Saturday, March 31, 2012

Eight months since referral

We just passed the eight-months-since-referral point. I'm hoping we'll hear about an embassy appointment in the next month. One thing is for sure, at the nine-month point, if I'm not already in Ethiopia, I will at the very least have a plane ticket in my hand!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Four months ago today

Four months ago today we met our sons.

We met them in Awassa where they were staying temporarily. We knew them the second we saw them - they looked just like their pictures. We hugged them and asked each one, Dehna neh? and they each responded Dehna. Those were the first words we spoke with our sons.

A was quieter. The orphanage manager kept telling him Yinnante innat, ishi? Yinnante innat, ishi? (That's your mom, OK? That's your mom, OK?) and he stared at the ground every time she said it. Of course he did. How do you process that? He perked up when I showed him how the video camera worked, and when he discovered the magnets on the toy trains we gave him. He went around seeing what else would stick to the magnets. My oldest has a sensitive soul and a scientific mind.

D was happier. He LOVED the toy car we gave him. He kept saying yinei, yinei (mine, mine). He was fascinated by T. He examined T's fingers and arms and called him Daddy ferenj. He pushed all the buttons on the camera. When a visiting official tried to see his toy car, he held it tight and pointed at the gate - you have your motorcycle, this is MY car. My youngest is playful and curious and daring.

We spent one hour with them. We left them with a talking photo album, with our voices in Amharic telling them who we were, about their grandparents and aunts and uncles and their cousins who wanted to play with them, and about our house where they would live with us. We haven't seen them since. I wonder if they still have the album. I wonder what they think of these ferenj who showed up once and haven't appeared again. I think about them every day. Sometimes I hold on to them as I walk, D on my hip, A holding my hand. I miss them.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


I think this should be required reading for all white parents of black boys, and for their extended family, and for anyone who cares about them:

How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin
Eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being Black 
By Touré

1. It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry but that’s the truth. Blackmaleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could possibly save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something... 
Continue reading

Sunday, March 11, 2012

10% Challenge again

I skipped the 10% Challenge the last two months. I didn't mean to, but in January we were on our way back to Ethiopia, and in February we were in the middle of will-our-children-ever-leave-the-orphanage, and I just forgot to make the donations. But it's March, and the challenge is back on. I decided it's easier to just look at my credit card bill and round up for tutoring costs (which is the only thing we pay cash for) and use 10% of that, instead of keeping receipts all month.
This month's donation is to Doctors Without Borders.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ESL 101

Lately the topic of older adopted children learning English has come up in several discussions. Since I've taught English as a Second Language for the past ten years, I thought I'd put in my two cents. Here are my top recommendations for people adopting older children:
  • Talking before literacy. Initially your goal should be to build oral vocabulary. Your kid should know what a cat is before learning that c-a-t spells cat. Starting literacy too soon, especially for kids who are not literate in their first language, sends the dangerous message that reading is making noises in response to symbols on a page. Reading is about communicating thoughts - let your kids learn to communicate their thoughts in oral English first, and then apply the skill to reading.
  • Watch what you say. Literally. Videotape yourself talking and watch how many false starts, sentence fragments and idiomatic expressions you use. We all do it. You can train yourself to speak in simple, complete sentences. Initially you will be your child's primary source of English input - your goal is to make that input as understandable as possible.
  • You probably do this naturally, but use gestures and visual aids to show what you are talking about, and repeat yourself a lot. Narrate what you and your child are doing: "I am getting the juice from the refrigerator, we are going to have juice, here is your juice, here is my juice, enjoy your juice!"
  • "Build schema" i.e. go do stuff before you read about it. Go to the park before you read a book about parks. Go to a museum before reading about dinosaurs. Give your kid an experience to which s/he can connect the book. 
  • Use what your child already knows to make connections to new learning. Books about Ethiopia/rural Africa/farms/cars etc will make it easier for your child to learn English. Not to mention it shows respect for her/his previous experiences before coming to you. 
  •  When you begin teaching your child to read, start with phonetically regular words that name concrete objects and verbs. Start with dog and run, not the and of.
  • Know your BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). BICS are what your child need to talk to family and friends and to get needs met. CALP is what your child needs to succeed in school. CALP requires more specialized vocabulary, more complex sentence structure and higher-order thinking skills. English language learners exposed to English only at school need 6 months to two years to acquire BICS and 5-7 years to acquire CALP. I haven't seen studies of adopted children, but I assume the process is faster. 
  • Teach function words as well as content words. Content words are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Any language has an ever-growing number of them. The easiest to learn will be nouns and verbs because they refer to more obvious objects and actions. Watch out for the huge number of homonyms in English. Function words are a closed class, meaning no new ones ever get added to the language. Interesting, huh? There are and will continue to be only a couple of hundred function words in English. They include prepositions and conjunctions and can be very difficult to learn. The best way to teach them is to point them out as they come up and discuss how they affect the meaning of the sentence. Don't bother drilling them - almost no one can learn them this way.
  •  Don't assume younger children always learn the language faster. The rate at which your child will acquire English depends on many factors, including their feelings about being in the U.S. The single most reliable predictor of success in learning a second language is success in the first language. If your child did well in school in their native language, they will probably do well in English. The only area where younger (pre-adolescent) children are much more successful is in their accent, and that can be a double-edged sword because people often mistake an American accent for English fluency. 
  • Advocate for your child at school. Many teachers do not know much about second language learning. Your child should not be getting work designed for younger native English speakers.
  • Read to your child. You knew that.