Homeschooling Black History Month

In general, we follow our Sonlight curriculum pretty closely for homeschooling. In fact, Sonlight’s curriculum being pretty much “open and go,” requiring very little preparation from me before our school day begins, is one of the reasons we’ve chosen it for much of our curriculum.

But one thing I took away from my reading of Teaching From Rest was that curriculum is so much more than the package I order. The books and plans I order from Sonlight are a great starting point, but I need to make sure I’m giving my kids what I think they need to know.

In the context of the current events of the past year, we’ve been having a number of conversations about race and racism, and I thought it was important to honor Black History Month somehow, taking some time specifically to learn about and grow in respect for Black Americans.

Last month, on the designated day, we took some time to learn about and honor Martin Luther King, Jr., but I wanted us to go beyond that, to know more amazing Black Americans.

One of my kiddos asked me at the beginning of the month why we were specifically studying Black Americans. She wanted to know – was that because Black people were more important than white people?

No, I replied. Absolutely not. But when we read history books, who do we hear about? White people – mostly white men. When we look at the people who have been in power in Europe and America for hundreds of years, who have they been? White men. And can we truly understand history if we really only know what the most famous people from one particular demographic were doing? No. If we want to understand the history of our world, and in particular our country, we need to understand what was and is happening with men and women, with Black people and white people, Native Americans, Chinese Americans, Irish Americans, and other people groups throughout history. Because many books focus most on the same demographic (white men in power), we need to make a concerted effort to learn about what other people have done and are doing.

And so we’ve been diving in this month, learning more about Black people and their current reality and their history. Two books we’ve been using are Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship.

Our big girls have been so enjoying both books – they often choose to start our school time with them, and I’ve found them both reading them on their own, as well.

Both books have been great starting points for conversation and learning more. Matt and I have had great talks with the kiddos – Miranda in particular – about why Black people have been economically disadvantaged in America, why the Civil Rights movement was needed, what the KKK was and is, and how God calls us to live, even in the face of fear and real danger.

Our kids are still so young, but even young kids perceive race and have begun to develop ideas and attitudes about race. Our kids are going to develop their racial understandings somehow, and we can either be a voice for equality, progress, and justice, or we can be silent. Matt and I believe strongly that we want to work toward progress. We don’t know everything. We don’t have it all figured out. I’m sure there’s more we could be doing. But we can either let our inability to be perfect prevent us from doing anything, or we can start somewhere, however small. I’m thankful for this opportunity to teach (and learn with!) my kiddos this month, and my hope is that we can build on this for future months and years, as well, as we seek to raise kiddos who are good citizens of the world.

If you are a home-schooling family – or even if you’re not! – I’d love to hear how you honor Black History Month and seek to incorporate learning about Black Americans into your family’s life during this month!

A Sweet Valentine’s Day Project

I’m always looking for fun opportunities to connect with and encourage my kiddos. I’d read recently about a practice some parents have had of making a heart for each kiddo for each day of February and writing on each heart something that they love and appreciate about that child.

I love that idea – except that my kids would absolutely want to keep those hearts. But they are young and do a horrible job of storing and preserving mementos. Within weeks, if not days, I’d be walking down the hallway, stepping on crumpled up hearts saying things like, “Miranda Grace, I love your strength and intensity. They sometimes make life challenging for you, but they are going to serve you well in life, and I appreciate all the work you have put in over the last couple years in learning how to use them well” or, “Madeleine CaiQun, I love your ability to focus on what is important. You have a gift for seeing the big picture and reminding us all about what we should truly prioritize.” And I am in a stage of life in which de-cluttering is a priority. With 4 small children (and 2 sentimental adults), stuff just tends to multiply here, and I’m on a mission to counteract that as much as is possible.

And so I ordered us a collection of notebooks. There were enough for each of us, even Matt and me, to have one. I labelled them and wrote introductory notes on the first page of each about how we are a family – our love is not contingent, but we can still love and appreciate various characteristics of each other, and it’s good to recognize those and encourage each other with sharing about what we see. And then we got to work on filling them!

I have to laugh about the way in which we as a family completed this project. I had grand plans at the beginning – 30 pages per book, so I’d write something in each person’s book each night and also have each child write in 1-2 books per night, and Matt would write when he could, and we’d get it done. We started off pretty strong, the big girls and me doing a good number of entries on the first night. And then we fell off track and ended up needing to spend a lot of time the last couple days finishing up everything – and in fact I realized on February 13 that one child had not written in either of two siblings’ books, so I saved some pages for her to do on the 14th, but otherwise Matt and I stayed up and finished up all of the books late on the night of the 13th – except mine 😉 That’s the life of a mom! Matt will work with the kids to finish it up soon, but his and the kids are all done now. The big girls have been reading theirs, and I’m hoping that these will be encouraging touchstones for them in the years to come. Everyone needs to hear about ways they are loved and appreciated.

Even incomplete, my book is already such an encouragement to me. In fact, I was teary after just the first entry. Madeleine CaiQun was the first to write in my book, and this was what she wrote:

“Mommy, I love you because you love me. Love, MeiMei”

Ah!! My day was made. It continues to be made every time I look at that page. She knows I love her. She rests in that. And that is what, for her, defines our relationship. I’m so thankful.

It took some time. It took some effort. But my kiddos won’t be little forever, and I won’t have the chance to pour into them in the same way forever. I want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to build a sense of love and respect and appreciation within our family. For me, these moments of connection and encouragement are oh so worth it. I’m glad we added this project to our agenda for the month.

This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

February is a tough month around here. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of an incredibly traumatic week in our family’s life.

That week began with an early Sunday morning phone call from Matt’s mom telling us that his sister Denya had passed away completely unexpectedly. After we got the call, we went to church. I don’t know why we went to church. Trauma responses are not rational.

And 3 short days later, I called 9-1-1 from an upstate New York hotel room as our kids and I witnessed Matt suffer cardiac arrest. We spent the next week in the hospital (here you can read parts two, three, four, and five if you hadn’t already), leaving our kids – with no advance preparation – in the care of grandparents and aunts and uncles for the week. After discharge we spent another week at Matt’s mom’s house before a friend flew out to help us drive home to Missouri, where we began our journey toward recovery and health.

As we have approached these anniversaries, I’ve been feeling it. It’s a true traumaversary for me – an anniversary of trauma that affects you so deeply that your body itself remembers it. I’m more emotional. I fought back tears as a woman at the grocery store accused me of taking her spot in line. I’m more on edge with my kids. I’m more easily irritated with Matt. The strain of other normal interpersonal interactions feels greater.

And into this context of our lives steps the tv show This Is Us. Featuring a white family that adopts a black child, it is quite popular among my adoptive mom friends, and Matt and I began watching it last year. It is, quite simply, phenomenal. Of course, it resonates with us in particular because of the nature of our family and its similarities to the tv show family. Matt and I have adopted two of our children trans-racially, and we have a number of children all close in age to one another. But it goes beyond that – the show explores family dynamics, personal choices, and how we all live in a way that resonates with viewers deeply.

The show hops between different time periods in the family’s life, and we’ve known since season one that Jack, the father in the family, was going to die while the children were in high school. Season two has focused on the lead up to his death and its effects on each of the children in their now-adult lives. And a week and a half ago, he died. In fact, he suffered a cardiac arrest (after inhaling too much smoke in a house fire). When told, his wife’s immediate response was to take a bite of the candy bar she was holding (trauma responses are not rational). And then she had to go and tell their children.

I sobbed.

I sobbed through the entire episode, and I sobbed through the next one, in which they plan and attend his funeral, scatter his ashes, and begin to figure out life without Jack.

It all hit pretty close to home. I’ve envisioned all of those scenarios. My brother-in-law and nieces lived them out two years ago – and are still living them out today. Things could have gone very differently for us on that night two years ago. And now we live on borrowed time. Matt’s health is generally good now, and we hope for many more years together. Of course, only God knows the number of days any of us have left, but we know that ours may be fewer than most, and we think about what that may mean for us.

And in This Is Us, we see what it means for every character. Their experience with trauma affects them forever. It colors their lives. It does not need to define their entire lives, but it never goes away.

I remember sharing with a friend, before we brought Madeleine CaiQun home from China, that we’d need to parent her differently than we might parent a biological child because of her experiences with trauma in the first few years of her life. This friend asked, “So how long will it take before she gets beyond that and you can just treat her like normal?”

The answer? Never.

And this is the long view. We never “get over” our experiences with trauma. We move through them. We learn to live with them. We learn how they affect us. We learn how we can manage their effects. We learn what truths speak to us when the effects of our trauma rear their ugly heads. We learn what sort of supports we need.

I am seeing that I need to dial back my expectations for myself, for Matt, and for our kids during this month. I need to watch for my desire for control and counteract it by working to hold all things loosely. I need to practice loving well, even when I feel like retreating.

And I need to take these insights and apply them to the ways in which I parent my kids. My first three kiddos share my traumaversary. My two kiddos from China have experienced a number of huge traumas in their lives. All of these experiences shape who they are, how they respond to stress, and how they live their lives. I can recognize that even I, as an adult, am not fully in control of my emotions and the ways in which I respond to the additional stress I feel at these sensitive times. How much more difficult it must be for them, as kids, to deal with hard stuff! I can choose to recognize that and parent out of compassion and kindness, rather than rigidity and selfishness.

Watching the Olympic figure skating competition last night and seeing Patrick Chan skate to “Hallelujah,” I was reminded of the truth and beauty in the words:

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I needed that reminder heading into this week.

A New Extra-Curricular Activity – We’re Learning Mandarin!

For a few weeks now, our Friday afternoons have brought us a new extra-curricular activity, one about which I could not be more excited – the 3 girls and I have started learning Mandarin! One of Matt’s students, who is from China and has experience teaching Mandarin to children, asked me if I would be interested in our kids learning the language, and I responded with an enthusiastic YES!

We have tried, at times, to learn some more Mandarin, but we hadn’t found an option that was (1) a good fit for our family and (2) affordable. And now – enter Jenny, who is willing to come to our house and enter into our craziness and teach us!

While Matt and I were incredibly excited about the opportunity for some of us to start learning this language spoken in the country of birth of two of our daughters, not everyone was thrilled initially. One of the kiddos we’ve adopted is very ambivalent about all things China – and that’s absolutely fine with us. She has every right to those feelings. But we explained to her that part of our job as parents is to keep doors open for her. Someday she might want to return to China for an extended visit or even to live there. It’s possible – though improbable – that she could someday find members of her birth family still living in China. Someday she might want to be more involved in the Chinese American community here in the States. She is not now and might never be interested in any of those things – but she might change her mind as she gets older. And if she does change her mind, having some Mandarin will be an asset for her. Learning now keeps doors open for her for her future. We will never push her through any of those doors. Her life is hers to live, and those decisions are hers to make. But our job is to make sure the doors stay open, so she has the tools to make those decisions when the time comes. And now that we have gotten a few weeks into our language learning and she has started to become more comfortable with Jenny, she is warming up to the idea.

And Atticus…well, he remains uninterested and unfocused. Mostly we just set him up with something else to do while the rest of us learn 🙂 But he does deign to join us for the fun art projects Jenny brings for us to work on!

We are so thankful for this opportunity! Part of that is just getting to know Jenny more. I’m always so thankful for Chinese and Chinese American people who are willing to invest in my Chinese American daughters. As their mother, I can do a lot for them, but I will never be able to pass on to them my own firsthand accounts of living life as an Asian woman in America. It’s so special for me when they are able to have relationships with other people who can offer them something I cannot! That includes far more than language, though of course it includes language, as well.

Madeleine CaiQun and FangFang don’t really remember much Mandarin – before we started our lessons with Jenny, they knew only words that I also knew (which were very specific to toddler adoption – things like “milk” and “bed”). Their pronunciation, even now, though, is pretty good, which is so nice for them, because, honestly, at least for me, it is hard! I really have to think about the tones, in particular, because they are such an integral part of speaking Mandarin that really is not analogous to anything in English. But the current star of our little Mandarin-learning group? It’s actually Miranda! She is motivated to learn and enjoys success, and Jenny says she speaks like a native Mandarin speaker. Jenny has offered to give her extra lessons after our group times, and she eats up that extra attention! She’s already learning a lot.

And the rest of us are learning, too 🙂 This past week we started working on our first Mandarin dialogue, which the girls and I are practicing in preparation for this week’s lesson! Jenny is great at working with us where we’re at. I told her we were practicing during the week, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because we all remembered more when we practiced, but practicing meant that I had to lead our lessons, so instead of hearing a native Mandarin speaker, the kids hear my American accent! After hearing that, she made audio recordings of herself for us to use this week in our practicing 😉

I’m so thankful for this opportunity. Not only does it offer our whole family an opportunity to build a greater connection to Madeleine CaiQun’s and FangFang’s birth country and its culture, but it opens up more opportunities for all of us in general. There may be more countries that use English as an official language, but China’s population is over 1.3 billion people, and learning a language spoken by that many of our world’s people can only serve us well. I know it’s so great for kids to learn another language, and Mandarin has always been what I’ve wanted our kids to learn as part of their schooling, and I’m so, so thankful that they now have the opportunity to do that. Plus it’s another opportunity for learning for me – a challenge, for sure, but it’s one worth tackling!

Book to be Released Next Week: Confessions of an Adoptive Parent

When I posted this photo on Instagram and Facebook, a number of my friends who are foster or adoptive parents (or preparing to be either of those!) commented that they were interested in what the book was all about.

I heard both Mike and Kristin Berry speak back in October at the Refresh Chicago 2017 Conference and was encouraged by their words and by the conference in general, so when they announced that this book was coming out this year, I was honored to be invited to be part of its launch team (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book and the pre-order bonus materials in exchange for my participation in the launch team.) 

The book has a very similar feel to the Refresh Conference – one of its primary aims is to make sure that foster and adoptive parents understand that they are not alone. Mike tells a number of stories from his own experience as a foster and adoptive parent (while still keeping many details of his children’s stories private), which help to communicate that no matter what a family is experiencing, their struggles are not unique. The Berry family has parented children who behaved in unsafe ways with other children, who became pregnant earlier than planned, who have had to be placed in residential treatment facilities for periods of time, whose experiences of trauma directly play into their behavior, and who are not always respectful, kind, mature individuals. No matter what struggle an adoptive or foster parent is walking through, this book will offer reassurance that they are not the only ones.

It’s also very readable – I carried it with me and read it all over the place 🙂

reading while waiting for Miranda’s swim meet to start!

Some of what I found most helpful from the book were the reminders to press on. Berry writes, “So now we have a choice. We can shake our fists at the heavens and say, ‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ or we can choose to move forward, love our children through the trials, work to understand trauma, and live to the best of our ability in this new normal” (p. 76-77). Probably all of us parents have had moments of wondering whether this life was really what we signed up for, but I appreciated the encouragement to persevere through the hard times. Berry says, “I’ve found that when I stop dwelling on what I wish would have been, and accept what actually is, I find hope quicker” (p. 77).

Reminding us all that there is hope, no matter what, is another of the main points of this book. Part of that is practical encouragement – Berry tells multiple stories of kids and young adults who were making bad choices but whose paths eventually changed, and he offers the reminder that we are all in process, saying, “I didn’t come from a traumatic situation the way some of my kids did, but I still had to journey to where I am today. Twenty years ago I wasn’t able to do what I do today” (p. 187). And another part of this reminder that hope exists is spiritual. Berry writes, “That’s where I find hope – not in the wreckage of this journey, but in the fact that Jesus has willingly entered into our darkest moments and fights with us and for us in the middle of it” (p. 123). And he says, “You and I need to trust the God who created the universe and gave us life, confident that He holds our broken kids in His mighty hands” (p. 188).

Our children are younger, and we haven’t had all of the experiences that the Berry family has. However, we have had our own struggles as parents, and we do see the effects of trauma in our kids’ lives, and not everyone around us understands why we make the choices we do for our family. It’s encouraging to know that there are others out there who do understand this adoption parenting journey. And I appreciated the reminders to have hope and persevere in loving well, even in the midst of hard situations with our kiddos.

If you’re looking for some encouragement in these areas, I’d absolutely recommend the book! And if you pre-order in the next few days, there are some pretty extensive pre-order bonuses, which you can check out here!