issues and examine his prior assumptions about individuals in developing countries.

Tidwell met Ilunga when he was assigned by the Peace Corps to work in the chiefdom of Kalambayi, in rural Zaire, to teach villagers how to build and stock ponds for raising fish. The goal of the fish-raising project was to increase the amount of protein in the villagers' diet, thereby reducing one of the causes of their malnutrition. When Tidwell taught the villagers how to move water from one place to another, build ponds, and stock them with fish, he worked with them to learn survival skills that they would be able to use for the rest of their lives.

We interviewed Tidwell, who provided us with insight into why he wrote "I Had a Hero":

I wrote this essay to honor Ilunga and the dozens of other village men and women I knew in Africa who every day work with tireless commitment to make the future of their children just a little bit better. To this day, all of those people are my heroes. I respect them as much as any people I've met before or since. I respect them twice as much now that I have my own child.? I sent Ilunga a copy of my book The Ponds of Kalambayi, from which "I Had a Hero" is adapted, but Ilunga speaks only Tshiluba, the local language, so he will never be able to read the original essay. Some day I hope to travel back to my Peace Corps site and sit down with Ilunga under a mango tree and translate the story for him, line by line. That would give me great pleasure."

About the Setting
To help your students understand the impact of the story, we've provided a bit more information on its setting, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC), formerly Zaire (and, before that, the Belgian Congo). Lying on the Equator, almost in the middle of the continent of Africa, the DROC has the third-largest population and the second-largest land area in sub-Saharan Africa. It includes the Congo River Basin, which encompasses an area of almost 400,000 square miles. In his introduction to The Ponds of Kalambayi, Tidwell describes the Congo River and the chiefdom of Kalambayi. We think his description is so evocative that we've included it as a separate worksheet to be photocopied for students. We encourage you to read it to students or have them read it themselves.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced ethnic strife and civil war since the late 1990s, with forces from neighboring countries integrally involved. The Peace Corps has had a strong partnership with the people of Africa since its inception. Volunteers currently work in more than 20 African countries in the areas of education, health, business, agriculture, and the environment. (Note: Mike Tidwell was known in French-speaking Zaire as "Michel," French for Michael.)

A Note to Teachers
In the lesson on Day One, which recommends that students read Tidwell's description, there are two concepts you can explore with students:

  • The meaning of the word "traditional" as Tidwell has used it. Explain to students that the word traditional in this context refers to a place where life is the way it has been for many years. It is a place far from the flow of modern technology where children grow up and do the same things their parents have done, where family ties are extremely important, and where habits and values rarely change. In the sense that Tidwell used the word traditional, it is the exact opposite of what we in the United States would construe as "modern."
  • The meaning of Tidwell's statement: "What I gave these people in the form of development advice, they returned tenfold in lessons on what it means to be human." As students are reading the story, ask them to look for the kinds of lessons the people of Kalambayi gave Tidwell on "what it means to be human."


Day One
To introduce students to the story "I Had a Hero."
To stimulate individual and group reflection about the story's meaning.

Day Two
To deepen students' understanding of the meaning of the story and help them respond to it in writing.
To teach students a reading comprehension strategy.
To have students relate an aspect of the story to their own lives.

Day Three
To help students probe the meaning of the story using a specific comprehension strategy.
To help students organize a written response to literature.

Day Four
To help students relate "I Had a Hero" to specific issues in their own lives.
To review the reading comprehension strategies used with this story.


  • Bonne chance: French for "Good luck"
  • Fingerlings: Young fish
  • Fish culture: Raising of fish
  • Incredulity: Disbelief
  • Indignantly: Angrily
  • Inured to: Accustomed to
  • Kalambayi: A chiefdom in rural Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo)
  • Machete: A large knife used for cutting brush
  • Paltry: Small, measly, insignificant
  • Projet Pisciculture Familiale: The French name of the fish-raising project in Zaire. Due to earlier colonization by France, many people in the country speak French.
  • Stocking fish: A few small fish used for building a fish population
  • Tilapia: A kind of fish in Africa
  • Bidons: Containers 


Day One

  1. Provide students with a brief overview of the Peace Corps and some of its work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), using the information provided above in the Background section. Tell students they will be reading "I Had a Hero," by Mike Tidwell, a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Zaire from 1985 to 1987.
  2. Show students a map of Africa and point out the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Explain that when a new government came into power in 1997, the country's name was changed from Zaire. Provide students with a copy of the Congo River Resource Sheet to give them a feel for the setting of the story, the rural chiefdom of Kalambayi.
  3. Explain that the two main characters in "I Had Hero" are the author, Mike Tidwell; and Ilunga, the chief of the village of Ntita Kalambayi. Then read aloud the following passage from the book:

    On the way to the center of the continent, one passes through ever-tightening circles of poverty until, inside the final, smallest ring, one finds Kalambayi: a 400-square-mile patch of simple mud huts and barefoot people?. There are few places in the world where the people are as poor and the life as traditional?. For two years, I lived among the Kalambayan people. I spoke their language and taught many of them how to raise fish. My goal was to increase family protein consumption. But what I gave these people in the form of development advice, they returned tenfold in lessons on what it means to be human. There, at the center of the continent, they shared with me the ancient spirit of Africa's heart.
  4. Suggest to students that, as they read "I Had a Hero," they look for examples of what Tidwell was referring to in #3 above. Refer students to the vocabulary list, and ask them to read "I Had a Hero."
  5. Journal Entry. When students reach the end of the story, ask them to respond in their reader response journals to the following prompts:
    • What do you think is really important about this story?
    • What feelings did you have as you read it? Why?

6. Ask students to share their journal responses with a partner and then conduct a class discussion focusing on students' various interpretations of the story. Stimulate student dialogue by asking questions such as:

7. Journal Entry. For homework, ask students to reread the story, underlining important parts, parts that made a strong impression on them, and parts that may have been confusing to them, in preparation for the next lesson. After they've reread the story, ask students to respond in their journals to these prompts:

8. Ask students to respond to these questions using examples from the text.

Day Two

Part One

  1. Have students share their underlinings from Day One with a partner. With another partner, have students share their journal responses. With a third partner, ask students to discuss the parts of the story that made a strong impression on them.
  2. Ask if there was anything confusing about this story that the students would like to clear up. Then facilitate a class dialogue, comparing responses with the homework assignment: "What parts of the story did you underline? Why? What did this story say to you about friendship? About heroism?" During the discussion, ask students to support their opinions with examples from the text.
  3. Differentiating Instruction: Reading Comprehension. This optional activity is for use with younger or less able readers. However, it can be useful to readers of any age. Explain to students that you are going to use the story of Tidwell and Ilunga to teach them a reading comprehension strategy they can use any time they want to remember what they have read. The strategy is to create detailed mental pictures of the information they are reading almost like creating "a movie in their mind." Tell students that, after you model this strategy, you would like to hear their opinions about it.
  4. It is a fairly well-accepted principle that if students have the ability to generate detailed mental images of information they are receiving, they can improve their comprehension of the information (Marzano et al.,1997; Marzano et al., 2001). Skilled readers may do this automatically. Less-skilled readers will benefit from being introduced to this strategy.
  5. Ask students to close their eyes as you go through the significant incidents of the story, using the following sensory prompts to help students create detailed mental pictures in their minds:
    • Hear the sound of the author's motorcycle at the beginning of the story. Picture him wearing orange gloves, large goggles, and a yellow crash helmet?and suddenly seeing Ilunga emerge from the tall grass holding a spear and a machete and wearing a coonskin cap.
    • Picture this first meeting of Tidwell and Ilunga. How do you think each of them feels?
    • Picture Ilunga digging the fishpond covered with dirt and sweat. Picture him putting the shovel into the earth time and time again, refusing to give up digging.
    • Picture the sweat running down Tidwell's face as he helps Ilunga shovel. Imagine the pain each of them feels from the exertion of digging.
    • Feel the exhaustion Tidwell and Ilunga experience as they dig for hours in the hot sun. Silently reflect: Has there ever been a time when you felt this kind of exhaustion?
    • Picture the completed hole for the fishpond. Imagine the fishpond filled with water and fish. What does it look like? Sound like?
    • Picture Ilunga and Tidwell during their victory celebration, as they are "hooting and hollering" and laughing in joy?and as they, slightly drunk, begin to name the fish and predict how large they will grow. Silently reflect: How did Tidwell's and Ilunga's impressions of each other change from the beginning of the story to the end? Why?

6. In their Reading Response Journals, ask students to write about the mental image that was most significant to them. Then ask them to respond to the question: How did the author's and Ilunga's impressions of each other change from the beginning of the story to the end? Why?

7. Have students share their journal responses with a partner, someone with whom they haven't shared their thoughts in a while. Then conduct a class discussion based on students' journal responses.

8. Ask students what they think of visualization as a reading comprehension strategy. Did it help them find more meaning in the story? Understand it better? Why? Why not? Do they think this strategy will help them better remember the story in the future? Why? Why not? Would they modify this strategy in any way?

9. Mention to students that they can use this strategy on their own to help them remember anything they might have to read in any subject. Ask students if they have ever used visualization as a reading comprehension strategy. In what subjects might they try it? Relate a personal example, such as: When I'm reading a history book and know that I'll need to remember important information, I sometimes try to create a movie in my mind of what I'm reading. Sometimes, I will even do this when I'm reading a science book. After a while, it seems to become automatic with me.

Part Two

  1. Draw students' attention to one of the enduring understandings we've identified for this story. Suggest to students that the potential for heroism lies within each of us. Ask whether they agree. Why or why not? Do they think anyone can be a hero?
  2. Then ask
    • What exactly does it take to be a hero?
    • What are the qualities you associate with heroes?

3. As you are discussing these questions, write the qualities and characteristics students associate with heroes on an overhead transparency or chart paper.

4. Ask students to look back at the text and identify the qualities and characteristics that caused Tidwell to view Ilunga as a hero. Ask students to provide specific examples of heroic characteristics from the text.

5. Written Response to Literature. Ask students to write a vignette about someone who has inspired them by his or her heroism. Suggest to students that while their examples of heroes can be historical or public figures, they can also think of a heroic person "closer to home." In particular, suggest that they think about a friend, family member, or other person in their lives whom they consider heroic. As they write their vignette about this person, ask students to pay particular attention to describing the personal qualities and characteristics that made the person heroic to them. Then, ask them to describe how this person inspired them or influenced their lives.

Day Three

  1. In groups of three, have students share and discuss the vignettes they have written. Explain that you would like each of the students to take five minutes to summarize their vignettes to the members of their small group and then to invite reactions from group members.
  2. Following the group discussions, ask students:
    • How were the heroic individuals each of you wrote about similar? How were they different?
    • What qualities and characteristics did the heroic individuals you wrote about possess?
    • How were these similar to or different from Ilunga's personal qualities and characteristics?

3. As students relate the heroic qualities and characteristics they've come up with, add them to the list you began on Day Two on the chalkboard, an overhead transparency, or chart paper.

4. Differentiating Instruction: Reading Comprehension. This optional activity is for use with younger or less able readers. However, it can be useful to readers of any age. Recent research has found that graphic and symbolic representations of similarities and differences enhance student understanding of content (Marzano et al., 2001; Hyerle, 1996).

Explain to students that you are going use the heroic characteristics they have generated to teach them another reading strategy they can use to increase their comprehension and level of thinking about a text. The strategy is to use a specific graphic organizer called a "Comparison Matrix" (see Worksheet #2).

5. Show students a copy of the Comparison Matrix on an overhead projector. Explain that in this matrix, you'll be modeling for them how to compare the author and Ilunga with respect to the heroic characteristics they have generated.

6. Provide students a copy of the Comparison Matrix on Worksheet #2.

7. Walk students through the use of this strategy by saying something like: "Suppose you were to choose 'desire to help others' as a heroic characteristic. You'd begin by writing it in the first box in the first column." Now ask students to work in pairs to add their own characteristics to the matrix the characteristics that have the most meaning for them. After they have identified and written a different characteristic in each cell of the first column of the matrix, ask students, still working in pairs, to work row by row and write in the columns labeled "Tidwell" and "Ilunga" brief examples from the text of how each man did or did not exhibit each of the heroic characteristics.

8. Review with students the examples they identified. Ask what conclusions they can draw from this information.

9. Written Response to Literature. For homework, ask students to write a brief character sketch of Ilunga. Ask them to use the information they generated in their comparison matrices as an organizing structure for their writing. Ask students to select the lines or sentences from the text that they feel best illustrate Ilunga's strength of character, and to include these textual examples in their character sketch. Give older, more experienced students the option of comparing Ilunga with the heroic individual they described in their vignette from the night before?or with a fictional hero or heroine. In this option, ask students to comment on what they think it means to have "strength of character." Let students know that, in this assignment, you will be reading and responding to their writing.

Day Four

  1. Suggest to students that, just as in the case of Tidwell and Ilunga, friendships sometimes develop unexpectedly in unlikely ways and places. Friendships like these can sometimes influence the way we view the world, ourselves, and others. Ask students:
    • In what ways do you think Tidwell and Ilunga may have changed as a result of their friendship?
    • In what ways did Tidwell and Ilunga's friendship change the way they may have viewed the world, themselves, or others?
    • In what ways were Tidwell and Ilunga open to having an unexpected friendship develop?

2. Ask students to think of a time when they developed an unexpected or unlikely friendship with someone very different from themselves. Ask them to do a five-minute "quick write" in their journals about this friendship and its impact on them.

3. Pursue the theme of "unlikely friendships" by asking students such questions as: How can we become more open to unexpected and unlikely friendships? Why would we want to bother? What if Tidwell had met Ilunga but had chosen not to befriend him because Ilunga was so "different"? Why do we sometimes tend to avoid others who seem "different"? What if everyone in this school/this community/this country avoided getting to know people whom they perceived to be different?

4. Journal Entry. Ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompts:

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring understandings

  • Friendships sometimes develop unexpectedly, in unlikely ways and places.
  • Unlikely friendships can leave a lasting mark on us and influence our view of the world, ourselves, and others.
  • The potential for heroism lies within each of us.

Essential Questions

  • What does it take to be a hero?
  • How can heroic individuals influence our lives?
  • How can we become open to unexpected friendships? Why bother?
  • What can this story teach us about the world, ourselves, and others?


National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association
Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.
Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

National Council for the Social Studies
Theme 1: Culture. Social studies programs should provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity so that the learner can explain how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.


"I Had a Hero" is rich with instructional possibilities. If time permits, have students complete one of these optional assignments:

  1. Working in teams of four, write a script for a dramatization of "I Had a Hero." Then conduct your dramatization for the class.
  2. Imagine that you are a Peace Corps Volunteer writing about Ilunga in a journal you keep to record your Peace Corps experiences. Describe how your friendship with Ilunga has changed the way you view the world, yourself, and others. As you assume the role of Mike Tidwell, describe the reasons why you (Tidwell) consider Ilunga to be a hero.
  3. Assume the role of Ilunga and write a description of your impressions of the Peace Corps Volunteer Mike Tidwell—from the time you first saw him (arriving on a motorcycle in orange gloves; large, bulging goggles; and a bright yellow crash helmet) until your victory celebration with him at the end of the story. Describe how your friendship with Tidwell has changed the way you view the world, yourself, and others.