In a planning meeting today a colleague shared an activity she experienced in a professional setting that she said was so powerful she would use it in her graduate classes from now on. It is a sharing of one’s Naming Story: How did you get your name?
I’m afraid I was quite rude and interrupted her in the middle of her excited explanation and said that for people adopted from foster care this would be a horrible activity. Other educators around the table didn’t quite see my point of view (which is informed as they all know from being an adoptive mother of kids from foster care). My colleague tried giving me examples of how it would be okay. She used herself as an example and said how she shared that her family’s last name was changed as they were processed at Ellis Island. I said that she only knows this story because she grew up with her first family—her only family. She probably shares the same last name as at least one of her parents. Our (adopted) children do not share our last names as they came to us having used their birth names for many years; they did not want to change their names, and we did not want to over-write such a key part of their identity.
I know for sure that my children would feel super isolated and conspicuous if they had to do the Naming Story exercise, especially as a get acquainted activity. Would our 16 year old who is deeply ashamed that her first mother could not/did not/would not care for her want to stay in that room and listen to the stories of all the families who passed down stories to their children about their naming? What a visceral reminder she would have that she was not cared for in the ways she deserved. Not having your first mother is, of course, the “primal wound” (Nancy Verrier), and one that forever is part of one’s identity.
I was immediately reminded of what I learned about non/inclusive education when our now 16 year old was in 8th grade. She had a wonderful, project-based science teacher in a school where children are given many opportunities all day for thematic, hands-on/minds-on learning. These types of learning occasions often involve something personal. There are so many decisions for teachers to make when learning grows out of the personal, the familial, the community. This is the email exchange I had with the science teacher, “Tom” in a 10-day mid-December period:
Tonight’s after dinner conversation:
Me: What homework do you have tonight, “Sophia”?
S: For science I have to bring in photos of my family.
Me: Oh, really?
S: But not THIS family. My birth family.
Me: Oh, really?
S: Yeah, we have to show genetics.
Me: Oh, really?
S: I think I can use the picture of …..
This is all to say that this sort of assignment might be quite challenging for children who are in foster care or have been adopted. Sophia said she is going to bring you some photos tomorrow and “see if they are alright”. Her options are fairly limited, (she has a treasured box of artifacts from her past stored under her bed) although she did text her bio grandfather to ask if he has a photo of her bio mom from when she was a child. We would have to get that printed out if he sends it.
I hope this lesson goes smoothly, and I also hope there is no public display of these artifacts that would position her as “other”: everyone’s “family” looks like them, except for the adopted kid who doesn’t look at all like the people she lives with and now is supposed to call family…..Also, as a child of color in a transracial adoption it is hard to know what such assignments might stir up for her (and others in her situation).
Again, she seems fine, but I’d hate for this to trigger something…..(holidays are also sometimes challenging times for children from foster care….)
I’m taking the liberty of resending the curriculum advice to teachers re adoption. (There is a brief mention of genetics units, but not any really good examples of other ways to approach it.)
Thank you for note. I encouraged the kids to bring in photos of all family members, and asked, if possible, for photos of biological family members. I spoke with Sophia about it, and asked if this was something she wanted to do. I am happy if kids want to opt out. Maybe they could study the family photos of a favorite personality, or just use the example of my family.
I planned to keep these documents private. This is a one-day activity, to get on top of the concept that certain physical traits are inherited from parents – and then passed on to the next generation.
I should have put out this request earlier for parent feedback, prior to giving this assignment!
Let me know what is best for Sophia.
Sophia has decided not to bring a photo in of her mother even though she has some to choose from. This assignment has been emotionally difficult for her because she doesn’t live with her genetic family.
Celia & Flo
Thanks Celia – I understand. Sophia is excused from this assignment.Tom
…. This week, after pre-assessing what students already know about the topic, students are examining some basic genetic physical traits (eye color, hair color, ability to roll tongue) to learn about basics of genetic inheritance. To help us explore this, I’ve asked the students to bring in family photos, and to survey parents on these very traits. I realize that for some students, the issue of biological inheritance is complicated by a number of factors (adoption, non-biological parents, access to and relationships with biological parents). I am excusing students who choose to opt out of this activity, and will have an alternative activity for them. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns about these activities. We will then learn the basics of meiosis; how genetic information of the parents is transferred in the fertilized egg of the offspring, and learn the role of probability in what is the ultimate expression of a particular trait.
Why genetics matters to our students, and how it affects their world will be a particular focus for us.
Science today was hard for Sophia. Questions arose about her father — about whom she knows very little. This was quite painful for her. She expressed feelings of exclusion especially when looking at other students’ pictures and feeling her own loss so keenly.
We hope you will give consideration to her experience in the years to come.
Celia & Florence
Thanks for talking with Sophia today. It meant a lot to her.
Also, she told me she is worried about getting a zero for not bringing in the photos or the family worksheet. I tried to explain that you are not counting those against her grade, but for some reason this is a hard concept for her.
She also said she is going to bring in a photo of what all her siblings look(ed) like as young children. She has a picture of a sister whom she has met twice in her annual visits with her mother; the child is 3 and gets to live with her mother…..a source of a great deal of pain for the other children who were removed and sadness that they do not get to grow up with her. I think it means something to her to bring the photos in so I imagine she will bring them to you to show you.
Celia & Flo
For Tom, it didn’t seem to cross his mind that our 12 year old might feel very stigmatized to not have photos. He didn’t seem to understand that “opting out” positioned her as “other” in the class. To us it was as if she would be wearing a big sandwich board on her body that said, “Rejected by Birth Family.”
It truly shocked me that this really fantastic, very experienced teacher, thought it was fine to have children who could not participate in his activity go off to the side and do an alternative activity. I learned something in the nanosecond that I read his words: Having an alternative activity is some teachers’ idea of “differentiating” or “accommodating difference.” From this perspective it is sufficient to make sure everyone had a learning activity that gets the teaching point or objective across.
I am not exempting myself here as I have learned the very hard way about activities I have done in my own classroom that positioned some students in ways that were horrible for them. I know about quite a few of these teaching mistakes because my students were brave and told me. (And I am very confident that not all the students I have hurt through my pedagogy have had the confidence and courage and stomach to come and talk to me about how what I organized positioned them in ways that were painful and damaging.)
Yet, I feel compelled to offer my public critiques of some typical lessons that position children who have been adopted from foster care in ways that make public the loss of their first family. I make it a practice to not “teacher bash” so want to be clear that I have the utmost respect for the educators referenced in this post, but I do want to analyze their pedagogy in the hope that others will read this and find ways to interrogate their lessons for how children adopted at an older age from foster care or internationally, might feel when their personal stories are made public.
I am reminded of a news article on my university homepage published last year lauding a New York City elementary school teacher who prioritizes multicultural understanding and community building in her classroom. One of the techniques she described is to have an adult family member come in on the child’s birthday and to tell the story of their birth. I imagine she has not adopted any children from foster care. If my adopted child were in that classroom, what would I come in and tell? What parts of our children’s stories would be appropriate to share? How would my child feel that her story was so different from other children’s stories? Would we say, “Jenni’s first mommy loved her very much but because she had so many problems she really couldn’t take care of her, so lots of people reported her mommy to the state, and a social worker and some police came and took her out of her mother’s home, and then her great-grandmother’s home, and then her grandfather’s home. In between all these kinship placements, little Jenni was in foster care, thrust into the homes of strangers whose homes all smelled different and who had vastly different rules.” Would we say that as the kinship homes were evaluated for their “goodness” (read: compliance with white, middle class norms) little Jenni and her siblings were interviewed by social workers to decide what was best for them? Would we say she carried her clothes in a big black trash bag from house to house to house? Would we say that one day, after she’d been adopted, she got to go back to her grandfather’s house and found her little Lambie—her blanket stuffy that she still sleeps with now at age 13? Would we say that many nights Jenni still cries for her mommy and wants to know why she doesn’t schedule open adoption meetings with the children? Would we tell the class that mommy has two new babies that she has maintained custody of? Would we ask Jenni to talk about how that makes her feel?
All three of these instructional activities were discussed by very reasonable people who are in so many ways exemplary educators. (And believe me, I know I have ENORMOUS gaps in my knowledge and pedagogy, mostly probably related to social class, race, and linguistic diversity. I could write PAGES about my mistakes. And then more pages. And I’m sure some of you reading this blog can and might and should give examples in the comments section of my blog, if you have been in my class and witnessed my many mistakes and missteps.)
I am not writing this to berate or belittle, but only to educate and to say: Please think of kids who were adopted – especially from foster care — when you plan your curriculum.