Far Away from the Tigers: A Year in the Classroom with Internationally Adopted Children

Far Away from the Tigers: A Year in the Classroom with Internationally Adopted Children

by Jane Katch

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Over the past three decades, more than a quarter of a million children have become citizens of the United States through international adoption. Kindergarten teacher Jane Katch recently found herself with three such children in her class: Katya, born in Russia, Jasper, from Cambodia, and Caleb, from Romania. Each child had spent early years in an orphanage, and

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Over the past three decades, more than a quarter of a million children have become citizens of the United States through international adoption. Kindergarten teacher Jane Katch recently found herself with three such children in her class: Katya, born in Russia, Jasper, from Cambodia, and Caleb, from Romania. Each child had spent early years in an orphanage, and each had unique educational and emotional needs. How Katch came to recognize and respond to those needs makes up the journey of discovery in this moving and insightful book.

Interspersing vignettes from the classroom and conversations with the children’s parents, Far Away from the Tigers first explores Katch’s misunderstandings and mistakes as she struggles to help the children adjust to school. As Katch learns more about each child’s preadoption past, she gradually realizes that they were deprived of some basic learning experiences and she needs to find ways to fill those gaps. Before Caleb can learn to read or write, he must improve his verbal skills by learning nursery rhymes, stories, and songs. Katya, who came from an overcrowded orphanage, now needs to be the center of attention; before learning how to form real friendships, she first must gain control over more basic functions such as eating and sleeping. And the youngest, Jasper, needs steady encouragement to play with classmates instead of sitting alone practicing his handwriting.

Slowly, through trial and error and by drawing on the deep understanding and intense commitment of the children’s parents, Katch discovers the importance—and joy—of allowing each child time to develop in his or her own way. Beautifully told, wise, and candid, Far Away from the Tigers is a gift for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares for children growing up in a new home.

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Editorial Reviews

Diane E. Levin
“A warm and caring book from a gifted teacher who deeply understands what it means to put her heart, soul, and mind into her teaching. In these times of high-stakes testing, Jane Katch’s holistic approach to working with internationally adopted children and their families provides a compelling counterforce for envisioning what education that deeply meets the diverse social, emotional, and intellectual needs of all children can and should be.”

Joshua Sparrow
“This is an important, moving, and beautiful book that shows all of us a unique and powerful method to facilitate young children’s self-discovery and growth. Jane Katch writes with a spare, pure poetry as she tells the delightful, hilarious, and at times terribly sad stories of the adopted children in her class, moving us through a range of emotions and understandings. The great artistry of her writing, her self-reflection and humility, and the way she listens deeply to parents who adopt make this a remarkable book—reading it will leave you changed for the better.”

David M. Bodzinsky
Far Away from the Tigers is a deeply moving account of the challenges faced by teachers who work with children who have been damaged by the biological and social adversities—neglect, abuse, abandonment—commonly experienced by internationally adopted children. Katch explores those challenges through the stories of three kindergarten-age children and their parents, whose hopes, worries, frustrations, and joys she also reveals. To be sure, this is not a story with a happy-ever-after ending, but it is a story of hope and acceptance: hope that these ‘at risk’ children can make significant progress with supportive and loving parents, and acceptance of these children for who they are, not who their parents and teachers want them to be.”—David M. Brodzinsky, coauthor of Being Adopted and The Psychology of Adoption

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University of Chicago Press
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Far Away from the Tigers

A Year in the Classroom with Internationally Adopted Children
By Jane Katch


Copyright © 2011 Jane Katch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42578-8

Chapter One

Happily Ever After

"One little puppy, sitting on a log. One fell off and bumped his head. And then he saw a fire engine. And then he lived happily ever after."

Caleb and I are sitting at a small round table in my kindergarten class. We call it the story table, because it is where I sit each morning to write down the stories that the children dictate to me. Later in the day we will act these stories out, and Caleb will get to choose which character he wants to play.

Caleb's story puzzles me. I stop writing and look at him. He tears a long piece of masking tape from the dispenser and wraps it several times around empty toilet-paper rolls that he is attaching to the bottom of a cardboard box formerly containing unsalted butter. "This is the fire engine," he says, attaching a Popsicle stick that may represent the hose or ladder.

Caleb is the oldest child in the class. I've been puzzled about him since I first saw him standing just inside the classroom door on the day of our kindergarten screening. Seven other children built with blocks, dressed up, listened to a story, and ate snacks while Caleb stood at the entrance, his shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets, black curls almost hiding his dark eyes.

His language, too, was unusual: his mumbled refusals to our suggestions that he come in and join the play did not contain the letter substitutions often made by young children, but were a jumble of phrases that seemed random and were hard to follow.

An hour later, the story table was covered with applications and school records, and I sat with the three other teachers who had observed the group. We learned that Caleb had been adopted from Romania when he was almost three. At that time, he spoke only a few words and was suffering from malnutrition and severe developmental delays.

Golda had told our admissions director that Caleb's pediatrician, a specialist in internationally adopted children, said Caleb needed a small language- based classroom in addition to his ongoing speech therapy. The local public school had thirty- two children, and Golda knew it was the wrong place for him.

Remembering the news stories and videotapes of starving Romanian orphans, we all wanted to give Caleb a chance: might he just need more time to learn English? Although he was chronologically old enough for first grade, we could give him an extra year of kindergarten. Could the small and inclusive community at our independent school help him feel secure enough to give up his worried stance at the door and come in?

Now, a half-year later, as I am wondering why the puppy fell off the log and what the fire engine was doing in the woods, I'm still not sure if I am giving Caleb what he needs. In conversation, he leaves out information that is necessary for his listeners to understand him. Many of his stories change plot or characters midstream. He loves to use big words, but either his pronunciation or his meaning is often a bit off.

He has been learning to play with other children, listening to what they want in a game and incorporating their ideas into his plans. I am hoping that a curriculum emphasizing stories and conversation will help him to speak more coherently before he has to tackle the more abstract tasks of reading and writing.

I decide not to ask him about the puppy and the fire engine. Many children enjoy such conversations, using the opportunity to expand their ideas. Caleb, on the other hand, tends to experience questions about his stories as criticism rather than useful clarification. But once the roles are given out and the children are trying to follow his directions, he will want to describe the action as clearly as he can so the story comes to life in the way he imagined.

Vivian Paley, who invented this activity, calls it "doing stories." The storytellers expand their abilities to tell coherent and interesting plots while the actors must listen carefully so they know what to do next. In the process, they all come to share and respect each other's fantasies, creating a close community through language.

"So when we act this out we'll need a puppy," I say to Caleb. "Do you want someone to be the fire engine?"

"I'm the puppy," he says. "And there's five firemen, 'cause they're the rescuers."

"How do they rescue you?" I ask, forgetting, in my surprise, my resolve to wait and see.

"'Cause I was in a fire," he says.

When Caleb finishes telling his story he moves into the block area. "Who wants to be an FBI guy with me?" he asks Shawn and Glen, who have already started taking large, hollow wooden blocks off the shelf.

The other boys have no difficulty with his language skills, and they are immediately interested in his ideas. "Good! We got our steering wheels!" Caleb says, making a stack of blocks, sitting on them, one leg on each side, and putting a semicircular block in front of him.

"This is my place," Shawn says, building an exact replica next to him. There is an excitement in Caleb's ideas that frequently makes him a leader in play.

"Motorcycles coming up!" Caleb announces. The boys make the sound of roaring engines, just below the decibel level at which I would have demanded more quiet.

"The stock pipes!" Caleb says, picking up a long block and setting it down at the rear of his motorcycle.

"Stock pipes?" I ask from the table nearby where I have been eavesdropping.

"The smoke comes out," he explains.

Ah, exhaust pipes.

"Boston! Where is Boston?" Glen, now on a third motorcycle, asks.

"Are you going to Boston? 'Cause I can, too!" Caleb says.

"I'm going to find the bad guys," Glen announces. "I went through the tunnel and there's a bad guy in the city. I'm gonna fire!"

"Glen," Caleb says, "I gotta go to the police station!"

Caleb's plots almost always end up in the police station. Caleb's police are protectors, keeping his protagonists safe from robbers and defending puppies from bad guys who would take them to the pound. His adoptive mother thinks he may have a very early memory of the police coming at night to take him from his neglectful family.

Could his fascination with police be the result of this early trauma? There is so much about him that I do not know.

In play, communication can be made up of disconnected shouted headlines: "Where is Boston?" follows the demand for exhaust pipes and is interrupted by the entrance of the bad guys. Caleb's tendency to leave out important connections is not a problem in the block area.

But telling a coherent story requires more complex language skills. When we gather around the rug, our stage, an hour later to act out the morning's stories, Caleb must fill in the gaps in his story so everyone can understand it.

I give out the parts. Caleb is the puppy and five volunteers are the firemen. Then I read the story Caleb has dictated, pausing after each phrase while the actors perform the actions:

"One little puppy, sitting on a log. One fell off and bumped his head."

Caleb comes into the middle of the rug, sits down, and falls over, rubbing his head.

"And then he saw a fire engine. And then he lived happily ever after."

Katya, one of the five firefighters arriving on the scene, looks puzzled. "Is there a fire?" she asks Caleb.

"Here!" Caleb says, pointing to the invisible log beside him. Katya ad-libs the missing part: "There's the fire! Over there! Bring the hoses!" The firefighters excitedly spray invisible water all around.

Glen, one of the firemen, reaches out a hand to help Caleb up.

Unlike my questions, which confuse Caleb, the actors show him what critical information we need in order to proceed.

"Now that's happily ever after," Katya tells Caleb.

Chapter Two

A Long Road

I did not want to hear about Caleb's orphanage in Romania. I remembered the images in the media in 1989 when the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was overthrown and the orphanages were opened: malnourished children, neglected in their cribs, many at two and three years old unable to walk or talk. Under the dictatorship, laws had required women to have four or five children before being able to obtain birth control or an abortion. Many parents, too poor to support such a large family, had taken some of their children to orphanages. Eighty percent of them were Roma, who were viewed as undesirable.

But if Caleb had had to live through such difficult infant and toddler years, the least I could do was be willing to learn about them. So I arranged to meet Caleb's mother, Golda, at the business she owns and runs in a nearby city. The demands of her work make it hard for her to take time away; she had not been able to meet with the other parents at Robert and Lynn's house, but she offered to meet me at lunchtime to tell me about her trip to Bucharest to get Caleb.

We sit down in a quiet section of her office. "First I thought I would adopt from Russia," she explains. "I went to a meeting with a woman from an adoption agency. I said to her, 'I am not interested in a special needs kid. I can't do it. It's not in my nature.'

"That woman talked like a social worker: 'You have every right, every right, to want a child that's normal,'" Golda mimics an overly sweet tone.

"Well, here I am. I switched to Romania because Russia was going to close down for international adoption for some reason. They're always opening and closing countries. So I looked at the Romanian kids and they looked like me, I guess. I'm Italian but I became Jewish and changed my name to Golda," she explains, "and the Gypsy kids, they call them Roma now, looked like someone from my Italian family. So I just switched to Romania. And I was gonna get a girl, because of course I don't have any male role models, since I'm a single mother, but a guy I work with had two adopted kids and he said, 'I think it would be so helpful for you to raise a son,' maybe because I already have raised a daughter. She's in college now. And I drove back, went to TJ Maxx, looked at the clothes, and said, 'OK, I can do this.' Because I had bought tons of girls' clothes, because I'm a shopper. And then I started buying boys' clothes.

"And they sent me a video of a child. And my sister, who's a social worker, said to me, 'These kids have big problems—these kids have big problems.' But at that point you're so vulnerable; you're just vulnerable. So I would listen, but they never mentioned early intervention. They never mentioned anything like that. All they said was, 'They catch up.' And I'm like, 'OK, they catch up.'"

A ten-year study of children adopted in Canada from Romanian orphanages in 1990–91 showed that at the time of adoption virtually all had medical and developmental problems. In general, the longer the Romanian children had lived in the orphanage the more problems they had, and the longer they lived in Canada the fewer they had. After three years, more than one- third of the Romanian orphans had recovered fully from the neglect they experienced in early childhood, one- third had a few serious problems but were progressing toward average levels of performance and behavior, but almost a third of those who had been adopted after eight months of age still had several serious problems. Ten years after adoption, many of them continued to have difficulties with attention and self-regulation.

Although recently the general health and development of newly arrived Romanian adoptees is said to have improved, in 1997, a year before Golda was considering adoption from Romania, Elinor Ames published a study for the Canadian government, recommending that all Romanian adoptions be considered by both prospective parents and adoption officials to be special needs adoptions. She wrote, "Like other special-needs adoptions, e.g., those of physically or mentally handicapped children, adoption of orphanage children must be acknowledged to involve extra commitments of parents' time, energy, acquisition of expertise, and willingness to work with helping agencies."

I do not imagine that Golda was aware of the report at the time, but I wonder if social workers at the adoption agency had seen it.

"So they sent me a video of a little boy," Golda continues. "He was probably four at the time. And we looked at the video—my sister, my mother, everybody looked at it. And he was cute. He was Roma, too. But he didn't spark my interest. He didn't look like the kind of kid that was gonna do the kind of things I want to do."

"What did you hope he would do?" I ask.

"Get up at three in the morning to go to the Vineyard, like my crazy lifestyle, and be creative.

"And then we saw this," she continues, while she puts a video in the VCR that's sitting on her desk. I see a toddler with Caleb's dark eyes and thick black hair, pushing a little car back and forth with a caregiver. She smiles and talks animatedly with him, trying to get him to smile back at her. When she succeeds, it's Caleb at his most irresistible, his whole face animated and joyful.

"And we said, 'Look at that! He's left-handed! That means he's creative!' And my mother and sister said, 'Oh, my god, look at that kid! That is your kid!' He was just as defiant and ornery!"

"I can see why you fell in love with him when you saw this," I say.

"And I think that's what saved him. You know, my mother is always saying he's not like any of us: he's a real extrovert, one of those people who will go up to you and just draw you in. That's something that he was born with.

"This was November and he was two." Caleb rolls a big soft ball to the caregiver. "They bulked him up with clothes to make him look fat," Golda says. "When I got him, he weighed twenty-four and a half pounds and he was two and a half. He was at the bottom of the chart for his age."


Excerpted from Far Away from the Tigers by Jane Katch Copyright © 2011 by Jane Katch. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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