New Year’s Resolution: Meaningfully Engaging Families.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1893 painting The Banjo Lesson is one of my favorite depictions of inter-generational learning. So many details from the painting illustrate my vision of what a perfect moment of mentorship looks like:

  • The comfort and trust embodied in the way the boy is perched steadily on his grandfather’s knee.
  • The trance of learning. The flow state. The “hard fun.”
  • The zone of proximal development. The way the boy is using an adult-sized banjo – his arms barely stretching over the instrument head so that Grandpa has to help hold up the neck.
  • The way the light washes over the sides of their faces as if to illuminate the transfer of knowledge and tradition, as if a spirit is present.

MetaMedia, the after-school program I manage, was designed exclusively to empower middle-school youth. This means that we create structures to meet students where they are and don’t ask for a lot of parental involvement – in fact, sometimes we resist it. We kick parents out of our space if they’re caught lurking and ask that they follow certain protocols to maintain our student-centered culture. Kids can drop-in, hang out, and work on projects whenever and however they want. For kids, this can be wildly liberating and lead to intellectual and identity-oriented experimentation. Most parents love it because we provide free, flexible child care and help their kids become more self-reliant, but some bristle at the idea of being pushed away.


One of my resolutions for the new year is to figure out a more meaningful way to engage families in the work that we do at MetaMedia so that we can further build trust, illuminate pathways into our program for younger kids, and create an equitable skill-sharing environment between young people of all backgrounds and their parents. I’m particularly interested in the work Ricarose Roque has done with her Family Creative Learning initiative and the way she formats positive making and reflection opportunities within and between families. The “Eat, Meet, Make, Share” structure is simple, sensible, and lovely.

My program is young and we’re still in that stage of organizational development where we’re tinkering with our own structure and design (maybe we’ll always be caught in that stage?) We’ve small-batch tested a range of ways to get adult community members into our space. Most of these strategies have been successful in exposing our youth program to a new audience, but haven’t led to deep, longer-term co-learning:

  1. Maker Fairs: Our Maker Fairs have provided students space to showcase the projects they find most meaningful. We set up booths and invite kids to stage their artifacts and present their work to community members. Parents attend and often ask kids questions about how they made certain artifacts. Sometimes we offer tinkering stations for younger kids and the adults watch.
  2. Juried Expos: Sometimes we run competitions that are judged by a jury of community leaders during these Maker Fairs. This serves a dual purpose to provide increased structure for students (prize incentives, formal presentations, and rubrics are all involved) and to expose our work to potential donors or other interested stakeholders. Funders seem to like the fact that there’s an increased structure and defined assessments, but I don’t love how it yields winners and losers.
  3. Open Mics: Youth perform for their families and it’s wonderful. One drawback we’ve encountered is that kids sometimes want to perform more content than the adults in their life have time to watch, so we’ve created a longer-format, middle-school only, monthly open mic series.

What do you all do to engage parents and families in your programs?