Evaluating Our Thanksgiving Dinner

This was an unusual Thanksgiving for my family.

My parents have always hosted Thanksgiving at their house; it is one of the few family traditions that remains since my Grandma passed away.

All was set to continue as usual this year, until last week, when my Grandpa — the effervescent, 89 year-old patriarch of the family — began experiencing significant back pain.

It quickly became evident that the trip to my parents’ house would be too much for him.

Like good evaluators, we continually monitored the situation and used the data we gathered to determine what changes we could make to ensure that the family would be together and that my Grandpa would be as comfortable as possible.  

We ended up bringing Thanksgiving to him.

Different family members were nervous for different reasons.

My parents now had to factor in a one-hour drive into their cooking schedule, and others had to adjust their travel plans.

Some were skeptical about having Thanksgiving in a different location, and given that we all adore my Grandpa, we were worried about how he was feeling.

Afterwards, when I reflected on how the day went, I realized that most of the questions on everyone’s minds had been fairly quantifiable:

  • Would the turkey be ready on time (It wasn’t.) and survive the car ride? (It did, thanks to some duct tape and clever packaging on my parents’ part.)
  • Would we have the food warmed at my Grandpa’s house in time for everyone’s arrival? (We didn’t.)
  • Would all of our family members make it (We were down one cousin.) and arrive on time? (Everyone was early, except for my parents with the turkey that wouldn’t cook.) 

To determine the success of our Thanksgiving dinner, we could track these metrics or others, such as the number of family members who came (11) or the amount of time everyone spent at my Grandpa’s house (approximately three hours). 

These are all important details that help us craft the story of our Thanksgiving dinner.

Yet these facts could never describe the contentment on my Grandpa’s face as he sat at the head of the table and listened to the family’s jokes and conversations.

A series of data points would never suffice to explain how happy we all were to see him acting like his usual, wonderful self because he had just had a wonderful day.

No spreadsheet in the world — and I LOVE a spreadsheet — could have ever captured the hope that my Grandpa had after a day with much less pain and far more happiness than he had had in a few weeks. 

Of course, I would never methodically evaluate our family dinner — but isn’t this exactly what we try to do when we try to measure family engagement in our schools?

We host events and programs, offer services and supports, and build relationships like pros, but we struggle to figure out how we can capture the impact that we have made and share that impact with others.

We count names on sign-in sheets and have participants rate their satisfaction, and we hope to show that we made a difference in our students’ and families’ lives.

Those pieces of information are critical — we need to track those metrics to track our progress over time and demonstrate growth in our programming and our reach within school communities.

Yet, our standard documentation cannot capture the joy on a mother’s face as she gets a relaxed moment to play and learn with her child or the pride that a father exudes when he has just completed his first professional resume.

These are two examples from my work as a Community School Coordinator that have stayed with me to this day — and neither came from one of my beloved spreadsheets. 

This is why stakeholder voices and qualitative data are so important.

Certainly, if the turkey never cooked or if no one showed up, our Thanksgiving would have been very different.

However, what made Thanksgiving so special for me was watching my Grandpa’s joyful reactions during dinner and hearing him speak happily on the phone for days afterward.

For those of us in the field of family and community engagement, these are the types of reactions we live for and the motivation we need to keep doing the tough work.

To best capture our impacts and tell our stories, we must take this mixed-methods approach, enhancing our traditional measures with rich stories and perspectives from our most important stakeholders.

For me, this is what makes evaluation — even of a Thanksgiving dinner — most powerful, interesting, and even fun.