After-School

Community Engagement with SEL

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During April students from Martin Weiss Elementarylearned the importance of community giving. As a part of Afterschool Quality Assessment standards, SEL Site Coordinators and their afterschool students are required to complete a community event. This was a youth-led service project, and students chose a food drive. To kick off spring, the idea was to give gift baskets filled with collected can goods. Following the service project, the staff developed a two-week lesson plan to teach the importance of giving back with healthy food options, and eating healthy regularly.

To help the student’s understand the importance of community giving, the students were read “Uncle Willie and The Soup Kitchen,” by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan. This was a great way to introduce the subject of helping poverty and homelessness to children, and encourage them to give back in their communities. In the story, Uncle Willie works part-time at the Soup Kitchen because he believes that sometimes people need a little extra help. The boy in the story becomes sympathetic toward people having a hard time making ends meet, he then finds a sense of pride in his uncle. By sympathizing with the boy in the story, it uplifted the class work as team making the food drive a big success. 

After reading the book, the students were asked reflection questions. They were separated into two groups with age-appropriate questions for each age group. Group A was kindergarten through third grade and group B was fourth and fifth grade. The questions included:

1. Why it’s important to volunteer? Why is it important to volunteer at food pantries?

2. When might a person need to visit a soup kitchen or food pantry? What experiences might they be going through?

3. Could you relate or identify with someone in the community center from the book?

4. Why is it important to give back to others?

5. What are some ways other than money that you can give back?

6. If you could give back somewhere, where would it be? Why?

To further engage the students, Weiss school counselor, Tiffany Daniels, started a food pantry initiative partnering the students with the North Texas Food Bank. As an incentive, the staff offered the students a pizza party, which motivated them even more. The students were very excited and continued to share how they wanted to help their own communities. The students ended up collecting more than 200 can goods! Half of the collected can goods were shared with the North Texas Food Bank, while the other half were used in gift baskets created by students.

SEL Coordinator Deborah Carey stated the only challenge was getting a speaker from North Texas Food Bank to talk about the food pantry to the students.

From learning to cook and promoting the food drive to visiting the food pantry, the youth demonstrated their commitment and perseverance throughout the project. The staff realized that the community service initiative was a success when they could see the enthusiasm and commitment of the youth for the project — and the smiles on the student’s faces. 

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Muffins with Mom at Cowart Elementary

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Our mothers are our first teachers, and we teach others the same lessons we learn from them.” – Caroline Kennedy

Families at Cowart Elementary School celebrated Mother’s Day with a special “Muffins with Mom” event. Big Thought teaching artist Jennifer Kindert led an art activity for moms and their students. Together, they painted a beautiful bouquet of tulips and enjoyed a delicious breakfast before school started.


Click here to view more pictures from the Cowart Elementary “Muffins with Mom” event.

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Social Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual

Social emotional learning, also known as “soft skills,” isn’t a new phenomenon. But it is rapidly gaining momentum nationally as educators, employers and even economists recognize the value of developing the whole individual, not just academic readiness. In this three-part series, we look at social emotional learning from a human interest standpoint, as a burgeoning local and national movement, and as an investment in the future through a grant from The Wallace Foundation awarded to Dallas ISD and Big Thought to create SEL implementation in the district.

Social Emotional Learning At Work

Here’s a story about emotional redemption: A teenager on probation enters the Creative Solutions 2016 summer program at Southern Methodist University. He’s withdrawn, non-verbal, can’t even make eye contact. He has closed off the world in his attempt to hide behind a broken soul.

Two weeks into his work with Creative Solutions, a partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department, SMU and Big Thought that teaches performing and visual arts to teen probates, proves cathartic. He suddenly felt comfortable enough to write down his emotions and recount past traumas through poetry.

“A couple more weeks later and he felt safe enough to share those with his mentors,” says Allison Caldwell, Youth Development Specialist at Big Thought. “During the very last week of the program, he decided that he wanted his words published in the poetry anthology and that his poem was worthy of sharing in front of an audience. His voice shook towards the beginning, but his confidence grew as he felt the support from his peers.”

Writing was the salve, the elixir that helped this teenager overcome depression. “His story is the perfect example of the beginning of a journey towards social emotional growth,” says Caldwell. “He reflected on his emotions and experiences, connected with others, and was beginning to learn how to manage his emotions.”

There you have social emotional learning at work, its transformative powers in full throttle. But what exactly is social emotional learning, and why has it become a national buzz phrase in education? According to CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Caldwell has spent more than five years applying social emotional learning to her work with Creative Solutions and DaVerse Lounge, the spoken word program for middle and high school students in partnership with Journeyman Ink.

“Social emotional skills exist on a continuum – you can never truly master a skill, rather you continue to deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships as you practice social and emotional competencies,” she says. “All of our programs at Big Thought are infused with opportunities for kids to develop SEL skills.”

Photo: Creative Solutions students triumph onstage after last summer’s “The Island of Lost Souls” performance at Southern Methodist University. Photo by Can Turkyilmaz @turk_studio.


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The Art of Teaching: Meet Donna Carey

Home Base: Dallas

Big Thought History: Carey has been a Big Thought teaching artist since 2010 with the Thriving Minds After School and Summer Camp programs. She’s taught culinary arts, life skills, poetry, visual arts, food photography, performance art and more. Carey coached two America Scores Poetry Slam winning poets during 2014 and 2015, both students from Anson Jones Elementary. The students were awarded a trip to New York to present their poems at a fundraising benefit for America Scores. She also coordinated spring community service projects for America Scores from 2013-2015 benefitting SPCA, American Red Cross with military care packages, and North Texas Food Bank.

Education: Associate in Arts in Culinary Arts from Remington College in Garland.

Teaching Philosophy: “I want to stimulate students’ imaginations and creativity,” Carey says. “If you are strong in imagination and creativity, you are strong in thought, which builds thinking and decision making skills.”

Why Is Big Thought Important? “Big Thought pairs artists with students so that artists can share their knowledge with students that need it. Students can then open up and express themselves. But Big Thought also helps the artists. It helped me. I knew I was a teacher, but Big Thought really helped me become a better teacher. It’s so important to make sure the artists and the students are together because art and creativity are not in schools like they used to be, and kids really need that form of expression.”

Rewards of Teaching Big Thought Students: “Watching the progress of the students, how they build their confidence, express their feelings and opinions, and develop their stage presence,” she says. “You see how they really want to write with enthusiasm and interest they have never had before. The end reward is watching a child get up onstage in front of a group and sharing a piece of themselves that they never thought they could share. They walk on that stage like they own it.”

– Mario Tarradell

Photo: Donna Carey works with a student at Anson Jones Elementary. Photo by Jose Sosa/Big Thought. 

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The Art of Teaching: Meet Holly Lapinski

Home Base: Wylie

Big Thought Teaching History: 16 years, incorporating Learning Partners, Creative Solutions, Make a Connection Through Art programs. Now Creative Solutions, including the summer program at Southern Methodist University and other CS assignments.

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Art from Montana State University.

Teaching Philosophy: “I just really want them to have a positive experience,” Holly says. “I want to share what I do with young people. It’s really all about feeding into what we become as adults and their place in society as a whole. We need to expose kids to art, to a creative outlet, so they can develop an interest in something other than getting in trouble. I want them to have something positive to focus on so they can make better choices and have great opportunities.”

Why is Big Thought Important? “Big Thought is a great connection to the local arts world. Meeting somebody that was part of Young Audiences of North Texas, as the organization was at that time, connected me to the arts community. That community is small compared to the overall population. Big Thought gave me what I always wanted, to be part of citywide arts and make art with kids. I make a big mess with the kids and then send them home.”

Rewards of Teaching Big Thought Students: “When I take the kids through pottery, which is a long process, and they see it all done they realize they have made something that lasts or is even useful,” she says. “It’s such an incredible experience for them. You take this lump of clay and sometimes it takes weeks to get things finished. When I open the kiln and all their pieces are in there, it’s amazing that these kids didn’t know anything at first, and now they feel so much pride in their work. It’s also important for kids to have the experience of doing something that isn’t instant gratification. It’s really satisfying to teach them an art form that rewards patience.”

– Mario Tarradell

Photo: Holly Lapinski imparts her knowledge of art with two students at an art exhibit. 

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