It seemed like every other year in school, we had to create a family tree for social studies class. They were intended to get students talking to their parents and grandparents, discover their family history, and share out about their heritage and culture. The sharing out and celebrating of one’s culture is something I strongly promote at our school, due in part to our high level of diversity. While I love the concept of this project, it was always a challenge (and even an embarrassment) for me as an adopted child.
Every adopted child has two family trees to draw from. There is the tree of the adopted family, which is usually the easiest to trace back and there is also the tree from the biological family. The tree for the biological family is often more challenging to trace. It may be difficult to find out historical facts or it may be awkward to ask the adopted family questions about it. In some cases, like mine, there is no information at all about the biological family tree. So, every time this project came up (which probably wasn’t as often as my memory makes it out to be), I simply chose my adopted family tree and never even mentioned that I was adopted. Now, Wennstrom is a Swedish name and while I don’t look very Swedish, most students didn’t seem to notice. Other adopted children may get asked more about it if they don’t look similar to their adopted families. Even as an adult, when I don’t want to go through the whole explanation of why I don’t look like my adopted name, I often just say, “I’m a mix”.
My memories of those family tree projects often come back to me when I see students sharing out about their own families (sometimes with embarrassment). It may be from adoption, or an incarcerated parent, or the fact they live with a guardian rather than a parent. None of these factors are a cause for shame, but the truth is for a child, anything that is different from the norm can be embarrassing. It always makes me feel good when I see teachers who are skilled at celebrating diverse backgrounds and family structures and always make the children feel that it’s okay to be who they are. Quality educators make each child feel special and accepted for who they are regardless of their background or family situation. As educators, we have the delicate task of celebrating our students’ diversity and respecting their privacy. We always need to keep in mind that our students may come from a variety of family structures and arrangements and when doing genealogies they may, like me, have more than one tree.