By Joanna Weidler-Lewis, BikeWalkKC Education Instructor
Words matter except for when they don’t
I have learned a lot about language in my brief time working as an instructor for BikeWalkKC. Sure, I have picked up some Spanish. (!Ojos Arriba! !Ojos Arriba! !Parar!) I have also used Google Translate to help find expressions in Burmese, Punjabi, and others. Most importantly, I have learned that what I say to students matters, but what they say in return does not.
Teaching and learning requires a relationship between student and teacher. Some sort of exchange happens. I think I am really good at meeting young people where they are at. I try to make them laugh if they are scared, I try to make them feel comforted if they’re sad. A select few want to understand the physics of how bikes work and I oblige. The biggest hurdle I encounter is when a student will not reveal anything about themselves and how they are thinking and feeling. This was the case with Jeung who was learning to ride a bike in Kansas City, KS.
Jeung was a student at Eugene Ware, one of two elementary schools in KCK that serve as intensive language centers addressing the language and cultural needs of students new to the country. Any combination of language can be present in any given PE class and generally there are no translators to assist. I had the privilege of working with Jeung for all four BLAST (Bicycle Lessons And Safety Training) sessions. During session one, I introduced myself; I asked him if he knew how to ride. He stared at me. Not a single word was uttered. No expression on his face. No smiles. No frowns. No reaction at all. I kept talking. No response. Given the school we were at, I asked him, “Do you speak English?” At this, I may have detected a slight glare. At the end of the session, his teacher informed me that he does in fact speak English, he just chooses not to speak to some people. I deserved any side-eye Jeung threw my way.
I was determined to be supportive of Jeung during session two and make up for my faux pas.
The first step to teaching others to ride is to encourage them to glide. Gliding is making the wheels revolve without putting your feet on the pedals or the ground. If you can glide, you have the balance needed to pedal.
Despite showing students how to do this, many of them need one-on-one demonstrations. Jeung wasn’t quite getting the glide, so I attempted to proceed in my usual manner. Most of the time I have students sit on their bikes while I hold the bike up using my legs to hold the front wheel in place. I have them put their hands up in the air (like they just don’t care) and let them see they know how to balance. This generally evokes either laughter or fear, and in either case I know how to react. I tried this with Jeung. He stared at me. After this step, I show students the force bikes need to get the wheels revolving fast enough to stay upright. I take the handle bars and jerk the bike a little forward. I did this with Jeung. Again, he said nothing. His face remained the same, except a single tear fell down his cheek. I realized he hadn’t been ready for this movement and the pedal had crashed into his leg.
Strike number two. I apologized to Jeung and said I would leave him alone. He continued to practice on his own and he mastered the glide!
On the third visit, Jeung was gliding with ease and ready for the next step: power pedal. Power pedal is starting your pedal stroke from a strong position so you have plenty of momentum to get a foot on each pedal.
I vowed to not have a third strike. I praised his glide. No reaction. I told him to watch me as I showed him the power pedal again. Again, his face made no change, but he went off and practiced the move and I could see he was getting it. I could see he had all the tools to ride. On the last session, I instructed Jeung, “Start in your power pedal, look up, push the pedal down, roll, take a breath and start pedaling!” And he did. And he did again. And again and again. He was riding a bike! I shouted over and over, "I’m so proud of you!"