The Lure of Bad News

I have this Facebook friend—a woman I haven’t seen in decades but who was my actual pal and work partner in high school.  As it happens, with relationships like this—threadbare, based on outgrown commonalities—we have taken two very diverging roads in the yellow wood of life.

And not just politically and socially. She is that person who continually reposts urgent TV reports of missing children, including children who have mercifully been found safe, six months ago. I don’t know where she gets her news and information, but you can count on her to post flamingly incorrect horror stories every three or four days:

Did you know the Obama White House banned nativity scenes?  Not a single flag at the Democratic debate! There once was a time the president was honored, no matter who he was—let’s get that back! Christians are being persecuted! We could feed and house all the homeless in America with what the Democrats have spent on impeachment!

About that last one, which Snopes doesn’t touch—there are an estimated 553, 742 homeless people in the United States. Spending $10K on each homeless person (which might, optimistically, feed them and get them off the streets for six months) would cost us $5.5 billion.  A far cry from the actual costs of investigating the President since 2017, calculated by PolitiFact last month$32 million (minus some $22 million recouped in Paul Manafort’s forfeited real estate).

These numbers are not in the same ballpark. No matter. It’s the shock that counts.

I know what you’re thinking: Unfriend, unfriend, unfriend. Who needs to be connected to someone so benighted, so right-wing?

Well, hmm. Part of the reason I’m still wrinkling my nose at her Boomer memes and posting corrections on her page—no, they found this kid, safe with his dad, in July (confirming link)—is because, I, too, am attracted to bad news.

In fact, we all are, even though the world has always seemed to be bound for hell and things are actually much better now than they used to be.

There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: “Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.” Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as “Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.”

Think about President Trump’s inaugural speech. Here’s how U.S.A. Today described it: Trump delivers populist manifesto that depicted U.S. as a land of abandoned factories, economic angst, rising crime and dystopian “carnage.”

Not exactly morning in America. Or hope and change, asking what we can do for our country. And we now know that wherever the buck stops these days, it is no longer the Oval Office. Instead, the leader of the free world seems focused on the water pressure in our bathrooms.

Which is a perfect illustration of the President’s mastery of the lure of bad news: These pesky water-saving regulations for new plumbing fixtures (designed to be environmentally friendly)! I find them super annoying! Bring back the Niagara flush! Courtesy of Donald J. Trump! You’re welcome!

So much for the planet.

Using trauma, fear and alarm over distressing news—think Shock Doctrine—to move people to action is not new. In fact, crisis is often an opportunity for positive action—being attacked by a foreign enemy, rapid climate change, perfidy at the highest levels of government. There is genuinely bad news—threats to our democracy and the dangerous and growing equity gap. We can and should do more.

So why bother with those who are unduly influenced by genuinely fake news?

Because we’re all vulnerable. Piece in today’s NYT: Foreign meddling was once the most feared source of online deception before critical elections. Now, some candidates themselves are turning to such manipulative tactics.

Apparently, a healthy chunk of the electorate can’t distinguish between fake bad news and real bad news, so candidates feel free to ask the Russians to intervene. Or the bot factories cook up bad news memes on their own. It’s scary.

I’ll keep posting Snopes corrections on my friend’s Facebook page (even though she now says she ‘doesn’t believe in’ Snopes—or PolitiFact). Because that’s the heart of this perilous situation: there is no one trusted source of truth.

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Women and Power

At the very beginning of the 2020 Presidential primary, I sent $5, a one-time donation, to each of four candidates: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand. I did this because I wanted to see all four of them on the debate stage, and the DNC was counting individual contributors.

What this yielded was a veritable flood of emails asking for donations. I was already getting them from the Sanders campaign (because I donated to him in 2016, also a small-potatoes amount), so this was a lot of email, but it was worth it to see four qualified women debating. We haven’t had that before, and I saw it as one step on the path to equity in electoral politics.

And, although I think it’s unlikely, unless I live to be 100, that I will someday see equity in electoral politics (among dozens of other institutions in the Home of the Free), there are few things I think are more worth pursuing.

When I say ‘equity’ I don’t mean just gender equity—I mean representative equity, being governed by a mix of men, women and people who characterize the entire LGBTQ spectrum, people of color and people of diverse ethnic origin, people who are rich and people who worked as bartenders after gaining a university degree. Young people. Old people. Rural and urban citizens.

Until Congress and State Houses and County Commissions—and, for that matter, school boards and education departments—are representative, we have not achieved real democracy. And considering just how hard some powerholders are fighting to maintain their power, by hook or by crook, this is not a universally admired or pursued principle.

We’re still operating under the subterranean belief that some citizens are more entitled to power than others—generally, the folks who have always held power: rich white men.  Here’s a good example of that, featuring a powerful white man who was the Republicans’ expert witness in the impeachment hearings.

When Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, two days ago, New York Magazine’s The Cut ran this perfect headline: How Are All These Random Men Still Running? Good question.

Zerlina Maxwell, on Twitter: Somewhere a man is typing up his “Why Kamala failed” story and he is not considering race or gender bias and so if you are that man please reconsider your position or read a book.

Keith Boykin, on Twitter: Pete Buttigieg is a 37-year-old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana with no federal or state government experience. He was elected with 8,515 votes. Kamala Harris is a 55-year-old US senator from California. She was elected with 7.5 million votes.

Mikel Jollett, on Twitter:  I just saw the news about Kamala Harris withdrawing and all I can think is I would love to live in a country where extremely qualified, brilliant black women could go further in presidential politics than otherwise mediocre white men with a pile of money.

Yup.

I for one am heartily sick of watching folks in my party—the party I am counting on to defeat the hideous disaster now residing in the White House, and set us back on the path toward a more perfect union—squander whatever good will we have built up by being better than the other choice.

I am tired of in-fighting, nasty cracks about Harris being a ‘cop,’ and Warren being a waverer as she tries to thread the public opinion needle on Medicare for All, or Klobuchar eating a salad with a comb.

Most of all, I have had it with men with money calling the shots, in a thousand different ways: Using their media empires, their personal fortunes, their hand-picked surrogates—or running themselves. I’m with Jamie Lee Curtis: Voting for women is more than gender politics. It’s opting to create real change.

Yes, I know—not all women are better choices. Yes, some women have been disastrous leaders (often pushed into policy corners and bad decisions by white men with money), in spite of their promise. And yes, it would be lovely to live in a world where ‘the best’ candidate could be anyone—demographics would not matter, and genuine merit would reign.

We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where, despite 100 years of female suffrage, we haven’t had a woman serve as president. It’s time.

If there’s anything the 2018 mid-terms have taught us, it’s that women elected to power do upset conventional apple carts and rattle cages.

Charles Blow gets the last word:
It seems to me that the questions here are bigger than [Harris’s] missteps, real or perceived. Every campaign has missteps. It is hard to look at this field of candidates and not remember a cascading list of missteps. And many of them have things in their past for which they have apologized. But one question is why missteps are fatal to some campaigns and not others. It is fair to ask what role racism and sexism played in her campaign’s demise. These are two “isms” that are permanent, obvious and unavoidable in American society. It is fair to ask how those features impacted media coverage, or the lack of coverage.

It’s time for some representative equity.

Some power-sharing.

Some change.

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Are Schools Helping to Dumb Down the National Political Conversation?

If there ever was a time when top-notch media analysis skills were crucial for American citizens, the past two weeks were the motherlode of opportunities to sort out manipulated messaging from simple truth.

Dig into that statement a bit. Is it possible to make students better consumers, curators and adjudicators of the digital/media information firehose? Or have schools dumbed down curriculum and academic demands, leading to a heedless citizenry, amusing itself to death? (I didn’t come up with that phrase, BTW—Neil Postman did, long before Facebook, Twitter and Celebrity Apprentice, when cable news was the most dangerous thing on TV.)

The phrase ‘dumbing down’ (or—worse—’dummying down,’ putting emphasis on students’ reputedly flabby brains) has always been anathema to me. I have never—in 40 years of working in classrooms—observed a serious curricular trend toward making things less complex or challenging. In fact, since I started teaching, in the early 1970s, there has been a steady upward push toward what reformy types might call rigor.

States have adopted ‘merit’ curricula, demanding four years of HS math and other course sequences that used to be reserved for the college bound. All public-school students in the nation submit to high-stakes standardized tests annually, beginning when they’re barely eight years old. Seventh graders solve single-variable equations that used be the stuff of ninth grade Algebra. The phrase ‘kindergarten is the new first grade’ is now conventional wisdom in early childhood pedagogy.

Not seeing the dummy-down phenomenon here, except in op-eds by irate business leaders who claim they can’t find the skilled workers they need.

And, of course, some of our Congressional representatives who seemed unable to form rational questions or evaluate and respond to answers when grilling the brave civil servants who sat in front of them last week. Watching and listening, it was easy, over time, to see the obvious chasm between ‘just the facts’ (under oath) and ‘spin, baby, spin’ (not under oath). I kept asking myself: Who is impressed by the shouting, off-topic rants and left-field accusations?

Heather Cox Richardson answered:  Using my eye for propaganda techniques, they reminded me of nothing so much as being a talking head on a documentary. When producers are filming you in that situation, they very carefully ask questions to get a sound bite they can use. It seemed very clear to me that Jordan and Ratcliffe, and especially Nunes, were tangling the witnesses in questions designed to give the questioners short sound bites that they could then make into their own “documentaries.” They were salting the hearings with the language of conspiracies that people who don’t watch Fox cannot understand but which, in their sound bites, can be turned into a narrative that will misrepresent what was said and proven today, marketing it to True Believers who will then continue to support Trump and his party.

And then, as soon as they got their sound bites they would get up and leave.

What I was wondering: Can this ‘eye for propaganda’ be taught? Is it important that our students learn more than facts, timelines and skills? Can they be taught to assess value and truth in all their studies (and I don’t mean just their History, Civics and Government courses)?

Or will they be ripe targets for ‘contagious stories’—simple, emotionally self-validating explanations for current events and issues? Can flagrant lying be ignored or tolerated to maintain the peace, preserve the Republic? We are approaching ‘Germany in the 1930s’ territory here.

Stephen Sawchuk had a provocative piece with a great headline in Education Week: Students Are Really, Really Bad at Spotting Fake News, Misleading Websites. I don’t think it’s only students who are really, really bad—I think it’s the general population, distracted and trying to keep their heads above water, who are finding it hard to get at the truth. It’s all about where you get your news. There is, Sawchuk says:

…alarming evidence that a large majority of students are not well prepared to investigate sources of information for their accuracy, relevance, and quality. And despite more than a decade’s worth of policy chatter about media literacy, whatever schools have been doing doesn’t appear to have been enough to inoculate students against “fake” news. 

It’s doubly concerning given that there are now entire cable-news networks and partisan news sites built around presenting a skewed accounting of facts. Social media hasn’t helped: The atomized nature of online interactions makes it easy to share doctored or fake information. And increasingly, as another recent report coined it, “truth decay” is eroding the notion of objective facts: Americans can’t even agree on a set of basic facts that underpin their arguments or conclusions anymore.

Sawchuk gets this exactly right. I can’t think of a single thing more important, or relevant, in a liberal arts curriculum, K-12, than an investigation of the veracity of news sources. Or teaching kids how, Step One, to be deeply suspicious of pretty much anything that crosses their tiny screens.

It’s not just about sorting out the truthful, centrist sources, and identifying bias in sources. It’s about demonstrating how vulnerable we all are to stories that ring our emotional chimes. Especially kids.

Let me say that again: especially our students. We should be talking about this in schools.

Or else we’re going to end up with more captions like this In rollicking 53-minute conversation, Trump embraces conspiracies, spreads falsehoods and insults opponents—that make it sound like conspiracies, falsehoods and insults were somehow ‘rollicking’ (‘exuberantly lively; amusing’). I know better than to assign blame to the writer—headlines are added later and play by different rules.

But really. Isn’t it time we stopped laughing?

Can schools nurture civic engagement? I think so.

No time like the present.

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Should a Cooperating Teacher Make Things More ‘Real’ for His Student Teacher?

Thought experiment: You’re a successful veteran male HS teacher, firing on all instructional cylinders. You take your first student teacher. Your classes this year are right where you want them—the students have begun to trust each other and their own ideas and skills. They’re functioning well. And now—you’re going to turn the teaching over to your young, female student teacher.

You think she’s not likely to have such cooperative classes in her first job. In fact, it took you some time to establish good classroom routines, but hey—that was a long time ago. If she teaches your classes, she might think all kids were that amenable and eager to learn. You ask colleagues for some ideas on how to make her student teaching experience more ‘realistic’—planted behavior problems, stump-the-teacher questions, other ideas to put her on the spot? You’re just trying to give her a taste of the challenges she’s likely to meet. Right?

 

Stop thinking. Experiment over. Your thoughts?

On the education-group Facebook page where I read a post like this—only not a thought experiment– it was heartening to notice that there were perhaps 50 comments and 45 of them were some variation of ‘what a terrible idea’ or ‘please don’t do this.’

Any student teacher is vulnerable, and tentative. She’ll naturally run into plenty of challenges, no matter how well-behaved the group. While your tips and advice are part of the experience of working with a novice teacher, setting her up for faux problems is not really ethical, dude. You’re supposed to be her guide.

And here’s another thing, something none of the first round of commenters mentioned: There might be a gender dynamic here, including some doubt about a young female teacher’s ability to control a class of high school students. How tempting to be the master teacher, stepping in to save the day, when students are subtly encouraged to relax behavior standards for the student teacher.

If this is beginning feel like a personal story, it is.

Back in the stone age, when I was student teaching, I spent the first two months reorganizing and cataloguing the school’s music library. I handled my cooperating teacher’s correspondence and wrote his monthly column for the band directors’ association. My only ‘teaching’ experience was working one-on-one with isolated students who were having difficulty with a musical passage and giving free flute lessons.

I observed the cooperating teacher work with ‘his’ bands for fourteen weeks, and there was never any spare time for me to direct any group—always a concert or festival coming up, and he wasn’t about to give up his rehearsal time.

Finally, the last week of my student teaching, I got up in front of the high school band, to conduct one piece. The cooperating teacher grabbed someone’s trumpet and started ‘playing student’—slouching, chewing gum, talking loudly. He asked questions he knew I couldn’t answer (Should I play that with an alternate fingering?) and made glaring mistakes. He acted like a jerk. The students laughed.

Any credibility I had with them was gone, in five minutes.

And then, in my final evaluation (which I typed up) he wrote: I think Nancy would be better suited to a position teaching elementary music.

Kind of ironic, since I never had any student teaching experience whatsoever in teaching elementary music. Having now taught music, PK-12, general, vocal and instrumental, I can say with confidence that all levels have challenges.

Cooperating teachers carry great weight in the development of a novice teacher. In my case, I learned what not to do. I learned not to be a bully (and there was a lot more bullying from the podium, back in the 1970s—it was a kind of badge of honor to some). I learned not to control students by fear and threats, but to instill cooperation by being authoritative but kind. I learned that the blood-and-thunder school of band directing was not for me—and I could still have top-notch bands.

And I accepted student teachers. I had a few over my 31 years in the music classroom—and they were all women.  Photo: the author as a first-year teacher.firstyr

What is ‘Quality’ Music? Choosing the Best Materials for Our Students.

Back in the day, when I was an early-career teacher, I was sitting at the judges’ lunch table, at a music festival. It was my first time serving as an adjudicator and the other judges were well-known veteran band directors. One of them was expounding on the poor literature choices made by young band directors. He claimed that identifying quality music was becoming a lost art, and that most newly published band music was ‘trash,’ especially compared to the pieces from the early days of school band programs.

It was out of my mouth before I had time to think: What is ‘quality’ music? How do we know it’s worthy?

His answer was mostly eye-rolling at the other men and sputtering—but he ended by saying that his sainted mother used to listen to country music on the radio, and even as a young lad he knew that it was pure garbage. Nobody was correcting him, by the way. Certainly not me.

I did, however, start thinking more about my own judgment in deciding what music would teach my students the most. I looked for appealing pieces that had some modest challenges embedded. I made some mistakes (buying pieces that were so static and repetitive that even the students were able to see how some music is, well, static and repetitive—and boring). But I also picked some winners, pieces I used again and again, music with some cultural depth or technical tests or simply tunes that the kids loved.

Were my curricular go-tos ‘quality’ music? What features, precisely, comprise quality? Is there a set canon of high-quality titles that should be in every library?

And–who gets to say what those works are, in any discipline? Choosing the best anything is a perennial exercise in taste and appraisal—and over time, the definition of ‘quality’ shifts.

English teachers want their students to read and interact with the most delicious texts. Social Studies teachers want to wrestle with relevant issues and science teachers want to engage their students with scientific solutions to existing real-world problems. What’s most useful and attractive now may not have existed 10 years ago.

I trust teachers to sieve through the Big Ideas and choose good concepts and materials. That’s not possible in many schools, however, where all curricular decisions are made above (if that’s the correct preposition) the classroom. Replacing materials also costs money.

There was a piece in Medium recently that got some deserved attention: Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.  The gist? We need to take a look at the often-racist roots of some American ‘folk music.’

I read about the piece on an Elementary Music Teachers Facebook page. There was a long thread, discussing music that might have problematic origins. Were there ways to get around questionable lyrics while keeping a jaunty, familiar tune? There was a little disagreement—a couple of people upset by ‘political correctness’—but the large majority of the teachers participating thought the article had value in helping them improve their practice by ditching some songs long considered ‘classic.’

Many admitted that all this information was new—and surprising—to them; they could do better. There were comments about high school and college traditional/fight songs with racist roots or references.

I loved reading these conversations. These are questions that teachers should be discussing. Teachers are conscientious for the most part—they want to teach well. They will even occasionally be vulnerable, confessing that they don’t know how to handle a curriculum/instructional dilemma. This discourse supports genuine professional learning.

For music teachers, the next frontier might well be the dearth of music published for school musicians with female or non-white composers.

Composer Dale Trumbore said this:  Let’s talk about quality.

‘I program music based solely on quality.’ ‘I don’t think about race or gender when I program—only whether the music is good.’

This argument is fundamentally flawed. You’re programming based on the quality of music you’ve already heard. If you don’t regularly hear or seek out music by women or composers who aren’t white, their music will never make on to your programs. Lack of quality isn’t the issue here; unconscious programming is.

Is this a key issue for music teachers? It should be. For a dozen reasons—including our old benchmark: quality.

Recently, there was a revelation that a very well-known school band composer, a white man, had been publishing Asian-flavored pieces using a pseudonym that suggested he was a Japanese female. Eventually, he started feeling a bit queasy about the deception (or perhaps his publisher got tired of not having any PR information about ‘Keiko Yamada’). He publicly apologized and recalled all the inventory using his phony name.

The composer, Larry Clark, sat for a long and somewhat rambling interview with Jennifer Jolley, another female composer, explaining, sort of, why he originally chose to use a pseudonym. He is not entirely successful in this effort, although I am certain he now regrets the initial decision. Jolley holds his feet to the fire—it’s a wonderful, in-depth interview. Then she says:

The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. 

I think teachers of all subjects are interested in concepts and materials that show their students the system doesn’t have to be rigged in favor of the privileged—that there are things we all should know and can all appreciate. That curricular materials in all subjects can be authentic and inspiring.

I think I know quality materials when I hear and see them. I also think that our definition of curricular quality has to consider diversity and acknowledge change. Some items are evergreen. Others outlive their usefulness.

How do you define quality?

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 Don’t Give Them Your Power!

Here’s an eye-catching headline: Middle School Student On A Trip To DC Spat On A Black Person At The African American History Museum.

And the follow-up, somehow even more depressing: The principal of the Connecticut middle school said she did not believe the incident was racially motivated.

There’s more rationalizing, in the local paper. The principal is doing what principals do: trying to express that they’re just kids, prone to goofy adolescent misbehaviors, while explaining just how they’re going to sharply address this in school—assemblies, suspensions, whatever’s in the disciplinary toolbox.

But I’m with Greg Johnson, a local civil rights leader, who said ‘spitting in the museum — opened three years ago to highlight the contributions of African Americans and educating visitors about the history of slavery — was itself a racist act.’

As it happens, I visited the African American History Museum for the first time a few months ago, a road trip with two old friends who were also going for the first time. It was absolutely the best adult field trip ever—it’s a fantastic national resource (thinking like a teacher). And also, one tiny and way-overdue step toward recognizing the unsung economic and cultural contributions of the involuntary diaspora of African-Americans in the United States.

There was a lot to see, to appreciate and to learn. The viewing crowd that day was about 2/3 African American and 1/3 Other. There was a grandmother, wrapped in a colorful homemade afghan in her wheelchair, on a toasty June day–being pushed by an adult granddaughter, who dutifully read the posted copy at each showcase or exhibit. Grandma kept saying ‘Imagine that!’ and every time, her granddaughter rolled her eyes and smiled.

There was a young dad, tracking a wander-y five-year-old, simply telling the boy, at his own level, exactly what they were looking at—the maps, the model ships, the heavy, rusted tools of hard labor. The little boy ran ahead. There is a slave cabin, preserved, transported and rebuilt at the museum. Stepping into the doorway, Dad said ‘this is where one or two whole families of enslaved people lived.’ The boy did a 360-degree turnaround. ‘You kiddin’ me?’ he asked.

It was an amazing day. And then, emerging blinking from the core exhibit, a spiraling, detailed history of slavery, into a sunny atrium, we see them. A half-dozen white boys, middle-school aged –I have 30 years of knowing a middle school boy when I see one–coming down the three-story escalator wearing red MAGA caps. They are, astonishingly enough (or maybe not), accompanied by an adult man, also white, who seems cool with the hats.

People around us freeze, seeing them. A teenaged girl is practically snarling to a friend—Look at them! It’s SO disrespectful. They come HERE—in those hats! Her friend puts a hand on her arm.

Don’t give them your power, she says.

There were more kids in MAGA hats, later in the afternoon, gathering at an appointed spot to meet the bus. Their teachers were busy counting and corralling and wouldn’t have appreciated a question from a stranger: Why didn’t you tell your students to remove their hats? Did you tell them what they were going to see—and why a respectful attitude is required for all visitors to this museum?

Hey. I taught middle school for 30 years. I know that the rules and rationales for visiting this museum may have been hammered out by others, leaving the students’ teachers powerless. It’s better for young adolescents to have had this introductory experience than not.  And, true, 13 year-old boys frequently don’t have great judgment. But all that’s just weak sauce.

Students on any field trip need to be prepared, intellectually, for what they’re going to see or do–or the value of toting kids around to see interesting, meaningful places in the world is seriously diminished. Field trips—like all curricular decisions and activities—are based on the principle that taking students out of the building will make them better able to deal with the ideas and challenges of the real world.

And it’s always wrong to be disrespectful, on purpose, in the real world. Always.

In ‘White People are Broken’, Katherine Fugate shares a story about another museum, and still more white kids wearing MAGA hats, who are confronted by a young black man of the same age, who quietly explains to them that their hats make him uncomfortable. Fugate stands silently by the young man, hoping he will see her as an ally. The MAGA hat students are confused, saying it’s their country. It’s everyone’s country, he replies.

Occasionally, you can read columns–or comments–suggesting that teachers should stick strictly to transmitting factual disciplinary content and stay away from values. There is no such thing, however, as opening students’ flip-top heads and pouring in knowledge. All knowledge, skills and judgment are learned in context, through interaction and practice.

A lot of what is learned in school—and through school-based activities—isn’t ‘content,’ or ‘skills’, per se. It’s how the most important knowledge and skills are useless, unless they’re applicable to living. It’s how to be a thoughtful, curious, responsive person in this world. Or not.

Which means that wearing a MAGA hat in the African American Museum of History and Culture is not just a bad fashion choice. It is, instead, a hateful coded message. And spitting is not just an impulsive decision made by someone too young to know better. It’s an act of degradation, indefensible.

After all, it is truly everyone’s country. Make good choices, and don’t relinquish your power to hate.  AfAm Museum

 

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