"We don't say 'can't.' We can."

Tanya Copeland, a prekindergarten teacher, listened again as 4-year-old Stacey recited her word and clapped out the syllables. "Tues-day."

Copeland nodded reassuringly. "Very nice. That was much clearer. You may sit down."

It's Tuesday, and circle time is in full swing at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Southeast Washington. With her 16 Lilliputians sitting on personalized strips of adhesive tape, Copeland provided bits of information -- a careful mix of words, numbers, songs and body movements. Then they began to sing: "I'm a little brown seed in the ground . . . . "

Circle time is one of several teaching methods that has brought attention to Copeland. In her eight years of teaching at Martin Luther King, she has received incentive awards from the D.C. public schools and has gained national recognition for an invention she calls a Magic Chalkboard. This portable chalkboard, which she developed for small-group instruction, uses sandpaper, chalk and water to trace and paint letters onto large rectangles.

In March, the chalkboard was presented at the District of Columbia Teachers Convention. With the chalkboard as a resource tool in the D.C. public schools today, she conducts area workshops for other early-childhood teachers through the Teacher-to-Teacher program.

During Easter vacation this year, Copeland showed her Magic Chalkboard at the Impact II Convention in Boston.

The challenge of the Magic Chalkboard, Copeland said, is to help youngsters construct letters and words while honing motor abilities. Copeland, who designed the two-sided chalkboard last year, starts first semester with a letter board and later graduates to a word board. An important benefit, she said, is that it can be used within a group or as an individual learning center. "It is very motivational. It gets them interested in writing."

As emphasis on learning the alphabet shifts to making words, Copeland reinforces the newly acquired skills by supplying youngsters with pencils and lined sheets of paper. Every day, new ground is broken here, and Monday's scribblers become Friday's spellers.

William Dalton, principal of Martin Luther King, describes Copeland as a "self-motivator, a self-starter."

"She's committed to education," he said. "She tries to give the best fundamentals and gives a pleasant start to her children."

Copeland volunteered recently to try an experimental program using the school's computer lab, and on any given day here, her students alternately "beep" the keyboards and "bop" on to the various work stations.

"I like to see them go beyond what is expected," Copeland said. "Just to see how far they can get -- that makes my year.

"I want to give something back. I'm proud to be a product of the D.C. public schools. You hear so many negative things. But I had an excellent education -- and I want to teach in the District. I enjoy what I'm doing."