People of Effort

“The role of education is to interest the child profoundly in an external activity to which he will give all his potential. We are concerned here with bringing him liberty and independence while interesting him in an activity through which he will subsequently discover reality.” -Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence

Too often we see children who have learned that they can succeed even by putting forth minimal effort. Unfortunately, some of this stems from the children not being challenged during school. During the elementary years, children are normally eager to learn. More often than not, this enthusiasm is squelched by irrelevant lessons or lack of interest.

Why might children not put forth effort?

Here are just a few reasons why this might be:

• We don’t encourage them to pursue something new on their own.

• We don’t allow children to make mistakes.

• We don’t challenge them beyond their natural capabilities.

• We believe that if a child is succeeding, he must be putting forth effort.

• We don’t spark their imaginations to nourish a love for learning.

What about very talented children?

Recently I was speaking with a friend who is the mother of an extremely bright elementary-aged child. Her daughter, who I will call Julia, is a natural athlete, a straight-A student, and talented in both music and art.

My friend’s concern was that Julia was accomplished in so many areas that she never had to put forth effort in her work. Julia skirted by with minimum effort, yet still received high rewards and accolades. My friend understood that developing good work habits begins at a young age. She was afraid that as Julia got older, and was confronted with a difficult task or situation, she wouldn’t know how to cope.

In my years of teaching elementary, I found that this was a real problem for many students for whom learning came easily, especially when the school did not spark their imaginations to nourish learning. I saw so many of these bright children fall apart when they were confronted with an assignment or concept that took some effort to complete or understand. Their reactions ranged from, “I can’t do this,” often accompanied with tears to “I don’t like this anyway,” resulting in the child giving up. Because the children were so used to activities being easy for them, they often did not know how to meet this new challenge. Sometimes, they thought that there was something wrong with them.

I shared with my friend an activity that I did with my students. I had created a unit called People of Effort. In addition to sharing information about people who overcame personal and/or physical obstacles in their lives, I told stories about people who did not have anything to overcome, but who achieved beyond their peers of equal talent. The reason I chose these people is because most of my students could relate to them more than individuals with a physical disability.

For example, we discussed sports figures. Why might one player who possesses the same talent as another become a superstar, while the other one, although still better than the average man, never go beyond his natural abilities? The answer was always the same. The stars put forth more effort.

 Korczak – Storyteller in Stone

The one person with great talent who sparked the children’s imagination, year after year in my class, was Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Korczak was already a world-famous sculptor when the Lakota Chief asked him to build a monument to Crazy Horse. Korczak had achieved fame through winning first place in the New York World’s Fair in 1939 for his sculpture of the great Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski. Later that same year he was invited by the famous sculptor Gutzon Borglum to work on Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore

Korczak accepted the challenge of building the Crazy Horse Memorial, with certain requirements. The most astonishing one being he would not accept money from the government. He saw what had happened to Mount Rushmore. It never was completed because the government ran out of money for the project. Korczak didn’t want to be controlled by an outside agency regarding the monument’s progress. But by the time the project got started in 1948, Korczak had only $174 in his account. In addition to working on the massive endeavor, he had to work outside jobs to support himself and then later his family of ten children.

Korczak envisioned this memorial as a colossal monument. When completed, it will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, and a total of six million tons of stone will have to be blasted from the mountain.

Crazy Horse Monument

My students loved the story about Korczak having to walk up and down a staircase made of 741 steps just to keep his old, beat-up generator running. The machine was so old that often by the time Korczak walked up the mountainside, the generator had stopped, so he would turn around, walk back down and turn it on again. One day he did this ten times! And not only that, before he could even use the generator, he had to build those 741 steps!

After his death in 1982 the colossal Crazy Horse Sculpture is being continued by his wife Ruth and members of his family. The cost of this project is being met by funds collected from tourists, private contributions, and Ziolkowski's personal funds.  Korczak’s dream is coming true.

For more information about the Crazy Horse Memorial go to:

 The research becomes personal

I could tell how much this unit meant to the students. I had set up a wiki site where they could post comments about their research on People of Effort. Every day, several students wrote something about their findings. One student even did research when she was home sick, and then posted her comments.

The most touching aspect of the unit is that each year, the majority of the children chose a family member, not a famous person, as their Person of Effort to share with the class. Their research had meaning to them and they were able to apply it in their own lives.

Please share

I would love to hear your suggestions of people who represent People of Effort, a person who went beyond their natural abilities because of the effort he or she put forth.

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