Design Thinking with Dads

Mar 28 2019

Authors: Elizabeth Atack and Klem-Marí Cajigas

Elizabeth Atack and Klem-Mari Cajigas from Nashville Public Library share how they use design thinking to transform and reimagine family literacy for incarcerated fathers.

Nashville Public Library’s (NPL) Teen Services and Studio NPL maker space have collaborated with Woodland Hills, a Nashville juvenile detention facility, since 2015 to provide access to books, along with interactive, media-based workshops. After learning that around 20–25 percent of the inmates were fathers, it became clear that there were additional ways the library could support Woodland Hills. NPL staff approached our department, Bringing Books to Life!, to see if we could present our family literacy workshops in the facility.1 We responded with a resounding “Yes!” We then used Design Thinking to create a program just for these young fathers. Because incarcerated teenage fathers were a new audience for us, the Design Thinking process would allow us to get to know them and prototype a program that builds on their interests and experiences.


Studio NPL Mentor and one father mix music and words to bring books to life for the father’s children Photo Credit: Klem-Marí Cajigas


We wanted to get acquainted with the young men at Woodland Hills, so we accompanied NPL staff on their visit. While there, we wanted to explore the feasibility of implementing our family literacy workshops at the facility while observing existing NPL programming in action. We met some of the dads and talked to them about their children, learning what questions they had about supporting their children’s literacy. During that day’s media workshop, we also observed participants using iPads to compose beats and tracks. 

After that visit, and after learning how the fathers felt about their children, we were certain that our usual family literacy workshop—which involves library staff reading aloud to parents and having parents read and talk with each other as they would with their children—wouldn’t work. Being read aloud to can be a very intimate and emotional experience, and we did not want to make the young men feel unduly vulnerable. We asked ourselves how we might create something special and meaningful for these fathers. We also wanted to build on their experiences creating media. Lastly, we knew that we hoped the dads would leave our workshops knowing they already possess the skills to support their children’s literacy. Could we build on their assets and interests to create a workshop relevant to them?


A father embeds within his book a note to his son. Photo Credit: Klem-Marí Cajigas


While we were brainstorming, we found a video of the rapper Ludacris performing Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Red Pajama. It was such fun, and reminded us of what makes books great to read aloud: rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. Those are also the hallmarks of a good hook. Since many of the dads already knew how to mix beats, being able to rap and record a children’s book might be a great entry point. But we didn’t want to assume that all of the dads wanted to rap a book. After further research, we found other video examples of different ways to share books. We could show the videos and use them to talk about how reading aloud supports early literacy. To prepare, we collected some of our favorite library books to read aloud. We also selected books about fathers, particularly ones that featured men of color, and books with themes of separation or incarceration.


We put together a prototype workshop to pilot. Over three weeks, we would discuss with the dads the literacy skills they already have, current ways of sharing books with children, and then give them time to explore the books we brought. They would then select a book to record for their children during the last workshop. We kept the plan open and expected that we would need to refine as we went along. We were forthright about our process, and maintained a dialogue about the program and what we were offering.

We learned a lot. Discussing early literacy with the dads felt too formal, but answering questions while they explored books kept information relevant. Elements that immediately worked included the videos and providing the dads opportunities to look through the books. In fact, they asked for more time with the books! One dad picked up one about a boy’s first trip to the barbershop and exclaimed, “I’m a barber!” We also responded to book requests from the young men, whether they were for specific books that they remembered from their childhoods, or books with certain subjects or characters. One young man, for example, asked for books featuring Muslim characters.

They told us that three weeks wasn’t long enough, so we added additional time for them to prepare for their recordings. That way, they could practice the rhythm and the pace for the book. Some also used this extra time to add personalized touches to the recording. We let them choose their preferred format, be it rapping over beats, playing guitar, or simply reading aloud. After finishing the recording, we mastered the final tracks and burned them onto CDs, which we put inside a new copy of the book. Facility staff placed the completed books in the men’s belongings, which they would have access to upon their release. 


With the success of our first effort, we decided to offer workshops every other month. Some men came for multiple sessions because they enjoyed it so much. We extended our last session at the facility to six weeks in fact, as at least eight young men expressed interest in our program! The enthusiasm of the young men was perhaps the best feedback we received, and each time we were able to add more of the activities and information they especially enjoyed. For most, that was the act of recording the story as well as creating a personalized bookplate for their child’s book.  

According to our surveys, all participants agreed that they learned a great deal about literacy. Several mentioned they liked that we care about what they do with their children and that they planned to visit a library with their kids. We even ran into one of our participants at the library after his release!

With Design Thinking, we created a successful program for a new-to-us audience. Flexibility and responsiveness are part of the program design, making it infinitely adaptable. 

[1] Bringing Books to Life (BBTL) is an outreach initiative of Nashville Public Library (NPL), sponsored by Nashville Public Library Foundation, that emphasizes the importance of developing critical early literacy skills by educating teachers, young children, and parents through joyful story times, family literacy workshops, and teacher professional development. 


Elizabeth Atack is the program manager of Bringing Books to Life, an initiative of Nashville Public Library. 

Klem-Marí Cajigas_Pic

Klem-Marí Cajigas is Bringing Books to Life’s family literacy coordinator.