Got an EDU Mountain to Climb? Tap Your PLN! Baby Steps. Are You Ready? We Got This!

Part 2

When I originally listened to my daughter and Daisy tell about their experience with hiking Handies Peak in Part 1, Got A Mountain To Climb: Baby Steps. Are You Ready? We Got This.,  I thought I knew which direction my posts would take, and then I didn’t.  I immediately saw an amazing teachable moment about motivation, failing forward with students, and the guide on the side (Dave Burgess, Teach Like A Pirate) applications. Then I realized it had general life applications, so that’s the direction my first post ended up, real life.  As I considered which educational applications to write about in Part 2, I was again struck with the multitude of possibilities even by narrowing it down to education.  As a result, there will be at least one more post in this series.mRHand_102

For Part 2, let’s examine and reflect on ourselves as educators when we try new things for our lessons (either in pedagogy and/or technology), or are faced with problems that seem like mountains to climb.  We will do this in the structure of Daisy, Shalyn, Austin, and Kiana climbing Handies Peak, so grab your gear. Here we go.mRHand_105

There are at least two different mindsets of teachers when it comes to trying new things in the classroom. We have the go slow, research, get prepared, then go approach, and we also have the Speedy Gonzales crowd. If you had to click the link to understand the allusion there, then you now know I’m old, but let’s examine Speedy first.mRHand_107

In our Part 1 story, Shalyn (my 19 year old daughter) stayed with Daisy, her guide and mentor, listened to her, followed her lead, and more.  Kiana (Austin’s 23 year old girlfriend), on the other hand, decided that even though she had never climbed a mountain before, much less a 14’er, she should follow her own strategy.  For those of you who read the first post, the answer to a question you may now be pondering is no, her strategy was not to vomit up and down the mountain.  That just happened to be an unfortunate by product of her strategy.  The reason Kiana took off at the beginning of the hike, continually pushed herself to go faster than her guide and crew, is that she believed that would enable her to have more rest when she stopped to wait for the group to catch up to her.  Hiking in high elevations, even up the side of a mountain along established trails, will push your body to limits you weren’t aware of previously.  It burns calories. A lot of calories.  In order to keep your body going, you have to provide it with calories to replace those you are burning.  Energy is a necessity to hiking a mountain.  Energy is essential for life. For creativity. For Teaching. For us all.mRHand_109

Kiana didn’t like the bread Daisy choose for their sandwiches (though the groundhogs she fed it to certainly did!).  It was a thicker sturdier grain that would hold up to being hauled in backpacks.  Even though her sandwiches were made to her specifications (turkey and mayo only, no cheese), the fact that the bread was unfamiliar and of a different texture than usual prevented her from eating the sandwiches.  She only ate the granola bars and nuts Daisy had included in their backpacks in order to supplement the sandwiches.  Kiana’s body burned calories and didn’t get replenished. Her energy waned, she vomited what she did eat and drink, and her body objected to the abuse.mRHand_113

The “go as fast as you can so you can rest longer” approach reminds me of how educators approach trying new things sometimes. It’s almost like the experience of taking unpleasant medicine.  Or ripping off a band-aid.  If I hurry, I will get through the hard parts quickly and can then coast through the easier sections of this mountain. Sure. And yes, Kiana did make it up the mountain and back down. However, she did experience physical ailments that the others did not.  She made the trip much more difficult and unpleasant than it needed to be. She did not do much to fuel herself with the energy needed to perform well.  She had a support system ready to go, already in place, but she chose not only to not use it, but to risk her own health by not taking advantage of the support, experience, and assistance offered by Daisy and Austin.  Sound familiar? I’ve been that way in education before, and I hope I’ve learned from my mistake. Let’s put down our packs and rest a second. Have a cool drink of water.

Austin too had climbed 14ers before with his mom, Daisy.  He also ran cross country in high school and in college before switching to the college track team.  He is no stranger to the value of pacing, teamwork, and experience.  And though he worried about her and alternated between Kiana and his mom and Shalyn, Kiana didn’t take advantage of the assistance he could have given her. She received his sympathy, but rejected his help. She got further and further behind as the group worked their way back down the mountain. Her plan backfired. She ran out of gas. Her battery died. As a result, she (Kiana) has no intention of ever climbing a mountain again. Ring a bell? Have you ditched a tech tool or new strategy because it didn’t go well, was too hard, or you blazed right through it without seeking a guide?mRHand_115

Shalyn, on the other hand, knew that she didn’t know everything she needed to climb the mountain.  Shalyn didn’t particularly care for the bread either, but she trusted Daisy. She understood that Daisy HAD done this before. Shalyn knew that Daisy found out the hard way about altitude sickness, stress, lack of preparation and training, etc. How did Shalyn know this? Daisy shared it with her, each baby step up that mountain. Daisy let Shalyn know that she wasn’t alone, others had gone before (yes, a Star Trek allusion), and that she, Daisy, had failed but still prevailed.  Daisy isn’t an expert climber; she just likes to climb one mountain a year.  She doesn’t claim to know everything, but she is not afraid to climb the mountain. Daisy’s not afraid to try, and her enthusiasm and cheerleading, each step of the way, were what helped Shalyn up the mountain. Baby steps.  Are you ready? We got this.mRHand_116

The key phrase that Daisy used repeatedly with Shalyn that day was: We got this.  Shalyn knew as she stepped out of the truck that she wasn’t climbing the mountain by herself. She had help. She had support. She had a guide with experience.  Isn’t that what a PLN (Professional Learning Network) is or does?  If you are standing at the foot of a mountain, or even most of the way up but have a few thousand feet left to climb, don’t you want to tap into the power provided by your PLN? Whether it be a personal problem, professional problem, or a new technology you want to try in class, ask that teacher, coach, administrator or counselor who has climbed the mountain before to help you. Ask for support. Put their experience to work for you. Let members of your PLN choose the bread for your sandwiches that you need on the climb. Let someone from your PLN tell you about the times they lost their footing when climbing up or down their own mountain.  They can share the mistakes they made and help you avoid them.  If a thunderstorm rolls in as you reach the summit, let a member of your PLN provide you with rain poncho.  Don’t get wet just to prove you don’t need help. Life is too short, and we have AMAZING things to do. This isn’t a race..We ALL need help. Baby steps. Are you ready? We got this!

Got A Mountain to Climb? Baby Steps. Are you Ready? We Got This.

Part 1:

I love the mountains out west. I really do.  My favorites press upward past the tree line and have snow draped around their summits year round, or nearly year round.  During our recent vacation in Colorado, my cousin’s wife, Daisy, had a day picked out to climb Handies Peak near Lake City, Colorado (my new favorite place), and she talked my nineteen year-old daughter, Shalyn, who was home from college for the summer, into hiking to the summit with her.  To round out the group, Daisy’s 24 year-old son, Austin, and his 23 year-old girlfriend, Kiana, were also planning to hike.  Austin and Daisy had hiked Pike’s Peak (another 14ner) twice previously, but Kiana and Shalyn had never done anything like this before. Ever. Though Shalyn had played basketball and softball in high school, she was not in “mountain climbing” shape. Shalyn also did not have waterproof winter gloves, a proper hiking backpack, and her hiking boots were much to heavy, being made for fashion and not actually for hiking.  To be clear, if you’ve never hiked a 14ner, the distance isn’t really how you gauge the level of difficulty.  The hike Daisy planned for the group is Class 1 or Exposure 1, 5.7 miles total.  That doesn’t make it an easy hike, since you start at 11,600 feet and must hike to the summit of 14,048 feet in elevation. There are all kinds of weather you must prepare for, physical conditions, and wildlife (bears), all while keeping your pack light enough that you can carry it up the mountain, all the way to the summit. Then you have to carry it back down, which can be just as challenging, though in different ways.

To see all seventeen of the photos that go with this one, click here.

Now, Shalyn could have made excuses not to go on the hike. She wasn’t prepared. She hadn’t trained for it . She didn’t have all the right equipment (sound like any educators you know? Yourself? Myself?). She didn’t know what to expect, so she was a bit scared of the unknown. Shalyn has some health issues and cannot tolerate heat, which has been known to trigger a panic attack. She has anxiety. While not diabetic, she has low blood sugar issues.  The list could go on, because it did while we packed her bag the night before the hike.  Daisy and crew were heading out at six the following morning. My husband and I told Shalyn that she didn’t have to go. She could hang out at the cabin with me in the morning then go riding trails on her 4-wheeler with her dad, eleven year-old brother, my cousin Randy (Daisy’s husband) and his two younger sons (ages 13 and 11), all of whom would be on dirt bikes.  Now Shalyn loves riding mountain trails, but the problem was, that is something she does every year. We load up the bikes and 4 wheeler and head out to Colorado. That wasn’t a new experience, and it wasn’t a challenge. During the whole trip out to Colorado from Missouri, I kept thinking of the challenge to try new experiences set by Denis Sheeran, author of Instant Relevance (a favorite book of mine) in his guest blog for Dave Burgess. To read that great post, click here. I sat there watching my daughter struggle with the decision to go on the hike or not.  I wanted to switch places with her and try hiking a mountain, but my recent surgery prevented that. It would be physically demanding. It would be mentally demanding. It would NOT be easy. It would be new. It would be exhilarating to reach the summit. It would be amazing. I was concerned about her health if she went, but I would not stop her or tell her not to go. I’m not that kind of mom. She can make her own decisions, and she did. Shalyn went.

Loading up for the ride on the day before the big hike up Handies Peak.

I helped Daisy pack the food for the hike, since their bodies would be burning through calories faster than they could replace them. We had been in the mountains (8,500 elevation or higher) for nearly a week by this time, so their bodies were already acclimated to the higher elevation. I woke up at the crack of dawn to make sure Shalyn had what she needed and saw her out the door.  I then said a quiet prayer for her that all moms can relate to, and went back to bed, but I couldn’t go back to sleep.


Once they returned, Daisy filled me in on how their hike went.  They showed up at Daisy’s cabin starving and exhausted, and I was amazed at how much food they consumed.  Then later I got Daisy alone and she filled me in, which in turn, sparked this blog post.  You see, Daisy was the guide on the side, and the three with her, mainly Shalyn and Kiana, were her students.  Daisy and Austin had split the majority of things all four would need between them in their packs, while Shalyn and Kiana carried packs with stuff they would personally need. Daisy instructed the group to stay together, take it slow and steady, and that they could take as many breaks as they needed.  To add to the stress of the hike for Shalyn, the area was flooded with people, since apparently a race up to the summit was taking place, and people and cameras were everywhere.  While this reduced the chance of interrupting a bear’s daily routine, it did not lesson the anxiety my introverted daughter was feeling, but she listened carefully to Daisy as they prepared to leave the trailhead. Kiana, however, took off running.  Daisy was baffled but just reminded Shalyn that this wasn’t a race (for them anyway, but it was a race for the people in the actual race) . They could go as slow as needed. After maybe one hundred yards, my out of breath daughter declared, “I’m dead. I can still see the truck, and I’m already dead.” Calm and reassuringly, Daisy explained to Shalyn how she managed to climb Pike’s Peak for the first time without knowing anything but what she’d manage to research on the internet.  However, as with most experiences in life, there are certain intangibles that you can’t always discover online. Daisy was unprepared for the realities of hiking in higher elevations that first time, even though she had the right gear and knew the route and the destination. She made it to the top by simply placing one foot slowly in front of the other. Baby steps. She gave Shalyn the same advice. “Just take baby steps. Put one foot in front of the other.” Off they trudged.


Shalyn thought and verbalized on multiple occasions up the mountain that she was “dead,” or that she “died,” but she kept putting one foot in front of the other. Baby steps. Daisy stayed with her the whole time. Kiana, who took off running from the trailhead, threw up several times, but she kept running ahead every time the rest of the group approached, didn’t stay with the group much, and wouldn’t eat to replenish the calories that they were all quickly burning as they trudged up Handies Peak. Shalyn, on the other hand, ate when she felt she needed to eat or when Daisy told her to eat. When she thought she couldn’t go any further, Daisy would say, “Let’s just go a few more feet.”  And Shalyn did. A few more feet, a few more baby steps, and Shalyn climbed the mountain. At one point, Shalyn exclaimed breathlessly, “I think I died and lived to tell the story!” Daisy laughed and replied, “Let’s go a few more feet.Baby steps.

Instead of the cold that the group had expected, they encountered heat. The weather stayed somewhat mild while they hiked, so Shalyn had to combat the heat that her hardworking body was generating. Her body doesn’t handle heat well, remember, so this added a layer of struggle to her efforts.  When she struggled, Daisy was at her side saying, “Are you ready? We got this!” Once, when Shalyn kept repeating that she was dying, Daisy said, “Well, you can’t go back now!” My daughter replied, “Oh, I never said I was going back.” And she didn’t go back. She kept putting one foot in front of the other. Baby steps. Slow and steady.


The snow they trudged through was wet and cold, the air was thin, and the hours mounted. Her muscles screamed, her boots were too heavy, and the backpack was killing her shoulders. Just a few more feet. We got this. Baby steps. And then they reached the summit. They rested there a bit, took a bunch of pictures with their cell phones (which I’m using in this post), and then had to begin their descent. Going back down would be every bit the challenge that going up had been, only the problems would be different. Their toes would hit the end of their shoes repeatedly. Painfully. Keeping their footing and balance was often hazardous. A thunderstorm moved in, complete with lightning. Kiana threw up some more, and kept running ahead. Daisy and Shalyn headed back down the mountain, with Austin somewhere between his mom and his running then stopping then running girlfriend. Slow and steady. Are you ready? We got this. Baby steps.

Handies Peak selfie! Front: Austin, Kiana, and Shalyn. Back: Daisy, the guide on the side.

To break up the tension of physical distress with comic relief, Daisy fell down a lot. Okay, so she didn’t fall on purpose, but going down a mountain in snow, rain, and treacherous terrain is not easy to do without falling. Daisy fell, even though she was the guide, the experienced one. She fell, she laughed, she got up again and kept going. Shalyn, in her heavy Dr. Martens hiking boots, did not fall. Those heavy boots may have been killing her tired legs, but their tread kept her upright. She was the only one who didn’t fall, but each member of the group who fell got right back up again and kept going. Come on, Shalyn. Slow and steady. Are you ready? We got this. Baby steps.

The group made it up to the summit and back down the mountain, the measly but excruciating 5.7 miles, in approximately five and a half hours. They made it, even Kiana, who pushed her body too hard, too fast, and without replenishing enough of the calories. Daisy and Shalyn made it to the truck before Kiana, who had to stop repeatedly as her body reached it’s limit, but they all made it. Upon arriving at the cabin and eating macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, and more, they told me about their experience. Kiana flatly stated that she’d never do it again. Shalyn said she probably wouldn’t do it again. Not without better equipment, like water proof winter gloves. No way she’d do it again. Well, not without getting lighter hiking boots. She absolutely wouldn’t do it again. At least not without training first.

My tired happy daughter, Shalyn, resting at the summit of Handies Peak.

Why am I blogging about this? I dare say many of you will have already seen the connection to education that I saw as this story unfolded, and I’ll focus on that in Part 2, my next post.  However, this doesn’t just relate to education. This story applies to life.  Your life, my life, everyone’s life.  We all have mountains in front of us at one time or another. We all see the mountain of work or trouble that keeps piling up, making us think it is impossible to manage, escape, survive, or conquer. While my kiddo struggled up and down her mountain and prevailed, I was reading Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank, by Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda  back at the cabin (and if you are facing mountains in your educational or professional field, get this book. It has strategies, advice, and will help prepare you to navigate the trail to the summit of your mountain). I was only in chapter two at the time, but the real stories of educators in the book who were facing serious mountains of their own, and my worry for Shalyn climbing her mountain, had me thinking that both situations were actually similar in some ways. Neither are easy, both may seem impossible to do or survive at first, and all of us want to turn around at some point, or at least think about it briefly. But what if we can’t turn around or leave the mountain, and instead we have to face it? How do we manage the mountain?  Listen to your own personal Daisy. Your guide on the side, whoever it may be. You don’t have to go it alone. Find a we. Don’t have one yet? Then listen to my Daisy: Slow and steady. Let’s just go a few more feet. Put one foot in front of the other. Baby steps. Are you ready? We got this! 



Work-Life Balance or Unbalance?

Everyone wants a magic formula to create the perfect lifestyle and to know they are doing things right.  If we just had this formula, then happiness and success would invade and take over our lives. Sure. That would be great. But there’s a good reason that no such magic formula exists.  The things in my life that fulfill me might terrify, bore, exhaust, or disgust others, and vice versa. The trick here is to find what works for you, your spouse, your family.  Why is this an important topic for those in education? Who we are, how we are, and what we do affects our ability to be our best for the students and staff we work with every day. And since I brought it up, keep in mind that my best, your best, and (insert your colleague’s name here)’s best will not look the same any more than our work and life dynamic does.  We aren’t the same, so we need to stop comparing and start finding what works for us as individuals, couples, and families.

Building off of my last post about finding your own joy, happiness, and fun in order to bring those elements to your classroom, take a few minutes to examine your lifestyle and habits.  Are you merely existing, make it day by day, just barely? Are you finding yourself content, miserable, overwhelmed, satisfied, bursting with joy and energy? (Time to self-reflect, folks.) Have you built something into your morning routine that ensures you’ll be angry, upset, fired up, pumped up, joyful when you get your students (for you elementarians–shut up, spell check, it’s a word…now) or first students of the day (for us high school and some middle school peeps)?  Yes, how you start each day matters. Figure out what triggers your negative emotions or attitudes and change anything in your daily morning routine that may feed those negatives.


Unbalanced life.  Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? But maybe it’s the right way of thinking. I’ve seen a lot of blog posts and other articles surfacing recently about the power of failing in education and learning, the need to share failures instead of hiding them, and yesterday I watched a powerful TED Talk by Brené Brown where she weaves the story of her discovery that vulnerability in life was the key to courage, creativity, and more. Taking risks in education will involve vulnerability. It involves getting out of our comfort zones. I’m not going to hit you all (y’all) over the head with this concept, but if we as educators want to challenge your students, then we need to be willing to challenge ourselves. Every so often, I think of an area in my life where I’m clearly in my comfort zone, and I get out of it. I start small. If I see that I am constantly choosing to wear tennis shoes with jeans, (hazard of coaching), then I take a break from that zone and choose a different style of shoe for a set time (more than a day or week in length).  If I don’t like getting up in front of people and speaking, singing, presenting, praying, participating, debating, whatever, I make myself do it.  If you start rocking things in your own life, that will help you grow as a person and educator.

My husband, son Ryan, and daughter Shalyn at one of our favorite spots to ride dirt bikes and 4-wheelers in Colorado at Taylor Park.

I don’t think of my life or lifestyle in terms of balance. I like the thoughts posed by Kelly Christopherson in his recent blog that challenged educators on this subject. He quotes Chris Brogan from his post on this subject (told you it was popular right now) in that balance is not what we should seek, but instead, we should seek to THRIVE.  As I read and pondered this, I realize that although my life is crazy and busy, it is how I thrive. I am now considering my life in terms of unbalance. My husband (tech director for my district) and I could beat some of you in a “how busy are you” contest, but I’m also sure others would beat us at this game. For us, busy is part of how we thrive. It keeps us challenged and unbalanced. We attend every school event we possibly can (EVERY school event we can, not just band, or just art, or just sports.), sing (me) and play lead guitar (him) in a local contemporary (rockin’) Christian band, hold leadership roles at school, follow our 11 year old son around on his travel basketball and baseball teams, currently assistant coach for two sports (me, but that means he has to attend softball and volleyball games and act as admin or field maintenance crew as needed),  sing (me) and play guitar (him) for our church praise team, and the list actually goes on. We are seldom home, but we enjoy this. We challenge ourselves. We put ourselves out there.

Setting up for our first set at Silver Dollar City’s Young Christians Weekend, 2017. Clearly I’m talking. Par for the course.

The first few concerts (gigs) we did as a band were terrifying and exhilarating.  That probably pushes me the most out of my zone, the singing. It’s much easier in the car, singing with the radio. I’ve sung for crowds of a hundred or more, and sometimes that is less scary than singing for a small church crowd on a Sunday morning. But I’m glad I do it, each and every time, despite the fear, nerves, and mistakes.  There are and will always be mistakes. Vulnerability. It’s there too, and that’s okay.  Not fun, but it is necessary. For all of us. Take some time this summer to discover what pushes your comfort zone boundaries the most, then do it. See if you can create a lifestyle that helps you thrive as a human, then turn that energy toward your classroom, and turn up the heat. Let’s grow things: ourselves, our students, our colleagues. When you get comfortable with that, turn your energy toward the world. Turn up the heat. Rather, rinse, repeat.

Thought It Was A Weed

I came home this afternoon after a rewarding but long day of summer professional development, and I noticed that my flowers were in great need of a long cool drink of water. I may have been in air conditioning all day, but they had been in the warm June Missouri humid heat.  I may not be fluent in “flower,” but I can read body language. Droopy sad flowers are not as pleasing as full bloom happy little flowers, so I mentioned to my husband that I was headed outside to water them. He declared his intention of coming with me, so outside the house we went.  He had purchased several sacks of cypress mulch to put down in my flower beds the night before, so we set about clearing stray weeds and grass from both flower beds and adding the mulch so that I could then water the flowers.


Yes, these are my actual flowers. I took the pictures this very evening while the idea for this post grew and developed. As I plucked the occasional grass from the first flower bed, I mulled over the content from the sessions I had attended today while also discussing  recent personnel changes in my own school district with my husband who is the Technology Director (yes, I know that makes me spoiled as an educator). We lost a great coach and teacher to another district recently,  hired several new teachers and a new elementary principal, and I am really excited about the functionality and power of Google Keep. These were my thoughts and the snippets of my conversation with my husband as he worked in the cypress mulch, and I picked weeds and grass.  And then he says it.  “Is this a weed?” Pluck. Snap. Toss. I look up, and one of my flowers is now deceased. “Nope, that wasn’t a weed,” I reply.  My husband glances at it where he tossed it up on the porch. “Well, it looked like a weed.”


I know what you’re thinking (well, what someone somewhere reading this may be thinking). What does this have to do with education? I’m so glad you asked. It occurred to me as I contemplated the flower my husband had just plucked and tossed aside that some students were like this flower.  There are students who don’t fit the typical mold. These are the students whose brain doesn’t function or process information like the “normal” students. The student who has no idea what personal space is. The student whose parents have no social skills and therefore have condemned their offspring to the same fate. The student who is poorer than most in your district. The student who doesn’t believe in showers or deodorant.  The student who believes in showers and deodorant but can’t take on or apply some, for whatever reason. The student who is mad at the world, every single day. The student who won’t talk or participate. I could do this all night, but I think you get my point.


Not every flower is tall. Not every flower is perky. Not every flower is perfect and without blemish, and some even have thorns. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t belong in our flower beds. As you cultivate the flower bed of your classroom, keep in mind that you students can’t help where they come from, they don’t get to choose their parents, and they are kids. Their brains are not fully developed. There are a lot of things in their lives that are not in their control. Read their body language. Figure out what they need. Some need mulch. Others need water. All of them want to live in a weed free flower bed. All of them want us to notice that they are not a weed. They are flowers.

Diving Into Summer Reading

I read. Two simple words that may not accurately capture the experience for many of us in education. I read a lot of material for my subject matter, which is English. I read for entertainment, because I have always loved to read. While in college, I realized early on that to maintain the GPA I wanted, I would have to put aside the fiction that I loved until summer. It was not unusual for me to read 100 books during the summer of my college years. I starved for reading fiction during the fall and spring semesters. Starved. Like belly-button sucking on backbone kind of starved.

As an educator, I also read to grow in my craft. I am never satisfied with my lessons, my teaching, my classroom, you name it. I continually search for ways to do things better, to help my students connect with and apply concepts, to think critically, to evaluate, to be productive.

This summer, I have a lot of reading to do. My list of books I want to read is growing (but don’t tell my husband…). I have begun already with a few books, participating in (Lead Like A Pirate) and leading (Instant Relevance) book studies, and there are more on my radar, besides the regular fiction authors that I love. So here goes a few on my radar, in no particular order, and why I’ve chosen them:

Lead Like A Pirate

This book, written by Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, was one I was very excited about, and it is living up to my expectations.  I’m in a weekly Twitter chat book study over this book, and the practical advice and examples have provided several “A HA!” moments for me.  I love the way the two authors alternate the narration, describe their backgrounds and actual situations they’ve experienced, and provide lots of “what works.” The line I highlighted below in my #BookSnaps is just what I needed to read after this school year, because I struggled throughout to lead my department productively. The mix of personalities and how to mesh them so that we could accomplish the work was at times very frustrating for me. This book will help leaders in any role find ways to connect and lead all of those different personalities to accomplish the shared vision.


Instant Relevance

This book, written by Denis Sheeran, is a must for today’s educators. It will walk you through how to make your class, your subject matter, instantly relevant to your students. As an English teacher, I often figured that students would naturally know why it was important to work on their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.  What I didn’t anticipate was the natural resistance high school sophomores have to grammar, and reading, and vocabulary. The list goes on.  Denis lays out a ton of examples of how he uses every day things to teach math, and each section ends with questions to help the rest of us think about applications for our own classrooms. According to Denis, if students are interested in something, and you can figure out a way to use it in either your main lesson or in a warm up activity, something, you will not only ramp up the engagement in your classroom, but you also make your class suddenly and instantly relevant to your students.  But don’t take my word for it, read the book.

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Shift This!:

How to Implement Gradual Changes for MASSIVE Impact in Your Classroom

Okay, I’ll confess that I am actually intrigued by the title, and yes, I have judged and then purchased at least one book based on its cover (Stephen King’s Bag of Bones), so I could justify getting this one just because I like Shift This! for the title.  However, I am always up for MASSIVE impact in my classroom, I want my classroom to be more student-led than teacher-driven, I want to offer personalized learning that meets the needs of the individuals, and I’m certainly in favor of and want to build a sense of real community in my classroom and in my school. Besides all of those great things, this book by Joy Kirr promises that real change is possible, sustainable, and even easy when it happens little by little. I haven’t bought or read this one yet, (which didn’t prevent me from creating a #BookSnaps of it), but it’s on my summer reading list for sure.

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Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank:

How to Prevail When Others Want to See You Drown

Last but in no way least, this book is also on my to purchase this summer list.  I’ve seen a lot of discussion about this book on Twitter, and again, I am drawn in by the title.  When I looked it up on Amazon, the blurb about the book’s message also sold me on this one:

“No school leader is immune to the dunk tank—the effects of discrimination, bad politics, revenge, or ego-driven coworkers. In Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank, Rebecca Coda and Rick Jetter share real-life stories and insightful research to equip school leaders with the practical knowledge and emotional tools necessary to survive and, better yet, avoid getting ‘dunked.'”

I have encountered several of those at different times in my teaching career. I just completed year 21 in education, so I’m not new to this game. I’m no spring chicken. And again, I am always pushing myself, trying new technologies and pedagogy, and I constantly want to drag others down the path of growing and learning with me. I often meet with resistance, which always puzzles me, and sometimes I feel engulfed by the negativity toward the progress I constantly push myself toward. I see the looks. I see the whispered conversations. I feel myself grow silent during district workshops when my views bring out antagonism where I expected camaraderie and a meeting/melding of the minds. I see colleagues taking aim. So, before the ball hits the target, and I am slammed into the cold water of the tank, I plan to read this book. I want to avoid the dunk, but if that’s not possible, then I’m counting on the practical knowledge and emotional tools in this book to aid me when my feet hit the floor of the tank, so that I can make the strong push back toward the surface.


The Power Of Your Voice

As teachers, we’re well aware that our voices have power. If for some reason you are shaking your head “no” at me right now, just relax. You may not be aware of it yet, but you will discover this at some point in your career as an educator. Think of it this way, picture in your mind that ONE student who seldom misses class and can make ONE comment, just ONE, and your whole lesson is derailed, if but for a moment.  One student, one comment, one moment.  There’s power in one voice.

Now I want you to flip that scenario around.  This post isn’t going to tell you how to handle that ONE student. Nope. Not happening here.  I want to show you ONE way you can use YOUR voice. This post is about making YOUR voice be the ONE with power.

Let’s talk substitute days.  I hate hate hate hate to miss school. It is generally easier to go to school when I’m sick than it is to prepare for a sub to handle what I need to do for my students that day.

I’m not overly fond of my picture either. I don’t consider myself photogenic, and I don’t really want to video myself when I am sick in order to “be there” with my students.  I’m in a 1:1 classroom with Chromebooks, so I use Google Classroom, and I post their assignments there. I also let the sub know what the assignment is that I have posted, so he or she can monitor them throughout the class period. Inevitably, I leave the dreaded (by me at least because I’m thorough and it takes forever for me to write them) “sub notes,” which my sub reads either reads privately and then verbally directs the class, or he or she my simply read sections of my notes to the class, or as I’ve had on a few occasions, the sub reads my entire notes to the class.

T R O P I C A N A (1)

Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten that we’re discussing the power of  YOUR voice today. Your voice, my voice, and the voices of teachers everywhere.  Though I hate to be absent from my classroom, I am sometimes. It’s inevitable. And because I have missed class before, I’ve learned that my high school students do not read directions posted in Classroom. They want someone to tell them what to do. Some just want to get started, dive in, and maybe they think the magic classroom elves will lead them through the assignment. At least one group of students will ask the sub what they’re supposed to do. Even if the sub directs them to Google Classroom, students will eventually nag the sub until my directions are now being regurgitated by the sub, in a condensed or incomplete manner.  I don’t blame the subs. I have good subs who work hard.

But how do I fix this problem? Then the light went off inside my brain.  I remembered a little app that I used last year in the radio class I was fortunate enough to get to create in my district and teach for one year. The app is called AVR, for Awesome Voice Recorder, and it’s made by Newkline. And yes, the version I am referring to is FREE.


I can sit in my recliner at home, record my own voice talking to my class, tell them what I need them to do for the day, make comments to individuals, and add that personal touch that typed directions in Google Classroom or to a substitute just can’t quite capture. The app then prompts me to title the audio file I just created. I can then send it directly to my Google Drive, put it in the folder of my choice, link it to the classroom assignment I created for that day. I always link it to the assignment because there will be those who are absent or want to hear the directions again, and then I also link it in my Google Doc sub plans.  My sub plays MY voice, MY audio file to begin each class, so that my students get information directly from me. They get to hear ME.  My VOICE. MY directions. ME.

This may seem simple. Easy. Or maybe it seems too flashy for you, to difficult, too much trouble, or not tech worthy of your skills.  But let me just point out that each time I did this for my classes, I did not have confused students when I returned. They understood the assignment or the outcomes I expected from that that day.

They could not talk the sub into an alternate plan, because MY voice had filled the room with MY hopes and demands for the day. MY expectations, MY humor, and MY sadness at not being there to enjoy the day with them.  Try it. You may be surprised at how easy it is, how simple, and yet how utterly effective it is at connecting YOUR voice to your students, even when you are curled up in your recliner at home.

Instructions for Using AVR for Sub Days:

  1. Download the app.  It’s for iPhone and iPads, but there’s bound to be something similar crop up for Android, and you can also just use YouTube without actually being in front of the camera. Your sub could use it as audio and just not show the video when it’s played for the class. Voxer also would work. Thanks,  @ItsMrsPenrod for the Voxer idea. 🙂
  2. Record your instructions. Stop recording when you are finished. If you mess up and don’t want to learn how to edit audio on another program, then just start over. If I have a lot to say, I do type it on a Google Doc before I record so that I don’t forget all my information.
  3. When you hit the “stop” button, it will then ask you to title the recording.
  4. Type in a title and click “save.”
  5. Click the red folder icon:

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6. Click to open the top default folder:

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7.  Now click on the file that has the name you gave it. I named this one “delete.”FullSizeRender (6)












8. Select how you want get if from the app to your computer. Air drop is a nice feature as well:

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9. From there you just need to put it in your Google Drive (I suggest you place it in your Classroom folder, inside the folder for whichever class you have recorded it for), get the shareable link, and link it in the Google Classroom assignment and in your sub notes.  Or email it to your sub if you don’t use Google Docs or something similar for your sub notes.

Now, go discover the power of YOUR voice.

You Have Been Chopped

I’m a big fan of The Food Network’s show, Chopped.  In case you aren’t familiar with it, the show has four contestants, four mystery basket ingredients, three rounds, three judges, and a host. The chefs open the baskets at the beginning of the round, and then they have a time limit to create whatever dish the round requires: appetizer, entree, or dessert. The judges look for creative uses of the basket ingredients, transformation of those ingredients, how well they are blended together for a composed dish, if it’s well seasoned, tastes good, and how well it’s plated. That’s a bit of a simplification maybe, but you get the gist.


Gamifying An Activity with Chopped

So why am I using my educational blog to chat about Chopped?  Simple. A student had a suggestion in the first semester that we take my Super Happy Fun Circle Time Friday and make it like the show, Chopped.  That sounded fun, but I couldn’t quite figure out all the pieces to that particular puzzle, until yesterday. Now when I say I figured it out, that means my students helped me. They have great ideas, so if you aren’t in the habit  of listening to your own students, consider starting…right…now.


Super Happy Fun Circle Time Friday

So let me first explain my Friday activity.  This is also a student creation, so it in and of itself is worthy of mention.  Getting high school students to write is a challenge, and getting them to enjoy it can be an arduous task for teachers as students enter high school. Sure, there’s always a few who like to write, but the majority want to spend class time under the radar doing as little as possible.  Three years ago, I had a bright but challenging group of sophomores who were convinced that whatever they were talking about during class was more important than whatever the teacher (that would be me), had to say.  I had to change my teaching methods constantly to keep up with them. And then they came up with Circle Time.  It started as an activity where students put their desks or chairs in a circle, everyone starts with a piece of paper, and I give out three things: Who (protagonist), What (the problem), and Where (the setting). I actually take suggestions from the kids some days, and other days I come up with them.

Once those elements are established, I say “GO” and start the timer.  Students write for a minute, and then I say “Pass,” which means students stop right where they are and pass their papers either left or right, whatever we established during the directions.  I reset the timer and we repeat the process. Students write for one minute, continuing the story where the first author stopped, and the process continues until I feel it has been passed enough.  That number is arbitrary, so it can be four students to 8.  I always give the students a “heads up” that they are the second to the last person to write on this story, so they need to set up the ending. The final author of the story is the only author allowed to kill off the main character.  That may seem like a silly rule that isn’t necessary to state, but trust me, it is. Nothing kills a story vibe like being handed a story and the character is dead, but you only have one minute to write, so there’s little time to figure out what to do. The purpose of the activity is to get students writing…all students. There’s no sitting this one out.  I gave this activity a fun name, and even call it fun IN the name, and students love love love love it.

super happy fun circle time friday

Now Gamify Your Activity

All of us have existing activities that could use a little spice or to mix metaphors, a face-lift. Try it with Chopped.  I will set up how we did it, and then try to help you connect the pieces to your own content.  For Circle Time-Chopped (the new name), my students organized themselves into four groups (the four contestants). Because I want this to be collaborative (so more like Iron Chef America in this respect), I had them all grab their Chromebooks.  One student in each group created a Google Doc and shared it with the others.  I had four “mystery ingredients” pre-selected, so  once everyone was ready, I announced the ingredients. If I had thought of it sooner, I’d have had a basket with the ingredients on paper inside that I could read to them, but I will have to do that next time.

Now, the four basket ingredients will largely depend on your content area, but keep in mind that in Chopped, the ingredients are not at all usual stuff. Oh no. Sometimes they are down right wacky, and students actually LOVE down right wacky stuff, so be mindful to throw in a wacky ingredient or two. My first basket contained: zucchini (the wacky element), alliteration, comedy, and a surprise ending.  The second basket contained: swordfish (the wacky), a metaphor, adventure, and a cliffhanger ending.  You can choose your own four that helps students go deeper into your content, learn to apply it, or learn to think strategically about your content.  The sky’s the limit, so to speak.

Your Content Matter (1)

Now, like Chopped, forgetting a basket ingredient is not automatic grounds for being chopped, as long as another group had a more serious problem with their product. For example, I had a group forget to include a surprise ending, but their “dish” overall was well composed, had depth of flavor, and creatively used/transformed the basket ingredients.  Another group, however, used too much “pepper” so that it overpowered their dish.  The product hit really just one note of flavor and didn’t integrate the basket ingredients very well at all.  The judges and I had to “chop” them, so they had to then continue working on their research paper. They took it well, but I might add that watching judges “chop” competing chefs they don’t really know makes it look easy. “Chopping” students who worked hard (or not) is a different animal altogether, but so far, it has worked pretty well. They will get better at being okay with trying and “failing” and at collaborating if I continue to allow them to practice both, and I feel this activity does both in a super fun way. 🙂

Final Thoughts

So if you’ve never watched the show, it wouldn’t hurt to grab an episode or two. The judges always have a spokesperson who explains to the contestant why they were “chopped.” That person should be you or another teacher, since a student may not be able to articulate the reasons in a professional way. I mimic the actual Chopped judges in my comments, so that it is all about what makes a great dish.  Students know that if they survive a round, they must do even better the subsequent round, since the final judging is cumulative. The more you can bring in the intensity level of the show and the excitement, the better, so if you come up with ways to improve this for your own students, do it.  My students decided that instead of me announcing the “chopped” group, I should close the lid on the Chromebook submitted by the group being “chopped.”  That was fun.


Tis the Season to Spice up Your Lessons!


I introduced my dad in the first blog post, giving him credit for my boldness in trying new things with technology in my classroom, but that is not the main impact he has had on my development as an educator.  One of the big things I learned from him was the never ceasing job of a teacher to make lessons bigger and better than the last time you taught them.  It is a never ending process because students change from year to year, times change, technology changes, and yet we so often as teachers…don’t.  We create one lesson or test, declare it great, and then 10 years later, we’re still giving it.


So why don’t we try to make things amazing for them? (@burgesdave) Yes, I am well aware of the critics in your building. They are in everyone’s building, actually. A good friend of mine always told me when facing critics in my hallway, “Laura, let it be like water off a duck’s back. Let it be water off a duck.” I love that, and if you teach science, that’s a great analogy for kids to see in science and then apply in life to critics. I had a critic recently state that there’s more to learning than fun. Life isn’t always fun, so we aren’t doing students a favor by always having fun. Life is about hard work. Try as I might, I could not seem to get through to this particular critic (on that day-not giving up) that having fun does not necessarily mean the hard work isn’t being done as well.  For this critic, it isn’t work if it’s fun.  Sigh. There are always critics, so think water…duck…and then work on making things amazing for students.



Okay, you have your BRAVE on, so now what? Start with working to add seasoning.  Bland food needs a little salt and pepper, and so do your bland lessons. Students not engaged in your content? Then go to your spice rack, and if you don’t have one, there are a bunch of us out there who do. Find one. We are always happy to share spices with other teachers. Get over your fear of exploring Twitter. There’s a large international professional learning network waiting for you out there. Do you start cooking with a cold grill, oven, or stovetop? No! You preheat! Try doing that with your lessons too! Preheat with mystery, curiosity, and buzz! (@burgesdave) Create events students will remember! Let them feel a part of something big!  Try a Goosechase that brings fun into your teaching. Let your classes divide into teams. The free version allows up to five teams. Not into that? Try using Remind to toss out a teaser before beginning your lesson. (@jmattmiller) What about social media? Kids love Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms to connect, so get in there and EXPLORE how to use that to your advantage. Not good at figuring out how to apply these ideas to your content? PLN!  Get out there and ask! Twitter has been an amazing resource/PLN for me, and I encourage you to put on your BRAVE and jump in with the rest of us. Go! Find your passion! Share it!


Let’s Recap That

For those of you who are in 1:1 classrooms, you really need to check out  Recap. I teach high school students, and my rural Missouri classroom is not 1:1 yet, so I have used it sparingly so far, but I see the power and possibilities it presents. Once I have an established way for students who do not have internet access at home or a smartphone to complete assignments using Recap in my room before or after school, then I’m “going all in.”


The very first time I used Recap in class was an eye-opening experience. I’ve seen videos of elementary and middle school students using it, so I was completely unprepared for the shyness a majority of my sophomores displayed. Yes, in the age of Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, I watched my three classrooms of sophomores experience shyness in front of the camera.  They don’t mind being silly in front of the camera, constantly, in their daily lives, but ask them to talk about literature and, well, they freeze. Weird.

My first assignment for them was something less demanding than what I plan to use in the future because I wanted students to feel comfortable using the website before I slapped a deeper question on them. My students take notes every time we read in class, and the notes are simple. They write down a question, quote, and then a comment (QQC) on that day’s reading, so my first Recap assignment was for them to share their QQC, and they could read it to the camera right off their notes. They were still nervous, which fascinated me.


See how they avoid looking directly at the camera?

So when you try it for the first time with students, consider going easy on them.  It is a standard practice of mine to make the first time with a new technology something students can handle without additional stress. For some students, the idea of trying anything new involving technology is completely out of their comfort zone. I always have a few who grumble “Why can’t we just do a Powerpoint?” 

So how do you get started? Well, sign up (you can use your google account) and then create and assign a question or questions to a student, a group of students or the entire class to be answered during or after a lesson. You can decide video length, and the maximum is three minutes, while the minimum length is one minute.  There are students who will struggle a bit to talk for one minute, and then you’ll have students who can’t seem to get their point across in under three minutes.  So far, I’ve capped my assignments at three minutes, but I tell students that they may stop after one minute if they have fulfilled the assignment question or directions.


Before using it in class, test it on a Chromebook iPad, tablet, or the device you plan to use, making sure that it has a camera, microphone (built-in, doesn’t have to be separate), and make sure that the Recap website isn’t blocked by your school’s filters.


The Recap default title is dated, and then you can type in your question or record yourself asking students what you want them to answer, or instructing them on what you want them to do for their Recap.  It easy and doesn’t take much of your time.  Another great benefit to using Recap is that students will not need a separate login to use it. They can log in to their email if they have a Google account, and then simply click to Sign in or Up with Google.  You can also have them join classes with  a Join Pin.

You are likely to have one student in your class that can easily figure out the recording process, but if not, feel free to test it as a student (log in as one) so that you can also guide them. We discovered that students can re-record until satisfied, but once they click out of that, they can’t go back and edit.  That’s it! It is really very simple, and once all of you are familiar with it, it becomes a quick way to assess students.


There’s always a few students who aren’t shy, ever.

Each Recap will want you to select a due date. Keep in mind that once the deadline has passed, late students can’t complete that assignment. Since I make all of my students complete all of their work to the best of my ability, I simply create a “copy” of that assignment, and then my late students can still complete it.  This also helps if you want to deduct points for the assignment being completed past the deadline. I haven’t done that yet, and I’m not sure I will with this type of assignment, but this does make it possible.


Recap lets you get an overview of how each class is doing as a group or dig into individual responses for formative assessment. You can also share individual responses with other students, parents, and educators, or show a daily review reel in class. My classes begged me not to show their videos to anyone, mainly other classes, so I did promise them I wouldn’t.  I did tell them that I would share with a few teachers to show them how great this tool is for reflection and assessment. They finally agreed that they would not be embarrassed if I showed other teachers.

What are you waiting for? Give Recap a try. You’ll learn things about what your students are thinking that may surprise you.

Bottle Flippin Ideas

Kids of all ages around Missouri (and maybe in your area and I’m just not aware) have been overtaken by the incredible urge to drink just over half of their bottled water and then spend the next several hours flipping it.  Yep. Bottle flipping has become all the rage in my area. My son’s 10u travel baseball team spent lots of dugout hours all summer flipping their bottles. My son was a bit unhappy when I thoughtfully gave him a big sports cooler that could hang on the dugout fence, stayed cold for hours in the sun, and held enough water to get him through an all-day baseball tournament, but he couldn’t flip it.  Fortunately (for him), he got over that and quickly began to appreciate his bigger water cooler. Other parents began switching their kid over to the bigger cooler that could hang on the dugout fence. Bottle flipping, however, has not gone away.


I bought my son an Igloo cooler at Walmart. Other brands have them too. Happy shopping.

All of this year so far, I have had high school students trying bigger and more amazing bottle flips between classes, during our adviser/advisee time (yes, we call it AA and try not to giggle), and at any time they think I’m not looking.  Bottle flipping is loud and obnoxious when done indoors, especially in a classroom, but I do appreciate an epic bottle flip when I see one. My son did a bottle flip that landed his bottle onto his basketball goal today, and he did it on his first try. That got me thinking.


As educators, we all want to experience that epic bottle flip.  I presented Pear Deck at a recent educational technology conference in Missouri (MOREnet 2016) with the help of a colleague, Kim Foreman, and I consider Pear Deck an epic bottle flip, and a bigger hanging water cooler. The free version is nice, but it is not an epic flip.  To reach the status of epic, you must have the full version.  I know. Believe me. I don’t like having to pay for things to use in my classroom any more than you do, but sometimes the value outweighs my need for free or cheap.  Sometimes I have to be willing to plunk out a few bucks in order to do something for my students that is even more amazing than landing my mostly empty bottle of water on top of my basketball rim (or whatever the square thingy behind the actual rim is called). I currently pay for my full version of Pear Deck out of my own pocket as we work out a plan for a site license for my building or district. I pay for it because Pear Deck provides a way for me to have deep meaningful discussions in my classroom, with 100% engagement, about Lord of the Flies,  Masque of the Red Death, character analysis, archetypes, mythology, back to school bonding, you name it.


All links may be affiliate or referral links.

Before Pear Deck, just a handful of students would dare to discuss anything in class, out loud, in front of other students, and let other hear them sound smart, or stupid. But hold on a second, you say. There have been other devices and technologies used in our classrooms that engage students and assist in classroom discussion. What about those classroom response systems or polls?  Sure. They’re out there, but a lot of them are like the half empty water bottles.  They can flip and be fun, but Pear Deck is the bigger cooler that keeps your ice cold for hours.  With it, I now guide the class discussion, see every student participating, spotlight answers I want students to talk about, keep students anonymous while pointing out brilliant comments (or not so brilliant), and I can now switch to student-paced if the bell rings before we’re finished with our session.  I allow students to change their answers after we discuss them because Pear Deck provides takeaways in a .pdf format that integrates with Google Classroom beautifully.


This is one question and response from a Pear Deck takeaway. All student takeaways are stored in my Google Drive so that I can look them over, grade them, use them in blogs, etc.

Students can download the link from their Classroom, use it to study for tests or quizzes, or they can do it to complete further assignments.  The takeaways have all of the questions from the session and all answers submitted by that student. They each get one that has all of their answer choices with each question.  Oh, and there’s a different cute and historical pear at the end of each takeaway.  Pear Deck offers all sorts of question types, so math teachers can have students work out problems in their Decks, art teachers can have students illustrate or draw from a prompt, elementary teachers can have fill in the blank sentences for vocabulary, and the list goes on.  It functions on all devices, from desktop to mobile phone. The potential is amazing.   I have juniors and seniors begging to do a Pear Deck instead of playing a review game before tests. I have a really good review game called grudge ball, which I stole from some smart teacher who posted it on the internet years ago.  The nerve of my students wanting me to create a review Deck instead of playing a review game.

If you are brave enough to rock your classroom boat and try Pear Deck, I offer the following advice.  First, sign up for the free trial. Next, create a short easy deck for your first try with students. Five slides will likely enough, but have ten slides in the Deck just to be safe. Remember that your first Pear Deck may not flow seamlessly and without problems, but let your students know that you are all trying something new. Students as a whole, unlike teachers, love trying new technological things.  The drawing answer type should always be one slide in your Deck. Students of all ages love that, though drawing on Chromebooks without a mouse can be tricky. Make it a challenge for them, and they’ll jump right in.


Once you feel comfortable presenting wth Pear Deck, invite your principal to come watch you use a new technology that is a great way to assess students and engage them (while your free trial is still operational).  Once your administrator sees it in action, having it paid for by your district will increase exponentially.  The Pear Deck team offers payment options for your district or per teacher. However you are able to finance it, make sure you do. The full version allows you to control the session and dashboard from your iPad or any other device that has internet capability while you walk around and observe/connect with your students.  The dashboard view shows you who is logged into your session and what their answers are BEFORE you show student responses on the Smartboard.Students don’t need a separate login since Pear Deck works with Google. Students just need to log into their school email accounts, join the open session by going to (see below) and enter the code that you can display on the smartboard or screen. I use projector view on my desktop computer/Smartboard, and I use my school iPad to run the session and monitor my students, though a Chromebook or other tablet will also work.


Reading about a new techy tool for the classroom is a lot like seeing the picture of my son’s epic bottle flip without actually witnessing the flip.  I get that, but trust me on this. Pear Deck is worth your time as an educator to explore, to attend a workshop or seminar, and to attempt to use. Like bottle flipping, your students will be engaged. But like the bigger water cooler, your students also will be focused on your content, and the silent ones in your class will no longer be silent. Their voices will be heard. That, my friends, is epic.