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Focus on Teaching: Kathy Thiebes, Early Adopter of the Common Core State Standards

February 19, 2013

Over the past five years, Kathy Thiebes has had what we educators call a “heavy teaching load.” Six classes per day. Some classes with more than 35 students. Approximately 200 students daily.

A high school social studies teacher in the Centennial School District in Oregon, Kathy is also an “early adopter” of the Common Core State Standards. She is in her third year of implementing the CCSS—making her among the first group of teachers in her district (and potentially across the country) to pick up the CCSS and try them out.

There is no doubt that implementing the CCSS for 200 or so students in her economics, government and AP history courses has been a big lift. However, in Kathy’s words, “now that I’m in my third year [of implementing the CCSS], I’ve put in place many routines that have made teaching reading and writing much easier. I always required my students to read and write a lot but the CCSS made me realize that I wasn’t teaching them how to read and write. I was assigning literacy, not teaching it. I had to wrap my head around what the CCSS meant for my classroom and develop the systems to effectively teach reading and writing.”

Kathy was introduced to the CCSS through the Literacy Design Collaborative, a loosely aff

iliated group of teachers and partners who are using a common framework and tools to design and teach reading and writing assignments in their content areas. You can check out Kathy’s assignments and instructional approaches (and other examples from her colleagues) here.

Kathy paints a very clear “before and after” picture of how the Common Core State Standards have changed her classroom. Here are just a few examples that resonate loudly for me from our conversations:

  • Prior to CCSS, Kathy would ask students to read a primary or secondary source, summarize it and then share their opinions. Referencing the new standards in history/social studies, Kathy shares, “Previously, I might have asked students to provide some evidence to support their opinions but not to the extent or depth that I do now, nor did I ask them to analyze the structure of a text or the author’s point of view. I can’t count the number of times a day I now say ‘Where in the text can you find evidence that supports that comment?’ I didn’t realize how non-text dependent and opinion-based our discussions previously were.”
  • Kathy also credits the CCSS for changing her approach to teaching content-specific vocabulary. Instead of isolated vocabulary assignments and students cramming for a test that asks them “to regurgitate definitions,” she now teaches vocabulary in the context of what students are reading and requires them to use the new words in their formal written products. She finds students internalize the meanings of the new words by applying them, stating “the review for the final is so much easier now because students actually remember the new vocabulary and understand the words in a variety of contexts.”
  • Another key difference in her instructional approach is how Kathy frames questions for students. “In the past,” she says, “I typically asked students to ‘respond’ to a source or a particular quote. Now I use the language of the CCSS themselves—either in classroom discussions or through the Literacy Design Collaborative tools for designing assignments—to make my questions clearer by asking student to evaluate, or determine, or analyze. I’m teaching students those specific skills. And their essays reflect this change. Students now anchor their ideas in the texts they are reading and show what they are learning in written assignments instead of declaring their general feelings about a subject.” 

Some worry that because of the Common Core State Standards focus on literacy skills, students won’t learn subject area content. Yet according to Kathy, the exact opposite is occurring: “My recent students are actually learning the content better than my students did in the past. That has been the biggest surprise for me. In addition to the reading and writing assignments, I also give the multiple-choice topic assessments that I’ve always required from students. My students now score better on the content tests than my students did five years ago.”

Kathy sums up the CCSS experience for colleagues who might be picking them up for the first time: “I don’t want to sugar coat it and pretend that the CCSS lessened my work load. In the beginning, it took a lot of intentional planning and new structures to implement them. However, they become the norm in terms of what students are expected to do and how student conversations are structured. The CCSS make it easier for kids to do peer feedback and review and provides them more structure for assignments and classroom conversations.”

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