Thursday, February 19, 2015

Teaching About Families - a Letter to Language Teachers

Dear Language Teacher – 

I would like to ask about your students.  If you are like me, you have taught students of various ages.  You may have taught in public, private and after school settings.  Your students have different backgrounds, interests, and goals.  But there is one thing they have in common.  They are not “average.” Just what is the average student anyway?  Is he or she a child from a 2 parent household, upper middle income, living in suburbia?   Most of my students didn’t fit this mold.  

Do you have students with divorced parents, some who have lost a close relative to terminal illness or accident, some who are adopted or in foster care,  some who are biracial, have siblings that don’t look like them or live with a grandparent?  Your students are all different and sometimes these differences may be invisible to us in the classroom.  However, we have the job of teaching them to learn another language when they step into our classroom.  How can we do this better?
Did you know there is one particular assignment that is VERY painful and can cause severe EMOTIONAL TRAUMA for many children?    

I ask this question because it is important in all classes.  For language teachers it becomes important when we teach the vocabulary of family.  This famous assignment is (drumroll......) the dreaded family tree.  When it comes to teaching our students the names of family members in another language, we often think of using a family tree as a project.  However, for the child who does not conform to this artificial norm that may have only existed in fictional families on TV, going through this exercise is not a learning experience.  It is an opportunity to publicly reveal personal and private details that may be painful.  Assignments like this are frequently highlighted by adoption professionals as  “triggers” that should be avoided.  

If you think this does not apply to you, let me tell you a story.  An adoptive parent recently told me about a family tree assignment that was given the her children in a language class.  These children were adopted internationally, are of a different race than their parents and are not siblings by biology.  They are siblings by adoption - this means they didn't look like each other. 

This assignment caused significant anxiety, stress, and trauma for two siblings.  The teacher suggested that the two siblings cheated on the assignment.  To the teacher, they weren't brother and sister.  Not all siblings share the same race or ethnic background and it is not the teacher's role to make this determination, express or even hold a value judgement on the status of their family.  It is unclear what the learning goals were in this particular assignment, but they certainly were not met.  Instead these children were forced to publicly discuss what is and should be private - details of their family. 

I would like to present an expanded view.  Family trees are inappropriate for adopted children; they are also potential triggers for children living with divorce, foster care, loss of a parent or sibling due to death or another factor.  I encourage you to read the chapter “A Forest of Family Trees” in Adoption and the Schools by Lansing Wood and Nancy Ng for more information on the needs of students in your class.  This resource is a MUST for all schools and is available from FAIR.

So, back to the family tree assignment.  What can you do instead?  First examine your learning goals.  What is the purpose of the assignment?  Is it to teach the names of immediate family members (parents, siblings) and grandparents?  Will you include the vocabulary for aunts, uncles, distant and close cousins?  Are you prepared to teach vocabulary for half siblings, second cousins, step siblings or parents?   Finally, do all students need to know all family member names or be able to discuss their own family situation with confidence?

Why not design an assignment that allows the child to learn what is likely to be covered on standardized language exams and allow the student to craft an assignment with maximum flexibility for their own family situation.  I have developed an assignment that meets this criteria.  It is flexible, covers essential vocabulary that students will face on a standardized exam, and it is comprehensive.

Suggested assignment for any language student:

Have your students create a photo or picture album of their family and close friends.  Allow them to include ANY family members they choose including friends and pets by posting a photo or drawing a picture.  Create a list of 5-10 target sentences and ask the students to choose 2-3 questions for each family member, pet or friend.  Sentence patterns can include the following:

  1. “This is my (family member name).” 
  2.  “He/she is named (name of person).”
  3. “He/she lives in (name of town, state, country).”
  4.  “He/she likes (hobby, food or preference).”
  5.  “He/she is (age).”
  6.  “He/she goes to (name of school) elementary school/jr high/high school/college.”
  7. “He/she works at (name of workplace).”
  8. “He/she is a/an (occupation).”
  9. “He/she is located in (place where the picture was taken).”
This is a multi-week comprehensive written and oral activity.  Start with an introduction to the vocabulary and sentence patterns in class followed by activities where they learn to identify family members in a fictional textbook family.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to choose a neutral family to portray rather than using actual student family members.  The only instance where you should use actual student family members is in small group or individual classes where you have the express permission of the parents and do so in a way that does not single out the child as different, "special" and not the norm.  

 Next provide time for the students to compile their books in class and as homework assignments.  If the students are old enough, they can write out the sentences and paste them on the pages of the album.   Finally have the students complete an oral assessment and/or presentation on their album.  

It is important that you ask the students to present their photo album to you during the oral assessment/presentation stage INDIVIDUALLY one-on-one and not in front of the entire class. Requiring students to present to the entire class is stressful, highlights differences, and can defeat the purpose of creating an inclusive activity.  With some groups it would be appropriate for in-class presentations, but for many it is not.  You can record your students making the presentation on video or as a Powerpoint presentation and give them a copy of the recording to share with their family.  As an alternative or in addition to this option, you can conduct the final activity as an assessment by asking the students to answer 2-3 questions about pages you randomly select in their albums.    

I have successfully used this assignment in every Chinese class I have taught over the last 10 years from pre-school, elementary, high school and adult settings.  I am confident it will suite your diverse student needs.  

Additional resources are available to help teachers in any subject create inclusive assignments that do not ask children to share personal and private information:

Adoption Resources for Teachers - US Department of Health and Human Services 
Adoption Awareness in School Assignments 
Guide to Making School & School Assignments More Adoption Friendly - National Council for Adoption
Adoption Basics for Educators - Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association 
Adoption in the Schools - Families Adopting in Response (the most comprehensive treatment across all ages and stages)

About the author - I am an adoptive parent and have worked extensively with transracially adopted language students as well as children and adults in public and private school settings.  

A Day-by-Day Guide to Celebrating Chinese New Year

It is that time of year again.  Time for Spring Festival 春節.

At Chinese for Families we're a bit old fashioned.  We love folklore, ancient history, and old fashioned traditions.  When should you start your preparations for 春節 New Year, with the Laba Festival of course. 

The Laba Festival 臘八節 falls on the 8th day of the 12th month (in the lunar calendar).  If you missed it, don't worry, you can put it on your calendar for next year.  On Laba Festival, families eat 八寶粥 8 Treasure Porridge made from rice with 臘肉 la rou (bacon), fruit, tofu and nuts.  There are many stories behind this festival. In each, this simple porridge of left over rice, fruit and meat saved the characters from from a terrible fate.   
The Kitchen God Festival 小年 Xiao Nian
The Kitchen God 灶神 lives above the stove.  He is the household reporter - similar to Santa Claus with one important difference -- he keeps track the adults too.  All year long, he watches everyone in the house while his wife keeps a careful record.  On the 23rd or 24th day of the 12th lunar month, the men in the house remove his picture from above the stove and send him to heaven for a meeting with the Jade Emperor.  Before sending him on his way, it is important to make certain the Kitchen God is happy and well fed.  He will be reporting both the good and the bad upon his arrival in heaven.  To keep him from telling your secrets, you need to offer him special foods.  For ideas on what to feed your Kitchen God, listen to this story from NPR.  To hedge your bets, it's a good idea to smear a little honey on his lips and include melon candy in his offerings.  This will make his words sweet.  Or, you could add a very American food certain to keep him from talking.  A honey and peanut butter sandwich should do the trick!  We have a downloadable Kitchen God calendar for you coming soon to our Facebook page.

Now it's time to send your kitchen God to heaven (with a little help of your fireplace).  You can work on a new poster for next year.  Don't post it right away, put the new Kitchen God up after the Lantern Festival is over. Mark your calendars and don't forget the Kitchen God's birthday.  It takes place on the 3rd day of the 8th lunar month (around August and September).  You'll have another chance to get on his good side before next year.

Flower Market Day
Visit a Flower Market and find beautiful spring blooms to decorate your house.  The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco prepared a wonderful guide to shopping for Chinese New Year plants.  

House Cleaning Day
Kids can grab brooms, mops and dust clothes to help their parents 打掃房子dasao fangzi.  House cleaning before Spring Festival is essential.  Sweep out the old dirt, dust, and bad luck.  Then, put the brooms away till the first day of the new year has passed.  You'll avoid sweeping away the new year's good luck and have a clean house. 

Everyone needs new clothes, a hair cut, and decorations for the house.  Don't forget to pick up door gods 門神 menshen and new year sayings or Chunlian春聯 (check out our Facebook page for a downloadable link).  These wishes for a prosperous new year can be found in Chinese markets, bookstores and if you are lucky from your friendly neighborhood calligrapher.  Always printed on red paper, they feature gold and black ink, beautiful writing and auspicious decorations.

New Year's Eve 除夕Chu Xi
The big day has finally arrived.  Spend all day (or even start a couple days before) making the biggest feast of the year.  For ideas on what to cook, may we suggest the culinary creations of Jaden Hair from the Steamy Kitchen.  For my fellow vegetarians, peruse this menu from the Vegetarian Times.  Each dish in the new year meal is important and represents something special.  Whole fish symbolize prosperity.  It is important to save this dish for new year's day.  The word for fish 魚 sounds like the word for having a surplus 餘.  The saying 年年有餘 niannian you yu is a wish that every year there will be a surplus.  In Mandarin it sounds like "every year there will be fish!" Gather your whole family for the new year's eve meal.  Make certain to cook enough to avoid cooking on new year's day.  Using knives, scissors or other sharp objects is bad luck on the first day of the year.  

Parents and grandparents give children red envelopes 紅包 hongbao filled with crisp clean new bills.  Children put them under their pillows when they fall asleep to bring good dreams. It's going to be a late night - everyone stays up till midnight to welcome the new year.
The Story of Nian 年 (click to watch a video on our Facebook page)
According to legend, the Nian 年 monster came down from the mountains or out of the sea every new year's eve to terrorize families.  Each year the villagers would flee and hide in the mountain caves.  One year, an elderly man entered the village and provided sage advice.  Decorate your homes with with red lanterns 燈籠 denglong, bright chunlian 春聯, and stay up past midnight setting off fire crackers and making noises.  The bright red color and noise will frighten Nian 年 into thinking the village is filled with fire.  The ruse worked year after year and Nian 年 never returned.  The new year wish "過年了 guo nian le" refers to this success - Nian 年 has passed by.  For this reason, firecrackers are set off at midnight on new year's eve.  In ancient China, bamboo served a similar purpose.  It was heated till it cracked making noises 踩歲 caisui like firecrackers. 

New Year's Day
The first day of the new year is for spending time with family.  It is important to honor your elders and visit your grandparents.  Avoid using knives and other sharp objects.  Leave the housework for another day - it's bad luck to clean.  Give your children red envelopes 紅包 hongbao and catch a Lion Dance.  Don't forget to wish everyone a happy new year 恭喜發財 gongxi facai or simply 恭喜 gongxi.  Some families eat vegetarian for the first day of the year. 

2nd day of New Year
On the second day of the new year, married women return home to visit their parents.  Some believe this is also a special day for dogs, so give your furry friend a special treat. 

3rd day of New Year
On the 3rd day, families visit the temple and son's visit their parents.  

5th day of New Year
The 5th day is the 財神 God of Fortune's birthday. Wish everyone "財神來錢財到 caishen lai, qian cai dao," May the God of Fortune come and may wealth arrive with him.

6th day - Lion Dance Parade

7th day of New Year
Everyone has a birthday today.  This holiday is known as ren ri 人日.

Jan 31 - 8th day of New Year
Celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor with another family dinner.

12th days of New Year
Time to invite friends and family over for dinner.  Share the joy of the season.

13th Day of New Year

After all the over indulgence of the past two weeks, it's time for some vegetables.  Celebrate with vegetarian meals for a day.

15th day of New Year Lantern Festival 元宵節 Yuanxiao jie
The last day of the new year holiday is here.  Children will enjoy 湯圓 tangyuan - a sugar soup with sweet rice dumplings.  In China and Taiwan, lanterns decorate the streets and families go out at night to see the beautiful lights.  You can make your own lanterns together and hold a family contest to see who makes the most beautiful lantern.  According to legend, the Jade Emperor had a beautiful pet bird.  Some say he became angry at the people on earth for killing the bird, other say he was simply jealous of the happiness on earth.  He decided to set fire to earth on the 15th day of the new year.  A heavenly maiden warned the people of earth.  They decorated their homes with bright red lanterns making everything bright as if on fire.  The Jade Emperor was fooled and calamity averted.

You now have a day-by-day guide to Chinese New Year.  Enjoy the holiday by sharing meals with friends and family.  Don't forget to post a new Kitchen God poster in your kitchen, just watch what you do in front of him.  Remember, he's watching you!

We invite you to share your favorite Chinese New Year recipes and traditions.  Please leave a comment.  Note:  all comments are reviewed prior to posting too keep this a family friendly blog.  Thank you! 

We have more crafts and activities on our Facebook and Twitter pages.  Visit us there throughout the new year for new activities and chunlian 春聯 for the first 15 days of the holiday.