When I was in high school, our science teacher, who loved any kind of experiment that might gross his students out, told us to find out what our parents’ blood types were, and bring that information to school the next day, and after we did that, he handed us each an alcohol wipe and a sharp needle. Poke the end of your finger and squeeze a little blood out onto the sterile tray in front of us, he instructed us. Today we are going to learn how to do blood-typing.
He collated all of our results near the end of class, asking each of us our parent’s blood types and then ours, filling in a giant chart on the whiteboard, and it all went well until a girl in the class gave him her blood type, AB, and her parent’s blood types, A and O. Tenth grade biology class is not the ideal place to find out that you are not biologically related to your parents.
Academic assignments that make assumptions about genetics and family of origin permeate every grade level of school. From the dreaded ‘family tree’ assignment to projects that expect children to have baby pictures and know the circumstances surrounding their birth, these lessons, which are based on one specific family configuration, not only exclude adopted children but also those in foster care those growing up in unofficial kinship adoption families, as well as other children who, for a vast array of traumatic reasons, may not have access to the information required of them to complete the coursework as assigned.
Origin story assignments pop up at every grade level, and in almost every class, and for many adoptive parents, navigating them can be difficult, because there is often pushback from schools and teachers, who can be quick to point out that many families really enjoy watching their children embrace their heritage and culture and share it in the classroom. Often when adoptive parents do speak up they are met with defensiveness, and that makes sense: teachers get a lot of criticism from parents. But it is a parent’s job to advocate for their children, especially when school assignments can inadvertently cause trauma, force a child to relive grief and loss, or out their adoptive or foster status to their classmates.
I thought I was prepared for all the ‘family tree’ nonsense, but then my kid brought home a ‘star of the week’ form, something their teacher did to give kids a chance to feel special and share a bit about themselves. Which is very sweet, but it asked for baby photos, which I don’t have for my daughter, who was adopted at five, and it wanted all sorts of information about the time she was born, her parents’ names – with spaces for a mom and dad only – and cultural/ethnic heritage info. It was impossible to convince the teacher that this thing meant to make my daughter feel special and celebrated made her feel horrible and othered. – Sara, adoptive mom
When these assignments are sent home, the first step in advocating for your child is to walk through the assignment and identify what makes it problematic – not just for your kid, but for others as well. Is it asking for baby pictures, or information about their birth? Does it make assumptions that family members share the same racial and ethnic heritage? Will doing the assignment force your child to disclose that they are adopted to their entire class, removing their ability to control their own story and information?
We got the ‘draw your family tree’ assignment in second grade, and my kid decided to fill it out by drawing her own extra branches on the tree for her birthparents, birthgrandparents, and her two half-sisters. Her teacher sent it home with a note asking her to redo it ‘correctly’. We declined, and let her take the zero grade. I loved it, sent her birthmom a scan of it, and framed it to hang in her room. That's a zero grade we can support! Leah, adoptive mom
They key to advocating for change is to first understand the point of the assignment. Write your autobiography assignments are meant to get kids writing by giving them a topic that should be easy for them to write about. The point isn’t the topic as much as it is getting them to build their writing skills. In instances like these, offer up alternatives that still offer kids an opportunity to write about themselves without forcing them to relive trauma or admit they don’t have the information being asked for. Offer up prompts substitutions such as write about your favorite person, or write about your favorite memory. Give examples that provide children with the agency to decide what they want to disclose.
When I pushed back on a social studies assignment that would have forced my kid to disclose a lot of very personal information about his origin story and adoption in the guise of teaching about world geography and culture, his teacher’s response was to tell him that if he didn’t feel comfortable telling his story he could just make something up. What kind of lesson is that for a kid? – Adam, adoptive father
When advocating for adopted and foster children, it’s important to remind educators that if every child in that classroom cannot do the assignment as written unless they employ deception or disclose painful memories, the problem isn’t the student, it’s the assignment. Alternatives to assignments like this might be to take the personal connection out, and let kids pick and research a culture or country of their choosing, encouraging them to choose one they don’t have a personal connection to, giving them an opportunity to follow their curiosity about other countries and cultures while retaining their personal information.
At parent-teacher conferences last year, I made a comment about how uncomfortable it is for my foster son to be given writing prompts about his ethnicity and heritage – we have very little information about either, and that lack of knowledge really stings him. His teacher’s defense was to say that so few students are affected that she didn’t see the point in changing the prompts. – Maren, foster mom
The most recent government data on foster children suggests that there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, and 5 million Americans alive today are adoptees. This might be the time to ask your child's teacher how many students would need to be affected before we start modifying assignments to be more inclusive for every student?
Adoption is trauma, and basing lessons on a traditional family configuration doesn’t just exclude large numbers of students, it can also trigger unresolved grief and traumatic responses. Many teachers are simply not aware of how difficult these assignments can be for their students, or the negative impact they can cause. This is why it is so important to advocate for children who are being impacted, and to encourage teachers to find ways to modify coursework as a way of creating a healthier classroom environment for all of their students without sacrificing the educational goals intended. As well, it can be helpful for adoptive parents to start the school year out by providing appropriate adoption education resources for teachers. Adoption Basics for Educators, published by the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, is a great resource guide to give to teachers, and Teach All Families publishes a comprehensive list of adoption resources for educators.
One of the basic tenets of our Activism in Adoption Speaker Series is the need to develop the knowledge necessary to be an advocate and ally for adoption constellation members. For adoptive and foster parents, part of this advocacy is developing a toolkit of resources for your children’s teachers, to make sure their classrooms are as inclusive as possible for all of their students.