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Bike Repair Class Gets Ames Students Geared Up

Bike Repair Class Gets Ames Students Geared Up

By Ed Finkel on Friday, March 5, 2010

Address: Ames Middle School, 1920 N. Hamlin Ave., Chicago, IL

Generations of middle-school students have taken shop class and home economics, but few outside Ames Middle School in Logan Square have learned to repair bicycles for course credit. By the end of this school year, 500 Ames seventh- and eighth- graders will have rotated through the three- to four-week class, connected with LISC/Chicago’s Elev8 program and taught by Tony Hughes of West Town Bikes.

Alex Wilson of West Town Bikes goes over the day's lesson plans.

Gordon Walek

The class, which began during the 2008-09 school year, meets in hallway space bathed in natural light from courtyard windows and partitioned off with metal gates on either end.

About 15 desks are arranged in one half of the space for lectures and discussions, while another half-dozen or so tables sit in the other half, with toolboxes on top and bikes resting on nearby stands.

"We focus on mechanics, safety and fitness – mechanics mostly,” Hughes says. “Anything from how to patch a flat, changing a tire, adjusting brake cables and shifters. We talk about bicycle law, just to inform them about their rights and expectations.” They also talk about the reasons people ride bikes, summed up with the acronym FEEET: fun, exercise, economics, environmental, transportation.

When it comes to safety, Hughes impresses upon students the importance of wearing a helmet – and finding one that fits well. “Helmets are very unpopular,” he says. “I don’t blame them. I hated it, too. We’re trying to bridge that gap, though, and explain the benefits.”

Students learn about using the correct lane, biking with traffic, and watching out for car doors; Hughes notes traffic safety rules will be handy when these students start to drive, just as repairing bikes could lead to repairing cars.

A student examines a bike schematic before getting busy with tools.

Gordon Walek

Hughes discusses the fitness aspects – how your heart beats faster, your legs get exercise, and your body works up a good sweat – and he incorporates that directly into the class when the weather allows it.

“They’re like, ‘We get to ride bikes during school. It’s fun!’ They don’t even think about the health aspects.”

Those who take the class during the winter months don’t get that experience, although students sometimes wistfully wonder whether the school hallways might not be usable for the purpose. “They ask,” Hughes says with a grin. “They definitely ask.”

For those who don’t get the chance to ride during class, a map on the classroom wall shows which local streets have bike lanes and the locations of nearby bike shops so they’ll know where to turn as the brisk winter weather eases off in March. Hughes says more than 90 percent of students already ride bikes.

The Ames bike program got started as an after-school and summer program for students from four local high schools in partnership with Elev8 lead agency the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, says Alex Wilson, executive director of West Town Bikes. The school day version of the program, funded with $34,500 from Atlantic Philanthropies, seemed like the logical next step.

“Much of our program helps complement the academics,” Wilson says. “Students have a direct correlation between what they’re reading and writing about, and working hands-on. ‘I’m looking at a diagram, and oh, I’m working on a wheel now.’ It helps a lot of learners. Sometimes it is [working] hands-on that teaches them.”

Hughes says inserting into bike repair in the curriculum provides practical hands-on skills comparable with shop and home economics.

Gordon Walek

Among those in the class are English-language learners, including one recent arrival from Guatemala, who seem to follow along just fine, says Hughes, who does not speak Spanish. “They can still understand the particulars,” he says.

On one February day, students are learning to adjust brake cables – part of the middle piece of the “ABC quick check” that Hughes teaches them: Air, Brakes, Chain. They work in groups of two to three, which Hughes says fosters teamwork, and he hovers about them asking questions and making suggestions amidst the cacophony of chatter, laughter, MP3 beats and clanking tools.

“You need a different cable for this; let’s swap this out,” he tells one student. “How’s it coming over here? You guys have still got to do your front brake pads,” he says to another group. Later, Hughes asks someone else, “Is that a size 9 wrench? OK. You need to loosen that bolt. OK, now let’s see if we can pull that cable tight.”

The class meets in a section of a hallway partitioned by two cage-like structures.

Gordon Walek

And then there’s a darkly humorous conversation about chain whips: “That’s what it’s called,” Hughes says. “That’s not what it’s for.” A class clown answers: “If that’s what it’s called, then that is what it’s for.”

All kidding aside, students cite various benefits in taking the class. “If your bike breaks down, you know how to take it apart and put it back together,” says Abigail Montalvo, a seventh grader. “Before, I had to haul my bike to a shop.”

Eighth-grader Miguel Perez appreciated learning how to put a wheel together and can imagine employing that newfound skill. “I can put it together for anyone, maybe somebody who needs a bike and doesn’t get around much.”

Stephanie Salazar, a seventh grader who has ridden bikes since she was little, found installing brakes to be easier than she would have expected. “I could put these skills to use,” she says. “It helps to exercise. It’s better than being in the car.”

Seventh-grader Julian Aguilar says he won’t need to buy new tires as often. “The most useful thing I learned is rotating the tires. I can save money,” he says. “I learned it’s much better to ride a bike than drive a car. It helps the environment.”

Keywords: Ames Middle School, Bike Repair, West Town Bikes

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