You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

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.

Terms of Use ▼

FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 4
Issue Topic: Innovative Approaches to Preparing and Training Educators for Family Engagement

Voices From the Field

This article is based on a series of interviews and email conversations that Margaret Caspe conducted with users of Harvard Family Research Project’s Family Engagement Teaching Cases to better understand the types of instructional opportunities in which cases are used, the potential impact they are having, and the types of activities with which teaching cases can be coupled. Margaret Caspe is an education and research consultant.

HFRP Family Engagement Teaching Cases


Family engagement teaching cases can be a compelling means of preparing educators for family engagement and can benefit both instructors and learners. For instructors, the teaching case method provides a foundation around which they can structure interesting and relevant class activities that deviate from the formal lecture. Because teaching cases incorporate the points of view of family members, children, teachers, and others, instructors are able to encourage a vibrant exchange of ideas and responses from class participants as they imagine and discuss the situation of each character. Instructors are able to develop a broad range of creative and persuasive questions to address practical issues that students might face in their work with families and schools. 

As active participants in class discussions, students can gain a deep appreciation for the complexity of the relationships among and between children, parents, school personnel, and community providers. Race, culture, and class divisions provide the context for most of the cases developed by HFRP, so through these readings, students are exposed to the perspectives of parents, children, and other family members that they may not encounter in their day-to-day experiences.2 Through guided discussions, students can develop the valuable ability to take an open-minded approach to their family engagement work. Teaching case discussions prompt students to reflect on the ways in which their opinions of the role of schools and families may differ from the opinions of others; the discussions also prompt students to change perspectives as alternative viewpoints and varying courses of action are considered throughout the conversation.

In order for teaching cases to be effective at preparing educators to engage families, students need to be invested in the process and to be meaningfully engaged with the cases. However, as we learned through interviews conducted with case users,3 students sometimes are too detached from the narrative. Instructors have found that some of their students from middle- or upper-class homes and ethnic majority families envision themselves working in school districts like the ones they grew up in and have trouble identifying with the schools and characters described in the cases. Other students have difficulty recognizing and challenging their own biases and assumptions about culture and class. For these reasons, using the teaching case on its own often isn’t enough. Students may need more support, guidance, or information to engage with a case on the most meaningful level possible and to appreciate the strengths that all families possess.


From our interviews we learned of the following six types of activities that can be paired with teaching cases to increase discussion and help students better manage the predicaments presented in the cases.  

Image of number 1
Breaking the ice. Icebreaker activities can be used both to acquaint groups of students with one another at the outset of a class as well as to begin to familiarize learners with some of the major issues of a case. For example, to ensure that students involved in the case discussion become comfortable with each other as a group, an instructor might begin with an activity that requires individuals to rely on and listen to one another. One idea is to place students into dyads where one of them is blindfolded and the other must provide his or her partner with step-by-step instructions on how to draw a house. This exercise helps students realize the value of being clear when communicating ideas to others and, quite importantly, the value of working within a team to achieve effective results. 

In a different example, before introducing a case discussion on how low-income families might balance employment obligations and engagement in children’s learning at home and school, an instructor might ask students to think about building an ideal budget for a family with young children. The instructor could then introduce poverty income thresholds and force students to make hard decisions about which budget lines to keep and which to cut. Having to think about such issues so carefully primes students to approach the case with a more concrete sense of what the life of a low-income family might be like. The students are then better able to brainstorm innovative ways that the school and community can support working families and their engagement in children’s learning.4

Getting organized. After students have read a case, an instructor might ask them to analyze it either individually or in groups with the help of a visual organizing tool like a table or a matrix. These visuals become a concrete way for students to make sense of the large amount of information a case often includes and help them arrive at tangible solutions. For example, students might be asked to reread the case with an eye toward identifying the strengths and needs of the family as well as the opportunities and threats that they face. The students can then place their ideas within a matrix, which allows them to clearly enumerate the family strengths and opportunities that they have identified and to use them to help solve problems that emerge.

Another approach would be for instructors to ask students to take the perspective of one of the case characters. Assuming the perspective of a case character, students complete checklists or questionnaires about beliefs and values about family engagement in children’s learning. Thinking through these questions from the point of view of a character allows learners to explore how teachers, families, or other education staff members might fundamentally agree or disagree on certain issues. Doing so can also force learners to rethink the roles of the family and school in different situations.5

Using a “live case.”A new teaching method that an instructor might consider is the live teaching case—a cross between a guest speaker and a teaching case. For these cases, someone from the instructor’s local community (e.g., a parent, teacher, or principal) who is confronting a family engagement dilemma similar to the one in the case that the students have read can present the problem situation to the class. Students listen to the case, ask the guest questions, reflect on the information, and develop either a two-page memo or reaction paper to address the dilemma.6

Acting it out. Role-playing activities allow students to act out various scenarios from cases. Although instructors can structure a role play in a variety of ways, all role-play exercises, to some extent, involve students having a safe environment in which to practice mockDeveloping a Parent Workshop conversations with families and receive feedback on their style and content. Two to four students, for example, might take on a role from a teaching case (e.g., the teacher, parent, child, or guidance counselor), sit at a round table in a classroom, and conduct a mock meeting to address the needs of each of the characters—acting out what they imagine an individual character might say. Students not chosen for the role play might observe and take notes on the role play as it is unfolding and provide feedback after the role play is completed. 

Working with families directly. To reinforce or explore issues that arise in a teaching case, faculty can use activities that provide students hands-on experience working directly with families. For example, students may be required to interview families about their experiences with schools and about ways in which they are engaged in their children’s learning. By developing interview questions based on topics that emerge from cases, and through hearing stories that dovetail with particular issues from different cases, students gain further insight into the intricacies of the family engagement process. Students might also interview staff members from the family’s school about the school’s family engagement policies or write a case study that examines the strengths of a particular child and family.          

Discussing it online.
Online discussion boards provide a venue for students to engage with teaching case issues outside of a typical classroom setting. For courses in which students meet in face-to-face settings, discussion boards might serve as a way for learners to continue the case conversation outside of class and to bring up new ideas or solutions that arise after class is over. An instructor might choose to silently monitor students’ posts or actively participate in the conversations. For hybrid courses (i.e., those that meet online and in person) and online-only classes, teaching case discussions allow students to thoughtfully post all of their responses associated with cases, creating an interactive environment that is sometimes difficult to achieve remotely. It’s important for the instructor to clarify expectations, structures, and standards ahead of time with the students to help them create the most meaningful back-and-forth exchanges. (See Figure 1 for a rubric that one instructor uses to establish guidelines for online-teaching case discussions).


Taken together, these different types of activities present a menu of options for instructors to facilitate teaching cases beyond the case discussion, particularly when students are in need of additional guidance for the takeaway lessons of the case to become clear and concrete.

Do you have activities that you use with teaching cases that you find particularly helpful? If so, HFRP would love to hear about them! Please contact us at

Rubric for Teaching Case Online Discussion
Figure 1
Rubric for Teaching Case Online Discussion

1 This article is primarily about the use of teaching cases with pre-service teachers and future educators. However, teaching cases and the menu of activities that complement them can and should be used at different points throughout a teacher’s career. 

2 Weiss, H. B., Kreider, H., Lopez, M. E., & Chatman-Nelson, C. (2010). Preparing educators to engage families: Case studies using an ecological systems framework (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

3 In spring 2013, we interviewed university faculty members, early childhood and school personnel, and family and teacher trainers from nonprofit organizations about their use of these cases. The respondents were varied in the types of courses taught (e.g., graduate and undergraduate courses and professional development workshops) and represented diverse geographic regions. We would especially like to thank the following colleagues for their participation in these interviews: Michelle Abrego, Peg Bradley, Beth Day-Hariston, Anita Ede, Wanda Grant, Jon Lasser, Dana McDermott, Tina Moorehouse, Jesus Paz-Albo, and Rebecca Ward.

4 Thanks to Rebecca Ward for these activity ideas.

5 For these checklists and questionnaires and other organizing tools developed by Dana McDermott, please visit:

 6 This activity is taken from City, L., Mehta, J., & Reville, P. (October 2013). An Ed.L.D. "live case" discussion learning demo. Presentation given during Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Teaching and Learning Week, Cambridge, MA.

This resource is part of the December 2013 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project