Sweet Child of Mine

Like—one hopes—most Americans, I watch the ongoing story of children separated from their parents at our southern border with horror and sorrow. There will never be anything even approaching reconciliation or forgiveness for the despicable and shameful behavior of those whose hatred and fear of ‘the other’ drives policy enactment like this. My biggest worry is that, with all the other shocks and distractions we’re juggling in 2019, these children will fade into the background.

Last week, we learned that the number of separated and ‘lost’ children is higher than has been reported:  U.S. immigration authorities separated more than 1,500 children from their parents at the Mexico border early in the Trump administration, the ACLU said, bringing the total number of children separated since July 2017 to more than 5,400. Children from that period can be difficult to find because the government had inadequate tracking systems. Volunteers working with the ACLU are searching for some of them and their parents by going door-to-door in Guatemala and Honduras.

One facet of the story I follow even more closely: the very young children who have been recklessly and deliberately removed from their parents, resulting in ‘lost’ identification information, and are put in foster care here, and eventually even deemed eligible for adoption by American parents.

There have been any number of stories about children too young to speak for themselves winding up in places where their parents, who risked everything to bring them to what they hoped was safety, can no longer find or reach them. Often, these parents are not able to get appropriate help, and are deported, leaving children behind.

Bethany Christian Services, a Michigan-based non-profit that took a relatively large number of separated children into foster care over the past two years, has especially come under fire. I have seen memes and stories accusing Bethany (which has accepted donations from the DeVos Foundation for many years) of essentially stealing children for the benefit of white Christian couples who want to adopt.

I know a little about Bethany CS, because it’s the agency we used when we adopted our son Alex, now 31, from Korea. Ironically, we chose Bethany because they had such a good reputation for ensuring that adoptable children were fully available and duly relinquished by their biological parents.

We had heard horror stories about disrupted international adoptions, families who later learned that their adopted children were placed via coercion, or were babies ‘from nowhere,’ whose parentage couldn’t be traced at all. But not with Bethany.

Bethany was also a little pickier than other agencies—insisting on age limits for parents, a stay-at-home parent for the baby’s first six months in America (which we split, each of us taking three months), and a lengthy and rigorous home study process. The ‘Christian’ in their name didn’t really faze us, although we were not church members at that time. Like getting your life insurance from Lutheran Brotherhood, or putting your money in the Catholic Credit Union, it did not seem like a drawback in the international adoption process, which is plenty fraught.

Our caseworker from Bethany carefully guided us through all the steps—adoption, citizenship, and when Alex was 13, a whole-family trip to Korea, where we were able to sit down with a social worker and translator and read his entire file. We also had lunch with his diminutive foster mother, who spent the entire time patting his face and rolling up bulgogi in lettuce leaves for him to eat.

It was always clear to us just how fortunate we were to raise this young man, a gift to our family. Occasionally, low-information people would suggest that Korea was a backward nation and Alex was lucky to have us, but we always knew that wasn’t remotely true—and earnestly sought many opportunities (camps, cultural organizations and travel) to keep in touch with his remarkable heritage.

In the past few years, however—even before hateful border policies—I have become more and more aware of suspicion, even hostility, toward parents who choose international adoptions. Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know filled in some of those blanks. I read more broadly today, including critiques of multi-cultural families built through international fostering and adoption. It’s not as simple as a child needing a home. I get that.

The situation at the border and Bethany Christian Services’ willingness to foster children who have been separated from their parents there put this into sharp focus.  Bethany’s policies about refusing adoptions to LGBTQ families (recently overturned) came under scrutiny. And there was a lot of finger-pointing toward the DeVos family, which has supported Bethany’s work for many years—not surprising, since DeVos charitable giving (and influencing) is everywhere in Grand Rapids, MI, where Bethany is also based. Snopes does a good job of tracking that money and answering other questions about Bethany: here.

I am not defending Bethany Christian Services—but I do hate to see blanket condemnation of international adoption. It’s also true that children should not be warehoused in cages—and that sheltering migrant children is a multi-million dollar business, prone to profiteering and abuse. This is a problem of our own making.

It’s hard to know, any more, where to draw the bright line between well-meaning people wanting to adopt children who need homes and outright, obvious human trafficking. Recently, evangelical Christians have been pushing families to adopt, as a way of demonstrating that they were willing to take care of the children who might otherwise have been aborted:

In 2007, national Christian leaders like celebrity pastor Rick Warren encouraged their followers to shift their focus from issues of “moral purity”—abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce—to something more positive: helping children in need. More than just “pro-life,” it would be a “whole life” response to the longstanding pro-choice challenge that Christians adopt all the children they wanted to be born. It would also be an extension of existing evangelical engagement with global development and health issues. Promoting adoption would help rebrand U.S. evangelicals, from moral scolds to children’s champions.

The premise of the movement was a particularly American response to global child poverty. It was based on the idea that the existence of somewhere between 143 and 210 million vulnerable children around the world—a number that also includes those who live with one parent or extended family, often in poor conditions—constituted an “orphan crisis,” but that there were also 2 billion Christians who could help. If just a fraction of those claiming to be Christians stepped up to adopt, the movement’s leaders argued, parentless and hungry children, as a category, would cease to exist. As one leader put it, the goal was to “get as many people in the church to adopt and adopt as many kids as you can.” 

I find this ominous. I’m the American parent of a child born in Asia, so you might think I would trust that American instincts and institutions for young children in crisis would be good ones. But I no longer have any confidence in ‘American’ ideals, after witnessing what’s happened at our own border.

Alex and Mom cropped

Should Teenage Trick or Treaters Go to Jail?

For 20 years, I lived in a subdivision in the heart of the school district where I was teaching. Halloween was a big deal—we’d get a couple hundred trick-or-treaters if the weather was nice. Many of them were my middle school students, or former students, now in high school. I bought a lot of candy. The good stuff.

I’d put speakers in an open window, and a spooky music playlist on my iPod (remember iPods?)—pieces that were part of my annual spooky-music lesson plan. The kid who asked ‘Is that Night on Bald Mountain?’ would get an extra piece of candy. And the boys who came for candy, left and switched costumes on the street, then came back—twice—got another piece both times and props for ingenuity.

I would dress up. This was easy—same costume every year—because my 8th grade students performed a Halloween-themed concert, and I was always the Wicked Witch of the Band Room.  It’s a perfect time of year for students with two years’ worth of playing experience to prepare a fun program, stretching their musical skills and knowledge.wickedwitch3

The students dressed in costumes. This was a hard sell for some of them, but they were assured that ‘costume’ could mean something very simple—perennially, there were boys in shoulder pads and football jersey, toting their euphoniums into the gym to play Danse Macabre.

My principals, over the decade we did this concert, were supportive—all school leaders love events that bring hundreds of happy parents into the building, especially when small children are welcome.

One principal was open to all students dressing in non-violent costumes when October 31 was a school day. This did not go down well with a subset of the faculty, who felt middle schoolers were too old for such nonsense and that costumes would be a major distraction to learning.

Are your students typically focused and quiet on Halloween? she asked. Well, no. So let’s let them be kids a little longer. Endorse a little good, clean fun in a safe space.

She was right. Halloween, once a neighborhood-based candy grab for little tots, has turned into a major commercial boondoggle with pop-up stores, sexy whatever costumes and a lot of serial-zombie blood and gore.

Telling seventh graders that they’re too old for all the fun and have to stay in the house and do their math homework isn’t likely to change their minds about anything. And just try to keep your HS sophomore home if their friends are out creating minor-league mayhem. Better they should be in their own neighborhoods, toting pillowcases full of loot, or at parties where there’s a parent upstairs.

So how old is too old?

Chesapeake, Virginia says 13 is the age when trick-or-treaters should be fined or sent to jail, for up to six months. No, really. And if you’re out at 8:05 p.m., it’s a misdemeanor.

I don’t know who made up these rules in Chesapeake, but good luck enforcing them.

And pass me another fun-sized Snickers.


Tired of Democratic Infighting? How Much of it is Sexism?

So—Elizabeth Warren released her very progressive K-12 Education Plan yesterday. As soon as it was released, I got a text with a link to the plan, which I read, top to bottom. Just as I have read the other K-12 education plans.

I get texts about all of Warren’s plans, as soon as they’re developed. I assume this is because I donated to Warren. Actually, I have donated to six candidates this year (those tiny little donations that candidates claim they treasure). One of them has dropped out, but I gave money to two men and four women. Warren is not my preferred candidate—although she’s certainly in my top three. She just seems to be the one with the target on her back. Or, more likely, her head.

I get plenty of email and texts from all of these candidates, some more than others. I delete the money requests, but I read the plans. Because I am interested in what candidates see as political priorities.

Not that any of them, individually, has the political muscle to leverage a full-blown transformation of public education, a totally free national health program, tuition-less college and cancelling student debt. I am a mature, well-informed citizen who pays attention to politics. I’ve known better than to vote for the candidate with the most tempting promises since the 1970s.

That doesn’t mean that policy briefs don’t matter. They certainly do. But could we please stop doing line-by-line comparisons of campaign platforms, looking for miniscule differences? Let’s look for the highlights, the goals and principles of good governance– and more important, the smarts and stamina of who endorsed them.

The fight for what we really get (or don’t get) comes later. Much later. The issues and sub-issues will be hammered out, one by one, in the 2021 Congress. And it would be a shame if we weren’t on the same page then, when it really does matter. Anybody notice how the make-up of Congress is shaping the news these days? Let’s put some attention there.

I was working on another—probably better—blog this morning. I took a break to look at the ongoing conversation on social media. And it was beyond discouraging.

This is awful stuff to read, on friends’ pages. It’s not because we have ‘too many’ Democratic candidates. It’s not about the flaws in Democratic party power-wielding. It’s not about who has strongest platform or policy ideas—because those are just…ideas. It’s because we’re back in boots-or-flipflops mode, obsessing over the polls, the public fights, the personalities. Some of us love the infighting, but it’s dangerous.


On the morning of November 9, 2016, as I was moping around, red-eyed and sleep-deprived, I said to my husband: I wonder when America will be ready for a woman president.

He thought I was over-simplifying what happened, that maybe America just didn’t want Hillary, not anywoman, to be president. He suggested it wasn’t incipient sexism underlying the most stunning loss since Dewey vs. Truman—just a lack of enthusiasm, or some other ephemeral reason—James Comey? The Russians?

But now that we have multiple outspoken, qualified women candidates, it feels like déjà vu—nobody wants to be perceived as sexist, but there it is. Let me go out on a limb here and say that I would very much like to have a woman in the White House before I die. Even if she’s pedantic or not perfect on health care or didn’t do well in one of the debates. It’s time.

I am about to return to that better blog, which actually is about a single topic, with a point to be made. Unlike this blog, which is nothing more than free-floating resentment. Sorry.

I think Warren’s K-12 plan is a good as it gets for any unrealistic grab-bag of Democratic dreams.  She promises to support unions. She talks about the folly of testing. She apparently understands how underfunding has harmed schools. Best of all, she provides a full-throated defense of genuinely public education. Have at it.


Hidden Messages Your School Sends to Students

Once, at a staff meeting, my principal shared a short video he’d seen at an administrators’ conference.  It was an effort, I think, to talk about important things at mandated staff meetings, rather than simple announcements. Although there was a lot of eye-rolling when he cued it up, I thought it was worthwhile, with some apt observations about schooling.

One of those was a suggestion that if we wanted to assess what was most important to us, we should look at the times when the normal academic schedule was disrupted, and the student body gathered for an all-school assembly.

At that point in the school year, we’d had five assemblies:

  • An assembly on the first day, where students were welcomed, then informed which teacher would be leading them to their first hour class and giving them schedules.
  • An annual ‘rules’ assembly for each grade, where the assistant principal went through all the rules in the student handbook.
  • An all-school assembly to introduce the annual fund-raiser, and a follow-up assembly, two weeks later, to reward all the students who sold enough sausage and cheese with an hour out of class to play in bouncy castles and batting cages.
  • A fall sports assembly to recognize athletic teams.

I mentioned this to my principal, who asked tartly if I thought that our school was all about schedules, rules, fund-raising and sports? Why else would we be having assemblies? And did I think that bringing this up to the staff would endear me to him or anyone else?

Actually, I didn’t think our school was focused on administrivia or making money. I thought our teachers, pretty much, were doing interesting things in their classrooms, and our students were offered a nice variety of meaningful activities and clubs.

During the time I taught there, we hosted Holocaust survivors, who sat on folding chairs in front of the bleachers, holding microphones, 800 silent students listening intently to their stories. We also had square dancing assemblies where everyone participated, concerts where band and choir students performed for their peers, and student drama productions. It was—still is—a good place to teach.

But the idea stuck in my head: What are the hidden messages in our conventional school practices?

I learned about the hidden curriculum while working on my masters degree, back in the 1970s, reading Michael Apple and Philip Jackson. It made perfect sense then. But it didn’t much impact my teaching or the hundreds of embedded habits that shaped practice in my building, from 55-minute periods to detentions to tracking.  School was school, and like most teachers, my M.O. was ‘go along to get along.’ It took a long time and a lot of courage to ever raise a question around Things We Always Do.

Why? Because teachers who rock the boat aren’t popular.

A colleague who asks about changing the grading system, or altering the discipline policy, will face a lot of resistance, even if those practices are harming students. It took my district years to pass a ‘no paddling’ policy, even after 95% of the staff had stopped physical punishments, knowing they were cruel and pointless.

I thought about that video when I read Alfie Kohn’s tweet this week:

The entrance area that greets visitors to a typical high school contains two things: evidence (in the form of trophies) that its students triumphed over students from other schools & plaques listing which of its students are better than others. Assignment (for administrators, teachers, and kids): Design a school lobby that reflects a commitment to collaboration and community rather than to sorting and triumphing.

The tweet rang my chimes. I once brought a First Division band festival plaque to the Athletic Director (who had the keys to the showcase) and asked if it could be displayed. He explained that no, the showcase–actually, all the showcases–were for athletic accomplishments. I should hang the band’s plaque on the band room wall. Those showcases, of course were not in the gym, the locker room or athletic department hallway. They were four of them in a main entrance to the school commons, and filled with ancient, often rusting, exemplars of Teams Gone By, people whose names nobody knew.

The not-so-hidden message there, of course, was Sports First, other student accomplishments not so much–a sentiment familiar to many debate coaches, drama club advisors, journalism sponsors, robotics volunteers and National Honor Societies.

I did hang the plaque on the wall of the band room, and added several more, over the years. When I left the job, my successor took them all down and mailed them to me in a cardboard box. So much for tradition and pride in the program.

Kohn’s challenge is right on the money: How can schools challenge their students to build strong communities that bring out the best in all students? How should this be reflected in the school environment?

‘Visibly Pregnant’ Is Not What Matters Most in National Conversation around Women in Teaching

Like most women of a certain age, I identified strongly with Elizabeth Warren’s story of being shown the door once ‘visibly pregnant’—not to mention the alternative certification that got her into a classroom, and her ultimate decision to leave teaching and go to law school, rather than hurdle the licensure barriers in returning to a special education position. Millions of us have stories about becoming parents while teaching, and a lot of them aren’t pretty.

And millions of us agree with Joan Walsh: The Warren story matters because it plays into the way we’ve all been socialized to see women as untrustworthy, which, honestly folks, is gonna make it hard to elect our first woman president. Precisely.

I am gratified that so many testified that yes, Virginia, women—up through and even past the 1980s—have experienced discrimination because they were pregnant or new mothers. Other first-world nations have vastly better maternity leave practices than the United States. The thought that we might soon have a high-level champion for bringing the United States into the 21st century, vis-à-vis equitable child-bearing/rearing policy, is encouraging, even thrilling.

Still, I don’t think Elizabeth Warren represents teaching any more than I thought Laura Bush was a bona fide literacy expert, or that Karen Pence is a reliable source for policy on human rights in education. Just because you’ve been in a K-12 classroom for a short stint doesn’t make you a valid spokesperson for core issues in public education. (Are you listening, Teach for America?)

I tend to agree with my friend Ken Jackson, Professor and Associate Dean at Wayne State University in Detroit, who wrote:

Our national blind spot: the story is not whether Warren was or was not treated fairly by the school principal in 1971 when she was “visibly pregnant.” The story is that–at that time–American classrooms were stocked with people of Warren’s intellect, charisma, and ability. Most were women. That massive labor force has long since moved out of classroom teaching. It isn’t coming back. And American education is running on fumes.

Warren – amidst this trip down memory lane – seems to have little sense of this either. The irony? If by chance she does become President, the crisis in classroom teaching will hit hardest on her watch. People have been fleeing and avoiding the profession since the 80s. The last crop of talented, serious teachers is heading into the last phase of their careers. It really is that simple.

I asked Ken why he thought Warren did not recognize this impending crisis, and he mentioned her uninspiring pledge to make a teacher Secretary of Education. On that issue, I agree with him—perhaps surprisingly, because I think I am a strong advocate for teachers. Which teacher Warren would name as Secretary of Education? I have met plenty of teachers, including award-winning, exemplary classroom practitioners, whose skill sets do not include the policy-crafting expertise, let alone the stomach, to deftly manage bull-headed legislators.

Not that our most recent EdSecs have been paragons of skill and integrity in improving public education, of course.

I once spent an afternoon with a teacher who’d earned multiple pedagogical awards. He came directly out of a high school classroom onto Arne Duncan’s staff, tapped by his Congressman. He told me he’d been excited to get the job, thinking he could make a difference, represent teachers at the proverbial table, share key insights into what schools needed to thrive.

He said shreds of that belief lasted for perhaps six weeks. Lately, he’d found himself thinking that teachers were naïve, even whiny. Still, he got up every morning, put on a suit and tie and went to work. He was considering running for office, because that’s where the power levers were.

And that’s the key point here. There is a serious need to protect what’s good in public education—and there’s a lot—and invest in a reimagined future for schools. If that sounds like wishy-washy BS, it’s because we’ve lost faith in the power of our once-strong public institutions. We need leaders who will explicitly commit to our common goals and values, grab power assertively, and use it for public good.

That’s a big difference from appointing a teacher Secretary of Education. Or ginning up pointless arguments about whether or not a principal pushed a good teacher out of the classroom, 40 years ago, a story generated by  Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Still—as Jack Schneider says: We should take care to note the way that gender continues to shape the nature of credibility. Do we believe women the way we believe men? The way we respond to this present controversy will tell us something about how far we’ve come, or about how far we have yet to go.

There are serious issues to be hashed through around public education—the diminishing talent pipeline and gender inequity are only two. I disagree with Ken’s thinking that we’ve seen the last crop of talented and serious teachers—I know too many young teachers who have persisted, driven by a deep desire to be excellent—but we genuinely could be in the process of losing one of the foundational cornerstones of American democracy: public schools.

Even if Warren were to be elected, a latent lack of trust in female leaders won’t go away. Our only choice is to keep electing women and keep pushing them to be fearless in seeking power and change.  Photo credit.