Posted in Adoption, education, Parenting, Thanksgiving, Uncategorized

Thankful for the gift of adoption

In the spirit of National Adoption Day, I am sharing a short story of our family’s adoption journey with our daughter, Annabelle. It also happens to be the anniversary of Annabelle’s “gotcha day” this Thanksgiving Day, the day we brought  our “forever girl” home from Russia.  We have many plans on Thanksgiving to celebrate her arrival and to bring just a small part of that rich and old culture to Annabelle for her special day.

Over a period of 12 months, we experienced the many challenges and joys of adopting a child from Russia. We were so fortunate to bring Annabelle home before that country’s leader, Vladimir Putin, closed the doors for the foreseeable future to would be forever families from America.  We made 4 trips to Russia before we brought her home. We knew it would be the journey of a lifetime in so many ways, from the first moment we met Annabelle and fell in love with her, to “springing her free” from her rural orphanage for children with disabilities, the only home she ever new since birth, right up to her arrival on American soil.

After several months of waiting, in May of 2010 we received a referral for a forever daughter.  All we had was a photograph and a one page medical description, indicating Annabelle had some medical concerns, including congenital ptosis of the eye (a droopy eyelid), a misshapen kidney, and birth complications including hypoxia, from lack of oxygen to the brain.   We learned her birth mother never took her home from the hospital, and after a few weeks, Lyudmila (her Russian name, meaning, “of the people”),  was transferred from the hospital to a rural orphanage for babies with disabilities in Konakovo, about an hour outside the city of Tver where she was born. We learned we would be visiting her there in June. We had two weeks to procure a flight and prepare for our first trip to Russia.

We were so busy preparing for travel and making proper arrangements for our biological 4-year old son to be home in our absence, the time passed quickly.  The day for travel to Russia arrived and we boarded a plane at JFK. After a long flight to Moscow, we landed, and we waited nervously in an unfamiliar airport for a half an hour for our driver to arrive. We were eventually found by two male strangers holding a sign with our name on it and taken to a small car.   We were driven for a few hours to a German operated hotel in the old Russian city of Tver.  Along the way, we drove past a two story high statue of Lenin in the Tver town square, (the first of many similar statues of Lenin we would see in many Russian towns, large and small), and oceans of tenement style buildings one after the other, completely identical, not unlike those I’d seen in other parts of Europe and New York.  We drove past ancient white forests, beautiful rivers, and past several military “parks” and government buildings tended by elderly women with brooms. Eventually, we found our hotel which stood out as a shiny new structure with a small patch of grass in the front, unusual, because no other house or building seemed to have grass.  It was surrounded by old houses and buildings and a boarded up synagogue across the street. The streets were empty, save for a few dogs.  We settled into our hotel room, Skyped with our dear 4 year old boy we left at home with his grandparents,  and anxiously awaited meeting our sweet girl the next day.

Early in the morning, one of the drivers retrieved us from the hotel accompanied by an english translator, and they drove us an hour out into the countryside along the Volga River to a small town, called Konakovo, to meet our future daughter.

Upon arrival, we found the orphanage surrounded by dozens more tenement style buildings.  I remember the stuffed animals in the trees outside the front door, greeting guests and children who lived there. As we entered, they asked us to cover our feet with foot coverings they provided to prevent the spread of germs and dirt.The orphanage itself was very clean, albeit somewhat sparse. The orphanage was  full of sights and sounds of many women tending to about 100 small children and babies in adjoining cribs. They sat us in an empty room with a few chairs and some toys behind locked cabinets. It was 97 degrees. Smoke filled what little breeze there was (there had been a terrible heatwave and peat/bog forest fires that burned all summer, causing smoke to fill the air for hundreds of miles).

We waited nervously for the meeting we had been anticipating for many months. But first, we had to wait for another American couple to see their child.  They had flown in on the plane with us from JFK to Moscow, and they were staying in our hotel. This was their second trip to Russia for their forever boy, Alex.  Alex was brought out to greet his new parents in what appeared to be a Russian version of adorable lederhosen, and he was carrying a bright yellow balloon.  He appeared to be about 15 months old, and needed some help to walk to his new parents. Reunited with their forever boy, they cried and Alex fell into their arms and they cried some more. I was overwhelmed.

I wondered if this is what it would be like for us. I wondered if Ludmila would look like the picture they sent us. I wondered if she would love me, if she would love Clint, if she would be shy, if she would be sleepy (we were told they were waking her because we arrived at nap time). I wondered if we would bond right away, and if we did, how I would feel leaving her here and going back to America in a few short days.  I wondered how many trips it would take to bring her home.  I wondered if she would like the toys I realized I was clutching with a death grip because I was so nervous. I wondered how much the orphanage staff would be observing our interactions and if they would approve of us as parents. We were told they would testify in court on a future visit about their observations.

We were led to another small, but clean visiting room with a few wooden chairs, some thin, white curtains covering the doorway and the open windows. The curtains were barely moving in the hot, smoky air.  I was sweating. They asked us to leave the bag of brand new clothes and toys we brought with us from the United States somewhere in the room, as well as a carefully wrapped gift for the orphanage director we brought with us all the way from home. I placed them on a small wooden chair next to me, not knowing what else to do with them.

We were left alone in the room only for a few minutes when our translator returned with a baby girl in her arms. The baby was dressed in a hat,  a small green dress and socks. She handed the baby to me and promptly left us alone with her.

Love at first sight!
Love at First Sight: The moment we met”…at 11 months old, she weighed that of a 6 month old. We were asked to name her on the spot. Annabelle it was! 

It was love at first sight.  My heart melted when she placed Lyudmila in my arms.  I knew she was mine.  I knew she was Clint’s. I knew she was meant to be with our family.  After I recovered from the physical outpouring of nearly overwhelming emotions in my body, not at all unlike the intense love a mother feels immediately after the experience of giving birth (happily without all the physical suffering and  exhaustion), my first thought was how small she was, how little she weighed.  I had held 5 other babies of my own in my lifetime.  She did not feel like an 11 month old child.  She was a feather.  She was small and flimsy and thin and floppy, and the experience was far more like holding a 6 month old child.

She had numbers stitched into her dress and her socks. She was beautiful and amazing. She cocked her head back to help her affected eye see us a little bit better. She was sizing us up as we were admiring her. We hugged her, and she smiled.

Within 10 minutes, our translator returned. She asked, “Is she the right child for you?  Do you want a different child?”  I clung to the baby tighter and said, “Absolutely not, she’s ours, she’s mine. We’ve bonded, no one is taking her”.  That settled, we were asked to name her on the spot.  Annabelle Lyudmila it was. Though we Americanized her middle name to Ludmila.

Three more trips ensued, however, before we were able to bring our Annabelle Ludmila home to America.  Ultimately, she would not come home until Thanksgiving Day, five months after that first meeting and our growing love that started the minute we laid eyes on her.  Each trip home after each visit, I would cry nearly the entire 10 hour flight from Moscow to JFK.  The flames burned deep in the ground in Russia all that summer, the smoky filled rooms in the buildings lingered, and the heat, the unbearable record setting heat with no air conditioning, never relented.  The kind, but overworked “babushkas” that served in the orphanages who watched us sternly at each visit, the faces of all the dozens of other babies and toddlers in the orphanage, the international families that visited the orphanage, new teeth that we noticed in Annabelle at each new visit, so much ran through my mind that summer. Annabelle had suffered from a pesky MRSA infection, and this resulted in a surgical procedure to remove the infection. She bears those scars today.

Meanwhile, the politics were brewing and threats had begun to end the program for American families. In fact, one of our many requirements on one of our 4 trips was to visit a Russian mental health hospital and undergo an evaluation from a Russian psychiatrist with our translator. Among many other things, we were probed as to whether we would ever consider “sending Annabelle back to Russia on a plane and disrupting the adoption”, similar to the mother in Tennessee who had recently sent her school age son back to Russia after adopting him through another agency.  This caused an international incident.  We explained we had no relation to that mother, and of course we would never commit such an unthinkable act.  We were also asked to produce a menu for the child, because “Americans are too inclined to feed their children corn dogs and we might make her fat.”  They wanted to see vegetables and fruits and meats all laid out in a healthy weekly meal plan. We were sure to put broccoli on that list.

We worried that the politics might unduly extend our chances to bring her home in a timely manner, or at all.  But we stuffed those thoughts well  in the back of our minds always and pressed on and complied with everything that was asked.  Sometimes, it was leaving a carefully purchased and wrapped gift in the chair of a courtroom or the back of a car for the driver, who we understood later served two roles–that of driver and that of assistant to the judge who reviewed our case. We were asked to bring plenty of new (never used) clothes, toys, all items still bearing tags on every visit to the orphanage based on clearly defined lists and the needs of the day.

After several court appearances and three trips, Clint flew back to Moscow alone for the last time to bring our sweet girl home. I stayed with our 4-year old who needed his mommy after so many previous trips and so much time away from him.  We kissed daddy goodbye at the airport, and asked him to call us and Skype with us the minute he had Annabelle in his arms.

Hours after being "sprung free" from the orphanage in a Moscow hotel-14 months old
Hours after being “sprung free” from the orphanage in a Moscow hotel-14 months old

Clint sent us this picture above from his Moscow hotel room, just a few hours after she was officially handed over to him at the orphanage. Jake and I were consumed with joy, absolutely thrilled to see her. We both cried with happiness that daddy had her safe and in his care at last.  Clint captured Annabelle in the picture above, just a few hours in a moment where he sort of propped her up for a second before she sat back down.   She was 14 months old, she was so flimsy she could not yet walk on her own. Jake and I Skyped with her and Clint later that night, and Jake sang her to sleep with a sweet lullaby I usually sang to him.

Passed out in Moscow from her first ever trip in a car in after leaving the orphanage in Konakovo, the only home she ever knew
Passed out in Moscow from her first ever trip in a car after leaving the orphanage in Konakovo, the only home she ever knew

Turns out she had also passed out earlier in the day, shortly after arriving at the hotel, exhausted from her first ever car ride from Konakovo, the only home she ever knew, and after the long drive  to a Moscow hotel, where many more procedures, visits and paperwork awaited her and Clint for a few more days–a pediatrician visit to the hotel room clearing her to travel internationally, a trip to the passport office, and more.  Just days prior, Clint noticed a large scab on her upper arm where she had received an old fashioned vaccine like we used to get in America. She still has that scar, and she will forever test positive for TB, because she was over vaccinated and must carry a special card.  At the orphanage, they had also given her a fancy “bowl” haircut for her passport photo and for the trip.

 

Arrival on American soil at JFK after 10 hours on the plane--pretty spry!
Arrival on American soil at JFK after 10 hours on the plane–pretty spry!

A few days later, Jake and I received this picture when Clint and Annabelle landed safely in New York. Annabelle was now officially an American citizen.

Home at last :-)
Home at last 🙂

 

On the flight home, Clint remarked that she had never been used to falling asleep in someone’s arms. She had only ever been put to bed, left to comfort herself and fall asleep with the noises of all the babies around her in (literally) adjoining cribs.  He remarked that the first bath in the hotel room she shrieked so loudly, you thought someone murdered her dog. Her fear of water was beyond terror. Back at home we had to start with just pouring tiny amounts of water from a cup on her feet in the kitchen sink to get her used to water at all.

Annabelle getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving this year in America, 2014! So proud of the cookies she made!
Annabelle getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving this year in America, 2014! So proud of the “turkey cookies” she made!

 

Today, Annabelle is a happy, well adjusted child.  This Thanksgiving, we have so much to be thankful for.  We are thankful for her birth mother who chose to give her life.  We are thankful we were able to bring her home before the Russian government closed the door to American parents.  We had friends who were not as fortunate; they never brought their children home.

In addition to the traditional American Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving, we will also celebrate Annabelle’s “gotcha day”.  We will have traditional foods many Russian children grow up with, including Russian “blinis” (thin pancakes) for breakfast, cheese filled pirogies and cold apple soup with vanilla cookies for lunch.  We also have a special treat prepared–cookies in the shape of Russian Matryoshka dolls.  We think it is important to celebrate her rich Russian heritage by providing some typical dishes the children might experience in Russia.

We had matryoshka doll cookies made special for Annabelle's gotcha day celebration!
We had matryoshka doll cookies made just for Annabelle’s gotcha day celebration!

Our Russian heritage cookbooks also help keep Annabelle’s Russian heritage alive by providing her with traditional Russian children’s dishes throughout the year and on the anniversary of her “gotcha day”.

Our Russian heritage cookbooks to keep Annabelle's Russian heritage alive

We also have a few traditional Russian toys to give her we hope she will enjoy opening up tomorrow on gotcha day:

Cheburashka the monkey is an iconic Russian cartoon character for children
Cheburashka the monkey is an iconic Russian cartoon character for children

 

Matryoshka doll, or traditional wooden nesting doll with wooden dolls inside that get smaller and smaller, for Annabelle's gotcha day
Matryoshka doll, or traditional wooden nesting doll with wooden dolls inside that get smaller and smaller, for Annabelle’s gotcha day

 

Traditional porcelain children's cup
Traditional porcelain children’s cup

 

Matryoshka doll pin, a gift for Annabelle's gotcha day
Matryoshka doll pin, a gift for Annabelle’s gotcha day

There is so much more of the story to tell, but this is a snapshot of her story. The rest she will be told within the family. In the meantime,  she still is supposed to notify the Russian consulate should she move to another state, and until she is 21, must travel on a Russian passport should she ever travel back to Russia. Also at 21, she must choose a single citizenship-Russian or American.  Until then, Annabelle has dual citizenship and remains a daughter of both countries. 

Here are some fun pictures of Annabelle now:

Enjoying the outdoors at Camp with mom this summer!
Enjoying the outdoors and activities at Camp with mom this summer!
I love my big brother! :-)
I love my big brother! 🙂
I found one!
Proudly hunting for pumpkins this year…I found one!
I'm keeping this one!
I’m keeping this one!
image
Visiting Santa on the Polar Express with mommy, daddy, and Jake!

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Developmentally appropriate and individualized instruction: Do all kids learn the same?

There are about a hundred reasons why we need to get back to rigorous, peer reviewed research to inform educational policy. But the latest reason is very compelling. As if there isn’t enough squabbling on all sides about the Common Core, overtesting, and the merits of teacher evaluation, it seems the latest brewing “edusquabble” is over the merits of “developmentally appropriate” instruction.   Having studied special education, school psychology, and education policy, an attempt to cast aside decades of research on child development gives me pause.  I’m all for high standards, rigor and pushing kids at their challenge level, but minimizing sensitivity to developmentally appropriate teaching and learning, and ultimately individualized instruction, is troubling on many levels.  More importantly, show me the research that says all kids develop the same skills on a rigid timetable.

To suggest every child is ready and should be benchmarked at the same exact point in time is based on an arbitrary standard, not on an empirical body of knowledge.  High standards are critical. But, kids don’t all learn at the exact same rate in the exact same subjects at the exact same time—often not in the same house, not in the same class, not in the same grade, not in the same school.

Tell me, for example, my youngest daughter isn’t on her own “developmental trajectory” or isn’t developmentally delayed.  We rescued her from a Russian orphanage at 14 months old, so flimsy she couldn’t walk and had no word in her working vocabulary other than “ball” when we brought her home. Tell me she doesn’t need more time and intensive, individualized intervention to catch up. We have incredibly high standards for her, and we are fortunate to have the means to find her good tutors, a quality preschool, and the best speech and academic interventions (day and night) to help her master specific skills she needs.  She is indeed closing gaps in learning every single day.   But she is still behind her “peers”, and she will be for awhile. Does that mean we have low standards?  No.  Does that mean we are sensitive to her individual learning needs?  Absolutely.  And I would add, I promise you after making four trips to Russia, the “99% literacy rate” her Russian counterparts tout in that country do not include the hundreds upon thousands of kids living in orphanages and rural communities there.

But getting back to the point about developmentally appropriate learning—Even if you aren’t into empirical research, common sense and experience alone telI you kids don’t learn the same things at the same time, even in the same house. Parents have known this since the beginning of time. Teachers, good teachers, have known this anecdotally for decades. So why put the consequence for failed learning on a child?  Why are we, for example, promoting the policy of retaining kids for failing to meet an arbitrary benchmark in an arbitrary year? How can we do that in good faith if we are sensitive to a child’s unique needs and experiences that bring them to their present level of performance?

We should give every child what they need and go for individualized mastery of specific content instead. Do some temperature checks, yes. Do real time assessments at specific points in time that provide real time feedback that teachers and parents can use.  To do that effectively, though, we need to value student, teacher and parent voices, and we need to listen to them. We need to include all of them in deep conversations about individualized assessment tied to meaningful interventions for individual kids. Then we need to teach and reteach until the child masters a specific set of skills. Good teachers who are worth their salt know how their individual students learn best.  More importantly, no one knows a child better and how they learn better than the child, the child’s parents, and the child’s teacher. They should all be partners in a mastery learning approach.

In full disclosure, I innately dislike “one size fits all” approaches to education.  I’m a school choice, charter school proponent and have been for nearly 20 years. But that’s because I believe in parent voices, I understand learning differences, and to the grave, I believe in the original intent of school choice. I dislike “one size fits all” approaches to education, because as a teacher and parent of six children, I know kids, because I value the profession and study of child development, and because I value individualized learning approaches.

Ultimately, we need to learn so much more about learning, innovation, student engagement, and how to provide high quality instructional service delivery to each and every child. As parents and teachers, we aren’t done learning about learning yet.  It’s a journey, a process, not an event.  I fear in ignoring the database we’ve created so far on child development, on learning and human behavior, that emphasis will fall in favor of the latest think tank agendas. The agendas feed the journalists who feast on the latest controversies and spit them out in ugly headlines to sell papers and media slots. Journalists ultimately shape the policy and practice now in our local schools. This is an entirely new phenomenon in American education.

Thusly, a few, loud voices now determine local education policy and practice for kids and families. Worse, it seems we are getting farther and farther away from the rigors of university based, peer reviewed research to guide best educational practices for kids. Instead, there are shouting matches in efforts to grab the attention of those in power to drive policy.

In turn, opportunities for real innovation in practice seem a distant idea of the past, as all schools, traditional public and charter alike, begin marching to the beat of the same drum of common benchmarks and teaching to the single test. This threatens precious resources and time for creative teaching designed to meet the individual and developmentally appropriate needs of the unique child. Moreover, annual standardized tests do not provide teachers with necessary REAL TIME student data they need to make intelligent, swift instructional decisions for their kids.  Rather it allows policy wonks and think tanks to rank and sort teachers and school districts (which all too often turns out to actually be a ranking and sorting of poverty, but that is a subject for another day.)

Meantime, the policy wonks attack what used to be the holy grail of child and lifespan human development and individualized instruction because it suits them.  Educators and parents should speak up and stop allowing non-educators to ultimately place the consequence for academic failure on students and teachers out of fear of being called “soft on standards”, “weak on accountability”, “slow on turn around”, or other such shame rhetoric that simply isn’t true in many schools-charter or traditional. Quality education and opportunities for innovation in both types of schools calls for patience and clear heads.  Let’s stop degrading the teachers, stop retaining the children based on rigid benchmarks, and let’s remain sensitive to basic, well known premises of child development.  Let’s embrace parent and teacher voices in all kinds of schools. Let’s get back to rigorously studying what works for kids before we impose our “untested rigors” on them.