Good Samaritans are rock stars in this classroom

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    'CNN Heroes' goes to school

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Story highlights

  • Social studies teacher Brian O'Connor uses CNN Heroes as a learning tool
  • His fifth-graders study good deeds and seek to emulate them

Chappaqua, New York (CNN)The biggest CNN Heroes fan in the world might be a 5th grade social studies teacher in the suburbs of New York City.

For the last eight years, Brian O'Connor has used the campaign to educate and motivate his students at Seven Bridges Middle School -- more than 700 students so far.
"You can't help but be moved by the amazing stuff that they're doing and the goodness just radiating off of these people," he said.
O'Connor's passion for CNN Heroes began in 2009, when he watched the annual broadcast of "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute." He was so touched by the stories of the 10 men and women who were honored that he knew he had to share it.
"My driving thought was ... 'I need to show this to the kids in school. These 10- and 11-year-olds need to hear about these people.'"
The next week, all of O'Connor's classes watched the show. His students loved it, and he loved the discussion sparked by each Hero's work and the issues they were tackling.
One student suggested they write to them, and O'Connor ended up mailing hundreds of letters to CNN Heroes in locations across the globe. Clean water activist Doc Hendley was the first to respond, telling the students that he needed people like them to join his mission.
"My students were so pumped about it. And I began to realize, 'OK, this is definitely special. We need to work this in every year.'"
Today, CNN Heroes is an important part of O'Connor's curriculum. Every year, he and his students watch the show and write letters to the Heroes, but now he also organizes Skype calls with Heroes throughout the year. These Q&A sessions are big events. The students make signs and cheer when the Hero appears on the screen.
CNN Heroes: Students meet a CNN Hero via Skype
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"You would have thought we were Skyping with Katy Perry. ... They're a celebrity to my kids, as they should be," O'Connor said. "But when they see the person on the screen, they realize they are just a normal person. The message is that everyone can make a difference in their own way."
O'Connor's classroom has a 'CNN Heroes Hub,' with pictures of Heroes, photos from Skype calls and Heroes' letters to the students lining the walls. Several CNN Heroes have visited the school, most recently 2014 Top 10 CNN Hero Ned Norton, whose nonprofit, Warriors on Wheels, provides free strength training to people with disabilities.
Many students have said that the CNN Heroes inspired them to give back by volunteering or raising money for a cause. In fact, the school recently held a sale of baked goods and crafts in which students raised money for charity. Two of O'Connor's students chose to give their proceeds, $250, to Norton's nonprofit.
CNN Heroes: The most important lesson of all
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For O'Connor, that's the kind of lasting impact he wants to have.
"I hear them literally in class and in the hallway, reminding each other of a message that they heard on a Skype call or something that they heard in one of (the) CNN Hero video segments," he said. "It's made our classroom a better place, our school a better place, and I can only hope that it's going to make everywhere that they go a better place."