Thinking About Hosting a Poetry Café? Here are 4 Steps to Get Started

I remember the day vividly. The excitement had gathered at the bottom of my belly, bubbling over like the night before my birthday. I knew that today was going to be magnificent.  I was in first grade, and I had been waiting for this day for what felt like, in first grade time, a decade! It was called the Author’s Tea, and I was going to share the narrative I had written, entitled My Magic Family. The story was about my best friend Rachel and me (shout out to my teacher friend Rachel…our friendship dates back to kindergarten)!

In my story, I was going to play with her but got lost along the way, and then I magically found my way back, and my family revealed that I had magical superpowers. I was super stoked to share this story, and what made the event even more exciting was that my parents, and my classmates’ families, were joining! Everyone was welcome, and we were going to sit in my teacher’s rocking chair. We we were going to showcase our work that we had toiled on for weeks!  Not only had I written the story, I had illustrated it, glued it to colorful construction paper, and had it bound together by my teacher. Due to my teacher’s enthusiasm and dedication, I really thought that I was a real-life author…I mean, it might as well have been published.

When the day finally came, it was just as incredible as I had imagined. My family took pictures, and I read my story with apparently way too much enthusiasm. Rachel makes fun of it to this day, but our first grade teacher had emphasized reading with expression, so really, I was just displaying my understanding.

I wanted to start my post with this story to illustrate how my teacher had ingeniously engaged me in a writing process that I remember to this day. I remember the Author’s Tea, and Rachel remembers the Author’s Tea, because my teacher had created an event that completely engaged us and made us want to learn. While our memories of our elementary school experience often become blurred, this has not. I thank my teacher for that.

When I became a teacher and started to teach writing independently, I realized how incredibly challenging of a subject it is to teach. When you have twenty-some students whose writing abilities vary so greatly, it can be pretty tricky to support your students who need greater-than-average support while simultaneously providing enrichment opportunities for others. Despite these challenges, however, the one thing I realized quite early on was the significant value of students sharing their writing.  When we ask students to complete written pieces but they never have an opportunity to share them, how are they supposed to learn that what they are doing has a purpose? How are they supposed to realize that the work that they do is valued? If we work four weeks writing a piece, and then the next day we switch to another piece, do they know that I’ve read their work? Do they know that I care? I personally believe that sharing writing is an absolutely integral component of effective writing instruction.

Now, sharing writing does not always have to be a big ordeal. Due to the inordinate amount of demands placed upon teachers, sometimes the only manageable sharing may be a small group for ten minutes, which is still a valuable learning opportunity. However, if one does have the luxury of time (or if one chooses to forego other content…I won’t tell if you don’t), spicing up writing sharing and making an event can not only serve as a way to enthuse students but also *motivate*  students throughout the entire writing process.

I recently hosted a “Poetry Café” for my second graders to share their Marking Period 4 narrative poems and was really pleased with how it turned out. I transformed my classroom into a coffee shop, and families came out to support their children as they shared. Below, I will share with you the four steps that I took to hold the café.

Step One: Introduce

This step involves introducing your new writing project to your students and immediately describing what their final sharing project will look like. I wasn’t able to fully do this this time around, simply because I had not yet thought of the idea of the poetry café. I was also intimidated regarding how my students’ writing was going to turn out. (It was the first time I have ever taught narrative poetry, so I knew I was in for a bit of a challenge). I told my students that we were going to start writing narrative poetry and we would have an event where their parents or other guests were invited to watch them share. Had I known I was going to have a poetry café, I would have spent one class period describing a poetry café to further garner excitement about the project. (In coming years, I might go so far as to show my students pictures of previous poetry cafés, as primary students tend to be quite visual). The entire purpose of this step is to emphasize the end result. Every student will write a narrative poem (this sends the message that every student is *capable* of writing a narrative poem), and every student will partake in a celebration! This step is the motivational component. Students will want to craft an awesome narrative poem because they will want to share their very best work!

Step Two: Write

In this step, students craft their narrative poems. If you teach, you know this is a lot more challenging than it sounds. Poetry instruction of course will vary depending on where you are located, curricular expectations, whether you are following a particular writing program, etc. However you structure your writing block, the second step is to do what you would usually do to teach a new style of writing, and have your students craft their pieces. I spent about one week immersing my students in various kinds of poetry first (acrostic poems, concrete poems, couplets, quatrains, etc.). I then began modeling how to craft a narrative poem based upon a narrative graphic organizer. All of my students completed this graphic organizer, and then on paper, completed a rough draft where they translated their ideas from their graphic organizer into a poem. When this was complete, they revised and edited their work and then published their writing on a Google Doc on their Chromebooks.  After we had a writing conference, I printed out their finished work for them, which they illustrated and glued to a construction paper background. However you want to do it, go ahead, so long as your students produce a final, polished (or unpolished, depending upon their craftsmanship) piece.

*Tip:  All of my students were required to go through the entire writing process described above. However, because poetry is so flexible and unstructured by nature, my early finishers were allowed to craft additional poems and experiment with whatever type of poetry they liked.

Step Three: Plan

After all was said and done (this particular project from start to finish took us about four weeks), every student had at least one finished narrative poem. It was then time to start collaboratively planning our event together!  (Again, due to curricular demands, it can be very difficult to allot the time to plan a sharing event. We spent one class period making an anchor chart about what poetry recitation should look and sound like, as well as practicing, and another class period planning the jobs required for our poetry café event).

I described poetry cafés and how oftentimes poets might share their work in a coffee shop, at an open mic night, or some other kind of event. I told students that I would take on the two primary responsibilities of transforming our classroom into a coffee shop and creating a program with all of their names and poetry titles, so long as they helped with the other aspects of planning.

We decided upon a date and time, and invitations were sent home via e-mail and on a paper copy in their take-home folders. Then, together on my dry erase board, we brainstormed a list of the jobs that we would need for the event to take place.  We decided upon:

  • Program Distributors (2)
  • Seat Passer-Outers (2)  [I never said our language was sophisticated].
  • Introducers (2)
  • Poet Announcers (3)
  • Concluders (2)
  • Sign Makers (Everyone Else)

I used my equity sticks to decide who could do which job, and of course, students had the choice to decline a position that did not cater to their particular interests. Everyone who had a job that was not Sign Maker met together during that class period to discuss what it was they wanted to say.  (I provided very little instruction to these students). Everyone else was responsible for designing signs that would a) tell guests where to go but also b) establish the cozy, lively atmosphere of a real-life poetry café. While these jobs could completely vary depending on what your students discuss, I think sign making is quite important so that even if a student does not have the opportunity to have an additional special time to share at the café, they still feel like they are positively contributing to the event in some way.

Step Four: Celebrate & Share

The day of the poetry café required a lot of time and energy! I am fortunate because on Tuesdays and Fridays, my students have lunch and recess back-to-back, and my planning time precedes that, so I have a large chunk of time. While students were gone, I transformed the classroom after their special. I made sure that they had everything they needed so they would not wander back into the classroom. I MAY have jokingly told them that I would lock them in the classroom if they tried to come back. (Best practice?  It’s questionable). I used the following materials to conduct the, quote unquote, classroom transformation:

  • Black bulletin board paper (Thanks to the advice of one of my colleagues, I learned that black bulletin board paper serves as an excellent table cloth).
  • Coffee cups (I got these for my students so they could feel extra fancy, and sure enough, my mission was accomplished).
  • Fake candles (I had these at home, and they contributed nicely to the atmosphere).
  • Student-made signs (These were created during step three).
  • Fake fireplace (I projected this onto my Promethean board).
  • Stool (This is where the poet sat).
  • Floor lamp (This is optional, but adds dramatic poetry café effect if placed next to the poet).
  • Chocolate milk/apple juice/water (These served as our fancy café drinks).

Here are some pictures of the transformation below:

When I picked my students up from recess, I took a video of their reaction to the classroom transformation, and it was priceless (so I highly recommend doing the same thing). Then, we had about 20 minutes until our visitors arrived.  In those 20 minutes prior to visitors coming upstairs, we briefly walked through what it would look like (I’m not going to lie, with the minimal practice for the event, and it being entirely student led from the introduction to the conclusion, I had my concerns). We walked through some of the questions that they had, and then our café commenced.  

A visitor was greeted by a Program Distributor who stated something to the effect of: “Welcome to our Poetry Café. Please see a Seat Passer-Outer.” The Seat Passer-Outer’s job (I know it might be hard to predict) was to unstack a chair and seat guests where they wanted to sit (if they were parents, most likely next to their child).  Can you tell my room is small? After way more guests arrived than I had anticipated, and my room was filled well beyond its intended capacity, I rang a bell (an attention signal I use with my students, which felt quite comical to use with parents), and sure enough, our café started. The Introducers came out, and it began. I was mostly nervous about my three Poet Announcers who not only had to announce each student and the titles of the poems but also ask after each poet presented for three comments/questions (I think feedback is an essential part of sharing). That seemed like a lot of responsibility, but they nailed it!  I was SO proud of everyone, and everything, oddly enough, ran smoothly. If your class is having trouble brainstorming a list of ideas for jobs, these seemed to work quite well for us!

The only twist in this event was that my Concluders ended their “Thank you for coming to our event,” with a “Ms. Quaytman, we have a question for you.” I thought that this was the first time my students had forgotten what their job was, so I leaned in immediately to provide assistance, but they loudly asked, “Ms. Quaytman, will you read YOUR poem?” I had modeled writing a narrative poem by composing a fiction poem about them that incorporated each of their names, but it was embarrassingly long and intended only for their ears. Due to the peer pressure of both my students and my students’ families, the event concluded (completely unintentionally) with the reading of MY poem, and I was mortified.  TRUST VIOLATION, I tell ya’.

Anyway, all in all, the students loved the experience! They CHEERED when I picked them up from recess and knew it was about to start, and afterwards, simply could not come down from the excitement. Maybe consider hosting it near the end of the day because we still had a solid thirty minutes to go afterward…which in teacher time, seemed like a century.

Are you going to host a poetry café? Message me if you have any questions about what we did, and I would LOVE to hear how yours turns out! 🙂

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