Youth Engagement creates Peer to Peer education opportunities

by Caressa Givens, Safe Routes to School Instructor

Youth from the neighborhood paint visibility flags for their bike at CicloviaMKE

In 2013 The Bike Fed. was invited to Madison by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to discuss youth engagement in active transportation choices.  This seminar inspired me to want to work closer with youth to inspire the usage of Active Transportation.

Although working with adolescents can be a challenge, the positive formations of lasting habits is evident and imperative to growing more sustainable communities. This Spring as a representative of the Bike Fed.  I took a two month journey to facilitate a teen bike advocacy group from New School for Community Service, and alternative High School, in the heart of downtown Milwaukee.  The goal being to train High School aged youth to be roll models and educate and inform the Middle School students. With the idea to change the paradigm  a bit on where information comes from in hopes to improve the efficacy of the message and reach more young minds.

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Escuela Vieau Students and their New School for Community Service Mentor

My approach to adolescent engagement at New School for Community Service started off with an initial visit to a classroom without a hard agenda. Simply getting to know students and teachers as a guest is a way to show respect for group’s built environment. This provided me with an opportunity to observe how students were interacting with one another on topics they knew well and also what students’ individual strengths were.

When it came to introducing the topic of biking and walking I began by creating a dialogue surrounding the perceptions of biking and walking, in addition I provided students with a survey where they were able to answer with more confidentiality in their personal transportation decisions.

Although nearly 80% of the class had a bike 75% of students used the car to get to school or work. The reasons behind the lack of bicycle use topped out at personal safety issues, safe places to lock a bicycle, and the lack of peers biking or walking for both recreation and transportation.

Many of the students from New School had little perception of what bike advocacy meant.  Informing them that they were, in all hopes, to become rockstar bicycle and walking advocates was a challenge and with mention became quite daunting and nearly repulsive.  Many of them had no desire to work with younger grades. I quickly realized that it was imperative that the foundation of our group started by riding as much as possible together.  In order to place value on the benefits of biking and walking and also underline the importance of advocating for safer routes, we began walking and biking together once a week, this way, students were introduced readily to the challenges that many face while getting around but also the benefits of biking and walking.

There were many moving parts to our time spent together. We also partnered with Arts @ Large, and brought in artist and activist Ammar Nsoroma. Ammar is quintessentially a pure soothsayer when it comes to working with people. His humble demeanor and artistic skill lend to one’s curiosity. Ammar spent time with students riding much of the time, helping students learn how to choose a route before a ride, and also engaging in conversations related to equity in our communities in general and how biking and walking are a means to connect people.

In class, we researched individuals and groups such as Wisconsin Bike Fed and Bublr Bicycle Share. I took time to interview one another as a way to get to know each other. This process was an attempt to better acquaint students with different aspects of biking, aside from the perceived lycra culture, in addition form a basic foundation for engagement, i.e, how to start a conversation and engage with others by simply listening to one another.

As the semester went on and the weather got warmer it became increasingly difficult to keep everyone on track.  We were still looking for a K-8 school to partner with to impart our knowledge on, all while encountering the waning of interest in school especially our class being last period.  I decided that it would be best to move our class to the outdoors on a weekly basis. The planning had commenced, students were challenged to go into a classroom and teach others about the benefits of biking and walking. Thankfully we were also asked to make that lesson artistic with the help of Ammar and Arts at Large.

A Student from Vieau Elementary paints visibility flags with the New Lynx crew.

Students were split into three groups with various topics related to biking and walking such as health and environment. Each group was equipped with an adult resource to help support their ideas.  At the beginning of our time together I had asked students to come up with a team name. Students provided me with a heap of inspiring team names to choose from. So after a month and half of biking together every week, meeting new people, and introducing more creative thinking New School students became the “New Lynx.”

The inventor of the name explain it well, “We are introducing our perspective on biking and walking, we have formed a new group and we are trying to connect [link] with others…”

We finally had a partner school. We were to work with Mr. Olson’s 5th grade class just across the Milwaukee River at Escuela Vieau.  We had a couple of days to enter the classroom and engage in creative activities focusing on bike and walk advocacy.

Despite our time together building a solid team there were still apprehensions and with all due respect, four years ago I was in the same boat as an adult embarking on the daunting task of teaching, and even with all of the planning, I really needed to help shepherd New Lynx, and though our presentation and outreach at CicloviaMKE seemed to be the main event it was evident that it was critical that students felt supported and comfortable in the classroom.

So as I began this journey again as New Lynx took a visit to Mr. Olson’s 5th grade classroom with no hard agenda, we stopped by on one of our bike riding days and introduced ourselves.  The class was so excited to work with us, and very attentive. What came next went beyond my expectations!

Upon walking around to each group and observing the interactions I could tell that after all of that apprehension most of the group had hit their stride. The first day we delivered lessons in ways that the New Lynx team had came up with.  Casey had formed a group discussion around safe biking, helmet fitting, and most importantly started a conversation using chalk on the playground to discuss personal safety. Lila and Ammar created a painting with students to display at CicloviaMKE and also discussed biking and health with a group of students, and Chris and Leo made a bicycle jeopardy game show style activity focusing on biking and the environment.

CicloviaMKE was pure fun. New Lynx stopped by in shifts to help set up a visibility flag making station, which was hit, finish painting and creating sidewalk chalk drawings asking the public about their opinions on safer streets, both in English and in Spanish.

There are many things that I would have altered in this project, but of course that is for another project’s success.  I enjoyed working with adolescents especially when the “ah hah” moment comes into play. Our journey started with ten students which turned into four students, turning into a team, and then into a group of teachers, and back into a group of kids again.  Although they would probably scorn me for calling them kids they still are very much kids in all of the good ways with their enthusiasm and resilience.  They bring a sense of excitement to the topic of biking and walking that is sometimes hard to achieve even for the most seasoned bike walk instructor.

What I have learned about creating meaningful experiences and working with adolescents is; Be fun and enthusiastic, you have to match their energy and there is a lot of it. Don’t assume that teens have nothing to offer, although I never truly believed this at times when morale is low it’s easy to get into a funk, teens have a unique perspective as they balance between adult and childhood. Be patient, not everything comes into play as you see it, being flexible and patient helps keep everyone motivated. Ask for teens’ opinions, we often got off-topic but creating a dialogue builds builds trust!

I would like to thank everyone for their involvement, especially New School teachers David Cusma, and Daniel Valesquez for their support on a daily basis in the classroom with keeping students on task, as well as being available to make sure they were in-class or at an event.  Thank you to Escuela Vieau as well as Mirtha Sosa and organizers from Ciclovia. Thank you Arts at Large for introducing a creative lens into our programming with the Bike Fed.

New Lynx student dances in celebration of a job well done!

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