My G.G. made the most delicious dinners. No one skipped an invitation and no matter the physical space there was room for everyone. Delicious roast, mashed potatoes, green beans from the garden, homemade rolls with canned raspberry jam . . . and peas . . . (not exactly my favorite) were laid out in a display that made you feel like you were were royalty set to feast. It wasn’t just the amazing food that caused us to scramble to G.G.’s table. Amidst the clanking forks and spoons and the passing of the peas, were the words of thanks, the care of conversation, the lightness of laughter. Moments mattered when meals were shared. I mattered. Everyone at that table was important and even the peas seemed to taste better at G.G.’s table.
I often wonder about this experience of feeling important . . . listened to . . . cared for. I think about our human need for connection and conversation, and how conversation over a shared meal together takes away the discomfort that many other conversations may entail. What if this experience could become a familiar routine for our students and their families, while building stronger communities at school? How might our school culture and our communities change by simply sharing more meals together?
And so the journey of answering these questions began . . .
My principal, Amy Roney, at Rochester Primary, also saw the need to connect families as early as possible. She desired to connect families of kindergarten students so relationships could be built between students and their families and a network of support for one another could grow. Often, during our school days we have structured play, and yes, student relationships are built within classroom walls, but how can we extend this to relationships outside the school in our community and build partnerships? We saw that families that struggle the most are more isolated than families with support networks. Many new families with kindergartners may not know how to fully participate in school activities, join recreational sports, and other enrichment activities in the community, while other families of kindergarten students with older siblings have experiences and connections to share.
Out of this reflection and the work of Karen Mapp and others, the idea of Kindergarten Family Dinners was born. According to this research, effective family-school partnerships have outcomes where schools do the following 3 things.
CREATE A WELCOMING, INVITING CULTURE
It was important to consider the elements of what makes a family dinner relational. Our intent was to help families make connections, therefore the atmosphere needed to be conducive to this goal. We served food “family style” with entree items laid out on the tables and tableware placed for each person in attendance. What happens when we need to ask for someone to “pass the peas, please?”
Conversation begins. “Thank yous” and “You’re welcomes” are sprinkled in the air. Table manners are modeled. Small talk ensues.
Specific thought went into greeting families as they arrived and seating them strategically. Families who had children in the same classroom were placed across from each other to help initiate conversation. An interpreter was on site to help support conversations as well. Tables were filled prior to placing families at additional tables, as a way to ensure that families were not isolated at separate tables. Our district Family-Engagement Liaison welcomed families and gave out fliers to upcoming family events. She also took extra time to focus on our Spanish-speaking families, helping them connect with each other and to the school.
After the meal, we planned a time for students to play so that adult family members could mingle with one another as well as with school staff in attendance. One parent that I spoke with mentioned that “several parents were exchanging phone numbers after meeting one another.”
HONOR & RECOGNIZING FAMILIES’ FUNDS OF KNOWLEDGE
According to Mapp, staff should “honor and recognize the wealth of knowledge that families possess.” This can, in turn, assist schools with pedagogical priorities. It can then also help families as they endeavor to develop their skills as “supporters, monitors, advocates, and decision makers for their children.”
Too often we have tried to offer “direct instruction” to parents about “how to do things ‘our’ way.” The Kinder Family Dinners offered a new approach to recognizing that families have a wealth of knowledge to share with each other. Offering a safe place to gather opens the door to continued shared knowledge between the families in our community.
For Rochester, a rural, unincorporated community, families needed a place to get to know each other, and in turn, learn from each other. With school staff standing side by side, valuing these relationships and offering a new place to connect, capacity for growth in both staff and family can result. Teachers saw the interaction of students with their families and the interaction of their students’ families with each other. Families were able to build a new understanding for their child’s school relationships and connect and collaborate with each other as well.
CONNECT FAMILY ENGAGEMENT TO STUDENT LEARNING
In addition to organic conversations between families and staff members in attendance, question/suggestion cards were also distributed on the tables. It is important to know the needs of families and how we might connect them with practical solutions to any concerns related to their child’s school experience. Toward the end of the dinner event, our principal read and responded to the questions on the cards. This has opened opportunity for further discussion between families and staff during the event. Questions or concerns of a specific or personal nature, are addressed by the principal personally.
Research shows that too often parent-teacher communication is “problem-driven.” The Kinder Dinners helps to establish a “solution-driven” experience. These dinners open the door to pro-active conversations between families and teachers that can continue beyond the kindergarten year. Kinder Dinners allows us the opportunity to create conversation around shared responsibilities for children’s outcomes.
So where do we go from here? Kindergarten is a great place to start, and we can continue to build a tradition of Kinder Family Dinners, but these relationships now established between families need to be fostered.
In our inaugural year, Title I funding was used to fund our dinners. The idea to continue Family Dinners in 1st grade next year has been an orbiting conversation. Our parent organization is working on possible funding for potluck style dinners with 1st grade classes starting next fall. Our idea is to nurture the relationships between families that have been created this year. Building an inviting culture with strong family and school relationships is not a “one-shot deal.” We strive to think of ways to support sustainable growth with this project.
So what is it that makes us feel connected? Special? A part of something to belong to? It’s time and conversation well spent over the safety of a meal together. It is an opportunity to slow down and listen to each other between bites and swallows. It is a kind word spoken over a shared experience. Let’s pass the peas, please.
- How are you helping to create Family and School partnerships in your community?
- What ways can we expand our family’s funds of knowledge to better impact learning in our schools?
- family and school partnerships
- funds of knowledge
- parent involvement
- student learning