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Learning By Telling

How case studies — reading them, writing them — can improve your family engagement practice and open new channels of communication
Learning By Telling

As a teacher, a principal, or a family outreach worker, what would you do if you found out that a parent hadn’t been sending his 7-year-old to school? How would you approach a mother who chose to skip her daughter’s Back to School night? For many practitioners, these experiences are very much the stuff of real life, and their stories can be powerful resources for professional growth.

Using stories — or cases — as tools for learning is a central part of professional training in medicine, business, and law. Now, with a new resource from the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), the case-study method is being brought into the field of family engagement, with the introduction of a toolkit that allows teachers, librarians, afterschool staff, or anyone who works with kids to write their own cases and begin to use them to develop their practice

Create Your Own Case: A Toolkit

Unlike a traditional story that ends in some kind of resolution, a case ends with unresolved questions for the reader to consider and apply to their own work. This new toolkit helps practitioners create cases that encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and the consideration of multiple perspectives.

The toolkit was developed in partnership with the Department of Human Service Programs in Cambridge. It includes eight sample cases, developed by the department’s outreach workers, that pose challenging questions about real-world scenarios, including:

  • a grandfather who wants to take part in a series of community literacy workshops, but is hesitant due to his own negative experiences learning to read;
  • a preschool director who is frustrated by a mother who does not respond to letters regarding tuition payments; and
  • a family who has immigrated to the United States declines to apply for nutrition assistance because of cultural beliefs. 

These examples, which point the reader to develop solutions and to formulate effective communication strategies, are meant to prompt discussion and then to inspire practitioners to write their own cases.  

And that’s the real goal. Reflecting on the provided cases allows educators to think about their own experiences, to build their own knowledge and skills, and ultimately tell the stories most relevant to their work. “We wanted to create a tool that put practitioners’ actual experiences working with diverse families at the forefront of the learning process,” says Heather Weiss, director of the Harvard Family Research Project. “By grappling with and reflecting on these real-world issues, learners construct their own knowledge and are more likely to put new ideas in practice in the future.”

“Cases are effective when they help people understand how relationships with families take time and that all families, no matter their situation, want to see their children succeed,” says Margaret Caspe, Ed.M.’01, senior research analyst at HFRP. “They are effective when they help people gain empathy, shift mindsets, and think in new and different ways.”

These personalized cases also serve the important role of highlighting families who might not have a way of telling their own narratives. And through the writing process, the practitioner can develop new and effective ways of working with families in the future.  

How to Write a Case

The toolkit outlines six detailed steps, along with related exercises, that will let you reflect on your work with families and develop ideas about how to support their needs:

  • Reflect on personal experiences working with families
  • Identify differences in perspectives among people, called mismatches (ex. breakdown in communication)
  • Choose people and information to include that helps readers consider other perspectives
  • Develop a timeline of events for the case, and outline them in a logical and interesting way
  • Draft and revise, including thinking about including a backstory, or mixing up the narrative timeline
  • Share your case with others

“The final step in developing a case is to share it — and that is really the most exciting part, because this is where your own missteps and successes become the foundation for someone else’s learning and insights,” says Caspe. “Cases can be shared in workshops, small group meetings, or even in emails to colleagues.”

Additional Resources

  • To use the toolkit in professional-development settings, download this facilitators’ guide [PDF], which offers strategies for incorporating it into your course, workshop, seminar, or individual supervisory sessions.  
  • A video describes the create-your-case-toolkit process and goals.
  • To learn more about HFRP’s work with the case method for family engagement, see Preparing Educators to Involve Families (originally published in 2005; third edition in 2014).


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