It feels good to work hard. Working hard engenders engagement, motivation, and a feeling of well-being.
One summer during college I worked at the Environmental Learning Center (Wolf Ridge ELC) teaching a three-day class on orienteering to high school students from Duluth. Students did three three-day rotation of classes. We began with the basics of learning to read a compass, determined distance through pacing, followed an orienteering course, pulled a bearing off a map, etc. The final culminating event was to identify a point of interest on a map, read the bearing, and follow the compass until we (hopefully) found it. It involved setting the compass at the desired bearing, looking up and down to find a distant landmark and hiking to it. Once there, we returned to the compass, identified another landmark, and set off once again. This act was repeated over and over until we arrived at our destination (if our bearing and compass work was correct). Most of our trip was through the woods. Some of our landmarks were several hundred feet away and some very short. We had to take what the lay of the land presented. We took turns reading the compass, mutually agreeing on a landmark, and leading the way.
The goal for our first trip was a small pond several miles away. The first part of our journey went smoothly. It was a beautiful summer day. The surroundings were striking. All was well until – we ran straight into a swampy lowland. There was no way around it. We hesitated – debating what to do. If we were to make our goal, it became apparent the only way to make it would be slog our way straight through. And so we picked a distant landmark and off we went. It was tough going. The mosquitoes were thick, the swamp smelled, we were poked by sticks, many of us tripped in the muck – but – we finally made it. Continuing on, we successfully made it to our goal. The kids were elated. We chose a different way home. By the time we made it back to the center for dinner, we were tired, wet, smelly, and itchy. Oh, what stories they told, the attention we garnered! The kids loved it.
The second trip was similar with similar results. The third trip had a totally different outcome. No swamp, minimal bugs, dry – a pleasant hike. As we returned for dinner, there were no stories to tell. It was pleasant, but not memorable.
Sometime after that, I coined the phrase “gentle adversity”. We do well when we are up against a challenge. We do our best when we have to extend effort to accomplish a goal. We delight in the accomplishment of triumphing over adversity we are prepared to handle. This concept of gentle adversity plays itself out in the classroom. When we present students with tasks that are easily obtained, they quickly become bored and restless. When we present them with tasks that offer a surmountable challenge that is sufficiently complex – based on interests – with the necessary scaffolding – students become engaged learners. This is the kind of classroom I seek. Give me the tired, smelly, elated students excited about their genuine accomplishments.