Creative Solutions

Meet Chris: Youth Development Correspondent

We are excited to introduce a new series on the Big Thought blog from the perspective of an alumnus from our youth development programs. Chris has been participating in Creative Solutions for several years, helped create a new online platform for youth voice called We the Person, served as an AmeriCorps intern during the summer, and was part of the inaugural Artivism performing arts show this past year. Stay tuned for more of his articles in the future, and get to know him better in this first post…

Big ThoughtMeet Chris: Youth Development Correspondent

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 He’s withdrawn, non-verbal, can’t even make eye contact.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.

Big ThoughtSocial Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual

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. 

Big ThoughtThe Art of Teaching: Meet Holly Lapinski

Making Creativity Count: New Year Wishes for Big Thought Kids

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

There’s no stopping the New Year train now. The holidays are rapidly becoming a rear view mirror memory and January 2017 is already cruising along. We have about 360 days to make a mark, to make our imagination and creativity count.

So with that in mind, we at Big Thought are of course thinking of the kids that we serve. We have those young lives foremost in our hearts. Our mission, our programs, our efforts are all about enriching their abilities to learn. We are ramping up our six programs – Creative Solutions, Dallas City of Learning, DaVerse Lounge, Learning Partners, Library Live! and Thriving Minds – for another year of greatness.

Some of our Big Thought staffers got to pondering those opportunities for so many kids in Dallas. They filled in the rest of this sentence:

My New Year wish for our kids is…

…that they find the spark that ignites their passion and the world unfurls its red carpet on their path to pursuing that passion.
Leila Wright, Senior Manager, Programs

…that they regularly experience joy.
Anne Leary, Major Gifts Officer

…to lead extraordinary journeys in life with harmony, hope and love.
Mary Hernandez, Community Engagement Specialist

…that their imagination be sparked so they experience the joys of life-long learning.
LeAnn Binford, Director of Big Thought Institute

…that they will find inspiration and a spark that ignites a passion.
Brandon McKnight, Graphic Designer

…that they never suffer, and live a happy life full of cool adventures, laughter, love and childish play for their rest of their beautiful lives.
Jose Sosa, Communications Manager

…that they feel successful in at least one way, each and every day.
Kristina Dove, Program Manager, Partner Relations

Photo credit: Brandon McKnight/Big Thought

Big ThoughtMaking Creativity Count: New Year Wishes for Big Thought Kids

Tiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt Make Creative Solutions Dreams Realities

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Tiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt are pressed for time. Rehearsals begin momentarily for The Island of Lost Souls, the 2016 culminating performance for students of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions summer program at Southern Methodist University. So Johnson and Moffitt, the artistic force behind this year’s stage musical, have just a few minutes to chat.

Their passion, however, is timeless. This is Johnson’s second year as choreographer, a role perfectly suited for a talented actress and dancer who recently completed a month-plus run as an ensemble cast member of Dallas Theater Center’s production of Dreamgirls. SMU is home turf for this recent graduate who completed her Master of Fine Arts in theatre this past spring.

Moffitt’s Creative Solutions history dates to 2009 when as an SMU freshman he served as assistant scene designer. He was scene designer from 2010-2013 and became artistic director in 2015. Moffitt earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre during spring 2013. He also has a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Together they drive the always-anticipated Creative Solutions culminating performance, the crowning achievement that caps seven weeks of work with teen students on probation after being convicted of a crime. Since 1994 Creative Solutions has been giving second chances to teen probates by teaching them life skills through performing and visual arts.

“Because they have had so many walls placed in front of them, they don’t realize they have a voice worth being heard that needs to be heard,” says Moffitt. “So when they realize that they do have a voice among their peers and community members, they take that realization with them into the world. Knowing you have a voice worth being heard makes you walk into the world differently. They have been silenced so long that this program is about them finding their voice, breaking that silence. To be a productive citizen you need to understand that you have a voice. Society improves when we all share our voices and our stories.”

The students are doing just that during The Island of Lost Souls, the Creative Solutions original musical that premieres Thursday, July 28, at 1 pm at the Greer Garson Theatre inside SMU’s Owen Arts Center, which is part of the Meadows School of the Arts. Subsequent Island performances are at 7 pm July 28 and 1 pm July 29.

The Island of Lost Souls tells the story of three kids who journey into an unknown adventure to rescue their friend Freddy who has disappeared into the mysterious “island.” But when it comes time for all the kids to return to the “land of the living,” Freddy must make his choice: Stay on the island or return to earth and face his problems.

The new musical serves as a companion piece for last year’s Club Generation, which dealt with the topical subject of police overuse of lethal force. The Island of Lost Souls takes that issue into bigger picture territory and presents a story the addresses the divide between kids and adults fueled by stereotypes. Adults don’t believe kids solely because they see them in a certain light, because they can’t identify with them.

It’s all about validation. The idea that I exist and you can’t silence me just because you have some preconceived notion of me. Validation is paramount for Creative Solutions, and Johnson sees it regularly while working with the students.

“It’s important even before the culminating performance,” says Johnson, the former Miss South Dallas who is part of Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting company for 2016-2017.

“When the program starts we find out what everyone else wants to do, even that is already validation. It’s important to have balance, to make them work hard so that the validation is deserved at the end for the work they have done. We keep a record of what they do well and what they need to work on so knowing what they do well validates them. We give them job skills. The applause is that big bow-wrapped gift as validation at the end of the performance.”

There is a complete transformation during those seven weeks, a transformation that manifests itself in that culminating performance. The students are fortified by artistic skills (music, acting, drumming, dancing, writing, singing), life skills, job skills, story sessions, brainstorming ideas, open expression, script work, choreographing, and stage blocking. Johnson, who received rave reviews for her performance in DTC’s The Mountaintop last year, sees the very unvarnished side of that metamorphosis.

“Sometimes you can see a lot of fear,” says Johnson. “Fear is a very human thing when you are stepping up to the plate to do something you have never done. I’m afraid but I’m going to go forth and do this. The joy and confidence that comes out of that is amazing to see. Building community, working as a unit, and that every piece of the puzzle matters. I help you. You help me. We are all a part of this bigger idea. They see a bigger picture and they see how they fit into it. Understanding my world as a human being in life, how I influence the movement.”

For Moffitt and Johnson, watching dreams materialize in disenfranchised students that never thought they’d have the voice to make their innermost wishes come through, much less the wherewithal, is an immensely rewarding experience.

“I want to see these kids realize their potential,” says Moffitt. “Just because they came from this neighborhood doesn’t mean they have to turn out this way. I love hearing their stories when they are speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people. I love being in a room with people from different backgrounds, communities. Their stories excite me.”

Johnson sees a little bit of herself in these students. She sees the passionate desire to be creative. She sees their raw need to live the dream.

“These are people who don’t understand the potential that they have, or they do see the potential but the circumstances don’t allow that potential to grow,” says Johnson. “I can see myself in that. I am living my dream, so I know that it is possible. It’s isn’t an abstract idea. It isn’t unattainable. I can look at someone and see that it is possible.”

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, Sammons Enterprises, Inc., The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.



Big ThoughtTiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt Make Creative Solutions Dreams Realities

Kayla Gilchrist Walked a Fateful Path to Creative Solutions

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Kayla Gilchrist walked a path that led her to Big Thought’s Creative Solutions. But at first, she had no idea this is where she was headed.

The 21-year-old from Keller, Texas, a soon-to-be-senior at Prairie View A&M University, is an ExxonMobil Community Summer Jobs Program Intern with Creative Solutions, a respected program that teaches performing and visual arts to juveniles convicted of a crime. Gilchrist initially wanted to intern at the South Dallas Cultural Center, but there were no openings. Harold Steward, manager of South Dallas Cultural Center, led her to the ExxonMobil Community Summer Jobs Program website. It was there that she found Big Thought’s Creative Solutions.

Gilchrist, majoring in mass communications with a minor in theater arts, felt Creative Solutions was a perfect fit, since her passion is theater, particularly acting with some singing and dancing. She has performed in middle school, high school, college, and community theater productions.

“This is why I jumped at the chance to come to Big Thought,” says Gilchrist, “because they are teaching these kids through the performing and visual arts.”

Her job centers on Creative Solutions’ Summer Program at Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts. Gilchrist is part of the CS administrative staff. She supervises files for 60-80 students, takes attendance, puts together paperwork for Big Thought contractors including the Dallas County Juvenile Department, participates in sessions, and mentors students in performing arts. Yet perhaps most importantly, Gilchrist lends a sympathetic ear for kids who need to talk. She gives them support.

Gilchrist took a break from her Creative Solutions duties at SMU to talk about a job experience she says she will never forget.

How do you feel during those sessions with the kids?
“I feel this work is extremely important; stuff like this changes their life. They like to talk, it makes them feel better. One of them said that me and [Creative Solutions teaching artist] Alejandro Perez, Jr. are the people that make them smile. This program gives them something to do; it keeps them out of trouble. This is giving back to the community. It’s awesome watching them discover their hidden talents.”

What does art mean to you, especially in relation to Creative Solutions?
“I always knew that art could be impactful, but now I see that art can change anybody. They are just normal kids and coming here and finding this art and finding their hidden talent is really enlightening. Creative Solutions gives me a different perspective on inner city youth. It really changed my perspective.”

How crucial is the Creative Solutions safe haven for these kids?
“Sometimes they feel safer and better here than at home. For many of them there is no comfort and freedom to make art at home. Here they have it. They open up. They can be themselves. They realize, ‘I’m good at something.’”

How did you find your own talent?
“When I was just starting out I was dabbling. It wasn’t really until my theater arts teacher and my parents believed I could do it that I truly realized it. They gave me validation, and sometimes all you need is someone to believe in you in order for you to believe in yourself.”

Do you feel like you were meant to work with these kids, to be part of Creative Solutions?
“I feel like I am a role model for these kids. To whom much is given, much is required. I feel like I was led here for a reason. If I ever write about my life, I will definitely write about this experience.”

Big Thought thanks the following donors for their generous support of Creative Solutions: Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Anonymous, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, ExxonMobil Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, TurningPoint Foundation, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund.

Big ThoughtKayla Gilchrist Walked a Fateful Path to Creative Solutions