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(Mis)understanding Families: Learning from Real Families in Our Schools

reviewed by Mavis G. Sanders - February 04, 2010

coverTitle: (Mis)understanding Families: Learning from Real Families in Our Schools
Author(s): Monica Miller Marsh and Tammy Turner Vorbeck (eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750379, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

“Dialogue presupposes that we talk with each other, not at each other” (Brock, 2010, p.129).

In (Mis)Understanding Families, editors Monica Miller Marsh and Tammy Turner-Vorbeck successfully assemble diverse and powerful voices that will enrich the dialogue about families’ roles in schools. In eleven chapters, divided in two parts, readers are introduced or reintroduced to key concepts in the field, and encouraged to question existing practices of and assumptions about family involvement. In Chapter 1, which serves as a prelude to Part I of the manuscript, Debbie Pushor invites the reader to question the underlying assumptions of ritualistic family involvement practices such as “Meet the Teacher Nights,” and to consider alternative ways for families and school personnel to begin the academic year. Pushor guides the reader in imagining what family-school interaction might mean for students’ education if parent engagement, which she defines as more inclusive and participatory than parent involvement, served as its organizing principle.

Part I, “Representations of Families in Formal and Informal Curriculum,” includes 6 chapters. Each chapter challenges the reader to rethink what s/he believes about families and the role of parents in the education of their children. In Chapter 2, Lopez and Stoelting discuss family involvement among Latino communities. The authors are less concerned with the use of the term parent involvement and more concerned with its definition. They argue that a school-focused rather than collaborative-focused definition of parent involvement can marginalize underrepresented parent populations. While the reader may not agree with all the authors’ assertions regarding existing frameworks of family involvement, they make a strong case for a relational approach to parent engagement in schools that is bidirectional and dialogic. The authors also raise important questions about the goals and expectations for family involvement in schools, especially as they relate to ethnically and socioeconomically diverse families.

Chapters 3 through 6 discuss representations of families on television and in literature. Chapter 3 by Shirley Steinberg describes television depictions of North American families since the 1950s. She critically analyzes changing and recurring stereotypes and themes present on television screens over time. Her analyses show that these depictions have rarely offered realistic characterizations of family life.  Steinberg urges the reader to consider how fictional television portrayals have influenced perceptions of and attitudes toward American families as real cultural constructs.

In Chapter 4, Tamara Lindsey and Linda Parsons explore the concept of family in award-winning young adult literature and identify five messages about families that are communicated to adolescent readers and their teachers. The authors also identify limitations in the literature. For example, the novels that were analyzed failed to grapple with the profound issues involved in family dissolution, and lacked representations of diverse families. The authors provide a list of non-traditional book awards to encourage educators to expand their selection of young adult literature and the representations of and messages about families conveyed to adolescents.

Chapter 5 highlights family narratives as a means to explore identity in increasingly multicultural schools and classrooms. Through their discussion of five books and one film, Janice Huber, Deborah Graham, Anne Murray Orr, and Nathalie Reid, consider how reflective inquiry and “storying” might help to uncover who we are as educators, teacher educators, and family members, as well as open us to more meaningful interaction with others. In Chapter 6, Monica Miller-Marsh and Tammy Turner-Vorbeck, continue the theme of storying in their own reflections as adoptive parents. They illustrate the benefits and complications of sharing family narratives, especially when assumptions are made about how such narratives should unfold. They provide useful examples of how educators can be “sensitive to the lived experiences of all children and their families” through “activities that include multiple story lines” (p. 103).

Building on the thought-provoking questions and practices presented in Part I, Part II of the manuscript focuses more directly on how educators can effectively collaborate with diverse families. Two inter-related themes – “knowing” and communication – are woven through the chapters, raising several critical questions. What do educators know about the families of their students? What role does (can) communication play in enhancing and expanding what educators know about their students, their students’ families, and themselves? How can knowing facilitate home-school partnerships?

Drawing primarily from qualitative inquiry into the experiences of educators and families, the authors provide insights and best practices that transcend the specific family populations featured. In Chapter 7, Elizabeth Graue and Margaret Hawkins focus on two-way communication as a critical tool to build effective relationships between school personnel and parents. Through analysis of discussions with 13 families from diverse backgrounds, the authors illustrate how parents’ definitions of and expectations for family involvement may differ. According to Graue and Hawkins, schools must engage in a regular exchange of meaningful information with parents in order to understand their broad perspectives and needs.

Chapter 8, written by Rochelle Brock, identifies and challenges stereotypes about urban families through a constructed conversation with four members of an Urban Education class. As the conversation on the opening day of class proceeds, the author deals with issues of racism and classism and how the two converge to influence the educational experiences of urban youth and their families. In Chapter 9, Angela Jaime and Caskey Russell focus on Native American families, an often-overlooked population in research on parent engagement. They provide a brief history of Indian boarding schools, and how these schools influence Native American parents’ current family involvement practices. The chapter ends with recommendations to help teachers develop more effective partnerships with Native parents. These suggestions (e.g., two-way communication, community-based activities, and positive feedback about student progress) have become standard in the field, indicating growing consensus on the types of school practices that create inclusive environments for all students and families (see for example, Epstein & Associates, 2009; Henderson, Mapp, Johnson, & Davies, 2007).

Guofang Li’s chapter, “Social Class, Culture, and ‘Good Parenting’: Voices of Low-SES Families,” brings in the voices of immigrant families, specifically two Sudanese families and two Vietnamese families. The reader is given a rare glimpse into these families’ daily schedules, obligations, activities, and concerns as they adjust to new cultural norms and expectations. This chapter further emphasizes the importance of knowing for effective home-school partnerships that bridge language, income, and cultural differences. In the final chapter of the manuscript, Simmee Chung and D. Jean Clandinin demonstrate the power of narrative inquiry in education generally and in home-school partnerships specifically. The chapter deftly moves between fragments of the stories of a Korean immigrant student and her mother, and a Chinese-Canadian teacher. The authors show how communication that promotes deeper knowledge of self and others can enhance home-school collaboration and the processes of teaching and learning.

The authors bring themselves, their expertise, and the voices of teachers, teacher-educators, parents, and students to this work. The result is a fresh, stimulating, and timely manuscript for educators in diverse classrooms and schools. (Mis)Understanding Families would make an excellent addition to courses in family involvement, education reform, and multicultural education. Readers will be inspired by the knowledge and experiences shared in its pages.


Epstein, J. & Associates (2009). School, family and community partnerships: Your handbook for action, 3rd  Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Henderson, A., Mapp, K., Johnson, V., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York, NY: The New Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 04, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15908, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:00:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Mavis G. Sanders
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    MAVIS G. SANDERS, Ph.D. in education from Stanford University, is professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. She coordinates and teaches graduate courses in leadership for school, family, and community collaboration, and qualitative research methodology and design. Dr. Sanders has written and presented numerous papers on the processes and outcomes of school, family, and community connections. Her latest book, Principals Matter: A Guide to Programs of School, Family, and Community Partnerships, co-authored with Dr. Steven Sheldon, was published by Corwin Press in 2009.
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