It wasn't until the end of her tragically short life that Thea Leopoulos first discovered the depth of her talent as an artist.
A buoyant, beautiful girl with dark eyebrows and sharp brown eyes, Thea spent her childhood believing the experts who first told her, back in third grade, she was unworthy of acceptance to the local program for "gifted and talented" children.
Since then, Thea had struggled in her coursework and felt uninspired by a stream of classes that focused too much on academics, and not enough on other forms of learning, like the arts.
Then, in her junior year of high school, she produced a finger-painted portrait of B.B. King and removed any doubt of whether or not she was talented. Soon after, her capacity to excel in every area of her life changed dramatically. She had discovered a new source of confidence and calm. She had found her path.
A few months later, she was killed by a drunk driver.
Along with 400 others last week, I learned about Thea's story at a statewide conference of Oklahoma educators titled Faces of Learning: The Power and Impact of Engaging Curious Minds. On hand was Thea's father, Paul, who shortly after his daughter's death established the Thea Foundation and adopted the mission of carrying her legacy forward by advocating for the importance of art in the development of young people:
There are too many children today who, like Thea was, are either mislabeled or under-engaged by a system of schooling that pays insufficient attention to the whole child. It is equally true that every child, as Thea did, can discover their own inner sources of strength, passion, and purpose in school. But that won't happen until we restore a balance to what we teach children, how we teach them, and how we go about evaluating our efforts.Jean Hendrickson, the conference's chief architect and the executive director of a statewide network called A+ Oklahoma Schools, hopes that sort of change is afoot in Oklahoma:
I see this conference as the latest effort on our part to encourage each other to start to see our work differently. Learning has lost its face -- it has become an impersonal pursuit of metrics, not people. Yet we all know that the locus of learning begins and ends with the human being, and with the soul, spirit and mind.
So my hope was to use the metaphor -- faces -- in a more intentional and multidimensional way: How are we thinking about this word when we describe our work as educators? Do we imagine it as a noun or a verb? And how can we help people grapple with this word and make their own work more grounded in the personal needs and aspirations of the children we serve?
Hendrickson's frame for the conference was a way for her to link Oklahoma's efforts to a nascent national effort called Faces of Learning, in which local communities are encouraged to mobilize themselves by asking -- and answering -- four essential questions:
"In Oklahoma," Hendrickson explained, "the schools in our network adhere to a set of commitments that include daily arts instruction, experiential learning and enriched assessment. The schools collaborate around curriculum, mapping the instruction so that interdisciplinary concepts emerge that encourage cross-curricular integration, and the use of multiple intelligences to structure learning opportunities for students. And the infrastructure in A+ schools supports common planning time, shared vision, and faculty commitment to the goal of schools that work for everyone."
Do you belong to a like-minded network of schools, or want to create one? Do you have a personal story to tell about your own most powerful learning experience? Are you ready to see America restore a balance to how, and what, we teach young people in our schools? Please join with Jean, and Paul, and many others across the country, and add your voice to the chorus of stories at facesoflearning.net.
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