For D.C. Second-Graders, It's All About The Bikes

Oct 3, 2015
Originally published on October 6, 2015 12:08 pm

"What's the first thing we do when we get to our bike?" David Gesualdi asks his second-graders. "Check the air!" they yell back at him.

His 19 students are sitting in a semicircle in the gym at Walker-Jones Education Campus, not far from the U.S. Capitol.

Decked out in blue helmets, hair nets (for lice protection) and bright orange mesh vests, their eyes shift impatiently between their phys-ed teacher and the racks of shiny new BMX bikes behind him.

First, though, he walks them through the A-B-C's: "Air. Brake. Chain."

This is all part of the D.C. public schools' mission this year to teach every second-grader how to ride. In partnership with the city's transportation department and private donors, the district bought nearly 1,000 new bikes. Those bikes will rotate throughout the year to every elementary school in the city.

As Gesualdi finishes his safety lesson, the kids rush to get on the bikes, jostling for one that fits. In seconds, they're off — zooming in circles around the indoor gym.

"Excuse me!" yells one girl as she whizzes past me.

There's a wide range of skills. Mehki House is fast, doing tricks and twisting sideways on the bike. Until ... he wipes out.

"I was driving too fast and I fell," he explains as he gets back up and takes off.

Others, though, are struggling. Like Walter Young. Walter has one foot on each side of his bike. He's waddling along, dragging the bike beneath him.

"This is a problem," he moans. "I bet everybody in the world knows how to drive a bike except for me."

This range in ability, it's a challenge for their teacher.

But Gesualdi says he's not about to slow the good riders down. "Even though it might not be new to them," he says, "having a chance to show off some of their skills is really exciting."

He mentions Mehki — the boy doing tricks: "It's something that I'm trying to channel and make him more of a model for the rest of his peers."

But this class is not just about how well you ride. It's about riding safely. To mimic a city street, Gesualdi has set up a course in the gym — with stop and yield signs and arrows to mark turns.

He gathers the bikers near one end of the gym and pulls out a few students to demonstrate the path. Gesualdi does the play-by-play as one boy navigates the course.

"Did he stop?" he asks.

Yes, the class answers. Gesualdi turns to the group: "What's really cool is he came off his bike to make sure he stopped."

Eventually all the 7- and 8-year-olds make their way through the course, Gesualdi nudging and cheering them on the whole time.

One student needs a reminder to follow the arrows on the ground; another wins praise for good safety skills: using hand signals as he turns.

And Gesualdi assures the new riders that he's there if they need him.

Even Walter is making a little progress — singing as he tries to balance on two wheels. "Oh no!" he says. "I almost had it."

Gesualdi is confident Walter will be riding before he leaves second grade and says he's teaching these kids something they'll hold on to long after they graduate.

"It's a skill that's not only a good fitness skill, but its something that's really helpful as they get older," says Gesualdi.

When the class ends, the helmets come off and the bikes go back on the racks. Students compare notes: One kid says he "got air." Another didn't fall off. They look pooped.

"So was that hard?" I ask them.

A boy grins up at me: "It wasn't hard work. It was fun."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Washington, D.C.'s public schools have added riding to reading, writing and arithmetic - bike riding. The district wants to teach every second grader how to ride. It's part of an effort to make phys ed classes more about being healthy - like B.J. Leiderman who writes our theme music - and less about competitive sports. NPR's Elissa Nadworny dropped by a class.

DAVID GESUALDI: The first thing we do when we get to our bike, what are we looking at?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Check for air.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: This is David Gesualdi's gym class at Walker Jones Elementary.

GESUALDI: Everybody say A-B-C.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: A-B-C.

GESUALDI: Air, brake, chain.

GESUALDI: Air, brake, chain.

NADWORNY: With grant money and some funds, D.C. bought nearly a thousand new bikes. And today, it's time for Mr. G's 19 second graders to ride the.

GESUALDI: If you got it, let me hear you say, oh, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Oh, yeah.

NADWORNY: The kids rush to get on the bikes. Like Goldilocks, they jostle to get the right size.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Somebody - this one's too big for me.

NADWORNY: In seconds, they're off, riding circles around the school's indoor gym.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Excuse me.

NADWORNY: The range of skill is huge. Mehki House, he's fast. He's even doing some tricks, twisting sideways on the bike, until he wipes out.

MEHKI HOUSE: I was riding too fast and I fell (laughter).

NADWORNY: And then there's a few that are having a harder time.

WALTER YOUNG: My name is Walter. Do you want to know my last name?

NADWORNY: Sure.

WALTER: Walter Young.

NADWORNY: Can you describe what you're doing right now? What's this method you're using?

WALTER: I am walking on my feet because I don't know how to drive a bike. I'm just going to do this all the way.

NADWORNY: This range in ability, it's a challenge for Mr. G. But he's not about to slow the good riders down.

GESUALDI: Even though it might not be new to them, having a change to maybe show off some of their skills is really exciting as well.

NADWORNY: He mentions Mehki, the one doing tricks.

GESUALDI: It's something I'm trying to channel and make him more of a model for the rest of the peers.

NADWORNY: But this class is not just about how well you ride. It's about riding safely. To mimic a city street, Mr. G set up a little course in the gym with stop and yield signs and arrows to mark turns.

GESUALDI: Did he stop?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.

GESUALDI: And what was really great about what he did, he came off his bike to make sure he stopped.

NADWORNY: The 7 and 8-year-olds make their way through the course, aided by encouragement and reminders from Mr. G.

GESUALDI: Good hand movement, Juwaun. Got to keep going. I'm with you. Keep going.

NADWORNY: Even Walter Young is making a little progress, singing as he tries to balance on two wheels.

WALTER: Oh, no, almost had it.

NADWORNY: Mr. G is confident Walter will be riding before he leaves second grade. That's the hope for all D.C. second graders. It's something they'll hold on to long after they graduate.

GESUALDI: It's a skill that's not only a good fitness skill. It's something that's really helpful as they get older.

NADWORNY: The class ends, helmets come off, bikes get reracked and the bragging begins.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: And I never fell off the bike, never.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I did. I falled a lot.

NADWORNY: Is that hard work? Were you sweating?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: No.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Yes, I was sweating.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: It wasn't hard work. It was fun.

NADWORNY: Fun indeed and a pretty awesome way to spend a Wednesday afternoon in school. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.