Sparking Critical Thinking
Strathmore’s Think Big Café, a collaboration with Montgomery County Public Schools and Glenstone Museum, emphasizes creativity and learning.
by Jessica Gregg
The day started with an easy icebreaker. The group of high school students received a series of sentence starters—a color that described them, a word with which they identified. The twist was that the students had to take their answers and turn them into a collaborative poem.
It was a small moment in Think Big Café, the free, yearlong interdisciplinary arts collaboration between Strathmore, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), and Glenstone Museum. But for Seneca Valley High School science teacher and International Baccalaureate (IB) team lead Kimberly Becraft, it was pivotal.
“I had been worried about the kids after the pandemic and getting their social and emotional skills back on track,” Becraft says. “Teenagers resist collaboration but also really want to connect with others.”
Would this group, comprised of kids from Seneca Valley High School in Germantown and Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, break free from their usual inhibitions? In the end, they did just that: they wrote, shared, and engaged with each other. According to Becraft, the poetry was beautiful, and the art created that day was both the means and the end—and just another reason that educators are excited about Think Big Café.
Launched in 2017, Think Big Café, a part of Strathmore’s Bloom initiative, was first designed to enhance the curriculum for fourth graders from select schools in Montgomery County. “The vision was for the students to practice expansive thinking skills in Think Big Café workshops, then apply those skills to their academic work—and maybe to their approach to the world beyond school,” says Lauren Campbell, Strathmore’s vice president of education and community engagement.
Over the school year, the fourth graders toured Glenstone and then gathered at AMP for a video chat with Scrap Arts Music, whose talented musicians taught the students to craft instruments from scrap materials. The artists then visited each school in person to perform a concert and lead improvisational music jams using the students’ newfound-object instruments. Students were bused to Scrap Arts Music’s performance in Strathmore’s Concert Hall for a culminating experience, free of charge, before they showcased their projects for each of their communities at school-wide Think Big Café festivals.
The program started strong, according to Randy Rumpf, fine arts supervisor for MCPS. It gave students opportunities for exploration and even allowed the young artists to show the beginnings of developing their individual voices and a sense of self, he explains.
At times, however, Rumpf wondered whether Think Big Café’s critical thinking concepts might be too abstract for nine-year-olds. After three years of running the program with fourth graders, when it paused during the pandemic, he realized that its objectives fit hand in glove with MCPS’s IB program and might have a bigger impact at high schools with new IB Middle Years Programs (MYP) aimed at ninth and tenth graders. The team selected two high schools with richly diverse student populations to support enhanced resources and access to opportunities—one with an established IB MYP (Watkins Mill) and one with a developing IB MYP (Seneca Valley).
Think Big Cafe now reaches 150 students and is led by classroom teachers from all disciplines, who are paid for their time.
The program integrates the IB program’s five approaches to learning: critical and creative thinking, collaboration, self-management, communication, and research. Local professional artists, all alumni of Strathmore’s Artist in Residence (AIR) program, create interactive presentations intentionally structured to align with these IB goals. Illuminating their personal journeys to define themselves as artists, the presenters explore how they break down complex projects, collaborate, and overcome obstacles. These presentations support students working on large-scale personal projects that are part of the IB MYP curriculum.
“It’s really impactful ... for students to see themselves in this realm of art.”
“The premise is still to offer multidisciplinary mentors from across the art world,” says Martita Galindo, Strathmore’s previous education and community program manager. But the big hope is to spark critical thinking. “It’s not always accessible, it’s not memorization for a test. It’s the open-ended nature of choice. For our personal development as humans, that’s really important,” she says.
Increasing student access to live performances after the pandemic also was a top priority, and so was letting the students “see these talented artists talk about their processes and challenges and normalizing that for them,” Becraft says.
Listening to the artists’ motivating personal stories was a program highlight for many of this past year’s participants. At the end of the school year, one Seneca Valley student shared that they learned how to set goals, make plans, and go into projects with a purpose, while a Watkins Mill students said they learned that “everything small can become big.”
In May, Seneca Valley held a community open house that included a concert with AIR mentor teaching artists and a showcase of student projects. The event celebrated the year’s accomplishments and sparked excitement among the students for the upcoming year. Becraft is already excited and looking for even more ways to enhance student engagement during Think Big Café.
Strathmore’s team is equally enthusiastic and hopes that one day Think Big Café will be replicated in other school districts—right now, they believe it is a distinctive model.
Galindo emphasizes, “It’s really impactful for the community to know they have access to this [program] ... and for students to see themselves in this realm of art.”
Strathmore is deeply grateful for the many contributions to our Bloom initiatives to ensure they stay free and accessible to our community. We extend our gratitude to our most significant institutional funders: Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Geico Philanthropic Fund, Philip L. Graham Fund, Jeffrey and Carolyn Leonard Endowment, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Pepco, Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation Endowment, and WGL Holdings, Inc.
DECADES OF PARTNERSHIP
In addition to Think Big Café, Strathmore collaborates with MCPS on a variety of free and low-cost Bloom programs that bring the arts to nearly 25,000 students across the county each year, including:
- Classical and blues concerts in the Music Center for every 2nd and 5th grader.
- After-school instruction from professional musicians for nearly 200 middle and high school students each spring.
- Customized in-school arts residencies and multidisciplinary arts camps in partnership with Linkages to Learning, the Y, and Montgomery County Recreation.
- Latin Dance Competition, an annual Concert Hall extravaganza for MCPS students, presented in partnership with the After School Dance Fund.