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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

This is a tale about connections.

It's a story about the positive power social media can wield, how it helps spread the message that physical activity, fruits, vegetables and nonfried foods helps kids learn.

It's about how Twitter connected Norris Public Schools Superintendent John Skretta to California fourth-grade teacher Jen Burdis, brought her from California to a school in the rolling hills of Southeast Nebraska to tell her story — and in the process convinced her she should write a book.

“You helped me raise the bar,” Burdis told an auditorium full of teachers and administrators at Norris this week. “You have a big place in my story.”

The 20-year veteran of California classrooms is a bit of a celebrity in the world of fitness and education, espousing the same ideas Skretta has been championing for years.

Known as EduNinja, Burdis has competed twice on NBC’s "American Ninja Warrior" and has taken the passion for fitness, healthy eating and mindfulness she honed training for the show into the classroom.

She holds yoga sessions with her students to encourage mindfulness. She helped them make a case for healthier school lunches. She gives them exercise homework and leads them in activity breaks during the day.

She encourages fellow teachers to create their own wellness plans, to model healthy behavior for their students through exercise lunch clubs for students or staff and regular workouts. She's turned that passion into a consulting business to help other educators.

Skretta thought Burdis was the perfect person to inspire his staff: she’d grown up in a small town, played against the Huskers as a member of the Penn State volleyball team and, unlike many education fitness consultants, was still teaching.

He knew something about her personal story and how the grit she talks about played out in her life, and suggested she tell that story to his staff. 

"What really works is when you’ve got someone who is living it and has an actually compelling or interesting story to share around that," he said. 

So, for the first time, she stood in front of a large group of educators and told her story. 

She told the Norris staff she grew up in the town of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, with 3,000-some other residents, including her grandparents — only one of whom graduated from high school.

She didn’t learn the healthy eating habits she practices today there — “the veggies I grew up with was canned corn” — but she learned to climb trees, run through the woods and nurture a love for sports in the small mining town.

She was the first girl to make the town’s Little League all-star baseball team and played high school volleyball and basketball and competed in track.

After high school, Penn State invited her to walk on for volleyball.

"Coach (Russ) Rose asked me if I'd like to play volleyball at Penn State," recalled the woman who'd grown up in a house with Penn State lamps and Nittany Lions wallpaper. “I said, ‘Is this a rhetorical question?’”

Rose challenged her to win every running drill and become an Academic All-American. She thought she could manage the first.

She wasn't so sure about the second because the thing is: she couldn’t read, at least not easily. 

Undiagnosed dyslexia had made high school nearly impossible, and she credits a few teachers with giving her hands-on activities and helping her get through. Today, she makes discovering her students' learning styles a priority.

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“Meeting the needs of kinesthetic learners is important,” she said. “It’s vital.”

In college, she was determined not to let her coach down — and she didn’t, earning academic awards each year.

“I know it took me probably five times longer to get through the books, but I knew it was Coach’s expectation for me,” she said.

She remembered his positive messages, incorporated them into her own relationships with students.

She advocates journaling, setting goals, seizing the moment, aspiring to greatness.

She became a blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu and earned a master’s degree before a chance meeting with a Penn State football player at a gym led to a friendship, and ultimately to her decision to try out for "American Ninja Warrior."

Other competitors, and those on social media, helped her, she said. 

“It’s really important to have those people in your life who can help you meet your goals,” she said.

Skretta, it turns out, became one of those people. His suggestions for her presentation, she said, led to her decision to write a book and she encouraged the Norris teachers to meet new goals.

“I hope today you’re ready to raise the bar,” she said. "I hope going into the school year you’re ready to kick some butt.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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