First Person

Nurturing The Next Generation Of NYC Bike Advocates

Mike Dowd is a social studies teacher at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School. This post originally appeared on Streetsblog, a daily news source connecting people to information about sustainable transportation and livable communities.

Students from Midwood High School are so interested in biking that they quickly overwhelmed the school's capacity to teach cycling skills.

Last fall, at the high school where I teach, I was approached by some 12th-grade boys looking to start a cycling club. As a long-time bike activist, I was thrilled to help. But after our first few meetings, problems arose. At our school, seniors finish the day much earlier than I do, and a new semester brought scheduling difficulties. Interest started to drop and the club appeared ready to fold.

I hated to see this happen, so I decided to try to recruit from the younger grades. My hopes weren’t high, as I had never noticed much interest in cycling among our students. But I was quite mistaken. Not only has the club continued to exist, but the enthusiasm it has generated has changed my thinking about how to create a more bike-friendly city. I now believe that promoting youth cycling is a crucial missing component in the movement for livable streets.

Despite my modest recruiting efforts, more than 30 new students attended our club’s next meeting. To my surprise, the vast majority were girls, few were regular cyclists, and many didn’t own a bike or had never learned to ride. But for whatever reason, they seemed interested in the club.

The problem was, I had no idea what to do with these kids and no guidance from the Department of Education as to what was permitted. Over the next few weeks, as I searched for ideas and advice on how to get them on bikes, new students kept coming to our meetings.

Fortunately, I found Bike New York, whose free after-school riding classes in Brooklyn Bridge Park perfectly matched our needs. They offered group riding skills for those who knew how to ride and basic lessons for non-riders.  Even though they were located far away and their classes conflicted with many of our members’ other commitments, we had more than enough students to fill a class.

As I watched nervously the first day, things appeared to be going well. Though the initial drills were fairly simple, the kids seemed excited just to be on bikes. In fact, one girl offered some very high teenage praise, when she whispered to me during a break, “This isn’t as boring as I thought it would be.” Later, as the group returned from a short ride, another girl said, “I’m so glad I joined this club. I haven’t felt this happy in years!” I was bowled over.

As the school year ended, the classes continued with great enthusiasm. I was very proud of our group, especially those who had learned to ride for the first time. Yet the scope of our success was limited. The kids were enthusiastic about riding but couldn’t pursue their interest over the summer. Though they were eager to continue with supervised rides, they weren’t ready to hit the streets on their own, nor did they necessarily own bikes.

Furthermore, as school began this fall, I had to avoid publicizing the club too much. Just through word of mouth, I now have more interested students than Bike New York can accommodate in one class. Students continue to approach me about joining, but I don’t know what to do with them. A few are taking repair classes at Recycle-A-Bicycle, but space there is limited, too. And now that our fall riding classes are over, we have to wait until spring to ride again.

At the same time, our limited successes have given me great hope. I now realize there is a huge latent demand for cycling among young people. If advocates can figure out how to meet this demand, the movement for safer streets will have much broader support.

My students tend to come from communities that are underrepresented in the world of bike advocacy. Most are girls, most are from immigrant families, and most live in southern Brooklyn. Their neighborhoods tend not to have much cycling infrastructure. We need to tend to their interest in riding if we want better cycling conditions to extend throughout the city.

This should not be a daunting task. One potential model is Beat the Streets, a foundation run by former wrestlers that funds middle and high-school wrestling programs in city schools. In just a few years, they’ve turned a sport that barely existed in the city into one with a major presence. A few deep-pocketed cyclists could probably make a similar impact.

But I don’t think we need to rely on private donors to make this happen. The city already has a budget to provide physical education to teenagers. There’s no reason cycling can’t be part of the curriculum. Many schools, short on gym space, already have offsite classes. My school, for instance, offers bowling and billiards at outside locations.

Imagine cycling centers in locations like Floyd Bennett Field and Flushing Meadows Park offering afternoon, weekend, and summer classes. This wouldn’t require anything complex or expensive. Bike New York operates classes using just a large tent for instruction and a few lockers for bike and helmet storage. If the city were willing to pay for instruction, perhaps private money could help fund some of the overhead and supplement the in-school classes with other activities, like group rides.

There’s no doubt that Mayor Bloomberg has been transformative in making our streets safer for biking. But if the mayor wants to cement this legacy, he needs to broaden support for bike infrastructure. The best way to do this would be to nurture the next generation of bike activists, especially in neighborhoods where cycling has yet to take hold. In doing so, he’d be creating a constituency for a greener, healthier city for generations to come. Trust me, our kids are waiting to be engaged.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.