October 1, 2015

Known

Our 2nd grade class learning about Sisi's trip to China
It is an essential part of a Friends’ School education that each child is known.  Known by her teacher, known by his classmates, known by all of the adults at school.

We accomplish this in many ways.  First and foremost, our teachers spend two years with each student.  They are curious, they ask questions, they observe.  They listen and are in constant conversation with parents.  Teachers go on home visits. They know the children’s likes and dislikes, and the best ways they learn. There’s a high likelihood that they know their students’ siblings, their grandparents, and even their dog if they have one!

Teachers also encourage students to share important aspects of themselves in class.

An email exchange that I was copied on this week highlighted the depth and meaning that ‘sharing time’ can have in a student’s life. These notes were between one family in second grade and other parents in the class.

Diane Hullet’s daughter Sisi was born in China and adopted by Diane and her husband Russ when she was three and a half years old.  This past summer the Hullets traveled back to China, where both Sisi and her older sister Anna were born. They visited the orphanage where Sisi spent her first years of life.  This is part of the letter that Diane sent to other parents in the class:

“Tomorrow, Sisi is going to have her sharing time, and she is going to share slides from our trip to China this summer.  I realized as I was pulling it together today that the slides and the story may bring up a lot of questions for your kids, so don't be surprised by needing to give an impromptu lesson on adoption tomorrow night or in the days to follow!  

Here are some things that may come up, and the language we use around it: what we hope is best practice in adoption language.

    Sisi was born in China, to birth parents she does not know.  Families can be made in all kinds of ways, including birth families, adoptive families, and step- and half- families.  ALL babies are first born from a woman -- adopted ones too.  You know that, but it is often confusing for kids.  In some adoptions, the birth parents and adoptive parents are in contact and may share pictures or letters or visits.  In the case of virtually all Chinese adoptions, there are no known birth parents. 
Sisi with a former nanny at her orphanage.
The sign reads "Welcome to Sisi to
come back to home!"

    Sisi was found as a newborn by a policeman and taken first to a hospital (to make sure she was all right) and then to an orphanage, where she lived until she was 3 1/2.  At 3 1/2, she came home with us to her permanent, forever family.  On our visit there in June, we met people who had known Sisi well in her toddler years.  Her excitement to visit where she had "lived as a baby" was very high, and they were delighted to have her back!

    We never use language like "her real parents" or "she was given up" or "given away".  If your kids do, you can gently reframe it as "birth parents" or "first mommy" or even "Chinese mommy".  WE are the "real parents" -- the ones who are doing all the child-rearing.  

    If they ask, it might be helpful to say something general like: "There are a lot of reasons that sometimes children can't be raised by their birth parents.  Things like being very poor, or very sick, can sometimes mean a child is raised by someone other than their first family."  You could also try saying: "For many years, China had a huge population, which led them to say 'each family can have only one child'.  This meant that many times a 2nd or 3rd child would be placed for adoption."  ... Then again, depending on your child, this may raise more questions than you care to answer!

    You can always say, "That's a question I don't know the answer to -- let's ask Sisi and Diane..."

Sisi’s sharing time was clearly going to bring up big issues, some that perhaps a number of seven and eight year olds had not considered before.  I appreciated, and I know other parents appreciated, not only the heads-up that Diane sent to the parents in the class, but also the language that she provided for them as suggestions to use with their children.

Maya Rogers, who is a grandparent raising a second grader, responded in a thoughtful way:

“What a great summary!  I am glad to have Sisi in James' class and think it's great she's sharing her story.  I believe it's so important for kids to know that families are put together in all kinds of different ways, bound together by love and commitment. 

I hope the discussion about families can expand over time to include children raised by grandparents, solo parents, etc. to help normalize these less common situations.

What an interesting trip you must have had! Look forward to hearing more about it from Sisi, you, and James. Thank you.”

Other parents chimed in with comments like:

“I echo everything Maya said. My daughter was really impacted by today in such a wonderful way. Thank you so much for the "heads up" email and sharing your beautiful stories.” And “Thank you Diane. Your thoughts are very helpful with any questions I may have with how to explain to the boys. I am looking forward to talking to my sons about adoption and this will be a great way to do it! I do think they have already been taught by Sisi :) I appreciate it.”

Additional emails between parents continued on topics such as orphanages in general, the recent shift in China to more domestic adoptions, and the shift to more special needs children being available for international adoption, including boys.

Sisi and her older sister Anna on the Great Wall
I have chosen to share parts of this exchange with our wider community because, for me, it speaks to the importance of relationships in our classroom communities, between children AND parents. It speaks to the ways we honor and celebrate our differences as well as what we have in common.  As a single parent myself, raising two girls, I echo what Maya wrote about the need for expanded discussions.

Knowing every child deeply is a point of pride for our school. Our recently created Vision Statement includes these words:

“A true education is founded in the myriad of life’s meaningful personal experiences and connections. Being part of a community where everyone feels safe, valued and connected greatly enhances learning. Our school is a place where everyone is nurtured and respected for his or her individuality and contributions to the good of the whole. We hold in high esteem rituals and traditions that help children develop self-awareness and understanding of themselves as part of the bigger world.”

Sisi’s teacher Caroline Long told me, “Her presentation was so cool! I was so proud of her courage to share her life journey with our class. The students we so engaged and asked lots of great questions. All of us learned so much about China, adoption, and how families are different.”


Thank you to Diane and Sisi for allowing me to share their bigger world with you.

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