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Big Thought Stokes Creative Learning in Dallas Schools

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by Avery Stefan

Big Thought, a non-profit organization, has numerous programs that address academic achievement and youth development for students around Dallas. Through projects like the lantern art display for the Arts District’s annual Aurora event, Big Thought strives to encourage students’ creativity and imagination to enable them to attain a brighter future.

Sample projects made by Big Thought employees to inspire students’ lantern designs for the upcoming AURORA event.

Colorful papier-mâché objects, Picasso-inspired self-portraits, and other vibrant works of art created by juveniles on parole decorate the walls and shelves of Big Thought’s otherwise minimalistic new office space on South Lamar Street.

One office desk showcases a display of shoeboxes-turned-lanterns created by employees to give Dallas Independent School District students in Big Thought’s afterschool programs ideas for the 150 lanterns they are creating for Dallas’ annual Aurora event in the Arts District.

Big Thought is constantly on the lookout for artistic projects and events in Dallas, such as Aurora, in which students can get involved and explore their creative sides.

“We never need to spend money on artwork,” jokes Big Thought Communications Coordinator, Martha Palacios. “We have our own artists.”

The Aurora event will transform almost 70 acres of the Arts District on Oct. 18 into a cornucopia of lights, music and multimedia. The event will include the paper lanterns created by DISD students in Big Thought’s Thriving Minds Afterschool program, which partners with the Crow Collection of Asian Art.

The lantern project is geared to merge students’ understanding of the origin and symbolism of Chinese paper lanterns with their own culture, heritage and interests.

Krissi Oden, Big Thought’s Project Assistant for Knowledge & Innovation is managing the Aurora project.

“It’s just such a great opportunity for the kiddos, especially because they will get to display their artwork next to nationally known artists,” she said. “We want it to really mean something to them.” Schools involved include DISD’s Marsh, Medrano and Lang middle schools.

For over 25 years, the nonprofit Big Thought has offered creative learning programs for disadvantaged Dallas-area students. It receives almost 90 percent of its funding through large-scale partnerships, contributions and grants.

Various works of art by students adorn the walls of Big Thought’s office space, including this compilation of vibrant self-portraits.

Its mission: to make art and creative learning an important part of education.

“The wonderful thing about Big Thought is they provide afterschool programs to help children find those other creative outlets that they need,” said David Chard, Dean of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and Professor at SMU. “I think that kind of opportunity is essential.”

Through afterschool programs, summer camps and service learning programs, Big Thought works with thousands of underprivileged, economically-disadvantaged and at-risk kids in districts around North Texas every year to provide them with educational opportunities and life-changing experiences.

“We are truly making a difference,” Palacios said.

Big Thought began in 1987 when two women, Mitch Jericho and Edith O’Donnell, founded the North Texas chapter of Young Audiences to spark imagination and creativity in children. The organization grew rapidly, and today works closely with more than 100 partners to raise funds and gain the support necessary to develop effective programs.

One of the successful programs offered by Big Thought since its implementation in 1993 is Creative Solutions. This initiative is a partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that hosts, among other things, a seven-week performing arts summer program at SMU’s Meadows School for the Arts. Participants gain confidence, learn focus and realize direction to inspire them to envision their futures beyond a life of crime.

At the end of the program, the participants have the opportunity to share their accomplishments in front of their family, peers, and the community at a public performance.

“Families are shocked because they never thought their kids would do something like that,” Palacios said.

Some programs that Big Thought is responsible for include Thriving Minds, which covers over 2,000 students, and the SLANT service learning program, which had a huge success with the Super Bowl in 2011 with over 44,000 students involved. Perhaps the most popular, however, are the Big Thought summer camps with around 7,000 participants each summer. Big Thought comes up with its own curriculum to keep students engaged and excited to learn not just during the months school is in session, but throughout the entire year.

“Big Thought really strives to understand what engages students,” Palacios said. “Once they are involved, they develop skills and are more excited about school, making it easier for them to learn.”

Jennifer Torres, an art teacher at University Park Elementary, who used to work for Big Thought about 10 years ago, when it was called Young Audiences, now incorporates many aspects of teaching she acquired through her involvement with the organization.

Torres believes that creative learning is an important curriculum component at any age, but that it is especially important at the onset of schooling. The formative years in students’ education are when they begin to develop a sense of self and what they feel they are good at, she explained.

“My main goals in art,” she said, “are to build self-esteem, encourage risk-taking and making mistakes, and teach them how to trust their own creative instinct.”

Chard said that many schools are forced to find ways to limit spending. Time, money and resources all factor into these decisions and arts programs are often the first to be cut. However, Chard points out that the distinction between academic curriculum and the arts is not as black and white as it may seem on the surface.

“We often split these things up in terms of formal school learning and the creative side of things, and I don’t think they’re that separable,” said Chard. “While they don’t seem like natural fits for each other, they really are.”

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