The Backwards Brain Bicycle – The BEST thing we did all year

***UPDATE*** 8.18.16  Tony Riehl from Montana made his own backwards bike and blogged HERE about how he made it.  Thanks Tony.

2016 TMC Bike Presentation 2FullSizeRender3

Morgan Fierst (@MsFierst) and I (@saravdwerf) CHALLENGE YOU (yes, you, the person reading this right now) to take what we are calling the ‘Backwards Bike’ challenge for the 2016-17 school year.  Morgan and I  both challenged ourselves to spend 5 minutes per day trying to learn to ride a backwards bike beginning in October, 2015 – at school – everyday –  in front of students and our peers.  What started out as a desire to model persistence for our students quickly changed into the most powerful reflective practice our careers (so far).  Please take a few moments to read about what Morgan and I did this year to change our practice. We also hope you will think about what your ‘backwards bike’ challenge may be this fall.

Morgan and I both teach Advanced Algebra at South High school.  It is my first year working at South HS and my first year working with Morgan.  Morgan and I co-plan our lessons every day.  She is amazing and together we are better teachers.  Last May, I tweeted out a link to the ‘Backwards Brain Bicycle’ video that I loved.  If you have not watched it yet – please stop what you are doing and watch it now.  Over the summer I received a text from Morgan saying “Dude, we’re doing this.”, to which I replied “Doing What?”  I had moved on in life, but Morgan could not shake the video.  She had decided that she was going to build South High’s very own backwards bike.  After buying a $20 bike on Craigslist and a gear off of Ebay and seeking the help of a friend who knew how to put these all together – at the beginning of October we unveiled our backwards bike to the school.

The backwards bike is  called such because when you turn the handlebars left the wheel
turns right.  Morgan and I were both proficient in handlebarsriding a normal bike.  Our first attempts on the backwards bike failed big time.  It is hard.  So hard.WE MADE A REALLY FUN VIDEO(well morgan made the video) TO SHOW YOU OUR JOURNEY.  CHECK IT OUT HERE 

During September and October Morgan and I had spent some class time on building up student’s growth mindset as it relates to math.   We loved 2 videos (Escalator and Beagle) to contrast the difference between persistence and non-persistence.  We also loved using a Malcom Gladwell quote about 22 minutes.  We sent IMG_7156these messages t our students over and over again.  (You can read more about what we did HERE and about some of the challenges of teaching mindset).  We also showed the Backwards Brain Bicycle video to our students.  Our original intent with the bike was to begin learning to ride it for 5 minutes a day in the hallways of our school so we could be an active daily model of persistence to our students.  The bike caught the attention of our students, coworkers and everyone else in our school immediately.  The bike had buzz.  People would stop by all the time wanting to try and ride it.  It was frankly fun and relationship building to have such a unique bike in our school.

Morgan and I were faithful in practicing.  Every school day we rode the bike (not at the same time) day after day after day.  It was frustrating.  You literally see zero growth in your abilities day after day.  But we were faithful.  The guy in the Smarter Every Other Day Video took 8 months to learn to ride the bike so we were patient and regular in our practice.  The bike proved to be an excellent model of adult persistence.

What happened to Morgan and I next was unexpected.  We found ourselves talking about the bike E.V.E.R.Y day as we co-planned were the things we thought about while we were trying to learn to ride the bike.  Often one of us would say after discussing a student issue “This is just like the bike.  You know how…..”.  Over and over again we were using our experience learning to do something difficult to give us a lens in which to view our day in and day out challenges of teaching math.  The bike started impacting everything – the tasks we selected, how we talked to students about their behaviors, how we viewed that annoying coworker.

 The bike had become our work version of yoga.  It cleared out our minds of the daily stresses and distractions and allowed us to see our practice in a new way.  Never once was this reflection and clarity forced – it just came out.  Never once did Morgan and I sit down and say ‘let’s talk about what the bike taught us today’ – we just could not help talking about it naturally.  During this same time we had shown videos and read articles about Neuroplasticity and the brains ability to rebuild pathways.  We learned about how a pathway in the brain that leads to something (even something painful) can be so strong that even when we want to go another way, the brain will go down that pathway.  To neurorebuild the pathways in our brain takes many, many, many repetitions.  Once a new pathway is formed, in moments of stress or distraction we will revert to the old pathways.  We started seeing our actions, our students actions and our co-worker’s actions through this new information.  It changed how we set out to change the behaviors in our students.

In person, we can tell you story after story about what we learned.  This blog randy 2post would take me 4 weeks to write if I told all the stories here.  Suffice it say – learning to ride the bike became the best Professional Development Morgan and I had ever engaged in during the school year.  We did not plan it that way, it just happened.  Our coworker, Randy, joined us – though not on the bike.  Randy bikes to school everyday (yes even in MN weather) so learning to ride the bike was not something he wanted to do.  Instead Randy hung a nerf-style basketball randy 1hoop on the back of his classroom door  EVERY day he would shoot exactly 100 hoops  His goal was to see if he could make 100 consecutive shots.  100 shots a day meant Randy had 5-10 minutes to reflect on his practice.  It meant he was also modeling persistence.  It meant that he understood the conversations Morgan and I were having about our practice.  Learning to do something difficult – in front of students – daily – does not need to be a bike.  It can be anything.  The journey is what is transformative.

In the video we first watch, the host says ‘KNOWLEDGE IS NOT UNDERSTANDING’.  The first few times I saw this video I nodded my head and thought “Yes, you can know that you need to turn the handles the opposite way, but this does not mean you can ride the bike – so true knowledge is totally not understanding’”  I heard this message related to figuring out the bike.  (by the way – learning to ride the bike has almost nothing to do with getting good at turning – it is all about readjusting your bodies natural desire to balance in ways opposite to what the backwards bike needs).  The phrase ‘knowledge is not understanding’ has a entirely new meaning today because of my journey on the bike.  After 25 years of teaching (and leading others) I thought I knew how be reflective about my practice – my journey on the bike as led me to believe I had a lot to learn.  I did not understand entirely until recently how my reflections need to be followed with immediate actions that need to be practiced over and over again.  I thought I had lots of knowledge about my practice as a math teacher – but knowledge is not understanding.  I still have lots left to learn and many pathways in the brain that need to be shifted.

The backwards bike caused us to become learners in very different ways – both as teacher learners and in our personal lives – we both became more comfortable with not figuring out something right away.  If we could not figure out how to engage a student – we became more patient.  Waiting to see the change and trying more and more small tweaks.  If we went to a class in our personal lives of how to play the drums  – in the past we would have been uncomfortable worried about not being able to figure it out as fast as others – instead we were OK, trusting the process.  We humanized ourselves as learners – all thanks to the bike.

next stepsHere is my challenge to you.  Here is Morgan’s challenge to you.  We want you to join us during the 2016l-17 school year in publically learning how to do something difficult for 5 minutes a day.  It can be learning to ride the backwards bike or shooting 100 hoops or….get creative.  We challenge you to do this with a peer (ideally at you school, but anywhere is better than nowhere).  Just start practicing.  Choose something you will not figure out how to do for a long while.  (Note:  as of 6.5 months into our experiment with the bike, Morgan has figured it out and I still look as bad as I did on day 1 – yet I keep practicing).  Learn about neuroplasticity and the brain.  Watch what happens to you.  We are convinced you will start viewing your practice differently, you will start to see yourself as a learner differently and you will start to transform your practice, how you work with students, how you plan and what and who you talk to.  We dare you.  We will be joining you in continuing our own journey’s.

School leaders – we dare you to look at the PD models in your school differently.  Frankly the last 3 years of PD from my district has been a waste of time.  (yep, I said that out loud).   My peers and I have had to take it upon ourselves to figure out ways we can get better as teachers.  Thank goodness the bike came along.  I was craving learning and the PD structures in my district had left us in a draught like conditions.

Morgan and I have loved this so much we plan to continue this into the next school year.  If you join us, we would  love to hear from you.  Comment below OR tweet us @MsFierst and @saravdwerf.  Tell us what your ‘backwards bike’ challenge will be.

Sara (and maybe Morgan) will be presenting a ton more specifics about the bike at Twitter Math Camp in July.  We will be attempting to Periscope (live stream) our presentation.  If you want to know more – check out this blog and twitter for more details as the time grows closer.



August 12, 2016 Update!

Some great math teachers in Montana are joining us in learning to ride a backwards bike this year.  Tony Riehl tweeted out this photo of their bike.  LOVE.  Keep us updated on your progress.  We (Morgan Fierst and I) love seeing your photos.  Tweet us @saravdwerf or @msfierst.Montana Backwards Bikebackwards bike tweet

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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