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Case Narrative

Tomasito's Portfolio

It was early spring and the final round of parent-teacher conferences was over. Linda Brady, in her sixth year as a classroom teacher, was cleaning up her classroom at the end of the day. She tucked inside Tomasito's second grade portfolio his most recent story, about traveling to a distant planet with his school friends. Like the rest of his work, this was excellent. Pausing in her chores, she leafed through his portfolio. A smile spread over her face. His carefully drawn self-portrait: a tall boy, looking very big, standing proudly in new Nike sneakers, the faces of his best friends in the background. Copies of his many Good Citizen school awards. Then she came to his math work. For the first time a shiver of concern ran through her. His math test results seemed so erratic. Was it possible that his math learning wasn't that solid? Perhaps he was even slipping in math? Yet his homework was always perfect. What was going on with Tomasito?

Tomasito at School and Home

Linda Brady, Tomasito's Second Grade Teacher
“The most distinctive thing about Tomasito is that he is such a nice, kind, good little boy. I don't think he has ever said anything bad about anybody in his whole life. He helps all the kids around him. I have at least two kids in the room I'd call clinically misbehaving, who demand a lot of my time, so it's a joy to have Tomasito, who's quiet and obedient. He's probably the most popular child in the room, because he's polite, knows how to share, gets along with others. At eight years old, he's the oldest in the room. Still, he has shy, little second-grade mannerisms. He never speaks in class unless he's called on, which makes him a model student in a way.”

“He's also doing well in school academically. Most of my students aren't on grade level, but Tomasito is. He's very conscientious and hard working in all his subjects. My sixth sense, though, is that we need now to look at him closely in math, and I've just been talking with my classroom aide about it. But we haven't been able to figure out what's going on. It's not because of his language skills since Tomasito is virtually fluent in English. I haven't signaled to Tomasito my concern about his math, since he's trying as hard as he can, and sometimes his self-confidence isn't all that strong. And the last thing I want is for him to stress out over it.”

“At home, I think if I'm right, Tomasito is the oldest child. My sense is that he has a loving, supportive family that takes wonderful care of him—getting him to school everyday on time, clean, and well fed. Tomasito's main weaknesses are that he has limited English parents and my guess is he probably doesn't have an academic role model at home. Other than that I can't really say. He's a pretty reserved little guy and compared to most of his classmates doesn't share anything about his home life with me. All these second graders are pretty good talkers by now, and most of them aren't self-conscious about what they say. Boy, just the other day chatty Susie told me that her divorced Mom had just lost her job. Some of my girls do indeed keep me posted on every daily event, large or small! It's funny, but when we go around the room on Monday mornings talking about what we did over the weekend, and again on Fridays when the kids can volunteer for Show and Tell, I sometimes learn a good bit about my kids' life outside school. But not from Tomasito—all he ever talks about is playing Nintendo over the weekend and he's never once participated in Show and Tell.”

“Even though he doesn't chitchat to me, I do have my special teacher radar, and it tells me that somebody at home is following up and making sure Tomasito does his homework. His homework is always very neat, correct, and thorough. I've never asked Tomasito anything about his homework, partly because I haven't ever been that concerned about him, and because whatever he's doing is looking fine.”

A later version of this teaching case is featured in the book Preparing Educators to Involve Families: From Theory to Practice, available for purchase from Sage Publications at

Ria Montero, Tomasito's Mother [translated from Spanish]
“Tomasito, my middle child, is my most wonderful son. He is noble—kind and unselfish. For example, he doesn't like it when I scold his brothers. Tomasito likes to have friends, and people who have friends have everything, right? My husband Tomás and I think being noble is the most beautiful thing in a human being, and we want Tomasito to be this way for the rest of his life. His teacher says, ‘If I had twenty Tomasitos in my class, I wouldn't have any problems.’ In meetings with her the first thing she always says is that Tomasito is respectful, cooperative, and knows the rules. So maybe his personality has helped him win the teacher's approval?”

“I call him ‘Tomasito two-face’ because he can be shy out of the house, but at home he is so talkative and expressive. With Tomasito, everything he sees and hears, I swear he tells us about it, whether it's something in the street or at school. Like he told us the teacher uses his works as examples for the other children. At home, what a mimic he is! But at school he does not always participate. This is because he is a reserved personality, like his father. He will not be like me—I have a strong personality; I like socializing with all people. When I went to school I loved participating in all the social activities!”

“We are a very happy family at home. I have vowed not to be harsh and neglectful with my children as my mother was with us, when I was growing up in Mexico. Tomás and I tell our boys that they are nuestros muñequitos, our little dolls, the most precious things we have in life. I try and kiss and hug my Tomasito a lot. When I am cleaning shops part-time my husband takes care of the children, and we have never ever used a babysitter. It is important that our sons have love and attention and what pleases them. Why would I give them food that I know they don't like and they're not going to eat? But sometimes I worry if I am doing all the right things. Like should I have rules about watching TV? I like it when experts give me advice. Once his first grade teacher told me I should let Tomasito read to me everyday, so I stopped reading stories to him, and I appreciated that. I also learn a lot from watching other families and analyzing what they do.”

“When Tomasito grows up, most of all, we want him to have a corazon bueno—good heart. Even though we are la classe pobre, in the poor class, we want him to finish college, although we don't care if he gets to be a professional in life, and for him to be intellectual, no. In Mexico, I myself never went to college. Tomás graduated, and works here as a restaurant manager. Tomasito's older brother Edward, who is a year and a half older, is really an example to Tomasito. I know I shouldn't compare the boys, but Edward is much smarter than Tomasito. Edward's teacher says he is an outstanding student, who is always determined to be first in academics. But Tomasito could teach him much about kindness!”

“In the last conference Ms. Brady just said that Tomasito was doing fine in all his school subjects. But Tomás and I share a worry about the math. Sometimes Tomasito just seems confused or he forgets what he has learned.”

“When Tomasito does his homework, he is supposed to finish it before his father gets home, but he is allowed to do it whenever he wants in the afternoon. Tomasito often gets caught up with television, playing Nintendo, or with telling stories and his homework just sits in his backpack. Or he is doing his homework and he gets distracted by his baby brother, Peter, who is a lively toddler and wants to play. Unlike Edward, Tomasito needs a lot of help with his math homework. I am not much good at helping. I know at his school that in addition to English classes there are also special math classes for parents and meetings explaining the math curriculum, but I haven't been to those. Edward is the one who helps Tomasito with math most of the time. He has explained to Tomasito that he should use his brain and not count on his fingers. If it is still needed my husband helps when he comes home from work. Sometimes Tomás has to explain two, three, four times! Edward is so quick, but it seems so much harder for Tomasito to do math. I just don't know why it is so hard for him.”

“A while ago I discovered that Edward had actually been doing Tomasito's math homework for him sometimes. Oh, I came so close to spanking Edward! I said to Edward, ‘I told you to help him, but by explaining, not by doing it for him. That's not helping, that's hurting.’ I put a stop to it.”

Tomasito Montero
“My teacher tells me I'm good at school and I like it when I get a lotta homework stickers for perfect homework. Also, I am like the tallest one in my class and really great at math. My friends at school and I share our Mario Nintendo games. I'm someone with a lotta friends. I'm a happy person. But I wish I had Nike shoes like one of my friends—you know, like cool stuff that is in style and not cheap. I'm really good at helping out at school, things like helping my desk mate with reading stuff.”

“When I grow up, I want to be a football player like on TV. It's kinda boring just being an eight year old. You can't go to any countries, or other cities, and I like to travel. I can't drive a car. I can't have a wife.”

“When my Mom hugs and kisses me I pretty much hate it now. Edward and me like to watch football with our Dad. Edward and me do a lotta stuff together. Like he is great at drawing, and I like to color in the cool pictures that he makes. The other thing I really like to do at home is watch Edward play Mario. He is so great and gets to really high levels! Sometimes he like even helps me when I play it. In our bedroom Edward and me we share a bed and we even have our very own VCR. Isn't that an important responsibility?”

Tomasito's Mother Never Comes in

Linda Brady, Tomasito's Second Grade Teacher
“I was standing in the classroom doorway just before the start of school when an odd thing happened. Tomasito's mother comes running in, waving a book. It was a classroom library book that Tomasito had borrowed and was due in today. I gathered his mother had just dropped Tomasito off outside and that he had forgotten the book. Well, I never see her in the building. And I should add that parents often casually hang out in our building—we're a nice, small K–5 school of 200 kids with a real village-like feel. Anyway, Mrs. Montero blurted out in her choppy English that Tomasito had been ‘careless with the book,’ embarrassing him right in front of all his friends. Tomasito darted out from behind me, took the book, and disappeared back into the classroom without saying a word. I tried quickly to take advantage of Mrs. Montero being there, and suggested that she come in sometime and chat with me. Who knows, maybe this would help me sort out what was going on with Tomasito and his math. But as soon as I invited her, she scurried away.”

“Apart from those formally scheduled things, like parent-teacher conferences, open houses, or awards ceremonies, his parents simply don't set foot inside the school. I'm not making a value judgment, but you know when we have a class party, poor Tomasito lugs in heavy bags of food all by himself, while his classmates' parents carry in the stuff for their kids. I know that Tomasito gets dropped off at school and picked up by his mother everyday, but all this happens outside at the curb. I have a bunch of parents who come inside for drop off or pick up and I get to chat with them. I have several parents regularly volunteering in my room, but not Tomasito's parents. I have to say I really, really like it when parents come in. Being able to have those informal chitchats feels like the best way to build up good relationships with the parents. And when you have good relationships, it's just so much easier to really talk about some things. I have to confess that sometimes when I encourage parents to volunteer in the classroom, it's not just because I need help, but I've got ulterior motives.”

“It seems to me there are a bunch of reasons why Tomasito's parents don't come in. Mrs. Montero seemed to be just plain nervous being in the building that time with the book. She clearly lacks some self-confidence and is shy, just like her son Tomasito. When she does get in, like for a conference, her limited English isn't a problem—she's able to talk to me. Which is good, since we don't have enough interpreters here. It's got to be hard for her to just pop in with her baby. In fact, the school doesn't even have childcare for the formally scheduled meetings like conferences. I don't know whether she works, but I know that the father does. That's the main story around here—working parents just can't find the time to come into the building. But you know, I really should send home a reminder note to his parents that they are entitled to come into the building and hang out, observe in the room, volunteer. Since Tomasito is their first child, this is their first experience with second grade, and they just may not understand that they are welcome to be in the classroom.”

“Speaking of notes, one thing his parents do, is respond to notes. I always send them notes via Tomasito reminding them about when he will be getting Good Citizen awards at the assemblies. And he dutifully trots back and hands me little thank-you messages from them. You know, actually ... it's partly thanks to Tomasito that we can communicate like that. Nothing ever gets lost in that backpack! Also, when I sent classroom parents notes home recommending the use of flash cards at home for math, Mr. and Mrs. Montero wrote back immediately, ‘Thank you, Teacher, for this advice. We have started to use the flash cards with our son.’ They certainly took what I said very seriously.”

“Well, Mrs. Montero's behavior when she brought in the book surely was odd. That reminds me that there was another odd encounter with them—at the Open House in the fall. Mrs. Montero approached me, asked me how Tomasito was doing in school, and I said very well. Then she proceeded to tell me how Tomasito's handwriting was bad! Whaa…? The thing that amazed me was his parents seemed to believe that their son wasn't doing well academically. To me, that just didn't fit with Tomasito. I was surprised that they were so critical of his ability. It just made me wonder that maybe they don't appreciate how great their son is.”

Tomasito Montero
“Having your Mom come into the school building—that's definitely for babies! If your Dad comes in, well that's maybe not quite as bad. That's like kids stuff, I guess. Both are pretty bad, though. After Mom brought me this book at school, that night I told her not to bring me stuff when everyone is at school. Mom brings us to our school everyday, but Edward and me now make our Mom leave us off and wait for us way over at the curb outside. Before she used to cross us, but now I tell her that the crossing guard is there. I used to hold the crossing guard's hand, but since I'm in second grade I don't. We always ask Mom to get us to school early before the bus kids get in. Then I won't be late, or I won't be one of the last ones to be in the classroom. And I get to have time with my friends. Edward and me also told Mom that we want to walk home from school some days. We're big, you know? And like I bet she will let us do it!”

Tomás Montero, Tomasito's Father [translated from Spanish]
“We have children of different ages, so that really helps us to see that children change and go through different stages as they grow older. In kindergarten, Tomasito was delighted to have his Mama come into the classroom. Then that changed in first grade. Now Edward is in fifth grade and I am volunteering once a week in his classroom, because there are no classroom aides and the teacher really needs help with the older kids. And Edward accepts this.”

“When I got home from work the other day my wife took me aside. She told me how mortified Tomasito was to see her come into school unexpectedly to give him the book that he had forgotten. She said she saw the terrible expression of embarrassment on his face and that this made her turn around and leave right away. Then later that evening Tomasito said that his teacher and classmates would think he was not obeying the rules because he was not careful with the classroom library book.”

“Poor Ria, she feels sad that not long ago, Tomasito would squeeze her hand tightly while crossing the street and close his eyes. He was little and scared, and needed his Mama. 'Mama-itis' I used to call it. But now he leaves her in the street while he goes into school by himself. She thinks maybe he is ashamed of her. She herself would have thought it a wonderful thing if her mother had ever taken her into school. I tell her this is because of his getting older. He does not want his Mama being in school with him because this embarrasses him in front of his friends. But I don't think he would want me there either.”

“Still I can see that there are times when he seems pleased that we are in the building. At Open House in the fall - that's when all the parents and little brothers and sisters come in to see the children's schoolwork—Tomasito seemed very proud to be showing us what he had done. Apparently the teacher had told the students how to show their work to the families. In fact both he and Edward had said the week before ‘Hey, Mommy—let's go to Open House, you know you have to.’ And Tomasito does not protest when Ria and baby Peter go to the big awards ceremonies.”

Ria Montero, Tomasito's Mother [translated from Spanish]
“I just love being in my sons' school. It feels so safe, even when I go to some of the school council meetings at night. It's true the school is in a big, dangerous city. But the part of the city it is in is quiet and residential. It's easy to get to, since it's close to our home. The principal speaks Spanish and often says hello to parents by name when we come in. Ms. Brady encourages parents to participate at school, which my husband and I feel is important. You know, children's fortuna buena o mala, good or bad fortune, starts at home, not at school. The teachers are only our helpers, and parents are the ones who are responsible for their upbringing. However, besides their mom, the teachers are the ones who know kids the best.”

“But I have a problem in participating, with Tomasito's teacher, and with doing things in the school. The problem is that my English is not good, like my husband's, and Ms. Brady doesn't speak Spanish. I think her classroom helper speaks Spanish, but I do not know anything about this person. I can say things to Ms. Brady OK, but I have trouble really understanding her. When I was in school the other day to return a book, I just couldn't understand what Ms. Brady was saying to me - she was talking quickly, out there in the halls, with lots of commotion. I would like to learn English well, so I could volunteer for the teachers with whatever they need help with in the classroom. Also if I knew English I could be a better helper to my children when they do their homework. I would like to be able to volunteer also so I could see how the teachers teach, what the environment is really like. Maybe they need someone to help clean up? And I could bring Peter with me?”

“You know, with Tomasito's teacher, I don't know if it's because I don't understand English well, or who knows, but she always says in the meetings that Tomasito is doing things well, that he is improving. But that's it. Also, she talks mostly about his behavior. I used to get very excited about those little certificates, and all the notes sent home about the award ceremonies. But then they give out so many awards to Tomasito, all for being a good citizen, for following the rules. I wish the teacher would let us know as much about his academic progress as about all those awards. It is true, after all, that Tomasito is not that far ahead in his schoolwork. And I wish she would tell us what to do about his math.”

“I do like getting notes. Since my English is not good, this gives me a chance to slowly understand things. And notes, not like phone calls, you can share with your husband or show it to the child and tell them, ‘Look, this is what the teacher says.’ Sometimes on the phone you forget what you talked about. Mostly, though, I wish we could just talk together at school. But then Tomasito doesn't like that.”

Communicating About Tomasito's Math

Linda Brady needs to connect with Tomasito's family to figure out the sources of his math difficulties. Parent-teacher conferences are over for the year. With summer fast approaching, she feels she needs to do something soon, to prevent any further slippage over the summer months. What should she do?

The people and events in this case are based on real-life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality. We would like to thank ethnographers Jane Wellenkamp and Gisella Hanley for conducting the in-depth interviews on which this teaching case is based, and for reviewing the manuscript. Special thanks go to Gisella Hanley for her early research analysis of this case.

This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its Research Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood.



Discussion Questions

  • What characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of Tomasito affect how the teacher and family communicate with one another? And how much information they are able to acquire about the other?
  • What does the relationship between Linda Brady and Tomasito's parents look like?
  • How does Linda Brady construct her knowledge of the Montero family? How accurate is it?
  • To what extent does Linda Brady recognize the role of the child in the home-school relationship? How might she incorporate such an understanding into practice?
  • How might the teacher build on Tomasito's particular role to reach out to the Monteros?
  • What is it like for Tomasito in the classroom? At home? In what general ways might these contexts impact Tomasito?
  • How might Tomasito's home context—specifically the homework routines—shape his math learning?
  • What kind of ecologically informed homework support might be offered to this family? How might the home better support Tomasito's math learning?
  • Why has the teacher had a more positive view of Tomasito's academic learning than the mother?
  • Why does Linda Brady communicate positive information about Tomasito?
  • How might the teacher communicate more complete information to the family?



Online Discussion

The Connect for Kids website hosted an online discussion of this case from February 14 to 21, 2002. Read the results of the discussion.



Instructor Notes

To request instructor notes for this teaching case, send an email to FINE at



What's Going on With Tomasito? Commentary by Rosalind Edwards


Rosalind Edwards is professor in Social Policy and director of the Families and Social Capital ESRC Research Group at South Bank University, U.K. Her research interests focus on range of issues concerned with families, parenting, and children.

The temptation here is to concentrate on strategies to improve the poor communication and mismatched assumptions between Tomasito's teacher and his parents, in particular his mother, in a situation where there is concern about his math attainment and each wants to do their best to help him. In-depth studies of parental involvement in education in the U.S. and U.K. often show that working class and minority ethnic parents, especially mothers, are supportive of their children's education, but that they tend not to have the cultural or material resources to effect this in a manner that is both visible to, and fits within the expectations of, schools and teachers (such as Crozier, 2000; Lareau & Shumar, 1996; Reay, 1998).

Perhaps Tomasito's teacher should make a home visit, along with her Spanish-speaking classroom aide? Perhaps she should institute a special program of math homework that is targeted at involving mothers alongside their children? Perhaps Tomasito's father should come in as a classroom helper? These are the sorts of solutions that would follow on from the internationally dominant home-school relations consensus that poses parents' involvement in their children's education in both home and school settings as in children's best educational interests (see, for example, Beattie, 1985; MacBeth, 1989; Sanders & Epstein, 1998; Wolfendale & Bastiani, 2000).

But these sorts of initiatives, and indeed the home-school relations orthodoxy, do not consider one of the parties involved in home-school relations: children are rarely considered as actors in the process. Rather, teachers and parents are regarded as acting on children, who will passively manifest the educational outcome or product of their endeavors. Yet it is very clear that Tomasito himself has strong views on the extent of his mother's involvement in his education, especially in the school setting.

Recently, children's own understandings and activities in relation to parental involvement in their education have begun to receive attention internationally (notably, Alldred et al., Backe-Hansen, Ericsson & Larsen, and Montandon's contributions to Edwards, 2002). These studies are revealing how children, in the main, value moving between the different settings of home and school in their own ways.

Our own work in the U.K. (Edwards & Alldred, 2000), with children in grades six and nine (aged 9/10 and 13/14) from schools with a diversity of pupil intakes, shows that Tomasito's responses are not at all unusual. We found that:


  • Children could be very strategic in initiating, facilitating, accepting, evading and resisting their parents' involvement in different aspects of their education. Moreover, they could involve brothers and sisters or grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and classmates, including where their parents did not speak English and/or worked long hours.
  • Boys were more likely to see themselves as responsible for how well they did at school. They talked less than girls about initiating their parents' involvement in broad aspects of their schooling, focusing more on formal aspects.
  • Children from working class circumstances and from minority ethnic groups could resist their parents' involvement because they wanted a separation between their home and school lives. This did not mean that they had a poor relationship with their parents, rather they felt that home was about family time and school about learning time.
  • Children from all social groups could be embarrassed by their parents coming into the school without warning and for what they saw as no good reason, especially as they got older.
  • Children had a sense of privacy about the details of their family lives generally and wanted control over how much the school and teachers knew. The possibility of home visits from their teachers was usually viewed as an unacceptable incursion into their family life.


This evidence suggests that children's role in home-school relations needs to be considered if schools and teachers want to intensify parental involvement in education. This would point to the need to develop school-based strategies to encourage children to facilitate their parents' involvement in their education, and to convince them that this is in their own best educational interests. But even so, attempts to involve parents in their children's education may not necessarily be an unmitigated good. In general it can be viewed as involving the regulation of family and home life for both parents and children, and teacher-parent mutual surveillance (Crozier, 2000; Vincent & Tomlinson, 1997). Specifically, such attempts may threaten or reduce children's developing sense of privacy and autonomy. They may make children like Tomasito even more resistant and alienate them. In all respects other than his math attainment, Tomasito seems to be a delightful pupil and son. His and other children's educational interests have to be carefully balanced with their social interests.

Beattie, N. (1985). Professional parents: Parent participation in four West European countries. London: Falmer Press.

Crozier, G. (2000). Parents and schools: Partners or protagonists? Stoke-on-Trent, England: Trentham Books.

Edwards, R. (Ed.). (2002). Children, home and school: Regulation, autonomy or connection. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Edwards, R., & Alldred, P. (2000). A typology of parental involvement in education centring on children and young people: Negotiating familialisation, institutionalisation, and individualisation. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21(3), 435–455.

Lareau, A., & Shumar, W. (1996). The problem of individualism in family-school policies. Sociology of Education, 24–39.

MacBeth, A. (1989). Involving parents: Effective parent-teacher relations. Oxford, England: Heinemann Educational.

Reay, D. (1998). Class work: Mothers' involvement in their children's primary schooling. London: UCL Press.

Sanders, M. G., & Epstein, J. L. (Eds.). (1998). Childhood Education: Special Issue: International Perspectives on School-Family-Community Partnership, 764.

Vincent, C., & Tomlinson, S. (1997). Home-school relations: ‘The swarming of disciplinary mechanisms’? British Educational Research Journal, 23(3), 361–377.

Wolfendale, S., & Bastiani, J. (Eds.). (2000). The contribution of parents to school effectiveness. London: David Fulton.

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