I’m thrilled to announce that my husband, Chris Cunningham, and I have started a podcast called The Professor and The Principal. In this first episode, we talk about how we are balancing structure and nurture, supervision and freedom with our own two children during the COVID-19 pandemic. We process what this time means, the gifts and challenges it affords, and the shifts this particular moment is requiring of us. In future episodes, we plan on sharing stories and strategies to bring more joy to you and the children in your life.
The family schedules discussed in this episode can be found in my previous blog post about when parents become teachers. You can listen below or on Spotify. We’re working on getting the audio to all of your favorite podcast apps, but it might take a few days for approval.
Thanks for listening!
Welcome to the Professor and the Principal podcast with Katie and Chris Cunningham. We’re parents and educators. I’m a professor of education and former elementary school teacher. I’m also the author of a few professional books, most recently Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.
And I’ve been a middle school teacher and administrator for two decades now. We’re the parents of two boys, ages 8 and 11. We’ve seen a lot of things across a lot of schools and we listened to our friends’ highlights and struggles as parents. We started to realize we might have something to offer other parents and educators.
The recent health crisis was really a trigger for us to start podcasting because schools here in Connecticut closed relatively early compared to some other places. So the two of us have been trying to create a schedule that balances the needs of our children and the needs of our work lives.
Like many people, we’ve also been looking online for resources as schools and colleges start closing down and moving to online learning. We thought we’d talk about what’s been working well and what’s been hard here at home and what we’re learning about this process that might be valuable to others.
We’re also thinking about how to approach the next two-to-six weeks here at home with some level of intentionality and structure. Our boys are still at the age where a balance of structure and nurture as well as supervision and freedom is really essential to their overall wellbeing.
Not to mention, in the midst of all of this, I’m trying to figure out how to scale this for the school I work at and that’s actually been pretty helpful to consider too. You know, how can schools structure learning that works for a variety of family structures? And when the packet of materials or online modules the schools create isn’t cutting it, how do you adjust at home?
So we thought we would just talk about what we’re experiencing so far and have a conversation about it together so that other families can learn from what we’re experiencing. So Chris, can you explain what we’ve done so far?
We started off with a basic schedule. We knew having taught for so many years that you don’t get to take the schedule and revamp it in the midst of things. You know, every beginning year is the chance to kind of set routines and expectations, and you can always make them less structured, but it’s really, really hard to make them more structured. So we pulled in family meal times together. We’re insisting on morning movement. We have some stuff thankfully from our second grader’s teacher already that we were able to put together and put together some practice times for him to work on some word study writing, math, reading. But we also have a lot of independent reading blocks built in. We’ve got a choice block that we want to talk about later that we think is really cool. And we’re putting in family read-alouds, limiting screen time until the afternoon and doing school, which means doing school Monday through Friday, but having regular weekends without the same schedule.
And also this opportunity sort of struck us that we could take from the structures of school, the things that we think work best about school, but also use this as an opportunity to redesign school in a way, in a home environment, to make sure that the learning that our boys are experiencing feels meaningful and memorable and joyful to them. It also gave us an opportunity to think about how we’re personalizing this gift of time for our kids. We’ve also, during family meal times, tried to be consistent in asking the boys some questions about their day. So at breakfast time we’ve been asking them, “What are you looking forward to today?” That’s a way for them to orient their day based on something of their own choosing that they know that the day is going to have pockets of joy for them. And during dinner we plan on rotating some questions that provide time for all of us to reflect on how the day went.
So we plan on asking questions like: What felt good today? What felt hard? What’s something you learned that you didn’t know before? And even what’s something that you’re proud of from today because there are a lot of the day are things that they’re choosing where they might be making something or developing a challenge that they want to set for themselves. And those are all things that at the end of the day, if they have time to share, “Hey, you know what, I’m really proud of myself for this”, that it builds momentum for the next day. These questions are also really rooted in what we know from the science of happiness about how we can train our brains to see the good, to handle setbacks with resilience, and to recognize the strength that comes from vulnerability.
So these are good family practices to do in general and you know, on our better days and particularly weekends. I think some of these questions might come out at family dinners anyway. But the reason that we’re trying to be really intentional about building this in is that this is replacing certainly for our second grader morning meeting, that this is an intentional set for learning for the day and we’re building in this structure. There’s also the fact that, I mean, the kids get a break from us as parents when they’re at school, whereas now doing this remote learning thing, we’re here all the time. Like we’re interacting with them all the time and sometimes that’s good and sometimes that can be a little bit trying. And so really highlighting and focusing on the relational piece of this is s really important. I see Katie smiling because that’s also true for the two of us.
Yeah, we like to use the Big Lebowski metaphor of the day being a series of strikes and gutters. We’ve had some great strikes. Highlights so far are Jack choosing to learn sign language for example. And he may or may not have decided to learn curse words in sign language, but nonetheless. Another highlight has been that each boy has chosen for their choice blocks to bake something. So our eight-year-old baked amazing chocolate chip cookies the first day that we all benefited from and our oldest son baked brownies the second day. So I’m guaranteed to gain five or 10 pounds in this process. But that’s not to say that it’s been completely smooth sailing here at home so far.
Yeah. I mean we’re both educators, so we, we sort of dove into this really excited that, Hey, we get to teach our own kids. On the first day and specifically the first afternoon of the first day when I think everybody was a little tired and, and the novelty of having your parents as teachers had had somewhat faded–I definitely made both boys cry. I did that. You know, that certainly wasn’t my goal, but you know, for one of them it was doing too much work, kind of having him do too much work because he was doing really well and, and pushing it a little bit farther than he could really handle. And for the other it was, it was too difficult work. I used to teach middle school. So my fifth grader you know, I may have may have given him some heat that he wasn’t quite ready for. And then we circled back around to it. We really realized that less is more if we have targeted practice on certain skills, particularly reading, writing and math every day, they’re probably going to be just fine.
Yeah, the crying was pretty unfortunate and we definitely did not plan for that. But we tried to learn from the situation what are the things where we can intentionally try to be more joyful about this process for all of us and what are the things that are going to unravel both our kids and ourselves because that’s bound to happen. We also worked really hard to try to include the boys and coming up with a structure for the day and in their projects. So actually on the first day, our 11-year-old sat down and he wrote a little list for himself–things I want to do–which was kind of amazing. He realized he had to cross some things off cause we weren’t going to be able to do them because certain facilities are closed. Like number one on his list was swim together. And our local pool is closed for the time being. So we can’t do that yet. Second on his list was read, which is really heartening, and make his daily basketball shots because we’re fortunate to have a hoop in the driveway. He wants to build a pull up bar in the woods, which is kind of a major adventure. He also wants to teach our dog, Sandy, new tricks. He wants to learn sign language. He wants to play with the neighbors and he wants to play games with us.
He also wanted to play with his Nintendo switch, which is not something he’s done very much of, but it is something that, you know, since the switch is available all the time now is something that either we schedule it or he’s gonna sneak times to do it. And we know that from our time in school as well, we have to set a predictable structure now because if this ends up going four-to-six weeks, it’s going to be a fight to try to get any devices that we give them latitude on out of their hands if we want to limit the amount of screen time that they’ve got later.
Yeah. I think we’ve also been really purposeful about not having their learning blocks be on screens yet. I mean all of it’s learning–choice time is learning too– but not having sort of the practice academic include screens yet. And the most valuable resources have really been that their teachers sent them home with a stack of books, which really the more time that they just spend reading those books on their own or with us is the best academic time spent. One of our sons also was sent home with a blank journal and he’s in a poetry unit at school, so he’s written a poem each day. One about a toucan. And the other is basically a tribute poem to a Shel Silverstein book that he’s reading. So that’s been really important to us is that the academic time has been screen-free as much as possible because we know that’s going to shift pretty quickly. Also as their schools move to Google Classroom the academic time will also include by design some screen time. But the more that we have been trying to implement things that are more hands-on and minds-on, the happier we’ve noticed that they are.
It’s been interesting once we think about kind of how, what is this going to look like from the schools and administrative perspective? Right. I mean, you know, you can prepare a packet right to be sent home. Our kids actually at my school are on spring break. And so we’ve got to figure out what do we send home– a packet that requires some adult supervision in order to accomplish versus do we have rotating blocks of digital office hours for our teachers or in-person lessons. One of the things Katie was reading from Singapore, which has encountered the sort of social distancing and quarantining earlier was the idea that digital learning and flipped classrooms worked for a little while, but then they needed to put back in actual time when kids were in connection with teachers. What that’s going to look like is going to vary from school to school. But it’s an interesting question about how we’re all going to need to be flexible in order to best suit our kids’ needs, which are going to be different kid to kid.
Some schools have even realized that less is more. And one very simple thing that schools can do is set up Google slides where kids can upload photos of themselves or families can upload photos of kids engaged in the kinds of choice projects that this time facilitates. So we have a photo, for example, of our youngest son during one of our woods walks so far last week with a walking stick that he found and he wanted to carve it with his pocket knife. So that’s sort of like a beautiful moment that he can share with his classmates that maybe then other kids will get inspired to do woods walks with their families. We happen to live in a suburban Connecticut in the woods. But I know that the photos that his classmates share will inspire him to think about the choice blocks that he has and to use the time for something that feels worthwhile.
Talk Katie a little bit about the choice blocks themselves and some of the ways we gave the kids to brainstorm in.
Yeah. You know, we realized that the having some options might help them to know what is it that they want to do, especially for looking at four-to-six weeks of being home together. So certainly them writing just their brainstorm list of things they want to do is really helpful. And then we created four choice blocks based off of how we think that as a family we could best use this time. So one choice block is to connect, another is create, a third is to discover, and finally to move. And we came up with as a family the possibilities for the connect block that if one of the choice blocks is for connection with one another, do we want to play a family game, do a read aloud together as a family because there’s a lot of comfort in just that 15 minutes spent on the couch reading a book together in the middle of the day where we would usually never get to do that.
The create block has really been their favorite so far. So that’s things like making puzzles. Our youngest son really wanted to use this as a time to make perler bead projects. He’d never done that before, but he knew his friends had. Our oldest son wants to make a path in the woods and he wants to sort of do some physical labor around that as his create. They also have really both taken to baking. So again, that’s always a really great go-to. Even our youngest son, the first day, he was reading the directions from the chocolate chip bag and it said for the oven to set to 375. And so I said, okay, go set the oven. And he went over and he said, but there’s only a 350 or 400. There is no 375.
That was an amazing learning moment for him to realize that 375 comes between those two that he might not have realized for another couple of years if we didn’t have this opportunity for this create block in the middle of the day. The discovery block they came up with, what do they want to discover over the course of the next couple of weeks. So I mentioned before, learn sign language and teaching our dog new tricks. Our youngest son also wants to learn a little bit of basic coding and the move block has really been popular with all of us. So the first day Chris actually did yoga with the boys to start the day. Our oldest son likes to do basketball drills where he’s just in the basement with a basketball and he uses a site called EGT to learn new draft basketball drills. Our youngest son just wants to play baseball and play catch and we’ve also been really trying to stay committed just to going on walks outside as part of our movement time.
We’re also learning as we go about how to navigate strong emotions from our kids and from one another when they come up unexpectedly. Our 11-year-old was pretty moody the first day of this new structure. He later said he didn’t know why we couldn’t just do what we wanted to do all day and the second day he woke up with a much better attitude. When we asked him about why he woke up so much happier with our new structure, he said he realized there were some good things about it and in some ways it was more fun than regular school.
On the flip side, our youngest son was actually quite content the first day having academic practice with each of us, like all kids. He likes time and attention from us. But then the second day it really surprised us that he woke up with a lot more resistance engaging during spelling and math practice was definitely more frustrational for him and it translated as anger toward us at times. So we had to figure out how to respond with a level of patience and understanding.
I think we handle those moments with the awareness that all of what they’re feeling is normal and understandable. We’re all adjusting to these new routines and we realized they’re going to show up positively and more frustrated at difficult at different times. And we tried to navigate those moments with, I mean, a little bit of grace–baking helps. Creating things helped, movement definitely helped. Walking away sometimes helps. Sometimes people just need to go off by themselves and do some independent reading or be by themselves playing in their room and that’s okay too.
Yeah. I will say that actually the thing that maybe has helped the most in those moments when they arise is we are fortunate that both of our boys enjoy reading. And that just going off to a quiet space by themselves with a book has been one of the most thoughtful responses to those unexpected frustrating moments. But definitely going and playing with Legos or doing an art project or even just going in your room and being bored for a little while is a more positive response. And we’re sort of learning about that over time and also trying to model that ourselves. Because we also had moments of frustration with one another. The first day I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth or moved my body and it was two o’clock and I started to get pretty frustrated at you, Chris. And that doesn’t usually happen. And I realized–Oh, I’m getting really annoyed right now and it’s probably because I’m still in my pajamas and I feel kind of disgusting and I need some help.
Yeah. And similarly, I mean I think it’s the reason why we’re really trying to prioritize movement in the morning when we’re on this schedule, before the kids do anything academic, even before breakfast, if we can make it work. Getting them out of the ritual of, you know, usually they’re packing their lunches and they’re running for the bus. They’re going to default to screens. That’s often what they do on the weekend. And so we wanted to intentionally put in place something that was movement-based first thing in the schedule. It’s actually a luxury to be able to try out this, this idea of moving before they learn. It really does, you know, whatever we need to do to kind of get the negative emotions out, whether you run them out or play them out or create them out or bake them out or, or whatever you need to do. Recognizing, then having an outlet for all of those emotions I think is going to be very, very critical. And having those sort of pressure release valves built into the system that it’s okay if somebody needs a moment. Cause they probably do,
Well I think we don’t parent this way anyway but that we definitely know that the default could become punishing kids into learning over this period. And so the structure we’ve come up with I think really helps avoid that. Also on the positive there really have been opportunities to use this time to instill a sense of helping one another through this process. So we’ve had to have talks about how we’re helping one another to find time that we need to be alone or to do our own work. But there are also ways we’re trying to instill routines for the kids to realize that part of their responsibility at this time and part of what will help them find a sense of purpose is if every day they know that they’re helping in some way. For example, they’ve really stepped up on walking our dog. You know, there have been periods of time, especially this winter where their promises of walking the dog have fallen off. But they’ve really stepped back up to that, which has been amazing. They’ve helped with meal cleanup and basically we’re trying to help them have a plan every day where they’re asking themselves, how can I help at home today and where they have some decision making power over that.
We’re really trying to reflect on, you know, this relational piece as well. Right. Looping them into the decision making process around the schedule in addition to how they can help out around the house. I mean, I’m definitely a fan of, of child labor when it means kids taking out the trash and things like that. And more to the point, I mean, we’re literally all in this together as in right now we’re all in this house together. I’m trying to figure out how to make the best of that.
So the question we’re asking ourselves each day is, where do we go from here. We’re adjusting as we go and we’re trying to stay the course. We’re also really trying to recognize the gift of time in a way. And we really from the beginning didn’t want this to devolve into a sea of Netflix and YouTube with everyone on their own devices operating in silos. That said, we also recognize that there we have the luxury of both of us being home and working from home and that our work schedules are flexible enough for us to be able to give our kids time and attention at this time. That may require a lot of shifts in the days to come. And we also recognize that a lot of families need to have their kids engaged with some kind of screen time in order for them to get their own work done.
And there are a ton of amazing resources out there right now. It actually feels like this incredible moment of generosity. Scholastic has put together extraordinary units for kids where kids can really self navigate, sites like BrainPOP don’t require logins and passwords anymore. There are so many sites that people are sharing about how to make this time work for all families. But we’ve really also learned and relied on quiet reading time, family read-alouds, any time spent outside and family games is the best time well spent and probably what they’re going to remember most about all of this.
So we’ll get into specific resources and recommendations for places you might look at in another episode. Our big recommendation for this episode is to set up the basic framework for your family schedule now. Do it in a way that’s sustainable for learning at home in a predictable way because the boundaries and the schedules that you set now are the ones that you can build more slack into the system as you go. But if you’ve set up the expectation that they’re going to be spending three to four hours every morning on Netflix, it’s going to be really, really hard for them to complete their Khan Academy homework a week and a half from now when that’s been the option from the start. So find a schedule, make it sustainable, structure it so that everybody gets lots of time together, but also apart. And is engaged in choice around some of the things that they get to do. On our next episode, as I said, we’re going to dive into what we recommend to families if you’re looking for guidance on the specific content of learning at home. And we might also try to tackle how to get some work done yourself. In the midst of all this, thanks for listening to The Professor and The Principal podcast. Links and other show notes can be found at Katie’s website at http://www.katieegancunningham.com.
And we’d love to hear from you and answer your questions, either corona-related or just parenting or teaching related questions. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.