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Motivate Your Students: Use Survivor Stories

If you’re looking for a truly inspiration way to motivate your students to achieve, try this lesson based on Carolyn Rubenstein’s book Perseverance: True Voices of Cancer Survivors.

Using the story of a 12-year-old cancer survivor, you can motivate your students, and you will challenge your students to think critically, to express themselves, to organize and plan for success, and most importantly, to achieve great things no matter what obstacles stand in their way.



Perseverance: True Voices of Cancer Survivors

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by Carolyn Rubenstein Page: 159


10 minutes


  • Perseverance
  • Battling Through Adversity
  • Goal-setting


Grades 5 and up


A 12-year-old is diagnosed with brain cancer and, after battling through a series of intense treatments, accomplishes his goal of climbing the tallest mountain in the continental United States six years later.


As educators, we try to instill determination, goal-setting and the ability to persevere through adversity in our students by the examples we set on a daily basis. This story will provide students with a very powerful example of a young person—just like them—who battled through the ultimate adversity to reach his goals.


Zac York was just a normal 12-year old boy who loved riding his skateboard and hanging out with friends. Then everything changed. Diagnosed at age 12 with brain cancer, Zac York had 17 surgeries and rounds of radiation to stop the spread of the disease and to kill all cancerous cells.

According to the Mayo Clinic, brain tumors are the second-most common type of type of cancer (after leukemia) in children and the second leading cause of death in childhood cancer cases.

York, however, persevered through his treatments and went on to climb to the top of the largest mountain in the continental United States. He is currently a creative writing major and a member of the class of 2010 at the University of Arizona.


  • What is the toughest challenge you have faced in your life? Explain.
  • Have you ever set a goal and not reached it? Describe what prevented you from reaching your goal.



  • Describe how Zac went about setting his goal. What does perseverance mean to you?
  • Have you ever climbed a large hill or mountain?
  • Did you have to persevere to make it to the top?
  • Why do you think it was important to Zac’s parents to let him reach his goal even though they knew it was dangerous?
  • After hearing this story, what goals do you have in your life that you want to achieve?
  • Did Zac reach his ultimate goal?


Using a sheet of paper, make a list of your goals. They can be long-term goals (what you want to grow up to be) or short-term goals (to practice soccer more). Try to think about why each goal means something to you and who may be able to help you reach them.


 I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

~ Henry David Thoreau

 Use Survivor’s Stories for a Lesson in Perseverance

During my junior year of high school, I began thinking about my senior project. I needed to propose what project I wanted to do in front of a school committee. I started thinking again about climbing Mt. Whitney. I knew it would be a challenge but I talked to my dad about it and we determined it would be very plausible for me to attempt to climb it. But I wanted it to be more than just a climb. I wanted to raise money, promote cancer awareness, and defeat the odds all at the same time. So we went ahead with it.

When I proposed “Zac’s Whitney Quest” to the school, they were absolutely nuts about it. They loved the idea. I never questioned what cause my quest would support. Because of his dedication to my treatment, Dr. Edward’s research center was going to receive the donations. He was psyched. He fully supported my climb and never doubted me.

I got sponsors by telling them my story and my plans. I got a trainer and a bunch of mountaineer advice from various friends and family. The trainer had his hands full teaching me climbing skills along with tackling my balance issues. As a result of the brain tumor, I had to learn to walk again. A lot of people looked at me and saw a guy with crutches. People doubted that I could climb Mt. Whitney. Some would say that certain people are not supposed to challenge their bodies. Like people with disabilities are supposed to fall into their place and be happy with it. But once I got the idea, I went for it. I told those people I’d climb Whitney even if I had to crawl!

I went through a whole regimen of training. Lots of core training. Running up and down stairs and grass hills with a backpack on. It was pretty intense. I would fall all the time and get hurt and need to tone it down a little. Using the concept of mind over body, I was able to persevere.

During the project, I had to make many hard decisions, including who would be on my team. Many, many people wanted to hike Whitney with me and I had to turn them down because our permit only allowed a certain number of people for my team. It was hard to choose and I wasn’t choosing people because I felt they were cool. I was looking for people who would be helpful and people who had previous knowledge of climbing. I got the head rangers to allow everyone who wanted to climb to hike up about four miles on the first day.

Before the climb, on June 30, 2006, I wrote a blog entry titled “Almost there....” I wrote:

Well, everyone, I am leaving to do some final training at altitude, and then for the climb! I am so ready, pumped and stoked. This has been the “prize” that I have been working toward this whole time! It is going to be so rewarding, and make everything I have endured worthwhile....”

On July 9, 2006, we began the journey. We climbed for five days and had a lot of fun. It was really hard, but I thought back to what I’d been through and it pushed me on. The pain of what I’d been through was still there. But I pulled on that when I needed the extra burst.

It was really barren and really empty once we passed the tree line, the altitude level where trees can no longer survive. There was nothing really up there. Not too many animals. Not too many people. At that time, I just felt happy to be alive. Even though my life was sort of in danger, just climbing like that, it wasn’t in nearly the same kind of danger as anything from before. I had my dad with me, who had been climbing a lot. I had very good friends. I had my two aunts who were both experienced mountaineers. We had some hilarious dinner conversations.

My mom wrote on my blog during the climb. On July 12, 2006, she wrote: “… Zac called Tuesday morning and said the rangers had come by to report the weather on the summit was very unstable—electrical storms and hail in addition to the extensive snow field they had to traverse. They decided to stay put for a day at the second campsite (Constellation Lake, I think) and make a decision this morning about how to proceed. According to Zac, it wasn’t looking very likely that they would make it to the summit.

Ahhhh....before he left, I told Zac that he’s already climbed ‘The Mountain’. He’s a fighter, a survivor. And an inspiration to many. “The mountain will always be there.” Brenda (Zac’s proud Mom)

We climbed to around 12,000 feet when we were stopped by intense ice storms. The very exposed ridges said, “Come back next year, kid.” Even though we didn’t reach the summit, I had the time of my life. I learned mountaineering skills like how to use an ice ax and other mountaineering tools, about the weather and many other things that will help me on future climbs. I completed my goal to raise $13,000 for pediatric brain tumor research. Overall, the project was a major success. I raised money and increased awareness of pediatric brain tumors.

We’re going to do it again next summer (Summer 2008) and we’re going to reach the top. I’m not going to do a super big fundraiser again but it’s going to benefit my friend Sean’s foundation. Sean is the first cancer survivor to climb each of the tallest peaks on six continents. He only has one more to go.

Zac York went on to climb to the top of Mount Whitney a few years later and is one of twenty cancer survivors whose stories are chronicled in Carolyn Rubenstein’s new book, Perseverance. PDF of Lesson

How do you teach students to set and achieve goals? Share in the comments section!

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