Active Learners Blog
A young unicycle rider

This past spring, graduate Anna Williamson decided to honor Bill Mullins during his tenure at Antioch School. She and Liz Griffin put together a wonderful video collage about the many wonderful and innovative things Bill Mullins did during his tenure as teacher at Antioch School.

Quite a few Antioch School children and graduates came to honor Bill, but many of the Older Group children were not at Bill’s celebration to see it. I thought they would love the history and to see the many things that have stayed the same at Antioch School over the span of 50 years, encompassing Bill’s career. They did indeed love it and had quite a few questions about some of the things we have done in the past, especially participating in parades.

“What? You mean they got to ride unicycles in parades?”

“Absolutely, often several parades a year.”

“Why don’t we do that now?”

“Well, because we stopped having enough children who wanted to participate. It seemed like soccer and other weekend activities interfered too much. It was sad when we stopped participating in parades.”

“Can we do that again?”

“Sure if there are enough people who want to, the first parade will be the 4th of July Parade here in town. Who thinks they can do this?” Many hands went up and enthusiasm was electric. Children wanted to, but weren’t certain about their schedules. Others said, “I am so doing this!”

Over the summer is not an optimal time to organize school activities, but between Rebecca Kuder, Liz Griffin, and me, we were able to get the word out through Facebook and a school mailing. I arranged time for interested children to come to the school to work out routines several times before the parade, and we made sure that there were working unicycles ready to ride for everyone who wanted to participate. Children came to create routines, and we were also joined by quite a few graduates, so we had a nice number of parade participants. It was a nice reentry into our old tradition of riding unicycles in parades, which will hopefully grow to be our tradition again.

A unicycle routine.

One of the highlights for me was when a graduate, Carter ~who will be entering 8th grade this year, joined us for working out some routines. “I never learned to ride the unicycle because I wasn’t all that interested when I was here. But if I learn how today, I’ll be in the parade,” he told me.

There are quite a few, in fact many, things I have learned teaching at Antioch School. One is to not say anything regarding likelihood of being able to do such a thing. Another is to never underestimate what a determined and motivated learner will be able to do. This is what I have clearly learned from the children: when you are ready, you are ready.

Learning to ride the unicycle when he was at Antioch School just wasn’t on Carter’s priority list. An active, social child, he preferred to spend his free time playing active games with his friends, and during project time he was more motivated by learning to play the guitar, and later, the stand-up bass than to spend time learning how to ride the unicycle. He mastered his playing skills on the guitar and bass, learning the notes and fingering, and how to read tablature as well as standard notation. He was drawn to art, to math, to chess, to socializing, and to music. The unicycle had no draw for him. And here he was, now in Stiver’s School for the Arts studying music, and wanting to learn to ride the unicycle. Today.

As the other children looked for unicycles to work with, checked tires and adjusted seats, and convened to brainstorm some routines, Carter and I looked for a unicycle that might be able to be made tall enough for him. There were none that fit perfectly to his height, but we managed to make one come close to fitting. This he took out on the porch to learn how to ride.

The others brought their unicycles to the front of the building so they could practice routines on the driveway, a surface that more closely approximated the road. They brainstormed, tried things, went back to the drawing board, and tried out new ideas. About an hour into their practice session, Carter appeared in the driveway, mounted the unicycle, and rode it. In an hour, he didn’t have it mastered yet, but he was able to ride, without holding on to bars a considerable distance before it wobbled and popped out in front of him. Quite an accomplishment

Bill Mullens
Bill Mullins

There are many great reasons why the unicycle is emblematic of learning at Antioch School. When Bill Mullins brought a unicycle into the school back in 1969, no one took interest in it at first. It sat lonely and unused until a visitor rode a unicycle, inspiring an OG child to give it a whirl. He taught himself to ride it in a couple of weeks, and then other children saw what fun it was.

Joel, the child who was inspired to learn how to ride it, was motivated by what he saw could be done. It was his own choice to take on the challenge. No adult taught him. He got on it and figured out what he needed to do. Other children saw Joel teach himself and became motivated to take on the challenge of learning to ride the unicycle themselves. Soon they were teaching each other, and adding new challenges to their riding skills.

One important part of taking charge of our own learning and making it meaningful is intrinsic motivation. When children are motivated by their own interests or desires to learn a new idea, skill, or task they are willing to take on greater challenges. They experience a sense of accomplishment and personal empowerment that is not attained through extrinsic motivation. When a learner initiates learning through self motivation, she or he is more likely to follow through and master what she or he has setout to learn.

Lending a helping hand.

At first look, the unicycle is pretty daunting; one wheel, no handlebars, relying completely on balance. There are no teachers who ride the unicycle, so it is up to the children to teach themselves and each other how to ride. Teachers are there to provide a hand with maintenance and repair, to offer encouragement if a child gets frustrated, or to offer a hand for balance if the child has gone beyond the basics and is learning how to ride the 5’ unicycle.

Aside from that, it is an entirely child-led learning opportunity. Why is this important? It is important because the children learn early on that they can master learning things that look daunting, and even impossible at first. This carries over into other learning that appears difficult or challenging. There is a basic understanding that if you want to do it, you can. Children are more likely to plunge into difficult tasks, assignments, and challenges knowing that with persistence, it is within their capacity to do them. They learn how to learn and that learning comes with practice, trial and error, and positive risk-taking.

The unicycle is iconic of Antioch School learning because it is done on the children’s timetable, and because it results in ownership of one’s own learning. This carries over into music, art, math, writing, reading, science, social studies, projects, and problem solving. Not everyone is motivated to learn different skills or concepts on the same time line, but given the tools, time, and support necessary, when they are ready to learn, they have their inner resources and self knowledge to be willing to take on challenges, both small and difficult.

Not every child learns to ride the unicycle, but all children have time, opportunity, and encouragement to accomplish challenges that are meaningful and interesting to them. The confidence, skills, and self knowledge they develop through exploring their unique interests are carried with them beyond school and into their adult lives. Author, Zac Katz-Stein, says it so well, “ By emphasizing play and exploration, rather than memorization, the (Antioch) school instilled a love of learning and ability to work with creative independence that I still cherish today.” What a rare and amazing opportunity Antioch School children have to own their learning and develop a lifelong ability to think creatively, and meet challenges with the confidence that certainly they can.

This article was written by Chris Powell and printed in the 2016 Active Learners Journal published by the Antioch School.

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