By Robin Hilborn, Family Helper editor


Biased class assignments—and how to fix them

Try this test. Put yourself in grade 2 ... how would you “draw your family tree” or “write down your family origins” or “relate shared memories of times spent with grandparents”, if you were:

• A child of divorced parents, living with a parent and a step parent.
• A foster child, with biological parents and a series of foster parents.
• A child adopted from an orphanage in China.

Some children will find it tough to do class assignments because their families are a lot more complicated than mom-dad-and-two-kids. That’s not the kids’ fault—it’s the teaching system which is biased toward traditional views and insensitive to the complexity of family life (see Module 1, Many Ways to Make a Family).

Teachers who base assignments on the traditional family are harming students who don’t fit the traditional mould—those kids are going to feel out of place, even excluded.

Does your department of education trumpet the importance of an “inclusive curriculum”? Then the curriculum must include the experience of all children, not just those from traditional families.

You can make lessons inclusive without sacrificing the educational goal. The general solution is to broaden lesson plans to include everyone. But exactly how do you do that? Here are specific examples of how to fix the bias in class assignments.

“Draw your family tree”

The bias: The usual printed family tree has blanks for one mother and one father and their ancestors, but no space for foster, adoptive or step parents and their ancestors. How can a child leave out part of the family? This can be a real source of inner turmoil.

The fix: Since some children have grown on two or more trees, redraw the standard family tree diagram to accommodate the diversity in family structure. Try the Rooted Tree: birth ancestors are roots growing downward; branches show foster, adoptive or step parents and their ancestors. Other improvements are the Family Bush, Orchard, or Forest, with family members growing side by side. The Loving Tree has the child in the trunk and heart-shaped fruit representing all the family members the child knows of, without regard to time or place.

The Self Wheel

Or abandon the tree metaphor and try the Self Wheel (child at the centre, relatives surround in nested circles), or My Home (house frame with people inside), or a genealogical chart with symbols for people and lines showing relationships. Children could brainstorm a list of different family types. Offer them a variety of “trees”, or let them invent their own diagram.

In a creative art project, students could portray their family and what it means to them, in drawing, painting, colouring or sculpture, then use the finished art to discuss the different ways families are formed. Point out that, worldwide, few children grow up in nuclear families. Cover extended, foster, adoptive, step and single-parent families.

You don’t need to avoid the family tree assignment—it’s an opportunity for a lesson in the varieties of family structure (see Module 1, Many Ways to Make a Family).

“Bring in your baby picture”

The bias: Asking for baby photos excludes those who may not have any—for example, some foster, adopted or immigrant children. They are going to feel left out. If the object is to match the photo with the child today, children who are a visible minority are eliminated early from the fun.

The fix: Reach the same educational goal, for everyone in the class, by broadening the assignment. To illustrate growth and change, bring a picture when the child was younger or smaller, or follow the growth of a baby chick after hatching. To describe a child, bring in something else which tells us more about her—a book, a trophy, a pet. To test reasoning ability (guess who this is?), bring a picture of someone we all know; or, describe someone with three clues, adding one at a time until someone guesses correctly.

“Write the story of your life”

The bias: Writing a life story or family history is possible only for children who know their family roots. Children adopted from abroad may know nothing of their previous life. A child of a bitter divorce, or a child abused in a series of foster homes, faces a conflict: screen out painful memories, or be honest?

The fix: Exercise those writing skills with less painful alternatives: write a biography of a historical figure in the first person; write about an event in your life; recount a favourite experience in school.

“Tell the story of your family”

The bias: The goal may be to build self-esteem. This could backfire for a foster or adopted child who feels more and more different from the others as she hears her classmates’ family stories.

The fix: Let students tell their story by bringing in pets, sports uniforms, hobbies.

“Celebrate your mother or father”

The bias: A Mother’s Day or Father’s Day project could be difficult for children with single, divorced or widowed parents, or two sets of parents.

The fix: Broaden the project to honour any woman or man the child knows. Celebrate Family Day to honour people who take care of you. Celebrate Caring Day with themes like “thanking someone who cares for us” or “expressing concern for others”. Make gifts or cards for someone the child cares about.

“Trace the genetic origins of your eye colour”

The bias: This assumes children are genetically related to their parents or know the genetic facts of their birth parents. Children who don’t have this information can’t do an assignment on inherited traits, and are made to feel different. It stresses biological connections, when some children might not have any connections with their birth parents.

The fix: Teach genetics with less personal examples.
With input from Adoption and the Schools: Resources for Parents and Teachers, by FAIR, Families Adopting in Response, Box 51436, Palo Alto CA 94303, 650-856-3513, info@fairfamilies.org, www.fairfamilies.org.
You may reproduce this item with the credit:
"From Family Helper,


ONE—Many ways to make a family
TWO—Many ways to create a child
THREE—Biased class assignments ... and how to fix them
FOUR—Teaching the language of adoption
FIVE—How to introduce adoption in elementary school
SIX—Answers for the pregnant student
SEVEN—A suggested classroom presentation
EIGHT—Research points the way
NINE—Adoption resources for teachers and students
TEN—Glossary: the ABCs of adoption
"Teacher's Guide to Adoption" by Robin Hilborn was published in print in Family Helper 45, "Adoption Goes to School", 2004, and online since Jan. 5, 2005.