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Families in the Driver’s Seat: Catalyzing Familial Transformative Agency for Equitable Collaboration

by Ann M. Ishimaru, Joe Lott II, Kathryn E. Torres & Karen O’Reilly-Diaz - 2019

Context: An emerging body of research has begun to re-envision how nondominant families and communities might become powerful actors in equity-based educational change when issues of power, race, culture, language, and class are integrated into family engagement efforts. Beyond the commitment to more equitable engagement, the field offers little empirically-grounded evidence with regard to how to shift power and build collective agency, particularly in the moment-to-moment interactions that constitute the ongoing daily practice of family-school relations.

Purpose of Study: We sought to understand how nondominant parents and educators could enact equitable collaboration in the school-based co-design of a parent education curriculum. We sought to better “map” the journey to transformative agency of nondominant parents by asking: What were the turning points in the emergence and evolution of transformative agency amongst nondominant parents from different racial/cultural/linguistic communities?  Within and across these turning points, how did parents narrate and negotiate their roles and evolve their transformative agency?

Setting: The research took place in a suburban school district in the Western United States outside a major urban city, in a region of increasing suburban poverty and marked racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity.

Participants: The design team included nine parents from two schools who identified as African/African American, Latina, Vietnamese, and white; three white teachers, two white principals, two district administrators (African American and multiracial), and five researchers (Asian American, African American, and Latino/a).

Research Design: This study merged a framework of equitable collaborations with expansive learning theory and employed participatory design research (PDR) methodologies to examine 10 design meetings with historically marginalized parents that sought to build authentic relationships, reciprocity, and accountability to one another and the targeted outcome.

Findings/Results: Our findings suggest a series of turning points marked by discursive expansions in which nondominant parents re-envisioned their own and educators’ roles in educational change. Through the design process, parents surfaced and engaged historical contradictions, developed collective understandings, modeled possibilities for collective voice and influence, and enacted their collective influence through the collection of data from other parents, the development and piloting of a lesson on bullying, and the completion of the curriculum.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We argue that these methods and theories offer ways forward from documenting deficit-based processes and historically-rooted power asymmetries in family engagement towards enacting equitable and democratic processes that leverage the expertise of nondominant families in tandem with that of formal educators and researchers.

Decades of research suggest that strong familyschool relations are critical to student success (Jeynes, 2005, 2007). Yet traditional parent involvement and education efforts often seek to fix parents by giving them information and seeking to change their behaviors to better accommodate the schools agenda and educators expectations (Cooper, 2009; Lareau & Horvat, 1999). Though well-meaning, such approaches implicitly aim to remediate individual parents toward a narrowly constrained set of normative behaviorssuch as attending parent-teacher association meetings, chaperoning fieldtrips, and enforcing the schools expectations at home (Epstein, 1995; Gutierrez & Vossoughi, 2009; Ishimaru & Takahashi, 2017). Conventional approaches to families in low-income, culturally diverse schools also tend to overlook how power, race, culture, class and language shape inequitable contexts for engagement (Baquedano-López, Alexander, & Hernandez, 2013; Fine, 1993; Olivos, 2006). Nondominant parents and families1 are rarely seen as critical partners (Shirley, 1997) with the capacity to influence and shape school decisions.  

However, a growing body of work has begun to re-envision how nondominant families and communities might become powerful actors in equity-based educational change. For instance, research on parent and community organizing suggests that building collective capacity and power can impact schools at various levels, from district and state policies to organizational structures and resources, and from curriculum to school learning environments (Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2009; Warren, Mapp, & The Community Organizing and School Reform Project, 2011). This literature suggests a model of equitable collaboration between nondominant families and schools, in which parents leverage their relationships and collective capacity to act as fellow educational leaders in the joint work of systemic change with (degreed) educators (Ishimaru, 2014a; 2017b). Families play more transformative roles in equitable collaborations aimed at systemic change goals focused on relationship and capacity-building strategies that attend to the broader sociopolitical contexts of systemic change efforts. Thus, we do have models that illuminate alternatives to the conventional school-based involvement paradigm, but we need lenses and conceptual tools to attend to, design for, and enact these broader approaches in everyday interactions.

In this study, we augment an equitable collaboration framework (Ishimaru, 2014a) with expansive learning concepts from cultural historical activity theory (Engestrom, 2011) to examine the everyday practices and interactions between parents, teachers, principals, district administrators, and researchers within an effort to enact equitable collaboration. Specifically, we examined a design process that positioned parents as co-designers and drivers in the creation of a parent curriculum based on their experiences, hopes, expectations, and interests. Rather than setting out to remediate or fix parent attitudes and behaviors, this process sought to re-mediate the activity of family-educator interactions (Gutierrez & Vossoughi, 2009) and explicitly privileged parents as experts with valuable insight on transforming schools and school systems. Using a participatory design-based research methodology within a humanizing approach to research (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016), we sought to understand broadly: How can nondominant parents and educators enact more equitable collaboration in the school-based co-design of a parent education curriculum?

Within this aim, we focus in this paper on the subquestions:

(1) What were the turning points in the emergence and evolution of transformative agency amongst nondominant parents from different racial/cultural/linguistic communities?
(2) Within and across these turning points, how did parents narrate and negotiate their roles and evolve their transformative agency?

We first describe the context of this study to provide an anchor for our subsequent application of Engestroms theory of expansive learning to family engagement in culturally and linguistically diverse schools and our efforts to transform the activity system of family-school relations towards equitable collaboration (Ishimaru & Takahashi, 2017). We then describe participatory design-based research (PDR) as a methodology we employed to intervene in one districts efforts to build more authentic parent engagement (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). After describing our data and analyses, we share our findings regarding the discursive processes that constituted key turning points in an expansive learning process. We found that parents strategically used language and metaphors as key tools in the journey towards transformative agency, defined as the ongoing collective change efforts of a group (Haapasaari, Engestrom, & Kerosuo, 2014). Ultimately, we argue that theories that attend to the social dynamics of collective learning as a process of expansion provide useful conceptual and analytic tools for understanding and shifting power in parent-educator interactions. Such conceptual tools enable us to make sense of equitable family engagement as a form of adult learning for both families and educators within a context of historically rooted and power-infused inequities. This study contributes to our understanding of how we might create new forms of activity and cultivate shared agency in the journeyfrom deficit-based default practices in parent involvement at the margins of schools to more equitable collaboration between families, schools, and communities around the core work of educating children.


The parent education curriculum co-design project in this study was part of a broader, multi-year study of family engagement initiatives we conducted from 20122015 within a cross-sector collaboration across seven smaller school districts in the Western United States outside a major urban city. This project took place within the Kellogg School District (KSD)2, a suburban district of about 27,000 students in a region of increasing suburban poverty and marked diversity (the 20132014 student population in the district was 38% White, 21% Latino, 17% Asian/Pacific Islander, 12% African American, and .6% American Indian).   

This study emerged out of a previous ethnographic case study of KSDs pilot implementation of the Parents for Student Success (PSS) program, a 9-week parent academy aimed at creating partnerships between parents, students, and educators to support and strengthen the learning environment students need to achieve high standards (see Ishimaru et al., 2016). Our case study findings suggested that the train-the-trainer approach identified and developed parent and community leaders from diverse cultural and linguistic communities, but the curriculum and instructional model reflected a conventional model of parent involvement, in which parents receive information about how to understand and better support the schools agenda and make their homes more school-like. Moreover, the lessons were proprietary materials developed nearly 30 years ago, and did not reflect current family priorities, interests, and needs or the study districts diverse demographic context.

The contradiction between the districts intention to meaningfully engage and empower parents and a curriculum that constrained parent roles and agency catalyzed the present study. In partnership with district leaders, we convened a design team of KSD parents, teachers, and principals to work with us (as researchers) and the district director of student services and family engagement to co-design a new curriculum that could be used both in the existing PSS program and shared freely throughout the region with the other districts in the cross-sector collaboration. Beyond the curriculum itself, though, we sought to create a parent-driven, collective learning environment and more equitable family-educator collaboration through a co-design process.  

With the district director of student services, we selected two schools that had not yet experienced the existing PSS program but were slated to adopt the program the year following the design process (thus, they were not familiar with and had not yet experienced the previous curriculum). These two elementary schools had a higher proportion of low-income and students of color than the district average (for example, 75.5% and 82.6% eligibility for free and reduced lunch at the two schools, compared to the district average of 51.9%, [State] Office of Student Public Instruction, 2014). With the help of the principals of these two schools, we invited the additional 12 parents and teachers for the design team from these two schools. The PIs, two district administrators, and graduate student researchers comprised the leadership design team, who met between full team meetings to review transcript data, determine the agenda, and develop tools to support the subsequent meeting. Two parents also joined the leadership team about halfway through the process.


Parent and family engagement studies have frequently drawn on Epsteins (1995) typology of parent involvement activities, which focuses primarily on school-centric parental support behaviors with limited attention to the broader racialized sociopolitical contexts of family-school relations. Although the body of critical family engagement literature has grown (for example, Baquedano-Lopez et al., 2013; Cooper, 2009; Ippolito, 2015; Olivos, 2006; Warren, Hong, Rubin, & Uy, 2009), we argue that the micro-dynamics of historically rooted power and race have been largely under-theorized in the field of parent/family engagement. To address this gap, we propose adapting lenses borrowed from other fields to contribute new insights and possibilities for reconfiguring family-school relations.

To better examine the complex and nuanced interactions in the relations between schools and nondominant families, we drew on expansive learning theory to make sense of parents trajectory to transformative agency. The notion of equitable collaboration between families and educators served as an initial model for the process (Ishimaru, 2014a). According to expansive learning theory, people collectively work through the tensions and contradictions of the broad initial model as they move from the abstract of the original idea to the concrete in everyday practice (Engestrom, Nummijoki, & Sannino, 2012). In this case, equitable collaborations aim to achieve systemic change (rather than goals focused on fixing individual parents or communities); undertake relationship and capacity-building strategies (as opposed to unidirectional transmission of school agendas, McCaleb, 1997); position nondominant parents as leaders and change agents (rather than passive clients or beneficiaries); and approach change as an inherently sociopolitical process that recognizes schools as part of broader communities (as opposed to technical change within isolated schools or systems). In our study, the attempt to shift from the current frame of individualistic parent involvement activity towards more collective, equitable collaboration necessitated learning to expand forms of family-school activity.

Thus, we briefly overview the family of theories from which expansive learning theory emerged, lay out the guiding principles upon which the design of this study relied and situate them within the context of family-school relations. The theory of expansive learning emerged from cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), which in turn, draws from sociocultural learning theories that emphasize learning through interactions with others in activities that are nested in social, historical, and cultural contexts (Vygotsky, 1978; see Engestrom & Sannino, 2010, for an extensive review of the foundations of CHAT). Learning occurs when other people, tools, and artifacts act as mediators by changing, amplifying, and interpreting objects to provide various interpretations of the students interaction with the environment (Kozulin & Presseisen,1995). In this study, we sought to understand the interactions between nondominant parents, teachers, and other educators as they engaged with various artifacts over time as a mediated learning process.  

Five key principles of more recent formulations of CHAT offer new insights to our understandings of family-school relations in the present study: (1) activity systems as a unit of analysis; (2) multivoicedness; (3) historicity; (4) contradictions as a trigger for learning; and (5) transformative agency as an outcome of expansive learning cycles (Engestrom, 2011).


First, an activity system comprises a collective, artifact-mediated network of relationships that moves an object in its initiative state (raw material) to one that is collectively and meaningfully constructed by a set of interacting conceptual tools, such as division of labor, community, rules, subject, and mediating artifacts (Engestrom, 2011). Whereas many studies of family engagement focus primarily on the behaviors of parents and families in and out of school settings, in this study, we took as our unit of analysis the activity system of school-based family partnerships. This unit of analysis implicates not only parents, teachers, and principals, but also the assumptions about their respective roles, the structures and norms through which they interact, and the artifacts that mediate family-school relations (including material tools, such as school policies, newsletters, and data, as well as conceptual tools, like language, cultural practices, and parent involvement models). The object of the learning activity, in this case, was productive family-school relations that could improve schooling experiences and outcomes for students (see Ishimaru, 2017a, for an in-depth discussion). See Figure 1 for a conceptualization of family-school activity.

Figure 1. Family-School Activity System


As many scholars have noted, the traditional model of parent involvement often boils down to well-intentioned efforts to fix individual parents so that they better conform to the schools expectations (Cooper, 2009). We argue that this remediation approach to parent involvement parallels pathology-based remediation approaches to individual students in which schools employ interventions to fix individual students. Likewise, we posit that a reorganization of the activity system in which parents and schools interactGutierrezs notion of re-mediationcan open new possibilities for family-school collaboration that rupture the encapsulating practices of schooling (Gutierrez & Vossoughi, 2009, p. 102).

The second CHAT principle of multivoicedness refers to the multiple perspectives and participants positions, histories, traditions, and interests in an activity system. The combination of experiences and characteristics yields sources of tension, innovation, and possibilities to consider as the systems evolve (Haapasaari et al., 2014). These multiple perspectives are pivotal to shifting family-school relations towards more equitable forms of interaction, particularly in light of the division of labor that encompasses narrow, normative expectations and asymmetric power dynamics in parental and educator roles. That is, decisions in schoolsabout not only instruction and management but also about parent education and participationare typically made by educators alone, based on a presumption of professional expertise that parents are thought to lack (Booker & Goldman, 2016; Hands, 2014). Although teachers and principals certainly have useful knowledge of instruction and schools, nondominant families also bring crucial expertise about their own children, their goals and priorities, strengths, and needs, language and cultural practices, and their learning experiences in and out of schools (Ishimaru et al., 2016). Beyond noting the asymmetric tapping of expertise in family-educator interactions, in this study, we asked principals to identify a racially and culturally diverse group of parents who were not those who typically attended PTA meetings or actively participated in other school events, so as to bring their distinct positions, histories and experiences to the table.  

Historicity in a CHAT framework refers to how activity systems take shape over time and how problems and possibilities can be understood through historical analysis of the activity, objects, theoretical ideas, and theoretical tools. We, thus, grounded our study in an understanding of the historically infused dynamics between nondominant parents and schools and attended to how the particular activity system in our study emerged and evolved over time. This meant not only recognizing that the individuals in our study came to the design process with both their own individual and collective accumulation of experiences with one another and schools (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003), but also recognizing that these interactions were shaped by the historical context of the institution of U.S. schooling and its relationship of oppression and colonization towards marginalized communities (Baquedano-Lopez et al., 2013). In this study, rather than beginning from the aims of schools and setting parental expectations based on those outcomes, we worked to infuse critical historicity (Bang, Faber, Gurneau, Marin, & Soto  2015) in the design process by beginning from the lived theory of parents as a form of expertise and working to build a sense of solidarity and a foundation for collective power amongst parents (Warren et al., 2011).

Fourth, understanding contradictions as a source of change is central within and across activity systems, as it illuminates the structural tensions, and reveals the crux and/or origin of the issue to be addressed, which is also known as the primary contradiction. Given the historical and ongoing power asymmetries and subordinate roles for families in schools, putting families in the drivers seat of designing their own learning brought these contradictions to the foreground. Whereas conventional approaches to engaging families often seek to avoid tensions and contradictions, we drew on this principle to proactively identify them as catalysts for collective learning. By surfacing and collectively interrogating these tensions, design team parents and educators began to generate new possibilities for their interactions, roles, and actions in schools.   

The fifth key principle of CHAT, expansive learning cycles, conceptualizes activity systems as changing through long cycles of transformative interactions. Yrgo Engestrom and others propose expansive learning as collective activity within a community of learners situated in a particular context and focused on the work of creating new cultures and practices towards activity that is not yet known or predetermined (Engeström, 1995, 2001; Nicolini, Mengis, & Swan, 2012).  We build on the scholarship of others who have addressed issues of agency in the engagement of families and communities in urban education (Hands & Hubbard, 2011), with a particular focus on the cultivation and emergence of collective agency of parents and family members. Referencing Virkkunen (2006), Haapasaari et al. (2014) define transformative agency as the collective will and ability of participants to break from a given frame and take initiatives to transform their activity over time. In our case, we focus on how a group of parents from marginalized communities collectively worked through tensions, conflicts, and contradictions to explicate and envision new possibilities (Haapasaari et al., 2014, p. 2) for their transformative agency, not only in their own learning process and the context of training in a parent academy, but in school and systems change more broadly.

Our goal was to consider the intersection of design approaches, contradictions, historicity, and equity to create a space that shifted power relations between nondominant parents and educators to enable them to develop their individual and collective capacities to shape agendas and enact agentive roles. We drew from the actions of an expansive learning process to make sense of how power and agency shifted collectively for participants in our study over the course of the process (see Figure 2 for an overview diagram of the cycle). Whereas an equitable collaboration framework highlights the differences between conventional and more transformative approaches, the strategic actions that comprise a cycle of expansive learning add conceptual tools for understanding how to foster the transformative agency of parents and family members.

The sequence of the learning actions begins with initial contradictions that surface conflict, tensions, and questions the existing problem of practice through historical and empirical analysis. As the diverse group of stakeholders and partners better understand the limitations of the initial practice through sense-making and analysis work, opportunities emerge to collectively leverage the intellectual, physical, and social resources of the group to imagine and test new theories and models of a new practice that makes sense given the participants goals. The implementation of the new model, or practice, surfaces new tensions based on the set of dynamics associated with the emerging activity system. Through a continuous documentation and feedback process, and empirical testing of the new practice, new ways of approaching the practice emerge. The discourse and interactions within an expansive learning process carry practical weight in the move towards collective action while also highlighting local manifestations of broader dynamics (Haapasaari et al., 2014, p. 3).  

Figure 2. Engestroms sequence of learning actions in an expansive learning cycle (Engestrom, 1999)


Thus, these principles from recent formulations of CHAT and expansive learning theory offer more nuanced lenses to both examine and design for everyday interactions between nondominant families and schools that explicitly attend to the micro-dynamics of historically rooted power and race in school settings.


To complement the use of these lenses, this study employed an innovation on design-based research (DBR) rooted in community-based research approaches and decolonizing methodologies (Smith, 1999). Design-based research is an iterative process of innovative design, implementation, and analyses focused on both theory and practice in real-life contexts (Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004). Design approaches are collaborative in nature and typically include researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders as co-designers of solutions to create new possibilities for changing teaching and learning environments. They seek to refine theory through systematic approaches to create principles for shaping policy and practice, and they ideally result in a greater understanding of a learning ecology (Cobb, Confrey, Lehrer & Schauble, 2003; Penuel, Fishman, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2011).

In much of the DBR work in education, researchers and teachers or other practitioners work together to redesign curriculum or instruction in classroom learning environments (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012). An emerging body of work has begun to expand beyond the expertise of formal educators and university-based researchers to leverage and include the expertise of students, families, and communities in participatory design research (PDR) (Bang, Medin, Washinawatok, & Chapman, 2010; Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). Scholars who have taken up PDR work to make explicit the position and power of decision makers as well as potential opportunities to reconfigure aspects of design toward equity (Bang, Marin, Faber, & Suzukovich, 2013 p. 711).  In this study, we not only drew on expansive learning concepts to make sense of racialized power dynamics in family-school relations, we also used PDR methodologies to seek to reshape that activity.

PDR emerges from multiple research methods and sensibilities that are social change making in nature, including design-based research, formative interventions, social design experiments, researcher-practice partnerships, and community-based design experiments (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). PDR is distinct from other forms of collaborative design and research practices because of the focus on structural critiques and their attendant possibilities (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). The process of collaboration, particularly with historically marginalized communities, allows for the possibilities of authentic relationship formation, reciprocity, and accountability to one another and the targeted outcome. We drew from PDR to build a space to explore how parents and educators might collaborate to design a parent engagement curriculum in ways that promote collective transformative agency. We argue that these methods and theory offer ways to move our scholarship forward from documenting deficit-based processes and historically-rooted power asymmetries in family engagement towards enacting equitable and democratic processes that leverage the expertise of nondominant families in tandem with that of formal educators and researchers.



To understand the process of building more equitable parent-educator collaboration within a school-based curriculum co-design process, we examined 10 design meetings, five additional follow-up meetings, and extensive planning meetings with 5 to 19 design team members, including nine parents who identified as: two African/African American, one White, four Latina, two Vietnamese; three teachers (all white), two principals (both white), two district administrators (who identified as African American and multiracial (white, Filipino, and Pacific Islander), and 25 researchers (all of whom identify as people of color, including Asian American, African American, and Latino/a). The design meetings were held in the school library of one elementary school over the course of ten months (JanuaryOctober 2014) and lasted 22.5 hours, though two were 4-hour long sessions, and several of the meetings consisted of separate convenings for parents, without educators. In preparation for each design meeting, we also engaged in a planning cycle that included multiple research and leadership team meetings as well as email and phone conversations (See Table 1 for a summary of the core co-design meetings content, tools, decisions, and participants, not including follow-up or planning meetings).

Table 1. Overview of Co-design Meetings




Meeting Context &  Stimulating tools

Mirror Material





Introduction of the co-design process.

Relationship building.

Discussion about parents experiences with schools.

Joint space

Powerpoint presentation of the co-design process.

Parent-only space



#  Parents, 2 principals, 3 teachers, 1 district administrator, and research team



Identification of parent priorities as the basis for the parent curriculum

Relationship building

Parent-only space.

Group work

List with models of parent programs.

Summary of

parents priorities from meeting # 1.

8 parents, 1 district administrator & research team



Narrowing down parent priorities.

Discussion about parents experiences and perspectives about bullying in schools.

Parent-only space.

Group work by language preference.

List with models of parent programs.

Parents narration of their experiences trying to find the school bullying policies.

Summary of parents priorities from meeting # 2.

7 parents, 1 district administrator, research team



Turning Point # 1 initiated

Prioritization of topics for the parent curriculum based on parents identified priorities.

Joint space.

Parents presentation of their shared priorities.

Prioritization activity

A comprehensive list of parent-generated priorities

7 parents, 2 principals, 3 teachers, 1 district administrator, interpreter, research team



Turning Point # 2

Turning Point # 3 initiated

Collective reflection using  transcript data from the  prior joint meeting.

Parent-only and Educator-only spaces.

Transcript excerpts from prior joint meeting.


6 parents, 3 teachers, 2 principals, 2 district administrators, research team


4/22/14 - 5/6/14

Turning Point # 3 continued

Parent survey designed, translated into Spanish,, and administered by parents  from co-design team to other parents.


Email and phone communication

Parent-generated survey


5 parents,

1 researcher by parents invitation to provide  


5/ 6/ 14

Turning Point # 4 initiated

Discussion and identification of  objectives, content, and activities for the bullying lesson.

Discussion about educators' role in the co-design process.

Parent-only space

One teacher was invited as a guest speaker to talk about anti-bullying school policies and programs.

Parent-generated survey data about bullying.

4 parents, 1 teacher, 2 district administrators, research team



Revision & refinement of  the bullying lesson

Joint space.

Draft of the bullying lesson


3 parents, 5 educators, interpreter, 2 district administrators, research team



Piloting of the bullying lesson by co-design parents in language-specific groups:English, Spanish, and Vietnamese

Parent-only space

Bullying lesson and materials


4 co-design parents, 12 district parents, 1 interpreter, research team



Bullying lesson pilot debrief.

Discussion and identification of  objectives and content for the racial identity and two-way communication lessons.

Joint space.

Video clip from the bullying lesson pilot from the English speaking group.

Draft of design principles

Feedback from district parents who participated in the pilot.

4 parents, 2 educators, 2 district administrators, interpreter, research team



Review of the racial identity and two-way communication lessons.

Discussion about the meaning of  academic success and parent leadership.

Collective reflection about the co-design process

Joint space.

Group work.


5 parents, 2 teachers, 1 administrator, research team

We collected extensive meeting observation data, e-mail communications, tools, and other documents from the process, and survey data (from a survey conducted by parents) and wrote periodic analytic memos as a research team as we were making sense of design team parents transformative agency throughout the process. We took detailed fieldnotes and video and audio recordings of every meeting. All audio recordings were transcribed and cleaned by project research assistants.   


Our analyses proceeded in four iterative rounds, using the activity system of the co-design space as our unit of analysis. We used our initial analyses to inform the co-design process and agenda for each subsequent meeting. All researchers read through the entire transcripts from the previous session to examine both conceptual and process dynamics and collectively agreed on emergent claims using the data as evidence. We shared these tentative claims and data during the full leadership team meetings and used them as the basis from which we determined next steps in the process.  

After the conclusion of the process, our research team thematically coded the transcript data at the level of speaking turns using a codebook developed through an iterative team-based process (see Appendix A for the codebook). The codebook built from concepts of equitable collaborations and expansive learning principles of CHAT while also adding coding for process (facilitative) moves, following guidelines for structure, process and inter-coder agreement to improve reliability and validity of coded transcripts (MacQueen, Mclellan-Lemal, Bartholow, & Milstein, 2008). We used the qualitative software Dedoose to identify and refine broad codes, such as aspects of power and inequity, references to race or culture, and positioning and framing of parents in systems and change making. Once the codes had been initially defined, team members independently coded the same sample of text, compared results for consistency, and refined the codebook as a team to determine whether inconsistencies were due to coder error (i.e., misunderstanding of terminology or guidelines) or issues with code definitions (i.e., overlapping or ambiguous definitions). This process continued until all problems were identified and codebook definitions and guidelines for use were updated to reduce error. In addition, we tracked how design team members situated their role or others roles in relation to various barriers and solutions to engagement.

In the third round, we drew on the fifth principle of CHATchange in activity systems as proceeding through expansive learning cyclesto analyze our coded segments (particularly codes related to agency, power, solutions, critique, and decision-making) and create a chronological series of key episodes that marked qualitative turning points in the overall process. Haapasaari et al. (2014) define turning points as a qualitative change in the nature of the participants discourse and a jump in the quantity and quality of their expressions of transformative agency (p.12). With our partnering district administrator, we qualitatively identified exchanges in which we all agreed that the nature of the interactions or understandings seemed to shift. For example, a cluster of coded excerpts for power and agency occurred in the session in which we shared the transcript of the prior meeting with parents.

Finally, drawing on elements of critical discourse analysis (Gee, 2005), we examined how the talk between design team members within each turning point corresponded to an expansive learning cycle and reflected power dynamics, conceptual tensions, individual and collective understandings, and transformative agency.  We borrowed from critical discourse analysis to attend to the discursive interactions in social context, where language and meaning-making function as instantiations of knowledge and power (Foucault, 1995; Gee, 2005). Examining language offers a way to unveil the power dynamics and sociopolitical and historical contexts at play in family-educator interactions (Shah & Leonardo, 2016).


Consistent with the formative interventionist approaches of design-based research in expansive learning (Engestrom & Sannino, 2010), we acted not only as researchers but also collaborators and facilitators of the design team process, and we sought to simultaneously bring our identities as scholars and as parents and family members of color into the room (the PIs are an Asian American woman and an African American man, both parents of their own young children). As such, parents may have been more willing to share their frustrations and stories with us, and we were able to leverage our power as university-based researchers to legitimize the process with school and district leaders. On the other hand, our education and status as researchers inevitably introduced an additional layer of complexity to the power dynamics, which likely influenced the stories and trajectories over the course of the process.  However, we also draw from community-engaged scholarship to argue that the multiple perspectives engaged in decision-making actually lead to greater validity and reliability (Warren, Calderón, Kupscznk, Squires, & Su, 2018). That is, as part of this process, parents and practitioners examined and made sense of the data from their own conversations, and we drew on this sensemaking to triangulate and strengthen our claims.


We examine each turning point through the frame of the expansive learning cycle and attend to the discursive processes and the strategic use of language to shift power and co-construct new parental roles and transformative agency in school change efforts. We attend throughout to how conversations between design team members reflect power dynamics in the process as parents narrate and negotiate their roles and develop their transformative agency.  


Confronting historical contradictions can catalyze expansive learning. The first turning point surfaced the historical contradiction between the espoused notion of parent partnership and the power-laden exchanges that typified parents of color efforts to address issues in schools. From the very first meeting, the topic of bullying in school came up in parents conversations as a one of their top priorities. Bullying was a sensitive issue in the district, and both principals had expressed their apprehension about the fact that parents had been discussing the issue in the context of the design process.

Before the joint portion of the meeting, parents and educators met separately to talk about their expectations for collaborating with the other group. Our data from a brief educator-only meeting prior to rejoining the parents revealed that principals had mixed feelings about the process, emphasizing their trepidation about not being in control of the process. Although both principals shared their belief that the process was a positive opportunity for parents to voice their opinions, they also expressed concerns about losing control and not wanting to be surprised.  One principal explained:

It's like all these other people and things are kind of controlling this process because it's a different way of doing things, but ultimately I'm the person responsible for it, so you do feel like you want to kind of make sure you do have some control over it.

The process of talking with parents about matters that were historically legislated among principals created a fear of the unknown and defensiveness among the principals. However, educators were not the only ones who came into this joint meeting with some reservations. Some parents also expressed doubts that educators would really listen to what they had to say based on their previous experiences in the schools.

After the parent-only initial work, a joint meeting with educators was designed as an opportunity for parents to share with the principals and teachers the topics they had collectively identified as important issues to address in the parent curriculum. The subsequent joint meeting between parents, teachers and principals highlighted the historical contradiction between espoused partnership and enacted dynamics of power and tension. Erikah (an African American mother) had introduced the activity by stating that parents were going to share the topics that they had identified together as their top priorities for the parent curriculum; thus, the activity was presented as an opportunity for parents to share their collective work with the educators. Immediately after Erikahs introduction, a brief exchange between the principal, Barbaraa white woman with a long history in the schooland one of the parents, Binha Vietnamese immigrant fatherbecame a key moment in which the historical tension over control of school matters surfaced in a subtle way. In the excerpt below, Bihn shares out to the newly-arrived educators the parents top picks for the parent programming topics:


We picked up this topic which is bullying, you know . . . [inaudible] myself didnt have [any] positive feedback. What we would like to hear is some kind of announcement from the school or the teachers when people are reporting a violation. For me it was up in the air. I don't know what's going on but the thing seemed to be resolved by itself without me knowing and what Id like to have is some kind of collaboration response regarding the issue, but that was my hope.


Can I just clarify, Binh, are you speaking for you specifically or are you speaking for all the parents right now?


For myself and also from hearing from other . . . parents as well.


So it's a recap of the conversation you guys had [inaudible]?




Researcher fieldnotes noted the tense silence that ensued following this exchange.

Although the significance of this particular interaction became evident only when design team parents later continued to refer back to the moment, one of the district leaders, who was co-facilitating the session, immediately sensed the tension in the exchange between Binh and Barbara, and she interrupted the discussion. She expressed that people were personalizing and redirected the activity to establishing norms before continuing with the presentation of the rest of the parent priorities, followed by a group prioritization activity to decide the final topics.

Following the surfacing of the historical tensions in the previous meeting, the leadership design team reflected on the power dynamics between parents and educators during the exchange and the subsequent discussion to identify priorities for the content of the new curriculum. As the leadership and research team, we met numerous times to read through the transcript data, conduct preliminary analyses, and discuss next steps. Close inspection of the transcript highlighted a disparity of talk-time between parents and administrators as well as shifts in language and meaning, and ultimately, priorities. For instance, in the beginning, educators spoke 14 times and parents spoke seven times. Although more active facilitation seemed to result in more even distribution, over the course of the exchange, one principal spoke 20 times while two of the parents spoke a total of four times. Frequency of talk can, of course, implicate multiple dynamics including but not limited to dominating the conversation; our intent was merely to share a rough indicator of how the space and talk time had been distributed to open sense-making and reflection with the team. Beyond that initial data, we primarily attended to the transcript of the conversation.

According to Engeströms theory, contradictions are inherent in all activity systems. The work of re-mediating such activity and fostering expansive learning lies in creating opportunities for individuals to confront these contradictions together through the use of mirror materialdocuments, artifacts, video or audio clips of the activity of the participants (Haapasaari et al., 2014)to engage participants in questioning those contradictions. Following the cycle of expansive learning, we then redesigned the next design session with an eye towards critical historicity by making the subject-subject relations in the design process the object of the activity (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). That is, we decided to put the powered interactions between parents and educators on the table as the focus of the subsequent session. The leadership design team decided to hold separate meetings with the parents, administrators, and teachers to provide a sheltered space for reflecting on their interactions in the joint meeting. The next turning point occurred as parents engaged with an excerpt of the transcript from the previous meeting, which we introduced as mirror material of the interactions between parents and educators in the design team.


The recursive process of reflection enabled parents to engage in collective analysis, the next phase of an expansive learning cycle. Upon revisiting the interaction from the previous meeting with parents and educators in separate conversations, it became clear that each group ascribed quite different meanings to the principals question posed to Bihn, Are you speaking for you specifically or are you speaking for all the parents?  On the surface, the principal framed her question simply as an attempt to get clarification, and another principal read the transcript and claimed it showed a good example of collaboration with parents. However, the parents interpreted the question as an exercise of power that questioned the legitimacy and validity of their insights about the importance of bullying in their district. The context and historical tensions surrounding what might seem like a benign request for clarification shaped how parents interpreted her comment.  

When prompted to reflect on the previous session (prior to the introduction of the transcript excerpt), the parents on the design team seemed to have already developed a shared critique of the power dynamics in their interactions with educators. For example, Mary (a Vietnamese mother) referred to the interaction between Binh and Barbara (whom she referred to as Mrs. Wells) surrounding bullying. She reported picking up on the principals body language as defensive and argued that they [educators] have to hear from the parents truth, be open minded and then we can have the whole picture. Mary perceived an unwillingness to listen during Binhs interaction with the principal:

. . . on the bullying subject. [Binh] was presenting it and Mrs. [Wells] got defensive and shes like Are you talking for yourself or the group? In my mind, things [we are] talking [about] are for so many other parents who have silent voices that had the same experience, you know. Listen, have an open mind, not get defensive at this point in time. Just listen! (4/22/14)

In this moment, Mary zeroed in on her interpretation of the historical tensions between parents and educators in several ways. First, she identified Mrs. Wells comment to Binh as a direct challenge by asking Binh if he was speaking for himself or for all parents, in order to possibly diminish the power of his statement. Second, Mary pointed out that they as parents were representing not only themselves but silent voices that had the same experience[s]; that while they were speaking from personal experience, they were also speaking for a great number of parents from their community. She saw this as an example of how parents lay[ing] out their truth can often be uncomfortable for educators. Finally, Mary switched to hypothetically addressing Mrs. Wells (who was not present at the moment) by asking her to listen, [and] have an open mind to what they have to say about parent community concerns and not get defensive.

Marys reaction highlights how this momentary exchange between a parent and principal acted as a microcosm of historically infused systemic inequities. LaKisha, an African American mother, explained:

I just knew that it always going to be head to head because theyre [the principals] here. What were talking about. Especially with the bullying I just knew that was going to be an issue, because they try to sugarcoat that all the time. With us bringing that to the forefront, I cant sugarcoat it because were dissecting it. I knew that it was going to bring some tension.

As described above, the sharing of priorities had been introduced as an opportunity for educators to hear about the collective work parents had done together. Yet, in framing the question in either/or terms (i.e., speaking for yourself versus speaking for all parents), the principal ensured that either response could be subjected to further scrutiny. On one hand, alluding to the possibility that Bihn could be only speaking for himself would frame his experience as an isolated incident, a means of minimizing or dismissing the experience. On the other hand, inquiring if he was speaking for all parents cast other doubts about the validity of this chosen topic. Thus, a fathera member of a traditionally marginalized community and whose voice and perspective had been historically excluded from the discussion of important issues in schoolbrought forward an issue that mattered to him personally and also to the rest of the parents in the group. Echoing well-documented inequitable parent-principal dynamics (e.g., Anderson, 1990; Crow, 1998), the parents voice and legitimacy were both challenged by an authority figure accustomed to deciding policies on important issues in school such as bullying.

We then introduced the mirror material, an excerpt of the transcript from the subsequent prioritization discussion. In this excerpt, Violetaa Latina motherfirst proposed the idea of a parent network to enable parents to help each other resolve issues. By the end of the segment, this idea had been transformed into the idea of navigating the schoolhouse. We asked the parents to read the transcript and to take note of who was talking, who was not, and whose ideas were being taken up (and not). After only a few moments of reading, Lakisha announced I could tell you! I dont need more time to read! She expressed her perception that the educators were attempting to shut down the conversation about parent priorities. In response to the question, what do you see? she responded:

I mean, I see a lot of blowing offI think its best how were doing it. Just dont come to the principal just with your problems. Go find somebody else. Sending you totheyll say, Go to the Handbook. No, it dont talk back. Thats why I have the outside source come in for my child so Im out of it because now, me and you, we can talk and be cordial because its my childso it can go, really, somewhere else. When it comes to my child, let me get somebody on the outside come in with the professionalso they can see whats really going on[picks up transcript and waves it] because this is whats going on! [others laugh, she does not] This is not acceptable! Serious! This is not!

Lakisha was very explicit about how she felt the educators were blowing off their input, by verbalizing her interpretations of their statements that emphasized not wanting to change their practices or hear feedback from parents. Go to the Handbook referred to educators sending parents to written materials as a way to communicate their school policies without having parents talk back to them about their concerns and feedback. She referred to a personal experience she had shared earlier with the team, referencing her sense of having been blown off by the administration, and her move to bring in an outside psychologist to evaluate her son so that someone from the outside would see whats really going on. That is, parents knowledge and information on their childs learning needs must be legitimized by an outside professional in order to validate the parents concerns to the school surrounding necessary learning supports.

Finally, Lakisha identified the power asymmetry in the educators reframing of Violetas initial idea for a parent network into teaching parents to navigate the schoolhouse.  She revoiced the dialogue from the transcript between Violeta and Patricia, another principal, to highlight how the principals comments were reinforced and legitimated over parents ideas:

Well, [Violeta] said . . .

Uhm-uhm . . . no, [Patricia], I like what you said better.

This is what were dealing with! (4/22/15)

She then picked up the transcript and waved it around saying, This is whats going on! This is not acceptable!  That is, she interpreted the meeting interactions as an instantiation of the broader power dynamics between parents and educators in schoolsand as a key contradiction and problem space in family-school relations.   

Although Lakishas voice dominated in this segment, our fieldnotes highlight the energy in the room from the other parents, and parents later recalled this discussion as pivotal when asked to reflect on the overall process. Other parents were nodding and laughing, and Erikah, another African American mother echoed her agreement with LaKisha, concluding: We need to focus on what we want to do to change things for our kids. Educators are trained in certain way and have their own rules and it is hard for them to be open minded. Thus, although the parents perceived the interactions between the principal and Binh as a challenge that typified their interactions with educators and a broader historical inequity, their collective understanding catalyzed a new sense of purpose and agency.    


In this third turning point, the parents began to model and test new solutionsthe next phases in an expansive learning cyclein the form of metaphors that illuminated roles, power dynamics, and social arrangements that departed significantly from the current activity. They also modeled new possibilities for collective voice by electing to work independently of the teachers and principals as a collective of parents (with the support of researchers and district leaders) to create a survey to expand and amplify parental voice in order to substantiate the need for a lesson on addressing bullying.

Metaphors as Models

At the end of their reflection on the transcript of the meeting with teachers and principals, the parents concluded that their singular voice was not loud enough. Their discourse moved from questioning and critiquing practices by educators to invoking a variety of spatially-constructed metaphors to examine and negotiate new understandings of their role in decision making and authority in schools. Lakisha continued her analysis of the situation to suggest that they should leave the educators out of the decision-making process due to their own agenda and one-track mindedness. She likened the educators role in deciding the parent curriculum topics to an outsider coming into her kitchen to do her work: Thats like somebody coming to my house and saying, I dont clean my kitchen like that. Um, no!

With this metaphor, she argued that parentsand not educatorsshould be the experts and decision makers in this situation. Through the metaphor, LaKisha reclaimed the education of her childlikened to her kitchen in her homeand the expertise of educators as inappropriately seeking to dictate how to best go about the work. This proposes a profound shift in roles and power from the dominant mode of parent-educator relations, in which nondominant parents are more often positioned as though they are helpers who need to be told what to do in someone elses kitchen.  

In contrast, the principals metaphor of the schoolhousea complex place that parents will be lost within unless they are taught how to navigaterepresents what Ippolito (2015) refers to as a school-centric perspective. Whereas the principals metaphor firmly places schools as a foreign space outside the domain of families and communities, Lakishas metaphor of my kitchen designates schools and education as a place of ownership in which parents and families have authority and expertise (what Ippolito, 2015, refers to as a community-centered perspective). Lakishas call to be more proactive in finding solutions launched the parents into an animated discussion of how to proceed in ensuring their insights and ideas would influence change in the schools.

As parents debated complex theories of systemic change in everyday language, they invoked another metaphor: educational change as a competitive game. For instance, Violeta likened their interactions with the educators as a political game where there needed to be some collaboration: I am not saying we play their game but we need to have their buy-in. I dont want this whole thing swept under the rug. Here, Violeta seemed to suggest that educators have their own rules in a game, and parents were not part of the game, but needed to have the educators buy-in for any change to happen. Meanwhile, Mary critiqued the role of parents as being passive in the larger game of improving educational outcomes and explicitly highlighted parents power in an exchange with Binh:  


I think as parents we have the power to change everything.




The power to be demanding. These are our kids. If we take our kids out of school, there would be no kids to teach. You know, when we put our kids to school, were giving our rights away. When you put your kids in, you have to sign your kids out. Their safety is in the schools hand and were vulnerable so we have to initiate change and demand it and not just sit back and say, Hmm . . . so whats going to happen? Whats the procedure?


Its not what I said. I didnt say we were going to sit back and let them decide what to do, right? What Im saying is, are we doing something


It seems like we as parents have taken the backseat, while they were playing ball and were watching.

In Marys game metaphor, the parents are on the same team as the educators but are in the passive role of audience member or seat-warmer rather than being on the playing field as the educators. Binh seemed less certain. Lakisha, on the other hand, was adamant. She again held up the meeting transcript and said, This shows that were not a team.  

Parents use of structural metaphors highlights their roles and relationships in terms of other concepts; metaphors invoked in discourse provide insights into how parents understand and make sense of their roles in schools and educational change processes (Lakoff & Johnson,1980). These metaphors not only reflect parents conceptualizations, they also structure their behaviors (Stelmach, 2011).

Through their use of metaphors, parents debated complex notions about systemic change and their roles in that process. As Fine (2008) explains, the complex theorizing and negotiations of those who have been most systematically excluded, oppressed or denied unveil revealing wisdom about the nature of systemic inequities (p. 215). For instance, Violeta highlighted the political dimensions of systems change work, the distinction between policy and implementation by front line workers (Lipsky, 1980), and the need for change efforts to account for how formal educator authority and daily practice can subvert efforts for parents to hold schools accountable. Mary articulated a critique about parents adherence to passive roles dictated by the unspoken rules of the game, a reference to what scholars refer to as the institutional scripts of schools (Ishimaru, 2014b). And LaKisha pointed to the design team transcript as evidence of historical and ongoing inequitable power dynamics in parent-school relations. Through the metaphor of educational change as a political game, parents framed themselves as central players, rather than onlookers, and their debate about whether teachers and principals were part of their team represented strategy for playing this game.  


Designing as a Parent Collective

The parents began to model these new roles as central actors in educational change in two subsequent moves. First, the parents decided how to move forward with the design process, a key decision point in participatory design research (PDR). As parents debated whether or not to include teachers and principals in their next steps, one of the Latina mothers, Violeta, turned to a researcher as the professional to make the decision. Lakisha jumped in, reminding the group, Its our decision (to which we researchers agreed). Parents decided to proceed without teachers and principals for one meeting, then chose to invite only the teachers to rejoin subsequent meetings:

Mary: This is time to move forward. We can't stay still; it has to be pushed to make things happen. . . . I feel like we need the teachers in here the next meeting. Maybe not the principal, but the teachers, because I want their perspective of what they go through because they're disciplining our kids and educating our kids and we don't know what problems they're running into. Maybe with them in it that will give us a better understanding. Then later, bring the principal in, but they can observe us and then at the end put in their input. With them in and the teachers at the same time, that's like having your boss hovering around you, and that's . . . they won't be able to really speak their mind. That's how I feel. I don't know how you guys feel about that.


Berenice: I think that's correct. I think we, as parents, would like to know the teacher's version of the situation and see what they see, what they look at, and what they think . . . For surely, not the principals, because I think with the principals here we're not able to get everything out. If we get everything out, they might get offensive, like, oh, are you saying this because of us? or . . . I just think it's not time for them yet. Probably I think later on for the principals.


Interpreter for Natalia: She thinks it's a perfect idea, too.


Erikah: I second that.


The parents recognized power asymmetries between teachers and principals as well the expertise they needed to consider and began to enact a theory of change that engaged teachers but positioned principals to the periphery in the design process.

Expanding Parental Voice

The parents second collective decision was to collect data from other parents about bullying in schools to substantiate their claim about parent concerns to the principal and to get information about bullying from other parents as they prepared to create their bullying lesson. Natalia again explicitly referenced the interaction between Binh and the principal in her proposal to collect information from other parents:

Para que sea más completo y que nos tomemos nosotros de averiguar con los otros padres de investigar que si quieren lo mismo o qué cambios observan ellos y reunir nuestras idea& porque todos pensamos diferentes para que sea un poco más completo& para que no surja lo que dijo ella es lo que tu piensa y no lo que los padres piensan [nods to Mary and Binh] tener fundamentos Yo investigue esto  y es lo que dicen todos.


To make it [the curriculum] more complete, we can investigate with other parents, we can investigate if they want the same things or what changes they observe and we can gather our ideas . . . because everyone thinks differentlyto make it more complete so it does not happen what she said [nods to Mary and Binh]is it what you think and not what parents think? We have to have solid reasons. I investigated this and this is what everyone says.


Mary took the lead in brainstorming the questions that could be considered in the questionnaire. She sent the questions in an e-mail to the team starting with, Hi team, marking the first time a parent on the design team initiated an email to the rest of the group, explicitly referencing the idea of a team. This greeting echoed the metaphors discussed above and positioned the parents as a collective working together towards a common goal. After several exchanges among different parents, including one suggestion from a researcher on the design team and Violetas translation of the questions into Spanish, the design team parents finalized the bullying questionnaire and agreed on a process for data collection.

The final bullying questionnaire (10 close-ended and one open-ended questions) asked parents about their experiences of bullying, perceptions of their childs school, and information they wanted to increase their understanding about bullying. Although a small-scale data collection process (they collected 35 surveys through mostly door-to-door solicitation and a few on Facebook), responses from the surveys provided the design team parents with insights that informed the bullying lesson that they were developing for the parent curriculum. For example, findings included parents being afraid to report bullying, a recognition of two types of parents who wanted to address bullying: one whose child was bullied and one whose child was bullying others, and an implication that teachers were aware that bullying was happening but parents were not. Ultimately, these conversations helped the design team parents establish lesson objectives and substantiate their decision to move forward with the lesson. Importantly, although one researcher chimed in about the questions on the questionnaire, the design team parents provided all of the momentum, and they did not ask the researchers or anyone else for permission, a decision that put the principals even further on the defensive when they learned of it (a reaction that speaks to principals tendency to react to parental agency as a threat to their own power and authority, Crow, 1998).

Piloting the lesson. Parents continued to illustrate their collective influence and voice by proceeding to develop the first lesson on bullyingwith support of the teachers and researchersand piloting it with three sets of new parents in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The design parents created the objectives of the bullying lesson based on the experiences of developing the questionnaire, collecting data, and making sense of the data. They also brainstormed, tried out, and reflected on activities amongst themselves.

Through the piloting process, design team parents became facilitators of new relationships and incipient leaders of school change relative to other parents. Mary reflected on her experience facilitating:

Well, with my group, it went a lot better than I expected. It felt like a group of friends just having a conversation and they really liked the information, they, afterwards, they still want to talk, talk. They thought that the information was really well put there for them and they felt empowered to address the school on bullying or whatever they had and they want to talk further. Theyre like, This parent group can support, can you help my kids with homework too, can I call you, can we put a Vietnamese parent group together with all the schools and have somebody stand out and interpret and do this for us? Im like, Just one step at a time. They were attacking me with all these questions, they were like, yes, heres my number, heres my email, I dont know, email me!

In addition to building relationships to entrar confianza (open trust), then, this example highlights how design team parents took the first steps in fostering the collective agency of other parents.

Completing the curriculum. At the end of the design process, the teammostly parents with supports from researchers and teachershad iteratively evolved a set of design principles that emerged from their individual and collective experiences developing the curriculum. These principles became guidesalong with the content and activities generated during the processfor the development of the seven lessons that comprised the final curriculum: communication with teachers and schools (two parts), ensuring academic success, addressing bullying, fostering positive racial and cultural identities (two parts), and parent advocacy and leadership (see Table 2 for the final design principles and lesson topics).

Table 2. Final Lesson Design Principles and Lesson Topics

Five guiding principles emerged through an iterative process with the Design Team to shape the learning process designed into the curriculum. Learning should enable families to:


Build relationships with other parents/family members.

Activities should provide meaningful opportunities for family members to meet, make connections with one another, sharing their hopes and dreams for their children, families, and community, and their common concerns or struggles. These relationships and trust are foundational for the other principles.


Share their experiences, ideas, resources, concerns, and priorities with each other

Lessons should provide opportunities for parents and family members to share personal experiences with issues in their childrens education in order to learn from each other and to tap into their own collective knowledge and expertise. Through the sharing of these experiences, parents can exchange ideas, solutions, and resources with each other, create an ongoing network, and begin to work towards identifying and prioritizing common problems that should be addressed.


Interact, collaborate, and reflect with one another to develop new or alternative understandings

Through interactive activities such as skits, games, dialogue, and opportunities for collective reflection, parents/family members can develop new shared understandings of issues that affect their childrens school life.


Foster student success beyond academic achievement

Parents and families want their children to succeed academically, yet academic achievement is but one part of a more holistic approach to their childrens learning, development, and education. Lessons should enable parents and family members to engage with topics that they feel are relevant to the success of their children in the broadest sense.


Develop capacity to take action to support their children and work with other parents to improve the school

Beyond simply providing information, learning should enable parents and family members to develop and practice skills and strategies they can use to create change. Although equitable transformation requires educators and schools to change as well, ultimately parents and families should feel they have the knowledge and capacity not only to support their children but also to influence decisions at their school.

Curriculum Lesson Topics:

Lesson 1: Communication Part 1

Lesson 2: Communication Part 2

Lesson 3: Ensuring Academic Success

Lesson 4: Addressing Bullying

Lesson 5: Fostering Positive Racial and Cultural Identities, Part 1

Lesson 6: Fostering Positive Racial and Cultural Identities, Part 2

Lesson 7: Parent Advocacy and Leadership

After observing a school in a different system piloting one of the lessons and sharing the design process with the Kellogg school board, design team parents reflections exemplified the parents move towards collective and transformative agency. Mary noted:

This has been an empowering experience. I had the opportunity to go out into the community and started a conversation with other parents, to get feedback on issues and concerns that parents faced, it allowed me to see how important it was for parents to have a platform to network with other parents, to build relationships, offer support and resources.

Finally, Natalia closed with a call to the other parents in the room:

We have to make a difference. Because I did not know how big was the problems in schools, I want to be a spokesperson and communicate to others everything that is happening in schools. Until something happens to us then we realize that the problem is not only ours. We have the obligation to make a difference so things wont all be in vain. We need to make a changeand if a parent says I cant speak English, you can also communicate with signs, you can do it. I want to make a change.


This study aimed to co-develop a curriculum with diverse, nondominant families, teachers, principals, district leaders, and researchers that centered family priorities and interests and enacted equity in the process of collaboration. As many scholars have argued, the practice of family engagement has relied on programs and activities to structure parent participation in narrow and normative ways. Even the fields current best practices largely consist of technical or structural adjustments to existing infrastructure (for instance, family engagement teams, district lead roles for family engagement, or school-based family liaisons) or efforts to welcome parents into schools (for, e.g., translation into home languages, provision of childcare, food, or transportation for school meetings). Such efforts do little to surface, address, or transform power asymmetries or build collective agency for change. This study provides insights into how the conventional interactions, tools, rules, norms, and division of labor/roles might be re-mediated by creating spaces to evolve new forms of family-school activity.


Our findings suggest that the critical incidents in this co-design process can be understood as turning points in a process of building transformative agency. That is, they functioned as stepping stones for parents to envision and enact new roles, relationships, and aims as they sought to build more equitable collaboration with educators in the design team. First, the initial interactions between parents and principals surfaced the historical contradiction between the notion of partnership and the asymmetric power and roles between parents and educators, a contradiction that parents readily recognized as a representation of broader system inequities. We used this contradiction to catalyze or trigger questioning and critique amongst the parents.

As the parents analyzed and reflected on the mirror materiala transcript of their previous meetingthey came to a shared understanding of the need for different forms of activity and avenues for influence. In an energetic exchange, they negotiated differing theories of change, invoking and examining different conceptual models for the relationship between parents and educators in school change and for the redistribution of power required for enacting systemic change. These expressions of transformative agency later resulted in collective action on the part of parents when they decided to collect data about bullying experiences via a survey of other parents to substantiate their priorities, pilot a lesson that responded to what they learned from other parents, and implement a new model of voice and influence in school change. Taken together, these mark a process for moving from individualistic interactions in school-sanctioned domains towards collective transformative agency towards systemic aims.


Traditional parent engagement practices often maintain deficit perspectives of parents and communities and imagine schools as neutral spaces that treat everyone equally (Fine, 1993; Olivos, Jimenez-Castellanos, & Ochoa, 2011; Perez Carreon, Drake, & Calabrese Barton, 2005; Valencia, 1995). Meanwhile, there often exists a tension regarding what kind of involvement schools want and what parents press for (Horvat, Curci, & Partlow, 2010, p. 703). Drawing on PDR methodologies, we used this tension in the iterative design process to engage a critical historical perspective in the process and foster different roles, engagement cultures, and practices across heterogeneous racial, cultural, educational, and professional identities and expertise.

Centering nondominant parent perspectives meant beginning from their priorities to decide the curriculum topics, some atypical to previous programming by the school. For example, their ongoing experiences with bullying and shared history of frustration surrounding their efforts to address it with educators created an important parent curriculum topic for their communities. In addition, design team parents also introduced Fostering Positive Racial Identity to the educators as an important element for improving student outcomes. Without centering parent priorities as part of the collaboration process, it is likely that these topics may not have made the final cut as many educators did not see these topics as central to improve student achievement as narrowly operationalized through standardized performance assessments.

We also used PDR methods to identify and address power asymmetries within the design process. When educators and parents re-joined to finalize the topics, we analyzed transcripts and used them with the team as mirror material to examine and address how power and histories shaped their prioritization process. Parent interactions with the re-introduced educators were filtered by their own lived experience and histories of interactions with schools and educators (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003), but also the deep-rooted asymmetric power dynamics and histories of oppression between schools and communities, particularly for traditionally marginalized, non-white, and non-English speaking parents (Schutz, 2006). PDR processes provided space for the team to reflect on how historically-infused power inequities between parents and educators could derail well-intentioned collaborations. We also worked to re-mediate roles and interactions by revisiting previous participation dynamics and engaging the team in collective reflection. The leadership teams decision to separate nondominant parents, administrators, and teachers during their reflection process allowed us to surface contrasting assumptions of how the collaboration was proceeding, and how the historicity within the activity system was potentially constraining individual and collective agency within our design team parents.

As our findings illuminated, design team parents began to generate new possibilities for their interactions, roles, and actions in schools. The discursive expressions of transformative agency illuminated how parents collectively made sense of the interactions in the design team in a way that surfaced a broader critique ofand new possibilities for their roles in schools.  Metaphors evoked by parents represented their efforts to re-negotiate the terms of engagement with other parents, educators and schools and reclaim what Booker and Goldman (2016) refer to as their familial epistemic authority. Given the broader dynamics of family-school relations, families reclaiming of expertise about their own childrens education and development represented critical possibilities for systemic repair.


We argue that the theoretical and methodological tools from participatory design-based research (PDR) and CHAT principles offer much to the field for unpacking and shifting asymmetric power relations and fostering more equitable interactions between families and educators in the moment and across time. As a field, family engagement has relatively few theories that help us attend to the mechanisms and processes of family-school relations at the level of everyday activity. Moreover, we know too well from studies of policy implementation (Lipsky, 1980) that family engagement policies only translate into change on the ground to the extent that they correspond to new practices and interactions between those at the front lines of the work (in this case, parents and school-based educators). Participatory design-based research methodologies offer new avenues for research that center issues of power and equity in the work and engage practitioners and families themselves in sense-making and the development of new practices. In this way, these theories and methodologies help us to move beyond the long-standing critique of conventional parent involvement towards developing new insights and possibilities for transforming family-school relations.

Issues of sustainability and transferability remain questions for PDR and other types of social change interventions, particularly in light of the need to attend to multiple activity systems and powerfully embedded institutional assumptions and roles for parents, families, teachers, and principals. In our case, the design team parents did not continue to meet and act collectively beyond the design space, but each of the parents went on to enact leadership in other ways and spaces with other parents. For instance, after the process, Mary became an Instructional Assistant in one of the schools where she partnered with the principal to connect with parents in the school, and Natalia organized a committee for stay-at-home Latina mothers at her school. Likewise, one of the teachers on the team described her profound learning about the importance of racial identity in student learning and subsequently taught other teachers about racial microaggressions in the classroom, crediting the design team parents with building her understanding of those dynamics. And one of the district leaders went on to implement the curriculum in another district and support other systems leaders in co-designing a strategic plan with students and families. Scholars have increasingly pointed to the ripples of influence and changed activity that emerge from PDR work, often in unexpected ways or in entirely new spaces (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016).  Future inquiries might explore the impacts of co-design processes on educator sense-making and practice.

Moreover, despite the changes for this group of families and educators, family-school relations in the Kellogg district largely persisted in their conventional individualistic, hierarchical dynamics. Future efforts might explore how to better support new forms of activity across a system through infrastructure, capacity-building, organizational routines, formal leadership practice, and partnerships (Fishman, Penuel, Allen, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2013). Deeply entrenched norms and assumptions embedded in systems are unlikely to change on their own. Intervention by so-called external partnerssuch as university researchers, district staff, or community-based organizationsmay be critical  not only in surfacing and disrupting contradictions but also in sustaining processes that can reshape family-school activity in everyday life throughout a system.

Due to the highly contextual nature of the work, PDR methods do not aim for direct scale-up, which assumes a replication logic that disregards complexities of context and time that are paramount to developing new practices and interactions. However, scholars have increasingly looked to generalize design principles that can transfer to other contexts and potentially across systems. The design team generated a set of such principles for their own learning and engagement, which have become an anchor for codesigning with families in other systems in the region.  Scholars point to the spread of innovations beyond local continuity as a form of sustainability in the form of diffusion and adaptations in other settings (Sannino & Nocon, 2008).

Despite the challenges of this work, we argue that it is exceedingly rare for nondominant parents, teachers, principals, district leaders, and researchers to co-construct a curriculumand interactin ways that explicitly address historically based and institutionally enforced power asymmetries in the process of partnering. As evidenced by the parents own claims, this effort constituted a significant departure from more typical interventions that seek to fix parents towards school-centric norms and expectations. Many of the existing frameworks for family engagement provide broad policy commitments or prescriptions that fail to address the complexities of how race, power, gender, language, class, and other social markers shape family-school relations. This study contributes to a more robust understanding of how individuals and collectives of people can interact and foster collective agency with each other across differences of roles, racial/cultural backgrounds, class, formal schooling, and professional identities to envision and enact collaborative approaches to educational change. Such efforts offer hope for sustaining new forms of activity and cultivating agency in the journey from deficit-based parent involvement to equitable collaboration between families, schools, and communities.


1. Nondominant refers to communities who have traditionally been marginalized or underserved by dominant institutions, practices, and power relations, such as low-income, immigrant/refugee, and other communities of color (Gutierrez, 2006). We use the term parents broadly to include all types of biological and non-biological parents, families, and primary caregivers who support a child.

2. All individual, school, and district names are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 11, 2019, p. 1-39
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22819, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:42:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Ann Ishimaru
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    ANN M. ISHIMARU is Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Organizations & Leadership at the College of Education at the University of Washington. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of leadership, school-community relations, and educational equity in P–12 systems. Her research seeks to leverage the expertise of minoritized students, families, and communities, alongside that of educators, towards educational justice and community wellbeing. She is a recipient of the 2017 AERA Exemplary Contributions to Practice-Engaged Research Award and the 2016 UCEA Jack A. Culbertson Award.
  • Joe Lott II
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    JOE LOTT II is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. He has published articles about and studied racial identity development and civic engagement among Black students in college, the impact of college experiences on civic and political dispositions, how to change the college-going culture through parent-school-community partnerships, and how to leverage university-community partnerships to foster wellness and educational achievement for men and boys of color along the P-20 continuum.
  • Kathryn Torres
    Education Northwest
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN E. TORRES is a Senior Advisor and Researcher at Education Northwest. Her work focuses on P-20 equity issues for students in the Pacific Northwest, English Learners, data-driven decision making, instructional leadership, and organizational and systems change. She has studied and evaluated national professional development programs aimed to improve instruction for English Learners, collective impact initiatives with a focus on family engagement, consultant-supported professional learning communities for school improvement, and the recruitment, development and retention of STEM K–12 teachers.
  • Karen O’Reilly-Diaz
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    KAREN O’REILLY-DIAZ is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on the relationships between schools and families and communities of color as an essential component in the creation of a more equitable education system. Specifically her dissertation examines how Latinx immigrant families work collectively as a way to leverage their power to bring about change in their students’ schools and communities.
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