Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
It Shouldn’t Be up to Children to Educate Schools about Adoption
By Heather Kurut
Our twin daughters fussed in their carriers. We had been in the waiting room too long. With the clumsy care of anxious new parents, my husband and I reached down to unbuckle them, pulling them up onto our laps. As we each bounced one on a knee, a nurse speeding past said, “Oh how cute! One looks like mom and one looks like Dad!”
Just as quickly, another nurse emerged from the hallway, and whispered through clenched teeth, “Don’t say that! They’re adopted!” We sheepishly grinned and continued our wait.
Now, to be fair: I am never offended when people think that our children resemble my husband and me. If I can be objective, these are pretty darn cute children, so I will take that compliment. I didn’t even curl my nose at the first nurse’s remark.
What I did take issue with at that pediatrician, however, was the antiquated health history paperwork that left no option for responses to things we simply do not know. When I suggested adding a checkbox that says “unknown” to their form, the staff member at the desk suggested I could write in “unknown – adopted.”
We wrote it off as a minor irritation, changed pediatricians, and forged ahead taking care of twin infants. Even at a new pediatrician’s office, with greatly improved practices, it comes up from time to time. Biological parentage seems to be the norm in the medical community, with little room on forms for any variation.
I returned to work as a Principal after a twelve-week maternity leave. In my first weeks back, I had a series of interactions that highlighted the potential issues in school environments as well.
I was contacted by a parent whose second grader had been derailed for the evening (and potentially longer) by a seemingly innocuous prompt on a math worksheet. The worksheet focused on addition and subtraction via the use of a calendar, figuring out how many days between dates.
The “For Further Exploration” segment at the end of the worksheet read: “Share something about the day you were born.” This eight-year-old child, who had come to his family after some time in an international orphanage, shared “I don’t like to talk about it.” His mom wanted us, as a school, to be aware, but also wanted to request that we protect his right to own his own story.
One of my eighth graders – an adoptee – came to my office for advice on handling a friend conflict. During a group project about family and heritage, one of her friends had asked (in front of several others), “So, like, your mom didn’t want you? That’s why she gave you up?”
The girl had responded with some vague details about her mom’s financial situation at the time of her pregnancy, and lack of support, to which the friend replied, “Right, but, like, if she really wanted you, she could have just gotten another job.”
The girl’s peers and the teacher couldn’t understand why the girl had gotten so upset. After all, they reasoned, it was just a conversation. And, they rationalized, she could have chosen to just focus on her adoptive family for the heritage project, “and no one would ever know.”
Perhaps most humbling for me was a situation where I was directly involved. Each spring, colleagues and I assemble a “Then and Now” slideshow for our eighth grade closing ceremony.
We feature a baby photo fading into a current pic of each eighth grader, while they stand on choral risers in front of the screen, singing “The Way We Were.” It’s a lovely tradition at our school, and a guaranteed tear-jerker for families. I send an annual letter requesting the pictures.
A parent of one of our eighth graders, another international adoptee, reached out to me with the following query: “Not quite sure what we should do, as we have no baby photos of X. He didn’t join our family until he was 3.” I was floored – certainly, as an adoptive parent, I should have known better.
Motivated by the need to help my school community be better stewards of children’s personal stories, I made my way down the hall to Sandra, a colleague in the English department. I was relying on her predictable voice of reason, but also had an ulterior motive – she is an adoptee, a brilliant teacher, and has a staggeringly low tolerance for “nonsense.”
She was as incensed as I had hoped she’d be but posed another point of view – the issue at heart wasn’t just that we needed to protect these adoptees’ private stories, but that they were put in situations where they were being asked to share them at all.
And so, Sandra and I began digging around beyond our own school community for things like these – assignments and projects that pre-suppose a particular family structure, and, by extension, set something up as being “the norm.”
We gathered anecdotal evidence from friends and family members, scoured Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers for problem assignments and projects, and spent months trotting up and down the hallway, sharing our mounting irritation. We expected to find – and did find – multiple iterations of the Family Tree project.
We heard about a “Family Photo Wall” project at a local Catholic school, that insisted that all members of a student’s immediate family be represented in one photograph. We saw stacks upon stacks of variations of “All About Me” infographics and writing prompts that asked questions about number of siblings, birth information, origin of a student’s name, members of a household.
We looked at school projects around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and questioned school birthday celebrations. We sat together and tore apart cultural heritage projects and shared genetic traits projects. The problem seemed pervasive and nearly universal.
We were inspired to create a class for teachers, titled “Creating Curriculum that Works for All Families.” Our irritated Pinterest hunting shifted to real-deal research to support what we were discovering.
From our research, what we concluded was this — in the post-“Baby Scoop” era (of stigma and secrecy surrounding adoptions) — our school structures, including the curriculum, have lagged behind in adapting to work for all kinds of families, formed in all kinds of ways.
Much like medical forms, schools and school materials have been positioned well for students who live with their biological parents, whose parents are biologically (and present) male and female, and are considered to have a “traditional” family structure.
(As Sandra is fond of pointing out, different family structures have always existed; they just haven’t historically always been accepted).
We sought real-life feedback from parents and others raising children and adult adoptees, and distributed a survey to social media adoption groups (including Portrait of an Adoption readers) and families at our own and other schools. The bulk of our respondents were adoptive parents (around 65%), with 20% of responses coming from adult adoptees, and about 10% from birth parents raising other school-age children at home.
Many of the things these families and individuals shared echoed the same sentiments: schools are often pre-supposing a student’s family makeup, then asking students to share personal family information they may not want to share.
One sixteen-year-old student wrote at the end of her survey: “it’s hard for me when other students ask questions. My teachers seem ill equipped to normalize how I came into my family. And I hate that I can either do a project that doesn’t really work for my situation or be the only one doing something different.”
We presented the results of our findings and our suggestions for improvement on our own campus and at the Independent School Association of the Central States conference in 2018.
Who owns the problem? Ideally, schools own this problem. The onus should be on the people creating and delivering curriculum to create content that works for all students. It should not be left to a student to point out that they are unable (or unwilling) to complete an assignment, nor is it ideal for a teacher to assign an alternate to that lone student, thus singling them out among peers. Curriculum leaders and teachers should be crafting meaningful projects and assignments that can work for all students.
We created a checklist for educators to use to evaluate assignments and projects. If any of the boxes is checked, the assignment cannot be considered truly inclusive of all kinds of family structures, and is what we would consider a “problem project”:
Checklist for Inclusivity
Does this assignment, question or project pre-suppose or ask about:
– A two parent home
– A female parent and a male parent, married to each other
– That the current parents have been guardians since birth?
– Knowledge of national heritage
– Evidence of shared genetic traits
– The biological makeup of a family
– Shared ethnicity with family?
– Birth circumstances
– Childhood memories
– That a child is comfortable sharing personal information?
Sandra and I will continue to shout our message from the proverbial rooftops, and we’ve willingly shared the “problem project” checklist with any educators or institutions who’ve asked. As educators striving to lead in safe spaces that facilitate learning, we have to do better.
We need to be good stewards of students’ stories and allow them the freedom to share only that which they are comfortable sharing. All assignments must be viewed through the lens of inclusivity before they are in students’ hands. We feel strongly that it shouldn’t be left to families to educate schools, and it most certainly shouldn’t fall to children.
In the meantime, however, families can help advocate for these changes. We can let schools know that our children shouldn’t be excluded from completion of assignments or projects, and that the entire project should be changed rather than assigning an alternative.
We can reflect on the eloquence of a second grader, who let his parent know, in certain terms, that he didn’t feel comfortable discussing his birth circumstances. It’s up to us to make sure he shouldn’t have to.
Heather Freer Kurut became a mom through adoption in 2014. In the week before she and her husband brought home twin daughters, Heather read the all of the current and archived essays in “30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days,” and she’s read the series faithfully every year since. Heather is the Lower and Middle School principal at Morgan Park Academy in Chicago. Heather has also been a contributor to the Portrait of an Adoption series. Here are a couple of her previous pieces:
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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