The Professor & The Principal Podcast, Episode 3: What’s Worth Learning, Part II

We are on week three of homeschooling since the COVID-19 crisis hit our community and every day is starting to feel remarkably the same while also feeling immeasurably different. I’ve started a list titled “It’s Worth Learning” that I keep in the kitchen to help remind me what’s most important right now. So far the list includes things like:

  • how to tell a good knock-knock joke
  • to wait for others at the dinner table table before eating
  • how to do a Google search that gets you the answer you want
  • that taking a bath with a good book and some Epsom salts can make a lot of things better
  • that a better response to “I’m sorry” is just “Thank you”

Every day of homeschooling is getting a little easier thanks to a predictable structure and routine but as the material sent home gets more unfamiliar we are seeing more frustration in our children. Learning something new is hard especially without the joy and comfort of learning being a social practice right now. Making decisions about what’s worth learning depends on the strengths and emotional and academic needs of each child now more than ever.

In Episode 3 of The Professor & The Principal podcast, my husband, Chris, and I talk more about the question “What’s worth learning?” and how this moment is shaping our thinking. We share ways we have anchored our home life through read-alouds especially at this time. We also talk about the value of learning it’s okay to abandon a book. Chris shares his stance against required reading and why choice should drive anyone’s reading life. He advocates for the position that reading can be about a little bit of rebellion. We also think about when our children were younger and the ways we encouraged independent reading through “look books”, or books that children might not be able to read yet but can process through the images. We discuss the importance of fluency and automaticity in math to help children to see themselves as competent, capable, and confident mathematicians. Finally, we also consider what to do when your children or students don’t know what they want to know. With big blocks of time available each day, it can be hard to know how to meaningfully fill them.

We end with the reminder that children will not experience trauma during this moment of global crisis because they didn’t learn more math facts or the history of ancient civilizations. But, they will experience trauma that comes from disconnection.

More important than anything right now is human connection. We can connect with children on the couch with a book on our laps and we can connect with our students over the Internet through the power of our voices. Even small moments of connection will have a lasting impact.

Our next episode will focus on how we are navigating strong emotions in our house right now and how we are trying to apply what we know about social and emotional learning to stay balanced.

You can now find us on Stitcher and iTunes as well as on Spotify:

If you like what you hear, please leave a rating or review on iTunes! Books mentioned in Episode 3 can be found at the end of the transcript below. Thanks for listening and subscribing!

Episode Transcript

Katie (00:02):

Welcome to The Professor and The Principal podcast with Katie and Chris Cunningham. We are 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 (00:17):

And I’ve been a middle school teacher and administrator for two decades now. We’re also the parents of two boys, ages eight and 11. So, in this episode we wanted to keep talking about the question, what’s worth learning and provide some specific tips, tricks, and strategies about some of the things that will have the most impact at home and for kids in general. We realize not everyone’s a professional educator, and so while we said things in our last episode, like prioritize the read aloud, not everybody will necessarily know what we mean by that or how to go about it. Let’s talk about reading first. In terms of reading, what’s the goal? I would argue that you really want to grow a reader. You want to have your kids actively choosing reading as a pleasurable activity. If they do that, they’re going to develop the stamina, the vocabulary, the fluency to really be able to continue reading.

Chris (01:02):

Whether that’s reading that they’re assigned for school or far better in my opinion, reading that they choose a as something that they’re doing on their own for leisure. So the first question you have to ask yourself is to what extent are you modeling it yourself? Is reading something that you do for pleasure? Is it something that they actively see you doing as a means of both getting information and also enjoying yourself? Do you read before bedtime? Do you read on the weekends and during free time? Also, are you making sure that they have lots of books around, lots of things that they can pick up and choose and also abandon. The flexibility to abandon books that they don’t like is a really, really big deal when it comes to independent reading. There’s nothing worse in my opinion than feeling as though you have to read something. Then reading becomes a chore rather than a pleasurable activity. It’s great to reread. That’s what active, engaged readers do and keep in mind that audio books are just as good from a neurological perspective as print texts. They do the same things in terms of building that stamina and that love of story and narrative.

Katie (02:02):

We tried to be what Donalyn Miller calls “book whisperers” to our kids a little bit this week and sometimes that backfires when you give a recommendation and it doesn’t work out for them. Chris, do you want to share how we had saved some books from our childhood that are in our basement and you had suggested a couple to our oldest son who’s in fifth grade and how you handled him not wanting to read those books after giving them a go.

Chris (02:25):

Yeah. Katie came in and said our son had guiltily confessed that he had abandoned one of the books after spending a week or two on it. And I realized very quickly that because he was acting a little guilty about it, that he might actually feel as though he was letting me down. So I made sure the next morning to high five him about abandoning the book. You know, a book is a conversation between you and the author. And if the conversation isn’t interesting—you don’t owe the author anything—put the book down. I would much, much rather have him abandoned books and choose a book that he does like rather than feel compelled to read, just because I made a suggestion. I’m going to make lots of suggestions and I want him to know that none of them are required reading.

Katie (03:06):

So we do invest some thought in our house around it’s worth learning that it’s okay and actually a sign of a strong reader for you to abandon books when they’re not working for you. That’s also a stance that’s not typically taken up at school. I think it’s a rare teacher that celebrates abandoning a book, but there are just too many good books in the world to slog through something. Chris had mentioned too how read alouds are something really sacred in our home and in our classrooms. You mentioned a couple of the benefits of read alouds, vocabulary being one, understanding of different genres, especially if you’re reading a variety of kinds of books over the course of your child’s or your students’ read aloud life. They’re learning things like figurative language, like comparisons and because we’re analogy seeking-creatures, we listen more closely when those things appear in texts.

Katie (03:59):

Kids learn how sentences work and the variety of sentence types without having to have a mini lesson about it. But one of the most important things worth learning through the read aloud is the social emotional side of reading. We learn that characters are just like us. We learn how to navigate the world a little bit better and that books and characters have a lot in common with us just on an emotional level. Also, there’s so much to celebrate right now in the world of children’s books that we’re really seeing a sea of change in terms of the amount of books being published that represent our diverse world, so we are always striving to do better at that. I think actually as parents we can do more to expose our kids also to characters whose lives might not be like them. There’s a lot of good news right now too around the value of the read aloud and research really being done around the read aloud.

Katie (04:46):

We will put in the show notes, but the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, it’s definitely worth checking out. Their research team has found that more parents are reading aloud to their young children more than ever before. More than 80% of families are reading aloud to children and actually kids and parents across all income levels and children’s age love or like reading aloud. That’s really important data. Data also shows us though that read alouds peak in home life around the age of five. And so one thing that we’ve really thought a lot about is how do we keep the read aloud going as our kids get older. Our kids are now eight and 11 and we’re going to keep it going as long as we can.

Chris (05:24):

I think the key to keeping the read aloud going is to make it as comfortable and about connection as you possibly can. Whatever you’re reading, make it a comforting family routine. Do it before bed, snuggle on the couch, right? Get blankets, get hot cocoa. Make it about connection and the love of story as much as possible and feel free to do the voices to be silly. Try to keep the reading engaging. If you’re transitioning to chapter books from picture books, pick good ones, the ones that have tense moments and cliffhangers and stop the read aloud at the end of chapters are on. Your goal is for them to say at the end of the read aloud, “No, don’t stop there”, right? Just a little bit more because then you know that that you’ve really captured something. You’ve really got their attention. Keep in mind that they can orally process more complex texts and they can attend to in print, so read aloud things that are a stretch. It’s a great chance to expose them to history and science to other topics, particularly if there is a good narrative. Greek myths are great. Fables are wonderful. Fairytales along with some of those more canonical classic kids’ stories. Expose them to Narnia, let them read Charlotte’s Web. There’s so many great books out there, chapter books that can be delved into. It can be a really fun, engaging time to bond as a family.

Katie (06:37):

I think also series books or books by the same author have been some of the most memorable read alouds in our children’s lives and also in my students’ lives. So when we read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, we’d actually listened to that on audio book over and over again when they were young. And their understanding of that story was actually often far better than mine as I was driving along. Also, the three E.B. White books that are really considered classic children’s stories at this point. But those are always winners. Charlotte’s Web, of course, Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little. That was a really special time in my memory and just in the ways in which those stories brought us together, the animal characters certainly driving the stories. A character like Fern is this forever, fierce female that’s a model for kids of how they might want to be.

Katie (07:25):

We also really try to look for books that make our kids laugh out loud, that are sometimes a little bit silly. That may be give them goosebumps. I think one of our techniques too is sort of stopping in the middle of the chapter. Sometimes you don’t always have to go to the end of the chapter because that’s the cliffhanger. Sometimes that might happen. Even in the middle. We also look to build this care about characters over time because it’s sometimes hard to care about a character from the first couple of pages. But by the fifth chapter, we really care about what happens to those characters. I also just saw on Facebook, I thought this was kind of funny, a photo of kids reading in their hampers at home this week while they’re contained, literally contained. Apparently, these two kids that are family friends stayed for over an hour in their family hampers because they liked the cozy safe space that it provided. You never know, you might find that hampers and deconstructed couch cushions might might be your best reading resources right now.

Chris (08:20):

You really want to try to make this a routine and a fun one. If reading is akin to a meal, you want this to be as much dessert as possible. You want to have it stack as well. What we know from the science of habit building is if you pair reading with something that is already comfortable and joyful, bedtime for example, pairing reading aloud with bedtime, they can transition to reading themselves before bed and you want to build in choice and agency. The great thing about, I say conditioning, but it’s sort of true conditioning your kids to read a few pages before they go to sleep is that it seems as though they’re getting to stay up later. There’s something that’s almost rebellious in that which is a great way to position reading as, as a little bit of rebellion.

As much as anything you want small, repeated spaced practice. That’s way better than long stretches. So five minutes every night is way better than a marathon hour that ends up dragging. Above all, reading shouldn’t ever feel like a chore. If it does stop and give it some distance or change books. I am of the opinion that one of the worst things in the world is required reading. It is absolutely the death knell for me in terms of a book. If you ask me to read it, I no longer am interested. And I think that that’s the case too often with kids. I think in terms of independent reading, you should do your best to minimize asking them comprehension questions or trying to seek whether or not they understand.

They will let you know if they don’t understand. For the most part, the narrative will help them figure that out or not. The analogy that I always use is you would stop watching a Netflix TV show very, very quickly if you had to answer a comprehension quiz at the end of every episode.


Oh, that’s such a true one. I would also argue that for teachers that are assigning kids various kinds of reading response. If after the end of every Netflix episode you also had to jot about it, you would pretty quickly abandon that Netflix episode or you would drastically reduced the amount that you’d be looking forward to it. But I do think there’s a balance. You know, teachers are also trying to figure out how do we know what kids know, but trying to really provide variety and the ways in which kids can respond to their reading helps them continue with that love of reading.

Katie (10:27):

So whether it’s writing a letter to a friend about their book, doing a book review illustrations, imagining what’s happening next, writing a new ending. These are all, I think depending on the student, when you provide kind of a menu of choices and the ways in which they can respond, it continues the joy while also helping the teacher learn what is it that they’ve understood about what they’ve read. Also, if you have children that are younger than able to read on their own, what Chris was talking about, transitioning from the family read aloud to reading a few minutes in bed by themselves. One of the greatest techniques, our older son’s kindergarten teacher called books that kids couldn’t read yet, but that were full of illustrations, look books. So kids could also grow the habit of just spending a couple of minutes on their own with a book before they can read the words.

They’re still readers. They’re the readers of the illustrations. They’re the readers of photographs. They’re the readers of how we hold the book and turn the pages from left to right, but that we can invite kids to see themselves as readers with look books. That’s just as valuable.


So pivoting from reading to math, there’s definitely some things that you can do at home that are important to focus on if you’re going to pick and choose in terms of what’s worth learning in math. Math education has shifted. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s really focused more on flexible problem solving, using manipulatives and pictures to represent concepts. The great thing about this is that kids are much better problem solvers, particularly in terms of word problems and the application of math then I think we were, or at least I was at that age, but the flip side of this is that if you’ve tried to help an older child do their math homework, sometimes this is frustrating for the family because it’s a different way of thinking about math. It’s a better approach than just learning a road algorithm for figuring out basic things. But the pendulum can swing too far depending on your child’s classroom and there can be not enough focus on just kind of basic automaticity of arithmetic.

Katie (12:25):

So one of the things that is definitely worth learning is how to be automatic in your processing of numerical representations as well as having what’s known as fluency. And there’s definitely research on this that increasingly kids are stronger in terms of their fluency skills with number concepts than they are with automaticity. And what starts to happen though, if you don’t have enough automatic processing speed with how you approach numbers, is that once operations get multi-step by the time you age third or fourth grade, if you don’t have some of the automatic basic facts, it really slows things down to the point of frustration and not productive frustration, but just frustration. So it’s worth learning through practice of arithmetic. But of course how you frame it can be helpful or detrimental. The goal with any kind of math practice or really practice of any kind of skill is to distress the situation and meet your child where they are.

Chris (13:19):

So the way that we ended up handling that with our kids vary depending on who the kids who are. Our older son really enjoyed the challenge of being timed and competing against time. So for those of you who aren’t educators, if you Google mad minute, you can come up with a variety of math, basic arithmetic worksheets, and the old fashioned way of doing this was to time the kid to give them either a minute and see how many problems they could answer or to time them and then try to beat their time. And this worked very, very well for our older son. Our younger son, we know that that’s not going to work. It’s going to add to the pressure that he feels it’s going to increase stress and it’s going to push him away from math. But we still want him to get that same sort of practice and build that automaticity. So instead he’s reusing the same worksheets over and over again and getting really good at the same types of computation. And he’s getting timed, but on a weekly basis to try to distress as much as possible and make it easy, practice easy and quick.

Katie (14:15):

It’s also up to him whether he wants to get timed or not. We give that just as an option for them, but they don’t have to pick up that option and this is probably the only time that we use a worksheet. I think that we know that very few kids are actually motivated by anything that’s on a worksheet or a handout, but just basic math fact practice. This is a way to boost automaticity, but you know you want to balance that really with learning some of the joy of math in terms of using manipulatives. We use dice to support mental math and turn it kind of into a game at home where you roll and you do some computation based off of whatever appears on the die, it’s also really important to do that with one another. I don’t think anybody wants to sit there and just roll dice alone.

Our younger son has also gotten really interested in investigating coins over the last week, so he’s been finding coins and drawers around the house. He’s been creating little stacks of coins and he’s choosing to grow his basic money skills. He’s learned because it is worth learning: How do you add up money? And so he’s learned how to start with the largest amounts and to group points together to find his total. And of course when kids are at home, any kind of baking and cooking is really fertile ground for math learning. You’re learning fractions that way you can turn those into decimals, oven temperatures, you’re learning about larger numbers and actually you’re really skip counting by 50 or 25 when you’re looking at oven temperatures. And they also learn about quantities. You can add up how many eggs you need, how many you could halve, how many eggs that you need. Is that possible? There’s so many things you can do with math that are joyful in the kitchen.

Chris (15:48):

So pivoting to choice and content, I mean it’s hard to know what you want to learn sometimes. And so one of the things that we’ve been playing around with is a menu of options. We recently decided that we wanted to build a little bit on the wonderful job that our kids schools has. They’ve really ramped up and have given it a fair amount of work. But the science and the social studies are places where we felt as though we could lean in a little bit. And we were looking for different ways to do that. We organize topics through some online curriculum that we had seen so they could do, invest some investigation around different choices that they might have. So some of the things that naturally came up when presented with a menu of options where things like astronomy, the human body, animals, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the middle ages, the Renaissance.

Katie (16:34):

And I think a big thing with content-based learning is it’s sometimes hard for kids to know what they want to know. So actually our boys knew that they wanted to teach their dog new tricks. Our older son knew that he wanted to learn how to do a back flip. Those are awesome and we really encourage that. But they didn’t know what they wanted to know about the world or about history. And it was a lot to ask of them if they just didn’t have as much exposure as we do as adults. So we did create this little menu, we’ll see how that goes. Our older son decided that he was interested in the topic of astronomy and so we’re thinking about what is the invitations approach to keep him excited about that. And so his knowledge about that topic grows a little bit.

He also when asked about what he wants to do later in life has been inspired by a visit that he had when he hurt his ankle to an orthopedist. So he got this vision of his future self around, Oh, I might want to be an orthopedist because he loves sports and there were sports posters all over the office. He really liked the doctor, I think. And he could relate to him. So we might explore a little bit around bones and muscles and learning about that if he has this potential future self. He’s imagining around, Oh, well I could be an orthopedist. What’s some of the stuff that orthopedists know and are able to do and what would be like the most foundational building block of that?

Chris (17:55):

Another way to provide kind of a menu of options is just to lean in again to some content rich resources. And so some of the things that we’ve been considering around our house, the Jean Fritz books around colonial America and some of the founding fathers are fantastic, I think. Why Don’t You Get a Horse? Sam Adams is probably my favorite, The Magic School Bus and, and some of the Miss Frizzle adventures have a ton of science embedded within them that could be springboards into a whole host of topics. And the Greek myths are really pretty perennial. Percy Jackson has been in some ways a gateway or extension that the Percy Jackson in the Olympians series by Rick Riordan have been a way that we’ve come back to those myths either by reading the myths first or by reading Percy Jackson first and then comparing them to the myths. The Neil Gaiman Norse mythology book is similarly fantastic for that capacity.

Katie (18:42):

Yeah, and just actually to go back to the astronomy for a second, we are going to be really careful not to turn our son’s initial interest in that into doing school. So we’re not going to be creating worksheets about it.  I suggested he could journal the night sky every night. And your response to that would be that even that right would feel like doing school. So you had a better invitation.

Chris (19:09):

I mean it sort of felt like I was going to be doing school just in enforcing a star journal. So yeah, I mean I think just printing out some stargazing maps, going outside with the lights off and looking up at the stars, seeing if we can see some constellations and just going from there, seeing what his questions are and then trying to figure out the answers. I’m not an astrophysicist myself, so there’ll be some learning that I’ll need to do in order to engage with him on this.

Katie (19:33):

Yeah. I think the key to thinking about what’s worth learning, especially at this time, is to keep it simple, keep it about growing connections to one another. I think it’s far more valuable for our older son to stand outside the front door and gaze at the stars with you, Chris, at night than it is to do a workbook page about it or even to watch a video about it, right? He’s going to remember the experience of standing outside the front door looking at the sky and trying to figure out if you recognize any of the stars and how can you find out he’s going to, it’s memorable learning, so it’s worth learning about something if it’s memory inducing. Learning is about memory growing. We sometimes forget about that, but what is it that we really remember? It’s the things that we do with others, especially in the care of those that we love and that we feel loved by.

Chris (20:16):

The trick here really, and it’s difficult for all of us, I think as parents because you have to demonstrate some real serious empathy to listen very carefully to what your kid wants to know about rather than what you think they should know or even what you’re curious about, while also recognizing that you’re the adult with more experience. So it’s hard for kids to know what they want to know about sometimes if they’re out of practice at being asked that question, and so their invitations and prompts, but you really have to stand back after you prompt and really listen. What is it that they’re asking and how can you be a guide or give them invitations rather than telling them, Oh, here’s what you need to know about that.

Katie (20:59):

We also realized too that we are two educator parents and so this is kind of modified homeschooling at our house, but for most people, this particular moment around the COVID 19 crisis is really not homeschooling. It’s crisis schooling. I’ve really seen that shift in terms of the ways people are talking about and writing about it, especially online. So this is really, it’s not homeschooling for most people. It’s crisis schooling and it’s hard to do anything well in a crisis. We’ve also been talking, especially in the last couple of days as we recognize that this is likely to go on for the rest of the school year, especially in our area outside of New York City. But that the truth is that no child is going to experience trauma from not learning academic content right now, but they will experience drama from feeling disconnected even further at this time when they’re socially distanced from their friends and from a routine that brings them some comfort and feelings of safety.

Chris (21:46):

So given that our next episode is going to focus on supporting children and ourselves as we navigate strong emotions and trying to figure out ways that we can manage and cope with them.

Thanks for listening to The Professor and The Principal podcast. Links and other show notes can be found at Katie’s website

Katie (22:05):

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

Books Mentioned This Episode

Jean Fritz books:

Percy Jackson series:

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology:

Greek Myths:

Fairy Tales:


The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

E.B. White Books:

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