CHAMPAIGN — Watching a physical education class from St. Matthew Catholic School parade around the school on bikes is like a attending a high-spirited parade.
Some students toot bicycle horns, some try out adult tricycles and many of them use hand signals to indicate their intentions. One eighth-grader even hums the song from "The Wizard of Oz" that usually accompanies the witch on the bicycle.
For two weeks this fall, first-grade through eighth-grade students at St. Matthew brought their bikes to school (or borrowed one) to spend PE class using them and learning about how to ride safely.
PE teacher Montana Willamon, with the help of parents and other school staff members, asked students to bring their bikes for the unit.
Willamon said she wanted to try something "fun and different" and encourage biking, which is something students will be able to do even when they're beyond PE class.
"Biking you can do when you're 4 or when you're 100, if you (are able)," Willamon said.
She said the unit is a good way for students to burn energy they accumulate in the classroom and keeps all students active throughout the entire class period.
The younger kids, some still using training wheels, stick to the blacktop parking lot, following a course of cones and even weaving around hula hoops. The latter teaches them about agility and how important it is to pay attention while bike riding.
Willamon and a parent volunteer take older students riding in single file around the large block the school sits on. They stick to the sidewalks, which further shows them the importance of using hand signals and paying attention, Willamon said.
Outside of school, students might bike with four or five friends, she said. Biking as a class helps them understand what it's like to bike in a group of 25.
If a student couldn't bring his or her own bike, Willamon devised a system of tying handkerchiefs on bikes that can be borrowed. She brought in two large tricycles, as well, which she said her students like to try out.
The issue of helmets was trickier, she said, because she couldn't require students to buy them and she didn't want them sharing. But her classes discussed helmet safety and why it's important to wear one, she said, adding that it's the same as wearing a seat belt in a car.
Willamon wore a helmet while teaching, with a masking-tape label on the back identifying it as hers.
She also taught students to check the air in their tires, their brakes and chain (the "ABC quick check") before going biking.
The goal of the unit is to show students how much fun it is to be active on a bike, Willamon said. Some students practiced their biking at home before bringing their bikes, so they would be up to snuff while riding with their classmates.
"It got them more active before the unit even started," Willamon said.
Eighth-grader Kayleigh Doyle said she's enjoying the unit, even though she rides her bike to school every day (sometimes balancing both a trombone and a trumpet on her bike).
She said she likes being outside and having fun with her friends.
Second-grader Jude Pisarczyk said he was excited to bring what he called his "dirt bike" to school, and sometimes shows Willamon tricks. He includes his tricks to be standing up while riding, making tight turns and riding with one hand on his handlebar. He always has the other one nearby, though, just in case he needs to turn, he said.
He said he thinks the most important lesson was about hand signals.
"The funny thing is, we use our left hand even when we want to turn right," Pisarczyk said. "It was sort of confusing at first."
But he said he's enjoying the biking unit.
"I think it's nice that the school lets us bring in our bikes," Pisarczyk said, "because it's really fun and not every school gets to do it."