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, findhelp.org 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, www.katieegancunningham.com.

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 theprofessorandtheprincipal@gmail.com. Thanks for listening.

What’s Worth Learning?

The generosity of this moment has been extraordinary to witness. In my small town, a local cafe is giving out free breakfast and lunch to anyone who isn’t able to work right now. People are cleaning out their closets to find masks to donate to hospital workers. Neighbors are saying hello and introducing themselves–albeit from six feet away. And teachers, authors, illustrators, coaches, and organizations have made available a world of online learning that we never had access to before.

If you are like me, you might be starting to feel a little flooded by all of the e-learning possibilities. Why haven’t we gone on a virtual tour of the Louvre yet? Shouldn’t we be joining authors online for live read-alouds? What about the swim team coach’s workout at 1:00 on Facebook Live? FOMO apparently rears its pervasive, anxiety-fueled head even in a social distancing world.

In our house, we are on Day 10 of homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that a simple routine has been established, my husband and I find ourselves looking at the detailed plans their teachers have worked so hard to create, the extraordinary online possibilities to learn something new, the gift of time before us, (and our own work responsibilities) and we’re wondering…So what’s worth learning?

Most of my career has been about asking similar big questions in my work with schools and teachers: What are students learning? Why are they learning it? and How are they learning?

I’ve tried to take a step back during the last ten days to ask the same big questions about our own makeshift family schoolhouse. We are grateful for the plans our children’s teachers continue to make, the adjustments they are making along the way, and the world of possibility that now exists online. Yet, one of the gifts of this moment is the potential for a hard reset and conversation about what’s worth learning.

As our two children seesaw between contentment and frustration each day, we’re wrestling with the questions of What’s worth learning? and Who gets to decide?

Right now, if you’re a parent trying to Laura Ingalls Wilder this homeschool thing or you’re a teacher trying to figure out how to translate the magic that happens in your classroom to something on the screen, you’re being asked to make learning happen. Some of it will happen. A lot of it won’t. And that’s okay. Most of what our children will probably learn won’t be planned. But maybe that’s how most learning happens anyway.

I have a doctorate in education and my husband won Teacher of the Year once before becoming an administrator. Day One of homeschooling felt like our big moment had arrived. We could finally show our children what great teachers we were. By 2:00 both boys had moments of tears and our grand plans for inspiring our boys to become historians and for turning our kitchen into a science lab quickly dissolved. Thank God. Since then, we’ve doubled down on what’s simple and sustainable.

Now, we’re giving ourselves permission to strive for the bronze some days. We’re also quickly learning that supporting our boys to tear apart the couch cushions to make a reading nook is sometimes more valuable than forcing them to watch a videorecorded minilesson. Learning to pump their own bike tires is probably more important than watching the science video, especially if they already learned about the topic last year. Measuring out flour for homemade cookies may have more math applications than a workbook page especially when everyone in the family gets to benefit by eating warm cookies. It counts. It all counts.

What’s worth learning is a question that ancient philosophers pondered, Harvard’s School of Education has their answer to, and teachers in all forms respond to often minute-to-minute. The answer is both remarkably simple and deeply complex.

The Simple View

The simple view of what’s worth learning is by asking what’s relevant. This moment reminds us that it’s worth our children learning how to become more self-driven. To make decisions about their use of time after giving them some structure and choice. To deepen their own interests. To try something new. To take a break. To move when they need to. To realize it’s okay to waste a weekend binge-watching Naruto. To lock their brother out of the house and suffer the natural consequences. To find freedom in boredom. To help others when they can. To decide what’s relevant to them.

Learning to make a bread starter became relevant because the store is out of commercial yeast.

The hopeful part of me believes that this historic moment could help children learn some of the secrets of how to live a happy life by determining their own purpose.

A Little More Complex View

Some things worth learning are a little more complex. There are arguably certain bodies of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that give you more power if you know them. The more background knowledge you have about a topic, the easier it is to read and comprehend texts about that topic and to share your knowledge with others. If you know how to spell words conventionally, more people will read your ideas and take them seriously. If you know math facts with some level of automaticity, you will find more joy in solving complex operations because your brain won’t be taxed by the first step. If you know a bit about historical events, you are likely to ask questions and then find joy in the search for answers. If you have practice making art, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident making art.

Grateful for Art.Simple on Youtube for daily drawing class

That said, the most important metric for determining what’s worth learning is to watch your own child’s response. Notice what’s working and worth repeating and what is simply too frustrating and should be let go. Try to notice and recognize the ways your children are outgrowing themselves in small ways and let them know you see them.

If you’re trying to decide what’s worth creating routines around and what’s worth letting go, here is a quick (and imperfect) cheat sheet. Here I focus on reading, writing, and math for now.


  • a love of stories: knowledge of how stories work will be useful for almost anything your children want to do in life; set aside time for daily read-alouds, share stories over meals about times when your children were little or before they were born, or listen to audiobooks together–Audible just launched a free collection for kids
  • getting curious about the world: if your children have been assigned nonfiction reading through online sources try to link what they are learning about to a bigger topic that might be of interest to them–have conversations about what questions the reading sparked for them and share anything you might know about the topic
  • how characters are just like us: have conversations with your children about the characters in their books, what the characters’ lives are like, anything that’s different from their own life, or what the characters make them think or feel
  • the sounds letters make: if your children have been given ways to practice phonemic awareness (the sounds in spoken words) and phonics (the sounds represented by letters in print) and they are still learning how to read it’s worth setting up short bursts of practice to maintain these skills


  • our ideas and stories are worthy of sharing: sustaining free choice writing can help children realize they are writers even if they are using scribbles, drawings, and invented spelling to convey their ideas; set aside 5 or 10 minutes for freewrite time in a blank journal–imperfection is part of the writing process
  • how sentences work: sentence fluency is the ability to craft a variety of sentences for different purposes. Try using question words to help children write stronger sentences from simple sentences (for example, if they wrote Harry Potter played. Who did he play with? Where did he play? When did he play? Why did he play? How did he play?) Almost any writing in any genre can get stronger by using the 5W1H questions as a guide.
  • spelling: help children notice the patterns of how words in English are spelled by talking about how words are alike and how they are different. Try using sticky notes for matching word parts or to create a memory game. Use magnetic letters or a white board to dictate words or sentences and to have children write them in a way that isn’t permanent and where mistakes are meant to be learned from.


  • automaticity: the more automatic fact retrieval is the easier more complex operations become. Use dice or numbers cut up on paper to practice mental math. Make three digit numbers together and practice taking away or adding five or ten. Use the same basic fact math practice sheet 5 days in a row so children experience the joy of getting stronger each day.
  • fluency: the more number sense we have the more we understand how operations work. Support children to draw or diagram their solutions to problems. Talk about how numbers can be represented different ways (for example, 587 is 500+80+7 and 400+180+7). There might be a correct answer to math problems but how to get there can take lots of different paths.
Independent reading routines at home have their benefits–namely, jammies, comics, and snacks.

Lastly, here are a few more tips that are helping me keep things simple and sustainable:

  • Choice blocks built into your day can help children discover what they want to learn or get better at –a predictable structure helps them anticipate the time for choice and even look forward to it
  • Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build connection, grow vocabulary, and build a love of stories–it is always time well spent; video chat with relatives to share snippets of books (our favorites are weird animal facts and joke books)
  • Use online resources like virtual tours and live author read-alouds if it is something your children want to try
  • Evaluate suggestions by your children’s teachers and ask yourself if there are any things your children already do naturally that may not need to be “assigned” right now
  • Use tactile materials when you can (sticky notes can become letter tiles, a cookie sheet becomes a magnetic surface for magnet letters, the dry erase board you use to write your shopping list can become a writing surface) especially for children in preschool-Grade 2.
  • Short bursts of daily practice (sometimes of the same repeated skill) is often better than longer practice sessions that lead to more frustration
  • Support children to set daily or weekly goals for themselves as a personal challenge–What do they want to try? What do they want to get stronger at? How do they want to outgrow themselves? How can they help others?
  • Not all screen time is created equal. Encourage screen time that supports creation. A new favorite in our house is Art.Simple.
  • Cookie breaks help.
Making sentences using Who, What, Where, When, Why, How

The Professor & The Principal Podcast

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!

Episode Transcript


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.

Chris (04:14):

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.

Katie (05:03):

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.

Chris (05:53):

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.

Katie (06:53):

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.

Chris (08:10):

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.

Katie (08:44):

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.

Chris (09:53):

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.

Katie (10:55):

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.

Chris (11:50):

Talk Katie a little bit about the choice blocks themselves and some of the ways we gave the kids to brainstorm in.

Katie (11:57):

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.

Katie (12:55):

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.

Katie (13:41):

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.

Chris (14:41):

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.

Katie (15:05):

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.

Chris (15:34):

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.

Katie (16:01):

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.

Chris (17:02):

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,

Katie (18:01):

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.

Chris (19:13):

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.

Katie (19:42):

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.

Katie (20:28):

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.

Chris (21:08):

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.

Katie (22:23):

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 theprofessorandtheprincipal@gmail.com. Thanks for listening.

When Parents Become Teachers

Strikes and gutters, ups and downs–that pretty much sums up each day right now. We are two days into homeschooling in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and we’re learning lessons as we go. My husband and I are both educators, so we are constantly wearing the multiple hats of parent-teacher/teacher-parent. Yet, this moment is calling on us to draw on our greatest levels of patience and understanding with our children and one another. We’re keeping our goals for this time simple–more strikes than gutters each day.

In our town, the hubs of our community–our schools, public library, and YMCA– have been closed for days. And social distancing has created a feeling of uncertainty unparalleled in our lifetimes. But you can hear children playing outside in their yards. Neighbors are out walking with their loved ones before dinner. Community members are self-organizing food donations and book swaps. And we have a mandatory break from our over-scheduled lives.

This gift of time is also posing particular challenges. Our children are 8- and 11-years-old, and I find myself grateful that my children are toilet trained, sleep through the night, and can get their own snacks from the fridge. If you have toddlers, your challenges probably revolve much more around basic needs right now. If you have high school or college students, they may be quickly underwater with the flood of independent expectations put on students with distance learning assignments. As schools and colleges close, every parent is all of a sudden a teacher.

In this post, I share what’s working for us and what we have learned from our pilot of sorts the last two days.

On the first morning of our new reality, we had our boys help us design a daily schedule that includes some academic time which we call “practice” along with choice blocks.

Rather than a list of possibilities for the choice blocks, we organized choice time into four categories drawing from the pillars that guide my work in schools. What could we do to connect with one another during this time? What could we create on our own or with someone else? What did we want to discover and get curious about? How could we make sure we move each day? We are adding as we go.

There are a lot of thoughtful daily schedules being shared online right now. You might find one that works as a starting place and recruit your children in the process of creating a schedule that works for everyone in the family. To make our schedule, we started out by having our boys make a list of things they wanted to do with this time. Every family has different constraints including the number of parents or caregivers available to help, the number of working parents, the number of children, and the number of accessible digital devices. What works for one family may not translate into success during this time for another. It’s easy to go into “compare-despair” mode when viewing each other’s Facebook posts. Remember, we are all experiencing strikes and gutters, but sometimes only the strikes are shared.

For us, starting the day without an alarm clock has been a gift in and of itself. We read or play on our own until 8ish. We then start our day together for family breakfast and a “morning meeting” of sorts. We talk about something we are each looking forward to as a way to set the tone for the day. That way, even when something gets hard or inevitable frustration sets in, we know there is something to look forward to in the day. We then make sure everyone has time for movement of some kind either by heading outside for a walk or by watching an online workout. Movement increases blood and oxygen flow and sets you up for cognitive development and overall well-being. When in doubt, move and get your children moving.

It’s amazing to see the spirit of generosity this moment has created. Publishing companies, educational websites, teachers, and parents are all sharing resources to support student learning at home. The wealth of resources online to support children’s learning has never been more accessible. Take a virtual tour of a museum you may never see in person. Watch a BrainPop video on a topic or join Scholastic’s free digital hub and learn something new. Watch a video of an author conducting a read aloud of their books or join an illustrator teaching a drawing class. In some ways, there has never been more opportunity to learn something new. That is, for children with access to digital learning. For thousands upon thousands of children, those resources remain out of reach.

Yet, more valuable than any online resource is the time and attention we give to children. Curling up on the couch and reading a book together. Telling family stories. Cooking side by side. Time outside. That’s what our children are most likely to remember anyway.

What Are You Making?

If you are like me, many of the moments you remember most from childhood might involve making something. There’s the pillow I made by hand in elementary school that I still have stored in a plastic tub in the basement. The Madonna-inspired music videos I made with my two best friends. The pumpkin bread each Thanksgiving. The project posters. The mix tapes.

As our modern world often demands 24/7 connectivity, there has been a surge of interest in making things as a way to unwind, release our creativity, and even to combat addiction: cooking from scratch, knitting, woodworking, essentially anything you do with your hands that focuses on repetitive actions at a skill level that can always be improved upon. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as entering a “flow” state where we reach a balance between skill and challenge that fosters in us an almost unconscious drive to keep trying. To keep making. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the secret to happiness.

In schools, we’ve seen the Maker Movement and project-based learning bring renewed focus on making. Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and Head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, explains that the Maker Movement is about more than gadgets and technology. It’s about making things you care about, things that are meaningful to you and meaningful to others around you.

Children are really the best makers. My eight-year-old makes flip books, comic books, lists, and marble runs. This week, while getting out the frying pan, he said, “I want to make my own quesadilla.” The urge to make is always there especially when the process and the product go hand-in-hand.

As we get older, the things we make sometimes change. Our eleven-year-old likes to make lists of basketball drills that he writes in a journal dedicated for this purpose. He made a Top Ten Basketball Players of All-Time slideshow just because. He doodles and draws, but mostly when no one else is looking over his shoulder.

Throughout our lives, we never lose the urge to make things. My mom is an avid and skilled needlepointer. Her favorite things to make are ornaments. Small projects that she can finish in a week or two. Thanks to her devotion to making things for the people she loves, we have dozens of ornaments that bring us joy at every major holiday. Her love of making ornaments is consistent with research that shows that the act of doing for others gives us an immediate sense of satisfaction unparalleled by things we can buy for others.

Of course, the act of creating can be frustrating. The lines we want to make straight may turn out squiggly. The drawing we hoped would be perfect may turn out “ish”. The building might collapse. And the cookies may burn. But when we try to make something and it fails we learn it’s okay to try again.

Writing as Making

It’s easy to forget that every piece of writing we craft is an act of making. In writing workshop, the question “What are you making?” is a more joyful alternative to “What are you writing?” This shift in language is subtle but significant. When we reframe writing as making, we free students to try and experiment much as they would when making something in the kitchen or in a laboratory or in a workshop.

Memoirist and writing teacher, Suzanne Farrell Smith, explains in her book The Writing Shop: Putting “Shop” Back in Writing Workshop that we can reclaim writing workshop as a method that draws from its namesake–the shops of craftspeople like carpenters, quilters, visual artists, architects, or cooks. She explains that a true writing workshop offers much more than technical expertise. It also offers “self-awareness, impulse control, seeking help, listening carefully, cooperation, conflict negotiation, appropriate risk-taking, grit, initiative, courage, [and] consideration of the health and well-being of others.”

Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play

When designing things you care about is the goal, it doesn’t matter what the materials are: wooden blocks, paper and pencil, seeds and soil, a keyboard and screen. What matters is the opportunity to design creatively and to play with the materials to see what happens. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab has developed a set of principles around making that, well, make a lot of sense.

First, when we make things, the joy factor increases when we are involved in a project, ideally of our choosing. I was visiting a school this week and the science posters I saw captured the immense creativity of these fifth grade students . They were free to choose a topic within their unit on the solar system that they wanted to learn more about and were free to display what they learned using a variety of materials. I had never seen three-dimensional student posters til now.

Second, when we make things related to our passions, or the things we care about, we are more willing to keep going when the learning process gets hard or we run into obstacles.

Third, when we make things with our peers, we learn to collaborate, negotiate, and make group decisions–all of which are essential for finding happiness. Of course, part of the beauty of making anything is that you can choose to do it alone or to make something with others.

Finally, the play involved in making is about more than fun. It’s about experimentation, creativity, and getting in a flow state all of which lead to greater overall happiness in our lives.

An Invitations Approach

I’m a believer in the power of an invitations-approach to learning. Giving students the invitation to make something with materials allows students to tap into their sensory selves, to embrace the mess, and to discover something new about the making process and themselves. In my classroom, I had a corner of recyclables especially paper towel rolls and plastic containers. One week’s worth of recycling led two boys to spend a month building a rollercoaster and another to design a playground. When we make something, we know we have the power to create again and again. There weren’t step-by-step instructions for things to create. The materials were the invitation.

At home, our kitchen table is often designed as an invitation to create with paper, pencils, markers, and other making tools handy. My boys are fortunate to be ongoing penpals with their great grandmother and great aunt who send them handwritten letters with questions that invite a response. They’ve grown up knowing first-hand that a personalized letter means more than an email or text and that the recipient will love it no matter the spelling errors. The letter is an invitation to write back.

A kitchen table can be an invitation to create, to write, and to make something

This past week, a big box arrived with an unexpected gift for my husband from a friend. The box was a bigger hit with our eight-year-old than the gift inside. He spent two weeks decorating the box, making holes in it, turning it into a make shift chair for his desk, and building a fort with it. He finally put it in his closet so that he can pull it out when he needs to release some creative energy and make something out of it once again. He has learned that he can create an invitation for himself for the future.

We Are Always In the Process of Making

Try a little experiment. Over the course of the day, take notice of all the ways you make things. Meals. Coffee. Writing. Friendships. Even mess. The more we are mindful of the things we are making, the more it helps us recognize we have purpose and meaning. Support the children in your life to notice the things they are making that have meaning to them and that have meaning to others.

Try These Simple Tips:

Reframe the writing process as a making process

Model things you are making in your own life

Create invitations for children to make things with a variety of materials

Embrace the mess that making inevitably creates

Read aloud books like Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, Ish by Peter Reynolds, and Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg that let children know making is worthwhile and imperfect

Learning Stuff is Joyful

“What’s the point of studying history? Who cares what happened long ago?”

Thus begins the first chapter of A History of Us, The First Americans, Prehistory-1600, a read aloud our family is engaged with on weekend mornings. The framework of the book is that history is full of stories and mysteries that intrigue us still today. In one weekend, our boys learned about bones from domesticated dogs 14,000 years ago, Neanderthal skulls, and the earth bridge Beringia that formed between Asia and Alaska during the Ice Age.

Will they remember the content forever? Probably not. But, with a time commitment of only about five minutes, our boys were primed to wonder about the past, the land we stand on, and people that came before us. And they did so through the comfort of the read-aloud.

We all know the adage, the more you know the more you can learn. But, what most people don’t realize is that any reading comprehension test is actually a knowledge test in disguise. The more background knowledge we have about a topic, the more likely we are to understand what we are reading. The more basic knowledge we have about history, science, geography, and civics, the more we can apply what we know to new situations and further readings. When you watch children light up from learning in classrooms (and on living room couches), it’s because they are positioned to wonder, imagine, and feel as though they’ve learned something useful and novel.

What’s happening beneath the surface of those lit up faces? When we learn something new, our brains have a rush of the reward chemical dopamine. Thanks to developments in brain imaging, we know that learning something new causes the brain to build connections and neurons. When learning occurs, we look forward to learning even more.

When we support students and children to learn about topics that grow their knowledge about the world, it naturally creates conditions that drive curiosity, empathy, and knowledge-building. It ignites a cycle of learning children want to repeat. After reading about the Ice Age and mammoths, our boys took off in their own directions. One to get better at skateboarding in the driveway the other to read his How to Get Better at Basketball book followed by drills in the basement. The day started with a new family ritual around learning and self-direction followed.

But, when you experience days without feeling as though you learned anything, boredom sets in. Not the kind of boredom that is part of a fulfilling childhood or that leads to creativity and productivity. But, boredom that creates habitual passivity and leaves you asking, “Is this all there is?”

As teachers and parents, it’s helpful to remember that knowledge-building matters not only for success in school but to prime children’s brains for all kinds of joyful learning. So what can you do?

  • At the end of the day, ask your students and children “What’s something you learned today?”
  • Balance read-alouds between books that support knowledge-building with books that are purely imaginative. Search the The Classroom Bookshelf for recently released books that I blog about with colleagues. In our home and in my classroom experiences, mornings are better for knowledge-building and afternoons and evenings are better for imaginative stories. At home, we are deep into the fourth illustrated Harry Potter and that remains an important way we wind down at night.
  • If you are assigning passages to support students to practice skills and strategies, remember that content matters–rather than a pinball reading experience of different topics different days, look for texts that support students to grow greater knowledge about a topic over time.
  • Share things you are learning from the cake you baked for the first time to books you’re learning from on your nightstand. Learning itself is joyful.

The Gift of Here and Now

One of the great gifts of any holiday season is time. In an age of hurried living and distraction, what I am most looking forward to over the holidays is just time. Time to connect over shared meals. Time to tell stories of holidays past. Time to journal in bed. Time to read the illustrated Goblet of Fire. Time to find Waldo. Time to play Settlers of Catan. Time to laugh over Madlibs. Time to take notice of the world, people, (and pets) around me.

Usually, I fill the holiday season with to-do lists. I then expeditiously cross things off my list to feel as though the time was well spent. Instead, this year, I’m making an effort to find joy in the here and now. I’m giving myself permission to not always know what to do with my time.

We know that boredom is often the catalyst for creativity. It’s why we have so many creativity bursts in the shower when we are free from any particular focus. This holiday season, free yourself (and your students and children) from deadlines and to-dos. Here are some simple questions you can ask yourself to prioritize the here and now this holiday season:

Connection: Who will you connect with and how will you let them know they are important to you?

Choice: What seemingly ordinary part of your day will you choose to slow down and take notice of this holiday season?

Challenge: What new things might you try because you want to not because you have to?

Play: What will play look like for you?

Story: What is the story of the holidays you want to look back on? What stories will you tell? What stories will you read? What stories might you create?

Discovery: How can you remind yourself to take notice of things that give you a feeling of awe?

Movement: How will you intentionally move to be more wide-awake to the here and now?

If you are looking for a little extra inspiration, I recommend reading aloud the picture book Here and Now by Julia Denos with someone you love. Or, better yet, have someone you love read it to you. It is a picture book meditation on how to live life more fully present. After all, time is the one resource we can never replace.

Life Must Be Lived as Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s an age-old question that our eleven-year-old son will still ask us when he wants to shoot hoops in the driveway or play ball tag in the basement. My husband and I know that, at some point, our tween will stop asking. We hold on to these moments and hope they continue for as long as possible. “Will you play with me?” is an invitation with no guarantee of being accepted and we feel grateful to be asked. I try to remind myself that the dishes or emails can wait and that I may not hear this question very often in the coming years. 

As adolescence starts to take hold in our house, it’s prompted me to wonder when we stop asking others to play and why that is. Psychiatrist Stuart Browne writes in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that play is like oxygen, “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” 

Thanks to early childhood researchers and advocates from Fred Rogers to McArthur Fellowship recipient Vivian Gussin Paley, we know that the “work” of childhood is play. Through play children build their imaginations, learn how to problem-solve, and navigate social networks. This doesn’t change as we get older. Throughout our lives, it is through play that we learn how to move beyond frustration and into innovation. Play is more than fun. When we are engaged in play, we learn to express our feelings, opinions, ideas, and needs. Above all, play creates joy, which is its own best reward. 

At home and at school, we can support the children in our lives by creating invitations to play. Based on Brené Brown’s work in The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, we asked our sons this weekend about when they feel like they’re engaged in play. Specifically, we asked: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end? 

We made a family list:

Wandering the stacks at the library
Dungeons and Dragons
Board and card games
Weekend cooking and baking
Reading fiction and memoirs
Wandering the local market
Board and card games
Ball tag
Jumping on a trampoline
Playing with Sandy (our puppy)
Reading a good book

Reading in bed or on the couch
Board and card games
Playing with Sandy
Drawing in a little notebook

We talked about why these things feel like play and we made a family commitment to try to bring more play into our lives by carving out time together to do the things we love.

In the classrooms, I partner with, I work with teachers to think about the times when learning feels playful. It’s often when students are connecting with one another or they are laughing together or discovering something new. 

During a unit planning day with sixth grade teachers this week, we worked on making learning engagements more joyful, memorable, and playful. The teachers are taking their students on a field trip to a science museum as part of the unit. They initially planned to have students explore the museum website to preview what they will experience. It seemed purposeful, but not particularly playful. I suggested that, instead, they could print photos of images from the museum website, put them on large pieces of chart paper, and have students write and draw in small groups what they think they will see and what the images makes them wonder. Students could circulate around the room to the different images creating “graffitti boards” that they could then revisit after the trip. Purposeful, joyful, and playful. 

Clicking around the website wasn’t likely to evoke much wondering or feelings of play, but gathering together with classmates in what I call “heads in a huddle” to share their thinking about a compelling image would feel like a form of play. Students would likely lose track of time, be a little goofy, anad wish that it could last longer. All signs that joyful learning is occurring. 

Plato is said to have stated, Life must be lived as play. I agree. 

Here are some additional ways to make play a pillar for starting with joy in your home and classroom: 

At Home:

  • Invite children to play with materials by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and paper. 
  • Make a family list by asking each other: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Play together with board games, card games, dice games, and role playing games (some of our favorites are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, 30 second mysteries, and Exploding Kittens)
  • Invent family games (our family favorite is ball tag–pretty much exactly as it sounds but using a giant yoga ball)
  • Play with books through family read-alouds by making your voice match the characters’ voices. Our recent favorite are the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay. Another family favorite has been and always will be Calvin and Hobbes.
  • Listen when children ask us “Will you play with me?” and find a way to say “YES”
  • Model the ways you find play in your own life. 

At School:

  • Invite students to play with materials as part of the writing process through mixed media illustrations by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and various paper. Look to picture books for inspiration especially wordless picture books and Caldecott award-winners.
  • Make a class list of favorite ways to play by asking: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Consider ways to foster student choice and movement while meeting the same lesson objectives
  • Reframe independent reading as imaginative play–after all, that’s what fiction reading really is
  • Incorporate daily “quick writes” to help students see writing as a playful process through short bursts of what Paula Borque calls “thinking and inking”. See Paula Borque’s Spark: Quickwrites to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms for more ideas. 
  • Support students to play with ideas by creating a culture of experimentation 
  • Notice times when students are implicitly saying “Will you play with me?” Confer with students one-on-one to honor those moments when students need us as academic play partners to discuss their innovative ideas and interesting noticings. 
  • Finally, model the ways you are playful in your own life. Take silly class photos. Play games with students at recess. Invite laughter. Compliment the ways you see students inventing their own ways to play. 
playing with watercolors to make joy bookmarks

Getting Curious About Ourselves to Harness the Good in Our Lives

If you could do one thing all day, what would it be? 

When I ask kids this question, I get responses that give me insights into their interests and daily lives: shoot hoops in my driveway, bake cakes, go fishing, jump on a trampoline. Tapping into children’s interests can help us recommend texts they may want to read to further their knowledge or to fall in love with characters that feel like a mirror to them. But we can also make important connections between children’s interests and what it means to be a reader or writer: 

“How do you learn new shots in basketball?…That sounds a lot like the process of learning how to write new kinds of sentences” or “What’s your favorite cake to bake and what’s the process?…Wow, it sounds like sometimes you use a recipe and sometimes you improvise. That sounds a lot like how we use different strategies as readers depending on when we need them.”  

Metaphors are powerful memory tools and the more personalized the metaphor, the more likely we’ll remember it. 

I ask kids questions like this because it’s a teaching tool, but also because I want them to get curious about themselves. When we get curious about ourselves and how we want to shape our time, we learn a lot about ourselves. Learning how to pay attention to our likes, dislikes, and natural curiosities can help us shape the thoughts we have which then affect the way we feel

This year, our ten-year-old has fallen in love with the Wings of Fire series. He’s on book twelve of the series and chooses to read on the weekends, before bed, and when he wakes up. His book club book chosen for him by his teacher about a boy living a hundred years ago in Texas…not so much. He’ll read it because he has to, not because he wants to. And that’s okay.

The truth is no one is interested in everything. There are things we like to learn about or do more than other things. Learning how to balance our time and energy based on the things we are curious about and interested in and our obligations to others is simply a part of life.  It’s how we become agentive and take ownership of our actions, thoughts, and feelings.

I ask kids other questions like: What is something you are looking forward to? What is something good in your day so far? What is something you feel grateful for? When do you notice you get bored? Why do you think that is? What did you learn you today that you didn’t know before? When you get stuck, how do you get unstuck? Even when there are a host of challenges in our lives, if we can focus on what we are looking forward to, things we are grateful for, new things we are learning, and how we are inherently resilient it can give us an important happiness boost. 

While we want young people to try many things and to discover new interests, we cannot force positive feelings about everything in school or in life. But, we can support them to take notice and get curious about themselves. The more curious we are about ourselves, the more we can tap into our strengths and use our time to hone our potential and contribute to the well-being of others. And the more we reflect on ourselves as a practice, the more we will begin to notice patterns about ourselves to catch and harness the good in our lives. 

Years ago, my husband, gifted me the Five Minute Journal by Intelligent Change. It’s an incredibly simple resource for getting curious about yourself and noticing patterns about your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Every morning I write down three simple statements that all begin:

I am grateful for _____

What would make my day great?

I am (affirmation)_____

Before bed I jot down responses to two more prompts:

3 Amazing things that happened today…

 Could I have made my day even better?

Through this journaling process, I’ve become more curious about myself. I notice when gratitude feels hard which is usually when I’m feeling stressed. I notice when my responses include details about my children that I’m glad I didn’t miss. I notice that food and movement show up a lot in my responses and that when I have a plan for healthy eating and morning movement I feel better for it. The journaling process has been a way for me to catch my thoughts and create my own happiness. 

If we can change the way we think and where we put our mental energy, we can reshape our thoughts and our feelings. We cannot always think happy thoughts. Nor should we expect that of our children. But we can take note of our thoughts, get curious, and learn how to focus on the positive over time. Getting curious and noticing patterns in ourselves is a lifelong process. So is finding happiness. 

Below are some ideas about how to help kids to get curious about themselves to harness the good in their lives:

At home:

-Share stories about how you got curious about yourself and learned a new skill or passion in the process

-Share stories about times you were bored and how letting our minds wander during those moments can lead to imaginative possibilities

-Start a daily ritual as a family about moments that were good in your day–over time your children will take the lead in asking everyone how their day was and what was good–celebrate that initiative

-Try the Five Minute Journal or open-ended journaling and let your children catch you in the act of journaling–explain why you do it

-Ask each other what would make your day/weekend great

-Talk about what you are grateful for and notice what’s the same and what’s different in your responses

At school:

-Start a journal routine in your classroom as bookends to the day or week

-Encourage students to notice what excites them and what bores them–no one loves everything–offer strategies for how to get something out of boredom like looking for one new thing you didn’t know before

-Establish a gratitude routine where students share something they feel grateful for that week

-Have conversations with students about what they are looking forward to especially at the start of reading and writing conferences: in school, in the books they are reading, in what they may be writing

-Model your own curiosity about yourself

-Acknowledge it’s okay not to love everything in school or in life

The Power of Invisible Practice

“Invisible spelling and sentence practice”

“I want it. I need it. So, I’ve got to do it.” Like a human Nike ad, my ten-year-old son voiced this new personal mantra to me on a recent car ride. He was describing why he works out in the basement every day. We’re talking planks, wall sits, pull ups–things most people do only when a coach or trainer is standing over them shouting, and, sometimes, shaming. But, Jack, chooses to do these things. Every day.  He even watches Youtube videos that help him learn new exercises and then he’s willing to try them even if he initially fails. He wants to get faster on the soccer field and in the pool. Just now I found him with ankle weights doing leg lifts before bed. I’m not advocating that all of our children or students should do calisthenics before bed. Jack finds joy in the process of this self-driven practice to get stronger and better at the things he likes to do. 

In our house, we call this kind of practice that no one else sees (except your family) “invisible practice”. Jack’s teammates and coaches don’t see this kind of practice. They only see the end result. It’s why we call it invisible. 

We learn nearly everything through practice. To play the piano. To throw a ball. To recognize that letters represent sounds. Or to form letters on the page so someone else can read them. But, in the beginning, practice is hard.  It can feel like the opposite of joy. And the only way we keep practicing is if we want to create change in ourselves or if we find the practice a form of play. 

Initiating an “invisible practice” routine can be hard. Assigning or requiring “invisible practice” can backfire. We see this with reading logs which can become anxiety producing and sometimes lead children to see reading as a chore. The truth is children often know the things they would like to get better at. 

Our youngest son told me this week, “Mom, I’m not a good writer.” He’s seven and already thinks writing isn’t for him. I thought to myself this is a boy who until recently used to carry a pocket notebook around so he could jot down little notes and create sketches. Holding his heart closely, I reminded him that being a writer is about having ideas that you want to share. It’s not about what your writing looks like. But right now, he is looking at everyone else’s paper and realizing his writing doesn’t quite look like everyone else’s. 

Learning to form letters was not automatic for him and has taken years of practice. Learning to conventionally spell has been challenging. Some phonics lessons have stuck. Others will come in time.  A lot of writing for him requires a lot of thinking in order for it to look conventional. But, as cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, reminds us “the brain is actually not very good at thinking.” When certain processes become automatic and memory kicks in, thinking becomes easier. 

We decided to try some “invisible practice”. Every morning after breakfast, we practice a few spelling words with the same phonogram pattern and a sentence or two. No more than five minutes. Every day. We’re working on “b” versus “d”. We’re practicing how to form letters. We’re working on capitalization and end punctuation. But the end result is a sentence that looks like something he is proud of and wants to get better at. 

This “invisible practice” is like the wall-sits of writing. We’re practicing the foundational skills that didn’t solidify for him through immersion.  It’s not the imaginative, narrative-driven writing of writer’s workshop. It’s practice designed to help with automaticity and sentence fluency so that the mechanics of writing feel less effortful and less uncertain. So he knows his stories are worthy of sharing. So he has the confidence to tell his stories through writing.  

At home and in classrooms, I emphasize the value of “invisible practice”. Learning is messy and thinking is hard. You can learn to embrace mistakes, have a growth mindset, and persevere, but practice is a part of learning. 

Here are some quick strategies for how to make “invisible practice” a part of your home or classroom:

  • Model and think-aloud about the kinds of “invisible practice” you do to learn new things or to get better at things that are hard for you
  • Use the term “invisible practice” and emphasize that it’s the practice we do out of choice that matters most in life
  • Create invitations to practice rather than requirements (invite children to make decisions about the kinds of invisible practice they might do based on their own goals)
  • Support a growth mindset before, during, and after practice by praising hard work and effort rather than mastery
  • Help children learn strategies towards independence like asking themselves questions and noticing patterns