Pencils in Hand: Students discover the power of words

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By Elysse Alvarado

Dallas City of Learning is a citywide initiative dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to high-quality summer learning programs. In addition to providing fun learning opportunities, DCOL commits to connect students to their community in deep and engaging ways.  

Students at West Dallas SOARS flexed their writing skills this summer with  The Writer’s Garret, a literary arts center that connects young readers to literature and writing.  Their mission is to “foster the education and development of readers, writers, and audiences, by putting them in touch with quality literature, each other, and the communities in which they live and write.”

Throughout the SOARS summer learning camp, students learned about writing styles and how to develop their own voice. From poetry to short stories, learners express their creativity everyday through storytelling.

Student with Writer's Garret talks to a local about their life.

West Dallas SOARS is housed at the West Dallas Community Center which provides daily programs to seniors and is the perfect place for budding authors to interview individuals from around their neighborhood. The Writer’s Garret challenged their young writers to interview a senior citizen about their life and ask for advice for someone their age.

A young learner focused on her subject
A list of questions prepared by a young student.
Learning how to tell a story with writer's garret.

One young writer admits she was a little intimidated by her interviewee. “ I was nervous at first, but then we began talking and she had so many great stories.” Stories about young love, favorite foods to cook and how much Dallas has changed.  Interviewees were ecstatic to share their memories and also to connect with students. “I think young people and us seniors need each other. Kids and older people can’t help themselves. We both depend on each other so I enjoyed talking with them about life.” Plenty of stories and laughs were exchanged as well as some recipe suggestions. Advice for students ranged from “think positively” to “be a leader and not a follower,” but one of the most common pieces of advice was to simply “be kind.” 

Students enjoying their day interviewing local senior citizens wit the Writer's Garret

Experiential learning is a core part of Dallas City of Learning’s curriculum. At West Dallas SOARS students have endless opportunities to grow. While working with senior citizens to showcase their life stories students were able to bloom as writers while learning about their own community in a special and memorable way.


Elysse AlvaradoPencils in Hand: Students discover the power of words

A Journey of Living and Learning


By Max Virani

Some days it really kicks-in how privileged we are to be serving on the MXP. Yesterday we returned to the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas where we got to meet and work with eleven amazing children. My brother, Tycho, was teaching them how to program LEGO robots to compete in sumo matches. We have to be very careful with this activity. Because this is a pushing match between robots, we want to make sure it doesn’t trigger aggressive behavior in the kids. Before going there, we talked with our lead instructor about what to be mindful of.

We had to recognize that most of these precious children have witnessed and directly experienced family trauma of a sort beyond what we can even imagine. On top of that, we happened to be an all-male teaching team yesterday. We know that their trauma was likely inflicted by men, so it becomes that much more important to show them that men can be gentle and kind. Our few hours with them can’t heal their hurt. That’s the long hard undertaking of their mothers and the staff and volunteers at Genesis. But we can at least help inch their efforts along as we try to show these kids that they can also learn to be creative with technology.

It turned out to be a wonderful visit. On this day the kids were beautifully bright and engaged. We have to preserve their anonymity, so I’ll make up some names and substitute photos. In the younger group, Michael and May were a dynamic duo. They were so impressed with the vehicle, they thought it must be worth a million dollars! Then they decided they wanted to own it. May asked, “What’ll it take to put it in our hands?” Natural wheelers and dealers. May must have been about 9 years old, but she grasped the programming activity like a natural. She taught her companions how the ultrasonic sensors work in the same way that bats echo-locate.

I was teaching digital modelling and 3D printing to Nadia and Maya who, though not related, were bonded like sisters. They bounced back and forth between their laptops, helping each other out at every step in the process. They decided to engrave their names with “BFFL” on the keychain medallions they created. When they exchanged their medallions, I believed they would remain best friends for life. Derek was a bit younger and he’d used a 3D printer once before. But now that he got to got to work on his own design, he tore into the lesson with unbridled energy. After he completed his medallion, he moved on to designing a house. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become an architect one day.

The resilience and delight we saw in these children was amazing. Our thanks go out to the families and staff at Genesis for allowing us to join them for one promising day in their journeys forward. We look forward to seeing them again.

The MXP is Dallas City of Learning‘s Mobile Tech XPerience. This rolling STEM classroom allows us to take the highest quality STEM experiences directly into under-served neighborhoods. It’s one small part of DCOL’s mission to address the opportunity gap faced by thousands of disadvantaged families.


bigthoughtA Journey of Living and Learning

Summer Learning Tips from KERA Learn!

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By Elysse Alvarado

Dallas City of Learning has partnered with KERA Learn! to show students that summer learning can be fun and full of adventure. We sat down with Denita Malvern, KERA’s community engagement manager, to get to know more about her work, summer programming at DCOL, and tips for parents on how they can prevent summer learning loss at home.

What is your goal for students throughout your programming?
Our goal is to prevent summer learning loss through interactive summer programming across DFW.

What is your favorite part of working with students at summer learning programs?
Just watching them learn and seeing the a-ha moments that they have while learning new things.  I also love showing them that learning is fun. To see the smiles and sense of wonder while they are learning is amazing.

What do you hope kids learn?
We hope to show them that learning can be fun and engaging. Also, to connect them to PBS broadcasting as well as give them an introduction to STEM. This shows them what kind of careers are available to them and explore careers through summer learning.


  1. Parent’s should remember that they are their child’s first teacher. Whether it be while cooking and measuring out ingredients or counting tiles while in the bathtub, make everyday an opportunity for learning. There is no user guide to parenting and most parents think that they might not be qualified to educate their kids. But don’t forget that you know your child better than anyone else so you how they learn best!
  2. If you are looking for a way to connect and spend time with your family while learning join the Summer Learning Challenge which is filled with exciting books recommendations, DIY projects and other fun activities.
  3. Participate in the KERA Summer Learning Challenge! Here is a list of books to check out from your local library and read with your little ones.

Need even more ideas to make learning fun this summer? Head over to Dallas City of Learning to discover events, movie screening and upcoming summer camps!





Elysse AlvaradoSummer Learning Tips from KERA Learn!

Imagination Takes Flight: Dallas City of Learning Turn Up! at Love Field

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By Carson Bolding

This past Saturday, the Frontiers of Flight Museum and Dallas Love Field Airport opened up their doors to children and families for Dallas City of Learning’s 5th Annual Turn Up! at Love Field. The event featured free admission to the museum, tours of the new terminal at the airport, opportunities to build foam gliders and experiment with wind tubes, food samples from airport concessionaires, and more.

The Turn Up was hosted by Dallas City of Learning, a public-private citywide partnership between the City of Dallas and Dallas ISD, managed by Big Thought. DCOL brings high-quality summer learning programs to students across the city to stem summer learning loss. Last summer, Big Thought partnered with SMU’s Center on Research and Evaluation to evaluate the impact of the initiative. They found that over 23,000 Dallas ISD students participated in DCOL programs and consistently showed a higher GPA at the beginning of the new school year than they had the previous year.    


The Dallas City of Learning Turn Up! at Love Field promotes summer learning by engaging students in a new environment and exposing them to a wide variety of aviation career possibilities. This year, kids had the chance to explore the cockpits of airplanes at the museum and make slime with Seeds to STEM. The terminal tour pointed out the spot on the tarmac where President LBJ became the first president to be sworn in on this side of the Mississippi, and Big Thought’s Mobile Tech XPerience was on-site to teach kids about robot design and computer programming. There was something for everyone!

Closing the opportunity gap is a team effort. Every year, the Dallas City of Learning Turn Up! at Love Field brings community partners together to provide valuable resources and opportunities to the young people who need them most.

bigthoughtImagination Takes Flight: Dallas City of Learning Turn Up! at Love Field

A “Creative” Approach to Trauma-Informed Practices

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By Stephanie Drenka

For more than 20 years, Big Thought has partnered with the Dallas County Juvenile Department and Southern Methodist University to provide trauma-informed job training to adjudicated young people through the arts. Through this process, youth are able to express their voice in a safe space and gain skills associated with job and college readiness such as teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication.

Many of the young participants in this program have a high number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and cope with chronic, heightened stress in their daily lives.

“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—which include emotional or physical neglect; verbal humiliation; growing up with an addicted or mentally ill family member; and parental abandonment, divorce, or loss — can harm developing brains, predisposing them to autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, depression, and a number of other chronic conditions, decades after the trauma took place.” (Psychology Today)

According to research about childhood trauma, risk factors can be offset by the presence of a stable, caring adult in a child’s life. Lisa Schmidt, the founder of Creative Solutions, has been one such adult for hundreds of young people over the years.

She describes some of the symptoms that surface with trauma-affected youth:

Early childhood trauma can actually impact brain development.

One of the things we’ve seen is that 16-17-year-olds who have experienced trauma are often responding emotionally, and sometimes intellectually, like someone an average of 2-3 years younger. So, you’d see a 16-year-old responding emotionally more like a 13-year-old, having difficulty with abstract thinking.

And we see students who have shut down all emotions, and one of the only ways they can feel is in extremes— extreme ecstatic happiness or extreme anger, but there is no middle ground.

Often when you ask kids, “are you angry?” They say “No, I’m never angry” or “No, I never cry.” They’ve shut themselves off from basic healthy emotions.

They also respond to facial expressions differently. Their brains have been conditioned to read adult facial expressions as ones of anger. You may be looking at a child with a quizzical look, but they misread it as distrust. 


As the number of adverse early childhood experiences mounts, so does the risk of developmental delays. Source: Barth et al (2008).

Credit: Center on the Developing Child.

Teenagers are not the only ones who are impacted by trauma, and the symptoms are numerous.

“The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and diabetes.” (Harvard)

In order to help children and teenagers who have been affected by these adverse experiences, trauma-informed practices and models are necessary. These are typically organized around the principles of safety, trustworthiness, collaboration, and empowerment.

At Big Thought, we weave these concepts of social emotional learning into every one of our programs. Lisa founded Creative Solutions with the mantra, “It’s not where you’ve been that determines who you can become, it’s where you will go and what you will do!”

That philosophy continues to empower Creative Solutions and all of Big Thought’s work.

bigthoughtA “Creative” Approach to Trauma-Informed Practices

The Incredible Lisa Schmidt

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By Carson Bolding

Last night, Studio Movie Grill honored Big Thought’s own Lisa Schmidt with their third annual Opening Hearts and Minds Award, an award presented to leaders who go above and beyond to create positive change in their communities. The night included a red carpet and a special screening of Incredibles 2 to honor this incredible woman.

Lisa is the founder of Creative Solutions, a program that uses performing and visual arts to teach job and college readiness skills to youth on probation. For over 30 years, Lisa has been impacting young people across the Dallas-Fort Worth area and inspiring those who work alongside her. Her influence and energy is exemplified by the words shared by her family, friends, co-workers, and students.

“[This award] acknowledges the wonderful and passionate work Lisa does. And it’s all because her heart is so full of life and joy and so much creativity to share with so many children across the Dallas metroplex.” (Mary Hernandez)

“Passionate advocate. Nobody works harder, works longer, and is more passionate about serving kids than Lisa.” (Greg MacPherson)

“When I started in the program, I was very angry. I didn’t even want to smile. But she would come up to me and break me out of that shell, make me smile, make me laugh.” (Bone García)

“Inspiring. She’s full of energy. She’s done countless things to help youth across Dallas. She motivates us to no end.” (Kristi Flanders)

“Her passion goes beyond barriers, beyond culture, beyond skin color.” (James Adams)

Click here to view more photos from this “incredible” event.

bigthoughtThe Incredible Lisa Schmidt