Tuesday May 15, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON

Muddy Brook Elementary School is home to dozens of one-wheeling wonders. At a recent practice for advance riders, young students sat atop and pedaled unicycles around the gymnasium. Some wobbled, some raced, some performed tricks like twirling with partners, cruising in figure eights and hopping on the one tire.

"We have a simple pledge to join: Wear a helmet, and be kind," said Mary Berle, the school’s director of learning and teaching, and leader of the Muddy Brook Unicycle Team.

She said the group began with a discussion with third-graders about programs they’d like to have at the school.

"A student, Max Joyner (now a fifth-grader), said he wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle. So, I felt it was part of my commitment to learning and teaching to honor that request," Berle said.

With a background as a former member of the Harvard University cycling club, and the help of the school’s physical education department, she started a club with three borrowed unicycles and 11 students sharing them.

Now in its third year, more than 60 students and 10 parent volunteers are participating in the program, which meets before school on Tuesdays and Fridays, 8 to 8:30 a.m., and Wed nesday afternoons from 3 to 3:30. With the help of community donors, the school has 14 unicycles, and many students now bring their own.


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This month, outfitted with new team shirts, the students will perform and share tips with prospective riders, including this Saturday at the Muddy Brook Mud Day Festival, and on Monday, May 28 in the Great Barrington and Stockbridge Memorial Day parades.

Fourth-grader Scarlett Sykes only started unicycling in December, when she transferred to the school.

"It was a little bit stressful at first, but then I started to relax and began moving," she said.

"I kept falling, kept getting back on, kept falling and getting back on. But I kept trying, so that I could learn something new," said first-grade student Cayenne Riiska.

Michael Wainwright became a parent volunteer after his son, Andrew, a fourth-grader, joined the unicycle team two years ago.

"It’s really incredible what they do. I’ve seen, even with my own son, an incredible difference in attitude," he said.

Fourth-grader Curt Wilton said learning to ride a unicycle makes him, "feel inspired, and I hope that I can inspire others too."

His classmate Zachary Mielke’s advice on unicycling: "Don’t be afraid of falling. Keep on moving and don’t give up."

Berle said it takes students an average of 15 to 20 hours of practice to ride independently; some learn in a day, some are still trying after years.

"When you watch the beginners especially, you see such determination and grit. They’re really building a positive stance toward learning new things. It makes me confident that if we dream big enough, and make room in our classrooms, on our playing fields, and in our music and art rooms for innovation, our students will continue to teach us that anything is possible," she said.