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"Thanks for the fun activities"

These were the words I heard from a first grade student of mine who comes to me for help in reading. Those words made my day, my week, my year thus far!

Our school district switched to an RTI model of instruction this year and I have the Tier II students who are assessed as the emergent readers needing the most help in reading/writing. After 13 years of teaching a multi-level classroom of first graders, this model was new to me. I had always had struggling or emergent readers in my class before, but I never had them all in one room -- coming from different classrooms. In some ways it was easier to manage as I didn't have to provide as much differentiated instruction, but I soon discovered that this was the most difficult teaching I was to ever encounter. Why? Because it was boring.

Boring is a big obstacle. Boring destroys the teacher's passion to teach and the student's passion to learn. I was told that these children would need lots of direct instruction and was given a scripted phonics program. Not only would I have to teach this scripted program, but I was to give a "double dose" of this scripted program. The program in and of itself is not horrible. It has some merit to it. However, it lacks in creativity (both for me and my students) and in creating enthusiasm in the children. It's rote memorization of letter-sounds, letter-sound clusters, phonemes etc. ZZZZZzzzzzz.

So I decided to throw caution to the wind and make this program my own (as best as I could). I shortened my scripted lesson so that I could finally have the students actually do some creative writing (instead of being dictated what to write). We were studying penguins in science and math so I decided to pull out an old project of mine and have them write about a pet penguin. They could name their penguin, its favorite food, hobby, etc. I told them that they had to write at least 3 sentences (a tall order for children who don't usually get to write even one creative sentence on their own). Not only that, but they were going to be able to make their own pet penguin out of construction paper and dress it anyway they wanted.

"Can I write more than 3 sentences?" my struggling student Brian asked.
"You can write as many sentence as you want Brian."
"Me too?" another student asked.
"Of course!"
"How 'bout me?"
"Can we get started?"

YES, this is why I teach! I remember this feeling! Passion was once again ignited in these children. They couldn't wait to write! Was this new to me? Absolutely not. But I was following the rules and doing what I was told to do so far this year and losing these kids (and myself). I had to learn to strike a balance between what I'm told to do and what I know is inherently right.

It was a great day.. The kind of day I had remembered always having before. It was a huge lesson to me. I have to follow my instincts, strike a balance and stand tall for what I believe is good teaching. The results of the students' writing was amazing. I had not seen them attack a lesson with such enthusiasm in a long time.

And when Brian was leaving he gave me the greatest assessment this year by saying, "Thanks for the fun activity." Children are the best teachers around.

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