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Posted by on Aug 11, 2016 in Education, Inspiration and Living, Poetry | 13 comments

Children ‘Conquering’ the Unicycle and Achieving Much More

Unicycle Julia

Ode on a Unicycle

Unicycle, unicycle,
radiant and round.
Spying you, you spoke to me
without a single sound.

Unicycle, unicycle,
beautiful and kind,
like the petals on a flower
wheeling through my mind.

Unicycle, unicycle,
you’re my one desire.
Losing you would break my heart.
Of you I’ll never tire.

Unicycle, unicycle
always by my side.
That’s, of course, because you are
impossible to ride.

Copyright © 2006 Kenn Nesbitt. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Unicycles fence

Uni-Saders hanging out in the staging are before a parade in Dripping Springs, Texas.

Most of us remember well the sense of joy and accomplishment we experienced when we first mastered the “art” of riding a bicycle.

Many of us will also remember the sense of pride we felt when our 6-year-old was able to ride his or her bicycle for the first time, without those training wheels.

But how many of us have tried to ride a unicycle? You know, one of those contraptions with only one wheel, “so impossible to ride.”

I do not remember how the subject of unicycles came up during one of our regular coffee klatches with a friend a while ago.

Something about a bunch of kids riding around, perched on unicycles.

Recently, it came up again and, pursuing the subject a little more, I discovered how a colleague of my friend has truly made unicycles, as Ken Nesbitt’s poem says, “beautiful and kind, like the petals on a flower.”

The unicycles my friend, Dwight Bawcom, was talking about are not necessarily beautiful in appearance — many of them are well used, some have scratches and dents. But they are beautiful, “like the petals on a flower,” because of how these “contraptions” are helping young children overcome, achieve and excel.

You see, my friend’s colleague, Jimmy Agnew, uses unicycles to inspire children “to grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.”

It all started eight years ago when Agnew, a teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, and his second graders began gathering unicycles from Craigslist and neighborhood garage sales and started meeting in the school’s small gym every Friday after school.

There, according to Agnew, the children “would laugh, and play, and celebrate their failures as they consistently fell over and over again” trying to ride those unicycles.

Unicycles  Jimmy Agnew with St. Andrew's students reporting Texas

“Jimi Pedals” Agnew supporting two collaborative pillars of play.

Agnew continues, “Only with perseverance, determination, and constant encouragement from their peers, did they eventually, one by one, learn to ride.”

It soon became obvious to Agnew — a former college basketball player — that what the second graders were doing was much more than just learning to ride a unicycle.

They were overcoming self-doubt and replacing it with self-confidence.

They were gaining self-esteem, inspiring themselves and each other, learning and displaying patience, trust, courage and especially perseverance: “It’s about getting them used to failing but then working through it,” Agnew says in an interview.

Dr. W. Eric Grossman, an associate professor of education at Emory & Henry College, Virginia, puts Agnew’s “failing but then working through it” in a slightly different way.

He refers to attempting to ride a unicycle as “an unnatural, difficult, and complex skill” where one has to — taking from Samuel Beckett — “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Grossman adds:

Riding a unicycle is physically striking. When kids finally reach the point of wheeling out of the schoolyard on their unicycle, they will have also achieved at least two additional goals: they will have a captivating means to stay active and fit and they will know what is required to learn something difficult.

Eight years after Agnew founded his modest yet trailblazing program — today called “One Wheel Many Children”– more than 700 children have “wheeled out of the school yard on their unicycle.”

Agnew’s original after-school program has now been replicated at other schools in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and is currently being launched at Austin’s Comunidad School, one of our nation’s 200 KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) public charter schools, as part of a formal, play-based literacy curriculum.

Unicycle group


Third Graders at KIPP Austin Comunidad learning to unicycle along their Empowerment Path.

Agnew’s vision:

Through child-driven literacy, we aim to create a forum for children to share their voice and launch additional school unicycle clubs. Essentially empowering through play to develop a growth mindset. The unicycle is an ideal childhood development tool and our goal is to use that tool to empower communities and develop such mindsets.

UInicycle Rhythm night

Annual “Rhythms Night” Unicycle Demonstration deep in the heart of Texas

The unicycle was invented more than 100 years ago. It was born out of the “Penny Farthing” bicycle, named after the English penny (the giant front wheel) and the farthing (the miniature rear wheel).

ZenArtsLA.com:

It wasn’t long before some people realized they really didn’t need that back wheel of the penny farthing. First the back wheel was removed, then the handles too…and pretty soon the unicycle was born.

A curiosity, a challenge, popular among circus clowns and acrobatic performers, the unicycle started seeing widespread popularity in the 1980s, “when new unicycle variations created an entirely new generation of riders.”

A little more than three decades later, another generation of riders are taming those contraptions: Agnew’s young Uni-Saders who are learning, among other things, “support, patience, trust and courage” thanks to dedicated and visionary people such as Agnew and generous volunteers such as my friend Dwight.

The words “support, patience, trust” are written in each spoke of unicycle drawings by third graders, displayed at one school in Austin, Texas, reflecting what these young Uni-Saders believe they are learning from conquering those unicycles, “impossible to ride.”

A young Uni-Sader expresses similar feelings in a “daily reflection sheet” at KIPP Austin Comunidad, below.

Unicycle child's feedback

Words only begin to describe the joy, challenges and frustration experienced by Uni-Saders as they learn to “unicycle,” and grow. Please watch the video below and also view the story of one youngster who conquered the unicycle and achieved much more here.

Also, visit the One Wheel Many Children site to learn more about this unique project and to perhaps contribute to this commendable non-profit organization.

Lead photo: Uni-Saders enjoying “life’s ride” in the small gym of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School of Austin, TX.

Photos and video courtesy One Wheel Many Children

Edited to add a link.

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Copyright 2016 The Moderate Voice
  • Bob Munck

    My brother-in-law used a unicycle to get around campus at the University of Maryland some 45 years ago. His was almost certainly the only one on campus.

    Being a stone techie, I can’t help but wonder if some of the principles that keep a Segway (and BB-8) upright could be built into a unicycle. On the other hand, making it easier to master would tend to dilute the effects on children that this article talks about.

  • I see lots of kids on unicycles over here in Germany… must be a new thing. Love the concept of learning.

    • Apparently, the concept is spreading fast in the U.S. among elementary schools. Interesting about Germany, albeit bicycles (uni or not) have always been very popular in Western Europe.

      I get tired of telling people how I, as a youngster in the Netherlands, bicycled five or 10 miles each way — uphill both ways — to school and back, every day. :).

  • jdledell

    On a more serious note, the concept of having children conquer something difficult, despite numerous failings, is one of the most important life lessons a child can learn. Bravo to the people who thought this unicycle concept up. On a personal level, I learned this lesson at a very young age. During the polio epidemics of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s hospitals were overwhelmed. Beds were stacked in hallways, the hospital lunch room etc.

    All of the kids who had polio had to learn to walk again with shaky weak legs. It was a matter of taking a step and falling down. Trying to make it two steps before falling etc. Since there was no way to provide physical therapy to every kid ( there were 3 or 4 times too many needing therapy) the hospital set up a triage system. Those kids who fell and kept getting up time after time, were selected for physical therapy. Those who fell and stayed down crying were left behind. I know it sounds cruel and unfeeling but it was the only practical way to deal with a thousand kids in the hospital.

    I was one who kept getting up, I know not why. Perhaps it was an innate gift from G-d – I was only 4 and 5 years old. Even when I was somewhat older, I remember trying to convince some friends in the hospital to try harder – don’t give up. The lesson I learned from that triage has stayed with me my entire life – trying harder to convince the woman I loved to marry me, to get the jobs and promotions I wanted. I’m now 71 and still trying harder and learning from every failure to try, try again.

    • KP

      That is inspiring. Thanks for sharing, jdledell.

    • Thank you so much for those comments, JD.

      I will send them to Jimmy “Pedals” Agnew. I know he’ll appreciate them and empathize.

      I remember well reading your touching and inspiring story. I don’t know if you posted it here or sent it to me by e-mail.

      Regardless, I believe that I mentioned the possibility of working on it and possibly publishing it, perhaps at the Huffington Post.

      If I did and never followed up or closed the loop with you, my most sincere apologies.

      I come across so many human interest stories that captivate me (such as the unicycle story and one on autism I’ll be working on) and about which I would like to write, but which either fall through the crack due to my short-span memory or because I just don’t have enough hours in the day to pursue. I hope yours wasn’t one of them.

      If you want to communicate privately, e-mail me. (You already have my e-mail address or you can get it from Joe or Dr. E)

      Please let me know where and how we left it.

    • jimipedalsatx

      JDLedell,

      This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing such a heart felt story. It’s an incredibly personal and an inspiring perspective that ignites my passion to share our vision and our story with many more schools and communities both near and far. I fully believe that by providing meaningful shared learning experiences for children to grow through collaborative and challenging play we are impacting the world for generations to come. It’s a pretty special thing when a child develops an uncontrollable desire to achieve, regardless what life throw’s at them. That inner drive and willingness to go after life to it’s fullest spreads like wild fire. And when momentum builds, individuals and soon communities are naturally inspired and drawn together to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible. That’s essentially how our project was born and it’s how our project will continue to grow around the globe. A few resilient and passionate friends of all ages, UNI-ted through play to share in the joy of learning something seemingly impossible, not as individuals but as ONE. One wheel, Many Children. Because after all, as a young Uni-Sader named Luke like’s to say. “If there’s a wheel, there’s a way.”

      I look forward to continued conversation and please don’t hesitate to reach out through our website to stay connected. Thank you. Onewheelmanychildren.org

      One Wheel, One World, One Love
      Jimmy Agnew

      • Thank you for commenting, Jimmy.

        Because of a new format, it has become difficult to keep up with/monitor comments here.

        If I don’t see JDLedell respond in a reasonable amount of time, it will be because of the format and I will e-mail him your comments.

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