By Michael Perik
“Mr. Mike, look at my sentence!” shouted a squeaky voice from across the buzzing classroom. I weaved through a maze of desks to the other side of the room. Sarah, an adorable pint-sized 1st grader, waited eagerly. She was kicked her legs back and forth excitedly. I looked at her whiteboard, where she had strung together many letters, but what was on her board was not a sentence.
“Let’s keep working on this okay?,” I said, kneeling next to her. I carefully cleared the board. I smiled at her encouragingly as she threw her head back in frustration.
“I-I-I can’t spell!” her DC accent rang through the room.
“How about we start with something simple, like the cat is red?” Before I had even finished speaking, Sarah dove back into her writing. I attempted to move her along quickly; in a few moments a timer would ring and the class would soon be filled with a flurry of students swarming downstairs for lunch. Frustration gleamed in her eyes. Sarah twisted her braids and palmed the beads in her hair (a telltale sign of confusion.) She sputtered a stream of letters at me like a machine gun firing bullets. I took a deep breath trying to contain my own frustration. This wasn’t the first time we had tried to write this very sentence. When I worked with Sarah we took very small steps, rather than huge leaps.
I stretched out my arm, making a careful O shape with my thumb and index finger. She instantly mimicked the action, stretching her arm out like she was trying to pop it out of its socket. I carefully broke down each and every syllable in the word. My mouth made hard and clear sounds for each letter. With each sound I tapped my fingers, demonstrating the pacing and pronunciation of the word.
I then stepped back and watched Sarah write a sentence. It took several tries, and in end it wasn’t perfect. The C in cat was backwards and she spelled Red as “Rid”. But after watching her work tirelessly like an artist perfecting her craft, it was fantastic in my eyes. She was still taking baby steps, but she had climbed a mountain doing so.
Later as I walked around the room, telling kids to erase their whiteboards, Sarah, whose eyes were lit up like Christmas lights, shook her head and simply said, “I don’t want to erase it”. Not being able to argue with her sweet eyes, I let her keep it. Throughout the rest of the day, all she would talk to me about was her sentence.