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Ellie Klein from Spain reflects on how volunteerism abroad, parallels and diverges from volunteerism in the U.S.


~February 2012~

Off with the Training Wheels and onto the Bike!

beach footprints


When I was twelve years old I did not know how to ride a bike. Well, actually I did know how to ride a bike, but only a bike with training wheels and for anyone who has gone through the horror of the American Middle School, we all know that is socially unacceptable. The details evade me, but one day I seemingly decided enough was enough and it was time to grow up. I had watched many people ride two-wheelers before; from neighbors to Disney channel characters, I knew it was possible. I remember people telling me once you get it you get it, it’s a skill that will just sort of “make sense” and one you never forget. I listened to instructions on what I should do, which way I should lean and when. I looked over the bike I would courageously ride before taking my place on the center seat. Yet, despite all this priming, this observation, this studying, when I got on the bike, I couldn’t do it. I was terrified. I had nervously gotten on and off the bike fifteen times until my neighbor, witnessing the catastrophe from his kitchen window, came outside to help. Without any real coaxing, conversation, or trust (I rarely saw him except when I would ring his doorbell and beg him to buy my Girl Scout cookies), he got me on the bike and more or less pushed me down the street to fend for myself. And with that, I did it. I road the bike. Since then I’ve been in a triathlon, cycled my way around Minnesota, Walla Walla, Tacoma and Seattle with ease and currently have three lovely two-wheeled bikes of my own.

You can study a bike. You can read about a bike. You can listen to hours and hours of lectures on bikes, but until you actually buck up and get on a bike yourself, you’re not going to know how to ride it. This metaphor is often told when discussing education. We lecture kids all the time. We tell them what to do, how to behave, what they should learn and why, but we rarely throw caution to the wind and take the risk of letting them figure out life all by themselves. As my AmeriCorps director often said last year, as a teacher, tutor, or mentor, you are there to be a “guide on the side” for your students. The adult should not take center stage, and rather, should merely assist the student towards his or her own discovery. You are there to support learning, not dictate it.

One of my first Red Cross duties here in Spain was with my own high schoolers. They set up a course for their P.E. class to teach the students about different disabilities – a “Special Olympics” of sorts in which they had to sacrifice one of their core utilities. They had fun in the game aspect of the exercise, but I hope, and I think, they learned something too. By doing instead of merely listening, they understood the difficulty of pushing their own wheelchair. They experienced the frustration of not being able to see where their teammate was during a soccer game. They felt the embarrassment and fear of trusting their partner to lead them through a complicated maze.
When teaching someone a new skill, adults often fear the scar of failure will be too big and lasting for the learner to try again.

We are compassionate humans and instinctively want to protect them. But when protection turns to lecturing, it often inhibits growth. Doing, falling and failing at anything is a great life lesson we all must learn and institute in our day-to-day lives. Studying, reading and examining is a primer to action, but there is no substitute for actually trying the task yourself. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from understanding without the help or hand of another. Students need support from adults, but more than anything, they need a quiet "guide on the side" who firmly trusts in their own strength and ability as learners.

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ellie on beach


Ellie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. Last year she served with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at a local high school and volunteer at the Westway After School Program. She is currently in Andalusia, the southern region of Spain, to teach English at a high school in the Mediterranean coastal town of Adra.


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