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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

The research project is a participatory, ethnographic, and ethnolinguistic study of the cultural, social, and educational impact and significance of the Parents Write Their Worlds project, a parent writing and publishing project serving adults in poor and immigrant communities in the area of Chicago, Illinois. Parents Write Their Worlds (PWTW) was created by Hal Adams, founding director of the Community Writing Project (CWP) (College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago) and myself, and has received funding from local foundations, individual public schools, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

PWTW invites parents into their children's school to participate in personal narrative writing workshops taught by CWP staff, where they meet weekly to write and share stories that draw on their life experience and knowledge. The parent writers then work together in small groups to edit selected stories which are published in the magazine Real Conditions and circulated to the school, community, and beyond. Parent writers are also invited to read their stories at school and community events. PWTW is a program that eschews deficit-based approaches to parent involvement, proposing instead to encourage poor and immigrant parents to participate in the schools as writers (artists), thinkers, and equal partners in their children's education. In this way PWTW aims to broaden and enrich communities of learning in poor and immigrant, urban neighborhoods.

The research project is a case study of PWTW at Telpochcalli Elementary School. Telpochcalli, a small school of 250 students located in a poor, predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Chicago, developed as a bilingual, biliterate community school with an emphasis on Mexican arts and culture. PWTW was brought to Telpochcalli School through a partnering community coalition—now the Telpochcalli Community Education Project (TCEP)—that aims to increase school-community relations and work with families and numerous community groups (including service providers, advocacy groups, neighborhood development corporations, and state and local agencies) to build a resident-run community center. The philosophical compatibility among the school, TCEP, PWTW, and the participatory research project, and the extent to which their programs and activities reinforce each other, is a crucial factor to consider when assessing the success and the significance of PWTW.

Research Methods

The research examined the cultural, social, and subjective impact of PWTW from several perspectives. First, it examined the impact of PWTW on individual workshop participants as well as on their relationships to their families, school, and community, and more generally on family-school relations. This issue was explored through the ethno-linguistic and ethnographic study of the workshop process, as well as the production and dissemination of the magazine. Second, the research examined the significance and impact of PWTW for teachers and students within the school, focusing on the relationship between their use and opinions of the magazine and their changing views of the parent writers, their experiences, and their culture. Finally, the research was concerned with the impact of the writing project on the sociocultural construction of parents and parent involvement, literacy, and immigrant life within the educational community where the writing project took place. The research focused in particular on the interrelated ideologies of gender, ethnicity, and class in these processes.

The project's participatory research methodology was consistent with both the philosophy of the writing project and ethnographic research, allowing the knowledge, experiences, and values of the parents to inform data collection and analysis at all stages of the research. The participatory research component of the project emerged as TCEP developed and the need for evaluation and research of parent participation became apparent. An evaluation and research committee comprised of parent participants was formed to study existing parent programs and conduct more general research in support of the coalition's initiatives. Evaluation and research committee members, all of whom have also participated in the writing workshop, began by conducting a needs assessment survey of Telpochcalli. The committee then directed their focus toward an ethnographic evaluation of the PWTW project. The integration of ethnography and evaluation allowed the group to develop research questions that were relevant to them as parents and community members while encouraging the use of observational and self-reflective methodologies to explore the cultural and social dimensions of the project's successes and challenges.

The research team conducted two surveys aimed at determining response to and interest in the magazine, the writing project, and its impact on readers' views of the writers. The researchers were trained in ethnographic observation and kept journals detailing all activities or conversations related to PWTW or parent involvement more generally. Parent researchers also conducted individual interviews with all parents who have participated in the writing project, as well as with teachers and administrative staff.

At the time of this report we have begun to analyze the data and produce an evaluation report. The method we are using to write the report draws on the workshop method. We begin each session by discussing a particular aspect of the data. At the end of each audiotaped discussion session, participants write reflective summaries of the issues raised. We then read and respond to each other's writing—and to transcribed audiotapes—in the group.

Research Findings

The following research findings are based on preliminary analysis of data collected over the past two years:

  • The writing workshop directly affects participants' self-perceptions and identities. Over time they come to see themselves as thinkers, writers, artists, and community leaders, and to incorporate these roles into their identities as mothers. Given that the participants had previously viewed the social role of motherhood in narrow and culturally conventional terms, this development is quite profound and has lifelong implications for themselves and their children. Although the workshop method contributes to these changes in the women's self-understanding in and of itself, it is clear that the publication and dissemination of the writers' work in the magazine Real Conditions, and the continual flow of stories and praise about the magazine that comes back to the writers from the community and beyond is equally crucial to this process.

  • Just as the writers come to see themselves in new ways, so do their family members, other parents, and teachers at the school. This dynamic can be exciting, but also challenging. For instance, where some of the women writers' spouses admire their wives' literary activity and have asked to have their stories included as well, others disparage the activity as a waste of time, and others challenge their wives' increased extra-domestic activities. Although the writers express increased confidence in their abilities as writers, when posed with the possibility of a joint teacher-parent writing group they were reticent, commenting that they still feel “less than” the teachers. Apparently even in the context of an innovative community school such as Telpochcalli, the institutions of family and school sustain strong ideologies about gender, knowledge, and social identity against which the writing project continues to do battle.

  • PWTW has a positive impact on the writers' children. The children develop a greater interest in reading and writing, as they witness their parents do their own writing. Extensive and creative use of the magazine by teachers at various grade levels motivates students to write stories about their own lives, and increases their pride and interest in their family histories and cultural heritage. At lower levels students read and respond to stories, and have written letters to parent writers about their favorite stories. In the upper grades the magazine has been used as research material for social studies units.

  • The experience PWTW participants have acquired expressing themselves in writing, sharing their ideas with a broader audience, analyzing their life experiences in a group, and having a public presence has contributed to their confidence taking on additional roles in TCEP, sitting on the research-evaluation committee, the outreach committee, the facilities campaign committee, and becoming board members.

  • Participation in the writing project and the research is beginning to cultivate a critical perspective among participants vis-à-vis the norms and expectations of parent involvement as it is currently constructed by the formal educational establishment. Participants have begun to examine prevailing views about parent involvement in education, and develop a range of critical perspectives and responses. For instance, in group discussion after a literacy forum, several mothers concurred with the forum's emphasis on parents spending time engaging in literate activity with their children, but considered it important to privilege Spanish-language literacy so that their children would not forget or lose respect for their family's native language. During another discussion comparing parent involvement programs at several Latino-dominant schools, Telpochcalli mothers distinguished programs at their school as offering parents the opportunity to support the school through their own creative activity, while at other schools parent roles were restricted to supporting teachers in their educational aims.

  • The dynamics of the writing group also change over time. Audiotapes and workshop notes suggest a relationship between various social and subjective factors, including: participants' increased confidence in the value of their writing and the stories they share in the group (and thus about their lives and knowledge), their contribution to group discussion as well as the workshop process, their involvement in their children's literacy and other school activities, and their inclination to explore additional classes and take on leadership roles in the school and community.

  • The success of PWTW cannot be attributed exclusively to the writing program. Equally significant is the consistency between the values and goals of the school and that of the parent involvement program, and consistent material and practical support from the school for the program. In the case of PWTW, this includes the organizational support TCEP provides by: directing parent participants toward the writing project; drawing on the writers' work, enthusiasm, leadership, and communicative skills to encourage their participation in other school-community related efforts; and using the magazine as a cultural artifact when representing the school and its residents to other parents, schools, and (mostly immigrant) communities.

  • The writing project has enhanced teacher-parent relationships and understanding. Several teachers have cultivated an educational relationship with parent writers, who have been invited to read stories in classrooms or during family reading nights. Also, teachers have indicated that reading the parents' stories has given them a greater understanding of the backgrounds of their students' families, and insights into the social and economic issues the parents confront on a daily basis. Next year we will initiate a “parent-teacher writing collaborative” because many teachers have expressed an interest in participating in a parallel writing group for teachers.

Implications for Professional Development and School Practice

The contribution of Telpochcalli School and TCEP to the success of PWTW suggests that parent programs, no matter how well designed, cannot succeed by themselves, but must be located in a wider school and community context that supports and is consistent with the goals of that program.

Research findings on teachers' responses to the writing program have several implications. One implication is that the writing workshop method used by PWTW may be adapted to a range of school settings. For instance, it may be adapted by teachers for classroom use as a way to develop student writing, foster a sense of community among students, and engage students in creatively exploring and writing from their experiences. The findings also attest to the importance of fostering teacher-parent-community understanding. Although integrating teachers and parents into a single program might be challenging, in poor and immigrant schools, where there are often wide cultural and class disparities between teachers and parents, programs offering parallel parent-teacher programs can go a long way toward fostering communication between those two groups, while supporting parents' role in their children's educational community.

Research findings offer a critical contribution to the literature on culturally relevant pedagogy and lesson content. They suggest that there may be an educationally meaningful distinction between curriculum and teaching materials that refer to the students' culture or cultural background in a generic sense, and curriculum and materials (such as a magazine of parent writings) that draw on concrete stories, traditions, knowledge, and experiences of people who are identifiable to the students. That these individuals are also adults and have a leadership role in the community is another quality that imbues such material with meaning, import, and motivation to the students.

This research was supported by a Spencer Foundation small grant and by a Faculty Scholarship from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute.

Janise Hurtig, Ph.D.
Center for Research on Women and Gender
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, IL, USA 60612

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