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The Tournament of Courageous Americans

At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, Josh Hoekstra had his sophomore American History students at Rosemount High School define "courage". "The students came up with their own personal definition of courage and wrote that definition on the inside of their notebook (where they would see it each and every day)," writes Hoekstra on his web site. When the NCAA basketball tournament started this past Spring, Hoekstra brought a tried and true technology into his classroom: good old-fashioned competition.

In the wee hours of a spring morning in 2009, Marcus Luttrell heard a gunshot. He grabbed a pistol and left his rural East Texas home to investigate. Luttrell discovered his dog, DASY, dead in a ditch and four teenagers standing by a car on the road laughing about it. A chase ensued, and four counties over, law enforcement apprehended DASY's killers.

Marcus LuttrellThis was likely not the first time Luttrell awoke to gunfire in the middle of the night. In 2005, the Navy veteran was part of a four man SEAL team sent on a recon mission to scout one of Osama Bin Laden's known associates, Ahmad Shah, in the hills of Afghanistan. The mission was compromised when the SEAL team was surrounded on three sides by an armed militia force of over 50. Prior to being confronted by the enemy, the SEAL team had encountered a group of goat herders. Unable to verify any hostile intent, Luttrell convinced his teammates to let the goat herders go rather than kill them. They apparently repaid the American mercy by tipping off the militia. 

After a fierce two hour firefight, over 35 insurgents and all three of Luttrell's teammates were dead. An MH-47 helicopter carrying 16 U.S. soldiers was also shot down during a rescue attempt. Badly injured, Luttrell managed to travel seven miles to a local village where he was cared for until his rescue four days later.

Fast forward seven years to Josh Hoekstra's classroom, where the man who's been teaching history for 13 years took 64 famous Americans and randomly pitted them against each other in tournament brackets. And when I say random: think Merriwether Lewis versus Marcus Luttrell (Luttrell won). Every day students came to class prepared to argue the case for their assigned courageous American. Each of Hoekstra's five classes got a chance to vote based on the arguments presented and, at the end of the day, he (or she) with the most votes advanced to the next bracket.

I'll admit, reading through the list of "contestants" there are a lot of names I don't know. I'm having a blast looking some of them up and imagining the compelling argument that must have taken place to sway the votes of the students (none of the heroes of the Alamo made it past round two). As the school year came to a close, so did the tournament. This time the last man standing wasn't Luttrell.

Lt. Michael P. MurphyMarcus Luttrell's dog was given to him to aid in his recovery following his return to civilian life in the United States. Her name, DASY, is actually an acronym for the members of his SEAL team: Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, "Southern Boy" Luttrell, and Michael "Yankee" Murphy. During the firefight in Afghanistan, communications Petty Officer Danny Dietz was shot in the hand while trying to radio for help. Lt. Michael Murphy took over. Realizing the radio would not transmit from the hilly location where they were fighting, Murphy moved into the open. Without cover, he was shot in the abdomen, at one point dropping the satellite phone. He picked it back up, continued his call for help, and then resumed the fight with his fellow SEALs, dying a short time later.

In his many appearances on Bill Bennett's Morning in America radio show, Josh Hoekstra described how his students ramped up their engagement as the tournament progressed. Not only were they into the spirit of competition, but they began to delve into the spirit of research, in some cases making personal connections with the American for whom they were arguing. The winner of this year's "Most Courageous American" competition at Rosemount High School is Michael Murphy, but it wasn't because of his courage under fire. It wasn't even because he had the incredible presence of mind to say "thank you" after making his team's distress call. The winning salvo in this battle was actually fired over fifteen years earlier in the halls of a Long Island middle school.

One of Hoekstra's students uncovered the fact that, in the 8th grade, Murphy protected a special needs student who was being bullied. "Walking into a situation where you knew you would be shot and killed by the enemy to relay the position of his team is what earned [Murphy] the Congressional Medal of Honor," says Hoekstra. "Sticking up for an 8th grade special needs kid who was being bullied most likely sealed the deal for him in our Most Courageous American tournament--especially when that story was delivered by a special needs student."

2012 Most Courageous American Tournament BracketsHoekstra has released a how-to guide for teachers wishing to replicate the experience in their own classroom. In honor of this year's Most Courageous American, a portion of proceeds from sales of the book will benefit the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund. You can buy the book from his web site, http://teachwithtournaments.com/.


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