The pieces come together

Success: For Julia Falkenklous, the start of first grade was a struggle. But her hard work's starting to pay off.

May 14, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Julia Falkenklous started first grade knowing her ABCs. She could easily match the "buh" sound with the letter "b" and the "eh" sound with the letter "e." After the first few writing assignments, all her classmates in Room 8 knew she could form letters neater than anyone else.

So when the 22 first-graders at Cedarmere Elementary School in Reisterstown were split into two reading groups last fall, Julia was bunched with the better readers. And that's when she began her school-year-long struggle with cracking the code of reading.

Almost from the start, during the top group's turn with their teacher, Sheri Blum, Julia would sit silently, her face scrunched quizzically. Rarely would she raise her hand to read. When forced to speak, she would almost whisper.

Julia loves cats, but the "short a" vowel sound seemed confusing. And as Room 8 moved on to the rest of the short vowel sounds, it didn't get any easier for her.

At her desk, Julia would often stare at her work sheets, filling her take-home folder day after day with half-completed work.

Not that Julia didn't work hard. She'd erase and redo her writing over and over to get it right. She'd read the same short sentence again and again, quietly determined to unscramble the letters.

She'd take four or five tries to succeed at a word that most others in the class would read with just one or two mistakes.

Julia preferred listening to jumping in with her thoughts.

"How do we read?" Room 8 was asked in October. "We listen to our teacher," Julia answered.

Math was even tougher for her.

Told to stand in front of 23 on the number line that stretches beneath one of Room 8's chalkboards, Julia wandered from one number to another: 32? No, that's not right. Hmmm. Let's look over in the row of 50s. No, it's not 53.

As the 21 other first-graders in Room 8 grew restless, literally bouncing out of their chairs to give the right answer, Julia stood still, her big brown eyes beginning to fill with tears.

"Julia, that's OK, honey, go over there," Blum said, gently putting an arm around her shoulders as she directed the 6-year-old toward the proper place on the number line.


As October moved into November, it was clear Julia needed a change. With no fanfare, a couple of students moved into the upper reading group, and Julia was shifted down.

Julia didn't seem to know it was a demotion. She was even excited by the move, because for now she could be paired with her best friend in the class, Aryn Wolf.

As fall turned into winter, Julia slowly began putting the pieces of the code together -- not with the tremendous leaps and bounds of some of her buddies, but more like a mason methodically building a wall, brick by brick.

"Fat Ed is not up" -- the sentence that Room 8's been taught to remember the five short vowels -- became something Julia would quietly whisper to herself at her desk.

During indoor recess sessions, she'd line magnetic letters up along the chalkboard, forming the alphabet and working on a few simple words. (When the class went outdoors, she'd show off her cartwheels, acknowledged by all to be the best in Room 8.)

The routine

At home, Julia began working hard with her mother, Carol Falkenklous, who works three days a week in the accounting department of a Baltimore high-tech company.

Bouncing off the bus from the school about 3: 15 each afternoon, Julia races up the driveway of her family's Church Road rancher to be greeted by her 2-year-old brother Josh.

Some days, her mother is home. Other days, her grandmother -- who lives in a spare bedroom -- is there for Julia, preparing two big bowls of cereal that she immediately gobbles down. Her father, a Postal Service technician, works the swing shift these days, seeing Julia in the mornings before she goes to school and on weekends.

After her snack, it's usually time to relax for a while in front of the 17-inch color television in her bedroom. Sprawled across her bed, Julia loves watching "CatDog" and the other cartoons on the Nickelodeon channel.

While watching TV, she'll often grab a book and a piece of paper, balancing both on her blue "Simba Lion King" plastic note pad. She'll copy the words from the book, working on her already accomplished printing skills. "I want this to be perfect," she says, erasing the letters and forming them again.

Just about every afternoon session of cartoons is interrupted by a phone call from her pal Aryn -- a chance to chat about the day, go over the day's homework and giggle. Homework comes around dinner, sometimes before, sometimes after. Usually at the kitchen table.

Her mother asks her to list eight words that begin with "g."

Goosebumps. How do you spell that? Oh, yeah. There's a Goosebumps book back in the bedroom.

"What's outside, Julia?" her mother asks.

"Grass," Julia replies after twisting her face in a moment of deep thought. "But I don't want to write `grass.' That's too easy. Mrs. Blum said we were supposed to write hard words.

"What about Grinch? I can do that one. How is that spelled?"

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