Backwards Brain Bikes – Knowledge Does Not Equal Understanding

Another journey begins. The idea of a backwards bike intrigued me since I saw one on @smartereveryday. Then when I saw @saravdwerf tweet about her experience, I became driven. I describe it to non-believers that it is like the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. I can’t explain all the reasons but I am drawn to do this. I did see Sara and Morgan Fierst @MsFierst present their journey at TMC16.

My daughter @jwbrackney teaches math as well, and wanted to do the same thing. We are taking these to our schools and will use them throughout the year to demonstrate perseverance and to experience re-wiring our brains. We hope to work on this daily and journal the learning experience. We already have colleagues in both buildings excited about this.

This is just the beginning but I want to get this blogged while I remember the details.

So the first challenge was to find four bikes, two that we would use as the main parts and two that we just need the front shafts….

IMG_1660   IMG_1617   IMG_1609 (1)

The second challenge was much more difficult, to find four gears. After weeks of searching on the Internet (mainly because I wanted to get them cheap), decided that we could bore the center to the necessary size and didn’t need the exact center bore. I found some on Amazon for about $9.00 each. I had to buy them at two different times to find them at that price.  The prices change daily, today they are $42.00, I am sure the price will continue to fluctuate.

Boston Gear NB32-5/8 Spur Gear, 14.5 Pressure Angle, Steel, Inch, 16 Pitch, 0.625″ Bore, 2.125″ OD, 0.500″ Face Width, 32 Teeth

IMG_1645   IMG_1647

Then to find someone that could weld everything for us. My brother-in-law, had the necessary tools and skills to do this for us. He actually brazed them instead of welding which works much better on this type of metal.

IMG_1701   IMG_1690   IMG_1691

IMG_1708   IMG_1702 (1)   IMG_1704   IMG_1716    IMG_1714

IMG_1721   IMG_1717

We still need to get them all cleaned up and painted. Jennifer’s bike is the purple one and she wants to paint it her school colors. My bike is green with a black front fork and I decided to just paint the new pieces black, for now.

Here they are cleaned up and painted.

IMG_1827    IMG_1822

IMG_1786    IMG_1815


Backwards Brain Bicycle


  • Demonstrate perseverance
  • Learn to learn
  • Demonstrate the struggle
  • Develop new brain connectors
  • Add some excitement in education
  • Cure Alzheimer’s ???


End of the year reflection.

My school year ended on Friday and as I sit here Sunday night (when my teaching week usually begins) I am reflecting on my year.

I has been an interesting year. My “year” began last July at TMC15. I say that it started at TMC15 because that has shaped many of the things that I did this year. I was completely rejuvenated with TMC and the ideas generated there.

  • Twitter – What a wonder community and generator of ideas. So much food for thought and so many ideas, many of which I used in my classroom.
  • Desmos – I have always been a big fan of Desmos and attending TMC sessions last summer and having Eli Luberoff come to Montana to speak at our MCTM annual conference in October was amazing. I presented workshops on using Desmos in the classroom at the last three MCTM annual conferences and it is constantly changing for the better. This year Desmos Activity Builder was a great addition to my classroom
  • New textbook – This maybe wasn’t such a positive thing. I wanted to give the textbook a good shot, so I tried to use it the way the author intended. Then I spent a lot of time creating things to keep the students interested and energized. Now I know that I have some work to do to readjust for next year.
  • I tried Standards Based Grading (actually Objective Based Grading) and was pleased with it, but I need to refine my system.
  • I used Google Classroom several times this year and discovered its potential.
  • I did not give enough positive feedback to my students. This is a goal mine every year and I think I slipped a bit this year.

OK…to make improvements for next year.

  • I am attending TMC16 and MCubed (Montana version of TMC) this summer. I am co-presenting “5 Practices” at TMC and Desmos at MCubed. I am looking forward to getting more great ideas from both of them.
  • My colleagues and I will work this summer to put a better plan together to create thinkers and to make math more interesting and pertinent.
  • My daughter (also a math teacher) and I are going to build two “backward bicycles” to use in our respective schools. Thanks to Destin at  @smartereveryday and Sara @saravdwerf . We really need to teach our students about learning and perseverance.

More ideas to follow…


My Heroes

I have many heroes in my life. I would like to tell you about two of them and why they are my heroes.

My daughter @jwbrackney is one of my heroes. She is a middle school math teacher that has an impressive number of success at a relatively early stage in her career. Since she was a young girl, I always thought she tried to take on too much. Even now as she has twin 6 year old girls, she continues to take on too much, but somehow accomplishes everything she tries to do with great success and finesse. We have had countless hours of conversations about teaching math and I know that I have learned as much from her as she has from me. Our time together reflecting on what works for kids has benefited hundreds of our students. The latest professional concept that I am stealing from her is Objective Based Grading. It all makes so much sense and I would have never made the change if it wasn’t for her trying it first and talking me into trying it. For more on that see my blog post on Objective Based Grading.

My son @stevenriehl is another one of my heroes. What he does with computers is nothing short of amazing and the attitude he has towards manipulating computers to benefit others is beyond amazing. His gift for computers started at a young age. I am the kind of person that people come to when they have computer questions, but my son’s computer ability surpassed me when he was in middle school. While in high school he designed our school district website that was used for about 5 years. After two or three different professional web designers re-designed it, I still hear teachers saying they wish they had the old design back. He is currently our school district’s Information Specialist in charge of many of our student databases. He makes Powerschool, our district’s grades and information system,  dance to the tune of everyone in the district. If you want it to happen, he makes it happen. His positive and “can do” attitude impresses everyone that has contact with him. I am so glad to have him on speed dial for tech assistance.

My daughter and son are my heroes for many other more personal reasons, but I wanted to share how proud I am of them as they became colleagues and professionals. Makes a father proud!


Objective Based Grading

I am not using Standards Based Grading but Objective Based Grading. This is definitely a movement in the right direction. This is the best thing about grading that I have done in 35 years. I got all of the basic ideas and lots of encouragement to change from my daughter (@jwbrackney), who also teaches math. I don’t grade everything the way that she does, but the philosophy is the same.

I identify objectives for each unit that I am teaching. When I grade quizzes and tests I used a different color hi-liter for each objective. After making comments and corrections with the hi-liters I use a rubric to determine a level of understanding for each objective (Grading Rubric). So a quiz will generally have 2-3 grades on it, based on the number of objectives assessed. A test will have 4-6 grades on it based on the number of objectives assessed.

Each objective gets quizzed after they are covered and then tested at the end of the unit. The objective quiz grades get reported on Powerschool (our district online grade program) and counted as part of the student’s grade until the unit test. At the end of a unit objective test grades get recorded. At that time I exempt the quiz grades. It still shows for student and parents to see, but they don’t count as part of the final grade.

So here is what my gradebook looks like at this point in the semester…


I am absolutely convinced this is a movement in the right direction. My grades mean so much more. It is easy to identify what a student does well and what they still need to work on. I also do retakes on objectives after they are tested.

Last semester I tried to not put a grade on homework, but with my freshman in Algebra 1 they are convinced there is no reason to do an assignment if they don’t get a grade for it. This semester I went to grading random homework assignments. I hope to one day have grade just based on assessments. One step at a time.





If you are not learning from the experience, you are starting from the beginning every time.

This title became obvious to me this past week as I listened to my student discussions. I did an activity with my Algebra 1 classes where groups of three students had to make a 4 by 4 with playing cards, so that the all rows and columns add to 25. When that was accomplished, I asked them to now make all rows and columns add to 31 (if they completed that, I had them go to a 5 by 5, sums to 31). Many groups just put down cards and forced it to work. Some groups thought it through and started with a pattern. Before they attempted the sum of 31, I asked how they got 25 and could they use what they learned to get 31. I suggested they look for patterns. Again, some groups just started over. Most of the groups replaced one card at a time until they got it to work. One group discussed for a long time and JUST REPLACED A DIAGONAL to complete the sum of 31 by increasing each card in the diagonal by 6 (WOW). This would not work if the diagonal were larger card values, but they originally started by putting tens on the edges. GREAT DISCUSSIONS!

After the activity we debriefed and I explained that I was more interested in their discussions and the approaches they took. We finished the class by talking about “Growth Mindset” vs “Fixed Mindset” people. This will really lend itself to the mathematical practices discussion later.

In my Honors Algebra 2 classes I started with a 5 by 5 getting a sum of 31. The number of groups that started with a pattern was much larger and the discussions were much richer. I then asked them to think about increasing the sum to 35, but without actually doing it. This got better thought and discussions than if they just did it. AWESOME ACTIVITY.

sum 31 cards 1 sum 31 cards 3 sum 31 cards 2

Next up…VRG and VNPSs….I explained to my classes that I had way too much whiteboard space for me and I would need their help filling them with math next week.

At this point in my life I know these things.

  • I need to use VRG (Visual Random Grouping)!
  • I need to do more VNPS (Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces) and encourage students to take pictures of their VNPS work.
  • I want to do some kind of Standards Based Grading this year.
  • Students don’t care about comments, if there is a grade on the paper.
    • I need to grade less and comment more.
  • I need to use Desmos Activity Builder!
  • I need to do some kind of student journaling in my classroom. I would like to do it electronically!
  • I want to do some kind of “What have we learned at the end of most class periods” (I would like to do this electronically).
  • Day 1 needs to be an activity, not me reading rules!
  • I need to have my students put photos in Padlet as an assignment. (ie: find an example of a parabola in nature and post a picture.)

“Find out what you love, and do more of that” @Trianglemancsd #tmc15

“Bad teaching is not knowing that what you’re doing can be better.” @fawnpnguyen #tmc15

The Answer is TMC and Desmos.

The question is: What made you start a Blog?

I attended the most amazing professional development last week. I traveled over 1200 miles to attend the 2015 Twitter Math Camp. Wait for it…TWITTER MATH CAMP? Here is the background: A little over a year ago I started to follow some of the most amazing people on twitter. One of the events that really got my interest was TMC 2014. I decided then that I would be at the next Twitter Math Camp. I since survived TMC15! I was one of the introverts that was pushed out of our comfort zone (which we need). I did avoid the late night shenanigans (maybe next year). YEA TMC16 Minneapolis, MN.

And then there was Desmos! I have been one of the biggest fans of Desmos since I first discovered it. While at TMC I spent six hours working on Desmos with four great facilitators. I thought I was proficient with Desmos before, but found out there was much more to learn. And then, Eli Luberoff (Desmos CEO) showed up and introduced us to the Desmos Activity Builder (that was actually released one week later).

Back to the question…At TMC there was a push to blog or start your own blog. I didn’t feel like I had enough to say on a regular basis, and that may still be unproven. But, as I worked for a long time mentally unpacking what I brought home from TMC, I decided I needed a place to organize my thoughts. I think I made an obvious discovery, blogs aren’t always to tell other people stuff, as much as to tell yourself stuff.

So there, I am putting myself out there, but mainly to organize the stuff in my head. Just because TMC15 and Desmos both continue to blow my mind.