The Professor & THe Principal Podcast, Episode 2: What’s Worth Learning

In our second episode of The Professor and The Principal podcast, my husband, Chris, and I explore the question–What’s worth learning? We talk about this particular moment of the COVID-19 crisis and how it’s bringing this question into sharper focus for us as educators and parents.

Listen on Spotify (soon to be on Apple iTunes) or click below. Thanks for listening!

Episode Transcript

Katie (00:01):

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.

Chris (00:18):

And I’ve been in middle school teacher and administrator for two decades now. We’re also the parents of two boys, ages eight and 11.

Katie (00:25):

This is our second episode of the podcast and we’re about to start our 10th day of homeschooling during the COVID-19 crisis. For the last 10 days, but also really for the last 20 years, we’ve both been thinking a lot about a really big question, What’s worth learning?, and, relatedly, What will our children remember from this experience? We should say first that we recognize the privilege of even being able to ask this question or these questions. Our family right now is lucky. Both of us are employed and we’re not struggling with food insecurity. Nobody in our family is sick and we’re not dependent on our schools, libraries and social safety nets in a way that millions of disenfranchised people are.

Chris (01:06):

Next week is likely going to be very difficult for healthcare workers. The author, Tim Ferriss had a great podcast episode that I can link to in the show notes about how to support healthcare workers with food and temporary housing as well as some ways the companies can step in and try to help. And beyond that if you or someone you know is in need of help beyond helping them yourself, you can direct them to the website, to see information about finding food assistance, getting help paying bills and other free or reduced costs programs that help people affected by this pandemic.

Katie (01:35):

So in this episode we’re thinking aloud and having a conversation together about what is worth learning.

Chris (01:42):

It’s a really important question in schools, but it’s one that like other parents and other educators we’ve only really answered philosophically compared to practically because a lot of the time what’s worth learning, well, your child’s school determines that or your child’s teacher more accurately. And the only time that you really get to step in as parent is in the mornings or evenings and, and in a supplementary basis. But now schools are scrambling to send homework. Families like ours are struggling to figure out how to get it done. And we thought we take a step back today and look at the question more broadly. So if your school is sending home a ton of work to do, does your kid need to do all of it? And if you’re only getting loose guidelines from school, what should you prioritize? What’s worth learning?

Katie (02:23):

We have been having a lot of conversations around this as you can imagine. The simple answer to what’s worth learning is whatever seems the most relevant. And it’s also very child-specific. We’ve tried to take this moment in time and learn something new ourselves. So we’ve been learning to podcast that felt relevant to us cause it seemed one way that we could share our thinking and conversations with the public. There’ve been some relevant moments where we had to learn something we didn’t know before through this process. We went to the grocery store and there wasn’t any commercial yeast. So Chris has figured out through some stops and starts how to make wild yeast for us to attempt bread making.

Chris (03:07):

I had it at one point. It has not worked. That’s giving me far too much credit. But I, I do have a jar of something doughlike that at one point yeast was growing in. The kids are doing lots of stuff too. I mean they have full access to their dog now rather than just seeing her before and after school. So they’re launching into teaching her new tricks, doing some clicker training and they’re both obsessed with watching the show, Naruto during their free time. And this has launched both of them into a lot of drawing. They’re doing a lot of drawing and watching a lot of YouTube’s on how to draw Naruto characters in their free time.

Katie (03:41):

A very simple answer to what’s worth learning is whatever is relevant to the person. But there, of course, are also more complex answers to what is worth learning. And you can see the tremendous hard work that teachers (just huge shout out to teachers and school leaders) have put into this. So much time and energy goes into this during the regular school year around what’s worth learning. But also right now teachers are very quickly having to adapt and answer this question about what’s worth learning and not being able to make the different kinds of adaptations or accommodations that they might make in a classroom. They just have to share what they think is right for this moment that most children might be able to access depending on their community. So the more complex answer to this bigger question of what’s worth learning is what is the knowledge, what are the skills, and what are the dispositions that you need as a person in order to fully participate in the world.

Chris (04:44):

Right? The more you know about something, the more you can learn, which is a double edged sword because kids don’t start off having an interest in some topics, right? They do need some exposure. So wide exposure through lots of read alouds and lots of questioning and things like that can stimulate that. But it’s really this full participation that we’ve been thinking about and trying to engage our kids in over the last week.

Katie (05:06):

And you know if you are given some guidance from your schools, the content of the science and social studies that they provide are an attempt to give them some background knowledge and experiences into topics that school has decided to help kids more fully participate in the world. But looking at the things that are sent home, you might ask yourself, is this a topic my child already knows a lot about? Does the thing that is being sent home right now align with something that is going to grow my child’s knowledge and deepen their interest? Or is it going to feel like an assignment or a task just to complete? And it’s really of course dependent on your child and their knowledge basis that they have and the interest that they have in order for you to sort of assess and answer that question for yourself. But that’s really where the science and the social topics that teachers are sending home is an attempt to broaden their knowledge about those, about the natural world and about history and people that came before us and about communities. But those are areas that you might think about what does my child already know about these topics and is it worth this particular activity for them to learn it.

Chris (06:18):

Right. But at the same time, I mean everything that the research is starting to show us around reading comprehension, right? I mean it’s the funny thing that those are the topics that schools are going to kind of mark more often than not, I think as optional, but they’re also the things that are going to lead to the best reading comprehension is a wide exposure to lots of different topics. So this is really a pivotal moment for families to lean into the things that kids may not necessarily know about but might really be interested in as well.

Katie (06:47):

Yeah, and if a reading comes home then you might then search online together for a video that helps deepen that topic if a teacher didn’t get an opportunity to send a link. You might look for things that you have around the house that are more experiential and related to the topic. So we were talking earlier just between the two of us before that one of the science assignments that our second grade son had was to go outside and collect 10 rocks. And I was sort of applauding the teachers for trying to get kids outside because we live in a neighborhood where that’s possible and accessible for the children in the school and for kids just to do some exploratory learning. But we realized our son actually already does this on a pretty regular basis and that if the assignment go collect 10 rocks wasn’t going to be the best use of the time that it was also okay to let that go.

Chris (07:38):

Well, I mean, one of the Mason jars that I was looking for when I was trying to make this wild yeast starter is already filled with different types of rocks that he’s collected and has now sort of forgotten about. But I mean, I think it’s one of those tricky things that there’s so much that you can do with this, this lesson, this project. If you sit down and engage with the kid after they’ve done it, but it can also feel very rote and very checking the box and unless you sit down and try to categorize, try to interest them and the types of rocks. I mean there’s lots that you can make out of it, but somebody has to be there or the kid has to be intrinsically motivated to really do that extra thinking and investigation.

Katie (08:17):

Well, and we are both working parents at this moment and so trying to also juggle what are the kinds of things that are being set up for our children through school right now in terms of distance learning that we’re able to support them with and what are the things that they have to be able to navigate on their own. Our youngest son could head outside and collect 10 rocks on his own and not need us for that. What you would need is maybe to make some greater meaning out of it in terms of having those conversation about, tell us about the rocks you collected. I tend to follow up with things like “Tell me more about that.” or “Tell me about what you learned.” or “Tell me about what you figured out.” And it invites a conversation. You don’t necessarily have to know a ton about the topic in order to engage your kids in the conversation around it. But I do think that schools and families are also really struggling with what should kids be doing on their own and what might they need parent support with.

Chris (09:12):

And the parent support is probably the most important through the stuff that the schools are not going to take us as optional. A lot of the practice that both in terms of math and also in terms of early reading and spelling, a lot of those things are going to be time well spent, particularly in terms of things that really require automaticity. So basic math facts and automaticity getting that practice and basic spelling, basic knowledge of grammar and mechanics. I mean all of those things are, if teachers are sending home those sorts of packets, that’s probably time well spent. But in terms of reading, and I know Katie will want to weigh in on this as well, the more that reading can be a joyful self-directed activity, the better it’s going to work out for your kid in the long run.

Katie (09:56):

I mean, again, another sort of point of privilege is that both of our boys are already readers– now they can read across words and they have a pretty strong stamina for reading. Our second grader would love nothing more than to read the day away or have a reading marathon through this process. So we also know that there are a lot of families that that might not be the case for. And of course book access is a whole other piece of this. And we know that even prior to this, there are communities that have enormous access to books and that there are what Susan Newman and Molly Ness and her podcast now are referring to as book deserts. That there are some children that are going to be at home and not have access to books. Luckily, there are just a tremendous amount of resources now that are available online from authors reading their stories aloud, illustrators doing live demos of how they do their drawings and doodles at noon for example, like Mo Willems does it every day at noon. That’s amazing. But you know you can read recipes. You can read online news articles. You can read texts from granny. You can do all kinds of reading in the day. You can read little love notes on post-its. You can read letters from friends and family members.

Chris (11:12):

There’s also, I mean the libraries are not completely shuttered. There is huge digital access available. I mean if you can stream a Netflix or YouTube, you can also stream through a lot of the sites like Hoopla and RB digital that only require your library card. There are audio books that are there. There’s not a lot of difference in terms of the brain and the synaptic connections between listening to an audio book and, and reading the print. So that can be a great benefit if you’re in this position where there aren’t a lot of print texts.

Katie (11:45):

Well we know there are a lot of families that might not have computer or tablet access or that computers or tablets are being used by grownups in their own work lives. Audio books can be streamed through phones as well, which tends to be a more universal technology. But you know, the question of the episode is What’s worth learning? It is worth learning as a kid how to set up a reading routine for yourself. I mean, I didn’t read before bed until we were living together, but you really instilled that habit in me. It’s definitely led to a more joyful life. We must have done something better with our younger son because he finds greater joy in reading I think than our older son does. And just spending some time alone and getting in the reading zone, but if there are any ways to support your kids to grow in their stamina, is what we talk about it in the field, reading just even one minute more each day is a huge accomplishment by the end of five days and also the read aloud. It’s really worth learning how to be part of a read aloud community and this is something that will feel familiar to kids from their school lives.

Chris (12:53):

I think a good bottom line here though is–Are you choosing reading? Is that something that you’re using during your leisure time or are you modeling it at home that’s really going to drive a lot of the kids’ interest and engagement? Is this something that your modeling is as a worthwhile means of spending your time?

Katie (13:09):

Yeah, that’s probably another episode–how to live the life of a reader if we want our kids to live the lives of readers. How do we live the life of a writer if we want our kids to live lives as writers? I mean those are also things that schools work on supporting teachers with because not all teachers might see themselves as readers or writers and have that as part of their home life. But yeah, the more that you can model and even just, Chris is very good at grabbing a book and just relaxing on the couch with it. But it has definitely trickled down to our boys seeing that as time well spent.

Chris (13:45):

Yeah. So, it was fun that we were doing a FaceTime with my brother earlier this morning reading books back and forth. It was a really great moment of connection and belonging. He had a book around weird animal facts. You know one around the fact that koalas can only be social for I guess, 10 minutes a day, and a little illustration of a koala that he read to our boys saying this party is great, but I have to go home immediately.

Katie (14:11):

We loved this sort of reading aloud through FaceTime that maybe if it hadn’t been for this moment, we might not have done. And you know, it became this back and forth then where our youngest son was reading to his cousins knock knock jokes through FaceTime. So, you know, one of the things that’s really worth learning is that reading can be about connection and belonging. It can be about curling up on the couch with a loved one. It can be about sharing a good laugh over FaceTime with a relative that might be far away, that that’s the gift that reading gives us. This bigger question of what’s worth learning is also all of the ways that this moment home fosters choice and decision making for our kids. I mean there’s a much bigger life lesson around that. I do think that many children will walk away from this more agentive through this process.

Katie (15:01):

And that’s a really good thing. Of course, you know, there will also be children that don’t have the privilege of becoming more agentive through this and that this experience will be far more trauma rather than discovery for them. But for children who have really the gift of time and the freedom to explore some things, they might learn some things that they might not otherwise. Our youngest son has a bunch of stuff on his shelves that honestly he gets as gifts and then he barely opens it. So this morning he spent a couple of hours figuring out this circuit kit that honestly was just collecting dust on the shelf and he came in so excited that he had figured out how to make a light turn on and how to make a fan spin just by clipping some pieces together. But it’s, it’s worth learning how you want to use your time and how you want to share the things that you learned with others.

Chris (15:53):

And as a parent it’s worth letting the kids get bored. I mean, I think that that boredom and that kind of lack of stuff to do, particularly if you’re holding fast to a limited screen time at least, I mean I don’t think any of us, if we’re going to get work done at home is going to be able to hold the line around absolutely no screen-based entertainment. But I also think that the reason that our son chose to do that, to play around with circuitry this morning all on his own and without any help from us was just he was bored. And so as teachers are sending home lots and lots of stuff, it’s also okay to carve out space and time for them to make choices about what they want to do and let them get a little bored so that they have the space to make choices that are really their own.

Katie (16:39):

Yeah. We’ve also been exploring, of course, because our work is also about supporting teachers that what does this moment in time mean for teachers that are working so incredibly hard to build distance learning experiences for kids. And we recognize that whatever teachers are creating to share with families is going to be greeted with gratitude by some people and frustration by others. And if you’re a teacher listening and you create a weekly plan, some families will want more guidance. If you share daily plans, some will say it’s too much to manage, especially if they have multiple children in multiple grades. I do think this moment though will foster all teachers to really become curriculum creators again and to be curriculum revisionist. To look at the things that they’re doing in school that maybe they’ve always done before and ask themselves, what’s worth learning as a second grader? What’s worth learning as a fifth grader?

Chris (17:35):

It’s also, I mean we should always have compassion for teachers. It’s an enormously challenging profession, but particularly here, I mean anything that’s teachers do live on a screen is going to be unavailable for some students. It’s going to miss some of the magic that teaching in person offers. There’s going to be glitches in technology, but it takes this enormous act of vulnerability, particularly now because everybody is being pushed out of their comfort zone and they’re being asked to try something new. It’s enormously vulnerable and it’s not always going to work. But that modeling of that vulnerability is, is actually really, really crucial. And as Katie had said earlier, you know, probably matters more than the glitches and mistakes that are going to be made along the way.

Katie (18:17):

Yeah, it’s actually reminding me like I’ve been trying to build out some movement time for myself. So I go down to the basement and do these like little workouts through my phone so it’s also worth I think our kids learning. Like I feel our older son learned some things when he came downstairs and I was struggling through a minute of planks. There’s that kind of vulnerability. There’s also the vulnerability that teachers are asked to just accept when they try something new with a technology through this process that might not always work out. It’s worth learning. It’s worth it for our kids to learn that vulnerability just is. And that it’s okay. We’ve also been questioning after this particular crisis is over, what does this mean for schools? So, in my work in schools I witnessed that there was already a crisis of content going on in terms of things that students might not need to know anymore. There’s also the crisis of content in terms of even within the field of literacy, what are the ways in which knowledge balances with skill development and how do you roll that out over the course of a reading and writing curriculum. So there are these big, big questions that schools have been grappling with around what’s worth learning. And I think that this moment is going to call that in even into sharper focus for schools.

Chris (19:38):

It’s also going to call into question what we’d mentioned before about access. I mean the gap to access is really going to be widened because it’s going to really underscore the fact that there are some communities who simply don’t have the devices and the infrastructure to support them doing a lot of this digital learning. And I think it’s really going to be a gut check in a lot of ways for our society around educational equity.

Katie (20:02):

Yeah. I think absolutely it’s worth learning and recognizing that none of that is okay and to engage our children in conversations about that at this moment. You know, every opportunity that they might have to learn something even to go outside is an opportunity that another child might not have. It’s worth learning not only compassion for people for whom life circumstances might be different, but it’s also learning what are the ways in which I can take action to help people in my community or beyond now and for the future. But I think the place to start is really having some of those dinner table conversations about this because this access gap or opportunity gap or achievement gap, whatever you want to call it, is very much what this moment is also about. And so it’s worth our kids learning about what this moment reveals about those.

Katie (20:47):

There will also be a lot of things that when kids do return to school, teachers won’t be able to assume that students may know or have been taught certain things that they might traditionally have been, but other things will might surprisingly come out like kids might have learned how to ride their bikes and they didn’t know it before this started. Or they might have learned how to bake bread using a recipe from their grandma, or they might have learned in the case of our kids how to have your dog give a paw for a treat. There are all kinds of things that kids might be learning that when they return to school, they’ll be eager to share.

Chris (21:22):

We’re also hoping that they’ll share new passions and new interests, new skills that they’re proud of, that the return to school won’t just be kind of business as usual, but instead will be a time to share those stories and those new skills and talents, those important memories. Of course, we can’t assume that this is a joyful time for all children’s or families. I mean adults are under tremendous stress and this experience may create or deepen trauma for some children based on their situation.

Katie (21:48):

In this episode, the big question we were asking ourselves is what’s worth learning? And we’re going to continue to explore that question in our house and on my blog that there are no really simple answers. But the place to start is by noticing what’s relevant to your family and to your children in the situation that they’re in. It’s worth learning about being compassionate for others. It’s worth learning that reading and writing can be joyful. It’s worth learning that kids are agentive and that they can discover new things

Chris (22:19):

And to keep it simple and sustainable. It’s really a great mantra that Katie has been saying. In everything that you’re doing at home that you’re taking a thoughtful balance and doing what really isn’t possible to do in a classroom full of kids, which is to look at the kid that’s in front of you, the kid that now it’s your responsibility to lead instruction for and to try to figure out what do they need right now. Those small bursts of practice are really better than long stretches and the time for them to get a little bored and for them to explore things that they’re passionate about can be really valuable just as much as the lesson plans that teachers may be sending home. So thanks for listening to The Professor and The Principal podcast. Links and other show notes can be found at Katie’s website,

Katie (23:06):

And we’d love to hear from you and answer your questions COVID-19 related or just teaching- or parenting-related questions. You can email us  at Thanks for listening.

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