FCPS teacher of year Corey Thornblad

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza presents Kilmer Middle School social-studies teacher Corey Thornblad with the school system's 2016 Outstanding Teacher award. (Photo by Donnie Biggs)

History can be dull and uninspiring if taught merely as a laundry list of significant dates and prominent figures.

Kilmer Middle School teacher Corey Thornblad goes in the opposite direction. Her students have scurried about during a simulated Oklahoma land rush, sought shelter in improvised “trenches” during a segment on World War I and re-enacted working on an assembly line while learning about industrialization.

Thornblad, who in late February was named Fairfax County Public Schools’ 2016 Outstanding Teacher, especially is enthralled by watershed events in U.S. history that tested the nation’s mettle.

“I’m very interested in World War II, the Civil War, the New Deal and Great Depression era,” said Thornblad, who teaches eighth-grade government (civics and economics) and seventh-grade honors history. “My grandfather fought in World War II. It points to America’s strength and how we were able to respond to those kinds of crises.”

In a video posted on the school system’s Web site, Superintendent Karen Garza entered Thornblad’s classroom unannounced and gave her the good news.

“We have a surprise for you today. You are our Teacher of the Year,” Garza told Thornblad, who then received cheers from her students and a hefty flower bouquet.

“It’s a highlight of my teaching career and a day that I will always remember,” she said in the video.

She also will receive $3,000 as part of her award, had been named a finalist for the Washington Post’s Teacher of the Year Award and will represent FCPS in the Virginia Teacher of the Year competition, the winner of which will be announced this fall.

Thornblad originally is from Tulsa, Okla., and holds a bachelor’s degree in history and theater from the University of the South and a master’s in education from George Washington University.

She started her FCPS career in fall 2004 and has worked only at Kilmer Middle – an unusual situation in a huge school system where people frequently change positions.

“It’s my happy place,” she said of Kilmer. “I love the people I work with. They’re incredible professionals. I love working here and I never look to leave.”

Before joining the school system, Thornblad worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, was a speechwriter for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and served as communications director for U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

Thornblad was enjoying her political work when she attended a school event in Los Angeles with Harman, saw the representative talking with the children and did not wish to leave.

“I was having a great time and doing well in my career and moving forward, but in politics, change is incremental,” she said. “I wanted to do something where I felt I was changing lives on a daily basis and that’s what teaching is. Every day when I leave my job, I can point to numerous occasions where I helped somebody.”

Colleagues Rob Paine and Chris Custis nominated her for the award.

“She understands the individual needs of students, encourages their talents and fosters their self-esteem from the first day of school,” Custis said in a media statement accompanying the honor.

Paine described Thornblad as a “tireless advocate” for the school’s special-education and general-education students.

“Through her work, Corey has taken the fear, intimidation and tedium out of writing and made it engaging, enjoyable and accessible for students,” his statement read.

Thornblad credits the school’s team of teachers and administrators with bolstering her effectiveness. When some students had trouble grasping research methods, she and school librarian Gretchen Hazlin created a ThesisAlive! Workshop that helped pupils improve their skills using everything from iPads and fairy tales to Lego stations. More than 1,000 Kilmer students have participated in the workshop.

Thornblad and Hazlin included ThesisAlive! and other critical-thinking tools in their online Bubble Up Learning Program, which has been accessed by fellow FCPS teachers and educators nationwide, school officials said.

Thornblad creates a positive learning environment by not using sarcasm on underperforming students and prohibiting put-downs in her classroom. She encourages students to expand their minds and ask questions without fear of ridicule or censure.

The teacher provides periodic “brain breaks” so her students can limber up and refresh their minds. She also is keen on developing their writing skills.

“In this era of testing, we want to remember life is more than multiple-choice tests,” she said. “If you can think clearly, you need to be able to put your arguments on paper.”

Thornblad likes to teach her students about the United States’ three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – and encourages them to play an active role in the country’s future.

“They have the power as individuals to control what our agenda is. I tell them, ‘You are the future leaders. This will be up to you. What will you do to make a difference and further the ideals of our country,’” she said.

“I’m not a cynic,” Thornblad added. “I truly believe this generation I’m working with will accomplish great things and do better than we have.”

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