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.  


  1. I know this kind of scenario plays out frequently in the USA. Not many settings where Chinese is being taught in the US to children that I am aware of... but I have only been an educator for a little over a decade. Does this occur in other countries where Chinese is taught as a second language to children as well?

    1. Sunwukong - thank you for your comment. I have included a reply in the next comment below. Absolutely, this is an issue in any classroom.

  2. This is an issue that pertains to any classroom in any location, not just language. For a child with a "non-traditional" family structure and that could constitute the majority, activities like the family tree serve to highlight differences not inclusion. Particularly for families outside of the US, knowledge about adoption-friendly curricula may not be as widespread. Nor, will the support groups for adoptive parents be as large. Adoption and foster families often feel alone in their communities - only knowing a handful of families "like" them. Therefore obtaining support for their children is more immediate than partaking in advocacy for their larger adoptive/foster community. This is certainly true for us following a move overseas. We now live in a community where adoption is much more invisible than our home back in Philadelphia.