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Bike Riding 101: A Fable about Teaching Writing

One summer morning when school was a distant thought, a group of teachers gathered to discuss a problem they were all facing: Their students still could not ride bikes well.

“I don’t know why they keep falling off,” said one teacher. “I made them learn all the terms assigned to our grade. They know brake and chain and shifter.”

“Vocabulary isn’t the only answer,” said another teacher. “Sometimes I show videos of people riding bikes. I think that’s been helpful. Still, I think there’s room for improvement.”

“My middle school students aren’t ready to ride bikes yet,” said one teacher. “We talk about what bikes they want to ride, and we research different kinds of bikes, just like the curriculum says.”

“In freshman year, the students are still getting used to high school,” said the only male teacher. “I try to ease them in by having them draw pictures of bikes. Later on, we do the big project. Students have to take a bike apart and put it back together. That’s always a big hit.”

“When they are sophomores, they obviously need to get a lot of feedback on their bike riding abilities. I hate all the grading, but that’s the only way they’ll learn to ride a bike.”

“So how does grading work for you?” asked the new teacher.

“Well, I have students record themselves riding a bike, and then they email the video to me. I have to watch their techniques and tell them what they’re doing wrong. They make so many careless mistakes. It’s like they don’t even know the basics.”

“I have a silly question,” said the new teacher. “Can everyone here ride a bike?”

“Huh!” scoffed the oldest teacher. “I’ve been teaching students how to ride a bike for over twenty-five years. Of course I can ride a bike.”

“Then let’s see,” said the new teacher. “I rode my bike to this meeting. Let’s go out to the parking lot. You have lots of experience, so we’ll watch you ride. Maybe we’re missing something.”

The experienced teacher looked surprised, but she didn’t say anything. The rest of the teachers agreed that a riding experiment might be helpful in finding new ways to teach bike riding.

Near the entrance to the school, a shiny red bike was chained to the bike rack. The new teacher removed the chain and handed her helmet to the experienced teacher.

“Oh, helmets are very important in bike riding,” said one of the middle school teachers. “We spend a six-week unit on helmets. I even have my students design their own helmets as a culminating activity.”

The experienced teacher examined the helmet, but didn’t put it on.         “I’m not really dressed appropriately for bike riding,” she said. “I really ought to be wearing a better pair of shorts, and my shoes are kind of old.”

“Nonsense!” the male teacher said. “If you won’t ride it, I will.”

Upon hearing that challenge, the experienced teacher swung her leg over the bike, sat down on the seat, and snapped on the helmet. She flipped the kickstand up with the heel of her shoe and pushed the pedals up and down. The other teachers clapped and cheered as she snaked across the parking lot, but she soon stopped in the shade of the big oak tree.

“What’s wrong?” one of the teachers shouted.

“Nothing,” the teacher called back, but she remained motionless.

“Let’s go see what’s going on,” the new teacher said.

Before the teachers arrived at the oak tree, they could hear the experienced teacher’s heavy breathing. Once closer, they could see beads of sweat dripping down her brow. Her face was red. It was obvious that she had not ridden a bike in a long time. No one wanted to embarrass her, so they thanked her for sharing her ability.

“It’s very hot today. Let’s go back inside. I miss the air conditioning,” said the new teacher. She was beginning to realize something.

Back in the classroom, the teachers sat back down in a circle. The experienced teacher fanned herself with a piece of paper. “It’s a good thing we have the summer off,” she said. “Our students could not ride bikes in this heat.”

“They would need to stay hydrated if they did,” the male teacher said.

“Are there any other teaching strategies we use?” asked the new teacher. “I’ve heard you all discuss terms, research, projects, grading, and videos of bike riders. Have I missed anything?”

“I don’t think so,” said one teacher. “And with the new state curriculum arriving next year, students will be expected to be even better bike riders. They’ll have to learn how to pop a wheelie! That’s some really advanced bike riding.”

“I have an idea,” said the new teacher.

“What?” asked the teacher to her left.

“How about we let our students ride bikes during class time? They can’t become better bike riders if they aren’t riding bikes.”

“But that would take away from class time,” one teacher said. “How am I supposed to teach all the terms if they’re riding bikes all the time?”

“And how am I supposed to grade all their riding?” said another teacher. “I’m already overwhelmed with the grading I already do. I can’t imagine what it would be like it they rode their bikes every day.”

“If they ride, they might get hurt, even while wearing helmets,” said the experienced teacher. “What if our school gets sued?”

“Where would we store all their bikes?” asked the male teacher. “Our parking lot is not very big. Where would we get the money to purchase all the bike racks that we need?”

The new teacher listened patiently to all these questions. She now understood why students could not ride bikes well at the end of high school. She wondered how her colleagues would respond when during the first week of school she took her students out to the parking lot and coached them in their bike riding abilities.


A Manifold Vocabulary

After seven years of teaching, I am still baffled as how to teach vocabulary effectively. I know that students who read a lot have better vocabularies than students who don’t read all that much. Encouraged by books by Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller, I carved out ten daily minutes for my students to read this past school year. I know that extra time helped to create or rekindle a love of reading, and the daily reading surely helped my students widen their vocabularies.

But just saying students can improve their vocabularies by silently reading without any instruction from me seems to be a cop-out. In this past year, I had the goal of having my students record new words they encountered in their reading in their notebooks. They divided up a page into quadrants and labeled each one Noun, Verb, Adjective, and Other respectively. Sometimes at the close of our ten minutes of silent reading, I would ask students to capture a word in their notebooks. This is a strategy I had seen modeled at the 2010 Oklahoma Writing Project Summer Institute, and while it was originally used in an elementary classroom, I saw no reason it wouldn’t work for my high schoolers. However, after a month or two, I stopped reminding my students to do this practice, and it fell to the wayside. I blame myself for not training them enough to do this procedure, but at the same time, I question it. Is writing down a personalized vocabulary list really helping my students?

Maybe what students need are skills to attack an unfamiliar word. Most of them know about context clues, and most them have a smart phone they can use to look up just about any word they come across. So why even bother with vocabulary? Aren’t there more important aspects of English that we should spend our time on?

I’ll close these ramblings by sharing a story from today. My 2001 Ford Escape was smoking today as I drove to a training session for some Deer Creek High School teachers. The smoke was very small, but the smell was even worse. I compared it to a rotten potato, although I don’t think I’ve ever even smelled a rotten potato. Since I had just had my oil changed yesterday, I decided to take it back and see if they could check it out. Sure enough, they had not cleaned all the oil out properly, and some of it was on the manifold. When the man said manifold, he may as well have said jibber-jabber or wiggle-waggle. I have no clue was a manifold is. However, I can guess it is a car part underneath my hood (where the smoke was coming from), and I can also guess it probably is located near the oil container/compartment/thingy.

When I looked up the definition of manifold on Merriam-Webster, I was reminded that the adjective form of manifold means “marked by diversity or variety.” What an appropriate word for the kind of vocabulary I’d like for my students to build in my class! (For some reason, when I heard the word manifold today, the phrases “manifold witness” and “manifold blessing” popped into my head; I have not clue why.)

As to the manifold in my SUV, it apparently is

a fitting on an internal combustion engine that directs a fuel and air mixture to or receives the exhaust gases from several cylinders (

I attempted to find it in the video below, but I had no luck. I guess I just have to have faith that the manifold is in there somewhere.

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