Tools for Life:
A Start-Up Guide for Youth Recycling & Bicycling Programs
It isn't hard to get kids to have fun. Set up a game of tag, give
them a ball, or sit them in front of a computer game. You'll see the
reputed "short attention spans" of children lengthen far
beyond the limits of any adult's patience. No, fun is definitely easy.
The tough part is finding an activity that will both entertain and
educate kids. In addition to being fun, a good program should:
- Impart new knowledge
- Reinforce lessons
learned in school
- Develop social
- Set a clearly
defined standard of quality
- Provide a solid work
ethic and a sense of personal accomplish- ment
- Foster skills that
will be of use in the "real" world as well as in school
RAB is one of those rare programs that fulfill all of these
requirements, especially the fun part. On any given day at one of our
shops, the visitor can walk in and find dozens of boys and girls
completely absorbed in their activities. They're happily getting their
hands dirty, but they're also solving complex problems, developing their
motor skills, learning how tools and machines work, and, last but not
least, making a concrete impact on behalf of the environment.
For us, the items listed above more than justify the existence of RAB
in an educational setting, but we take our concept a bit farther.
Throughout our classes, we relate the lessons we're teaching to other
areas of study. For example, we tie bicycle development to modem history
by pointing out that the Wright brothers couldn't have developed the
airplane without the background in lightweight engineering that they
acquired as bicycle mechanics. We also point out that advances in bi-
cycle technology paved the way for automobiles and other machinery.
Reading, writing, and artistic skills find a place in RAB, too. As we
are writing this, an I.S. 218 group is developing a campaign to
transform an unused strip of land along the Hudson River into a footpath
and bikeway. They're creating logos, posters, and brochures to promote
Of course, our main objective is always to teach children the art and
science of bike repair. Just how far do we go with them? Pretty far.
Structuring Your Courses
In the late 1970's, Charlie McCorkell and Hal Ruzal began offering a
seven-week repair course for adults at Bicycle Habitat, their Manhattan
bike shop. When George Babiak worked at Habitat, he took over as the
teacher. That same course, expanded to eight sessions, became the model
for RAB's classes.
Each session is unique, but some features are consistent throughout
the course. Approximately half the session (or less) is spent on a
lecture/ demonstration. A suitably generic "demo bike" is
selected by the instructor beforehand. As the students watch, the
instructor goes through the procedure and completes it. Usage of correct
terminology is emphasized throughout the demo. The students are then
split into teams, put on their aprons, and are assigned to workstands
(each with a pre-selected bicycle already on it). They then do the
"hands-on." If volunteers are available they, too, are
assigned to teams. As the kids work, the instructor roves from stand to
stand, making sure the assignments are proceeding well. When they are
done, the instructor checks the work, makes any necessary final
adjustments, puts a final "oomph" on all the nuts and bolts,
and delivers high praise for a job well done. The class ends with
1. Rules and Tools/Fixing a Flat- Check back to Nuts and Bolts
("Atmosphere") for a description of Rules and Tools. Fixing a
Flat covers removing a rear wheel, using tire levers to pull out the
tube, finding and properly patching the hole, and putting everything
back in place. We start with a tire that's already flat. If we don't
have a flat tire on hand, we'll use a thumbtack to create one. We don't
let the kids see us doing this (they might get ideas).
2. The Brakes- After defining the various types of brakes
(caliper, coaster, and cantilever), a standard caliper cable is removed
and replaced. The brake is then adjusted with the "third hand"
(a name every kid remembers), lubricated, and checked. The difference
between the adjusting nuts (which hold the caliper arms together) and
the "main" nut (which holds the brake onto the frame) is
clarified. If any bikes on the stands need new pads, we cover that, too.
3. The Front Hub- The initiation into ball-bearings and grease
begins with the simplest of the b.b. assemblies. The hub is taken apart,
totally cleaned and repacked, then re-assembled. Some time is devoted to
the concept of friction and the reason for using bearings.
4. The Rear Hub- Same procedure as the front, but with the
added challenge of removing the freewheel. The bench vise is introduced.
5. The Bottom Bracket- Quality bikes come with 3-piece
cotterless cranks, but our introduction to the heart of the bicycle
always starts with the Ashtabula, or 1 -piece, crankset. It's the most
common in the shop and is the easiest for kids to work with.
6. The Headset- The last of the overhauls. Headsets may not
seem as important as the other classes because they're "only"
for steering, but it should be noted that this class also includes stems
and handlebars, which are areas of potential danger if not maintained
properly. For this reason, stem expander bolts are explained in detail.
We favor single-speed, coaster-brake bikes for this class because there
are no cables to complicate the job.
7. Derailleurs and chains- Many kids don't have the foggiest
notion of what goes on when a shift lever is pulled (that goes for
adults, too). We always start this class with a demonstration of how to
shift gears on an elevated bike. There's usually a "wow" or
two when they see the chain jump from one cog to another. We then remove
and replace a cable and perform the various adjustments. If there's
time, we demonstrate the proper way to use a chain-link tool.
8. Final Exam- RAB's 3-page test is a mix of multiple-choice
questions, a pictorial matching column, and one big, scary essay
question that tests the imagination more than anything else. Some kids
find the test extremely difficult, others think it ridiculously simple.
You'll find a sample exam in the appendix.
If there's an area that RAB is deficient in, it's in riding
technique. Our inner-city locations make it difficult to organize group
rides for our students. We do know that they'll ride anyway, so we cover
safety practices throughout the course. At some point during the first
four weeks, we also show the kids "Bicycle Safety Camp," a
videotape on safe cy- cling produced by a cough medicine company. It's a
bit hokey, but it's the best video we've seen on the subject.
RAB's course is quite thorough, but it still only scratches the
surface of bike repair. The kids who really start learning are the ones
who come to Earn-A-Bike or Fix-Your-Own-Bike sessions and put their
knowledge into practice. They also happen to be the kids most ready for
more knowledge, so it is in these less-structured sessions where more
difficult procedures are covered.
As the need for advanced work arises in the shop, an instructor or
skilled volunteer will take on the job and have one or two kids act as
assistants. Advanced work can include the following:
- Coaster brake hub
- Cantilever brake
- 3-piece cranksets
- 3-speed adjustments
- Freewheel overhauls
- Fork and frame
Wheelbuilding is the most arcane of bicycle skills and only one teen
volunteer, Omar Guzman of I.S. 218, has actually completed the job of
lacing a rim to a hub and properly tensioning it. Many kids have trued
wheels, however, with varying degrees of success. Fork and frame
alignment is even more problematic for kids because it requires both
dexterity and brute strength. Traffic accidents (a common cause of bike
damage in the Big Apple) tend to be so catastrophic that very few bikes
damaged thusly can be aligned, anyway.
Evaluating the Work
Although we take our exam results seriously, they are not always the
best indicator of a child's progress, particularly in a school like I.S.
218, which has a heavy immigrant population (many students there don't
know English). We believe the best way to evaluate a child as a student
of bicycle mechanics is by direct observation.
Mechanics are like musicians. It's very easy to tell who in the
classes are the "good" ones. These are the kids who work
cleanly and efficiently, adjust bearings to roll smoothly, and ask all
the right questions. Others have genuine difficulty in grasping the
basic concepts. When grading students, we try not to weight our scores
too heavily toward "natural talent." Instead, we gauge the
level of effort and the amount of concentration devoted to the task. In
our estimation, the kids who try hard and show up regularly are the ones
who perform the best.
Class size and Time-frame
Bike repair takes time. Make sure your instructor has plenty of it.
There should be time allotted for set-up before the class and for
clean-up and check-over afterward. We found that the class itself should
usually be 11/2 to 2 hours long. Remember: you'll need to show students
how to do a process, they'll then need to do it themselves, and then you
will all have to put the shop back in order. Nothing is worse than
having one class come in on the heels of another and work in the same
The most effective classes happen when the students start and finish
a job in the same session. Don't hold any jobs until "next
week." In a busy bike shop, it's too hard to keep a bunch of loose
parts together with the bike they came from.
RAB started small with a test group of 12 students that were
handpicked by the faculty of I.S. 218. In June, July, and August of
1994, we expanded rapidly by taking on 4 groups of 15 students each from
the Children's Aid Society Summer program. These early classes were
structured around what we believed was the ideal format: each group met
with us for two hours, twice a week, for a total of 8 sessions.
Our real test came in the Fall of 1994, when we integrated RAB into
the school schedule. We still held all our classes on Wednesday and
Friday, but now we crammed 4 groups into each of our teaching days: two
45-minute morning groups, an afternoon session of two hours, and a
90-minute after-school class.
At the time of this expansion, NYC's school system was undergoing
tremendous upheavals. I.S. 218 had several hundred extra students
unexpectedly dumped onto them, forcing the faculty to create a new
"Town Meeting" format. The Town Meetings were basically large
assembly classes held in the auditorium for a hundred or more students.
Our 45-minute classes were drawn from these Town Meetings, and we found
ourselves with 25 students in each of these short classes. We feared
there would be too many students and too little time.
We were right. The most successful classes were the 2-hour afternoon
sessions, which did not exceed 15 students. For the short classes, we
broke up our 8-session plan into 16 segments, with a demonstration one
week followed by a hands-on the next. It fit into the school day, but
with a full week between demo and actual practice, the learning process
Tricks and Gimmicks
As we taught, we discovered certain techniques that kids responded
to. Here's a small sampling of them:
Clever demonstrations- Kids always wonder what those little
steel "balbarians" (a frequent NYC kid's corruption of
"ball bearings") do inside the bicycle anyway. We talked about
the reduction of friction a lot, but the best way to illustrate the
principle is with a heavy toolbox. If the box is sitting directly on a
table, it is very hard to slide around, but if a number of ball bearings
are placed underneath it, it can be spun around with an index finger.
Brilliant Analogies- To underscore the importance of correct
nomenclature, George sometimes delivered this lecture to the kids:
"Going into a bike shop is like going into a restaurant. You can't
just walk in and say 'Uh, can I have some of that stuff you put in your
mouth when your stomach hurts and you swallow and it makes you feel
good?' You've got to ask for 'food!' And if you can ask for a burger and
fries, you'll get even better results."
Unforgettable Metaphors- "Okay, when the hub is all nice
and clean, put in a nice bed of grease... Gently ease the bearings into
the bed.... Now, tuck them in with a blanket of grease." After
giving this description, we'll often hear kids in the hands-on part
scold each other for forgetting "the blanket."
Awesome Displays of Superior Strength and/or Knowledge-
Winning the respect of students is half the battle of teaching.
Instructors can easily gain status with students by undoing a nut that
no kid can budge. Showing that you know more than they do works, too.
Every now and then a kid shows up who's seen and done everything. He'll
usually say something like, "Oh, bikes. I know all about bikes. I
take 'em apart, I put 'em back together. I do everything!" Our
stock response to this is "Terrific! I need someone like you! While
I teach these guys, could you take this wheel over to the truing stand
and straighten it out?" It doesn't take long for the kid to realize
that he's in way over his head. Depending on your own abilities, you can
choose to dramatically true the wheel in front of the class, but it
won't be necessary. Your point will have been made.
Inspirational/Informational posters- Early on in RAB, George
posted a sign that read "Remember: You are the Doctor, the Bicycle
is your Patient!" Karen thought it might be considered
"corny," but it often struck a chord in kids. Once, a boy
named Luis Felipe knocked over a bike while arguing with another
student. When his attention was brought to the sign, he shrugged his
shoulders and said "Well, I'm the Dr. Kevorkian of bikes."
We'd suggest decorating the walls of your shop with as many
instructive posters and displays as you can. Some can be obtained from
bicycle manufacturers, others can be created by your staff or even the
It would be easy enough to start a project that just gives bikes away
to kids, but there's a basic problem with unconditional gifts: they're
just not valued as highly as the things we work hard to acquire. How
many bright and shiny Christmas toys have you seen turn into February's
sad, broken junk? The possessions we remember most fondly from child-
hood, however, are the ones for which we saved up over excruciatingly
long weeks or months. Earn-A-Bike goes not one, but two steps beyond the
old process of saving pennies from one's allowance: it gives kids a job
that pays the way toward their bicycle and teaches them how to care for
it at the same time.
We've found that this program, in one form or another, is the main
reason for the existence of quite a few projects. Chances are it'll
probably be a component of your project, too. It would be too cruel to
dangle bikes in front of kids and not offer them the chance to earn one.
Through trial and error, we've established the following guidelines
for operating our Earn-A-Bike system.
The Unit of Currency- ...is simply The Hour. To earn a bike, a
kid must put in 24 hours of shop time. The "price" is the same
for any bike in the shop (except "baby" models, which are
lower). Some projects adjust the number of hours depending on the style
and quality of the bike. We've heard of some models going for as much as
120 hours in Indianapolis' Bicycle Action Project. One reason we haven't
set different prices is that we have too many kids. Extending their
stays would crowd the shop even further.
The challenge of Earn-A-Bike is to keep careful records with precise
running totals. Expect kids to ask "How many hours I got?"
roughly every 8 minutes.
We Decide on the Work- Most kids expect to come in, pick a
bike, and start working on it. We don't let them. The first 18 hours of
the 24 have to be spent on the jobs we give them. This rule holds firmly
for all kids. The work we hand out can include repairs, bike
cannibalization, tube reclamation, shop organization, cleaning, or
anything else the project needs done.
Picking the Bike- After Hour 18, students are allowed to
designate shop bikes as their own. A tag is placed on the handlebars
that marks the bike as "taken." Yes, some models are certainly
nicer than others, but they are awarded on a first-come, first-served
basis. The bikes must remain in the shop, but the kids can spend the
next 6 hours of their obligatory time fixing up their designated bike.
Once they hit Hour 24, it's theirs.
Class Time Doesn't Count- RAB is unusual because our classes
are part of the school's curriculum. If a kid is assigned to us, he or
she is obliged to come. It would be too easy for kids to rack up time
this way. For this reason, Earn-A-Bike hours can only be earned after
school or on weekends. If we are charged with unfairness, we quietly
inform them that we're already giving them something during class: the
skills of a professional bike mechanic. If further disgruntlement is
voiced, we add that adults are happy to pay George $140 to take a course
in bicycle repair that they're getting for free. We don't get too many
complaints after the first class.
Your project may not be housed in a school and your teaching system
may not be as formalized as our own, so feel free to modify these rules
to fit your own situation. The important thing is to establish them
before the kids start clocking in. Be firm in enforcing the rules of
Earn-A-Bike and make sure they remain consistent from kid to kid (no one
is more sensitive to inequity than children).
At I.S. 218, there are two weekly sessions for Earn-A-Bike:
Wednesdays, from 3:30 to 5:00, and Saturdays from 11:00 to 5:00.
Sometimes there are 20 kids or more in the room during these hours. If
you can arrange or afford it, we suggest having more sessions with less
kids in each. The time will be a lot more productive. Adult volunteers
are very useful in these sessions, too.
When kids first come to us, they often declare that they'll spend
"the whole 6 hours" every Saturday and earn their bikes in
double-quick time. Some kids are capable of this, and some bum out after
an hour or two. You may want to set a time limit at the beginning.
Not all kids are Earn-A-Bike types. Some will come in once, start a
time card, and never show up again. Don't blame yourself for a high
attrition rate. It's just a fact of life. The positive side of having
drop-outs is that it only makes it that much more special when someone
reaches the "magic 24."
Is there a life after Earn-A-Bike? Yes, there is. If your project is
like ours, kids will keep coming to your shop long after they've taken
their bike home. Many of them will be content just to earn more hours
and boast about them to their friends, but you may institute some
follow-up goals for the long-termers.
Items of Wonder
When donations start rolling in, you'll get more than bikes. At RAB,
people have donated tons of bike accessories, tools, parts, books,
helmets, and even clothing. Take everything you can get, because if you
can't use the stuff in the shop, it can always be "sold" to
kids for Earn-A-Bike hours. Kids love being able to spend their hours on
things, and it has the added benefit of providing them with valuable
experience in budgeting an income. We've often heard kids thinking aloud
along these lines: "Gee, I could get a water bottle today, but
maybe I should add my hours to the bike."
One of RAB's most popular rituals began when George decided to
minimize the inevitable chaos unleashed by a fresh batch of donations.
He did this by having all the kids remain on one side of a table while
all the goodies remained hidden on the other side. Then, he slowly
presented samples of each product one at a time and extolled their
virtues, a la the Home Shopping Network. Before an object was placed on
the table, it was always introduced with the phrase "And the next
Item of Wonder is..." The suspense of the process thrilled the kids
and the name, silly as it was, stuck. It's not unusual for a kid to come
into the workshop and say "Can we do the Items of Wonder?"
An ongoing surplus of "baby bikes" led to one of the most
charming customs at I.S. 218. At their own request, kids started earning
bikes for their little brothers and sisters. The bikes are so small and
simple, and the thought so generous, that we make an exception in our 24
hour rule. Baby bikes can be had for a mere 12 hours of service. Some
kids have also earned bikes for members of their family older than
themselves. Selfless projects like these should always be encouraged.