Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poetry Cafe

At the request of a Twitter colleague, I thought I'd share some details about a 5th grade tradition at our school: Poetry Cafe.

Nate performs his original poem
In a nutshell, the Poetry Cafe is a poetry slam. The students spend several weeks of writer's workshop creating poems in all different genres. We teachers go about this differently: some have our students create anthologies around a topic and themes, while others focus on figurative language and/or poetic form. Students go through the writing process (generating ideas, drafting, revising, editing, publishing), this time with the grammar-rule-less freedom that poetry allows them. All students also choose a variety of poems that they will perform, "poetry slam" style, in front of their peers, staff members, and invited guests. Students choose 3-5 poems of different genres, and then we organize the slam so that poems are performed by genre, with a narrator to introduce the genre, what makes it special, and who will be performing a poem in that genre. The slam always goes quickly.

Parents seated for the poetry slam
Once the students select, revise, edit, and practice their poems, preparations for Poetry Cafe begin. You see, in addition to being a poetry slam, our students also transform their classrooms into cafes. They are in charge of how the classroom should be arranged. They decorate. They invite family members to watch them perform (see the invitation here.) They choose jobs to do before and/or throughout the poetry slam: set up crew, hosts, servers, and chefs (see the jobs list here.)  Invited guests have snacks and drinks that I bring to school that morning, then, once the hosts have seated the guests and given them a menu and program (you can see it here), the servers and chefs work together, taking and filling food orders.

While all this is going on, students are working together - silently - to be ready to perform their poem. Students help each other get in order, and they make sure each has his or her poem ready to perform (memorization isn't a requirement; expressive performance is) for that genre. As I was watching the slam in action on Friday, it reminded me of a ballet. Students were working in synchronicity, quietly and confidently moving about the room serving food or lining up to introduce a genre or perform a poem. Each knew his part, and everyone worked together. It was a thing of beauty, and I was in absolute awe of them. This year, students performed 85 poems in under an hour while operating a cafe filled with over 20 guests. I ran a slideshow (you can see it here) that the students requested to help keep them organized. Really. That's all I did.

When the students finished slam, took photos together, and hugged their parents goodbye, we debriefed. The feedback is always the same, yet still incredibly powerful: "I loved running the cafe!" "It was so fun to serve guests!" "This was just like real life!" "Performing was easier than I thought it would be!" Poetry, and by extension, The Poetry Cafe, offers students experiences they've never had before. They have the freedom and the opportunities to take charge, make decisions, and collaborate to make an event a success. The looks of pride and accomplishment across the faces of each and every one of my students were so great to behold. The post-slam confidence was palpable. Postures were straighter. Heads were held higher. And witnessing that was worth all the preparation and practice.

Poetry Cafe has evolved over the years, based on the needs of the students. Some years, the kids want to make the slideshow; this year, they didn't have enough time. I'll be sure to make time for that next year so the cafe has more of the students' visual stamp on it.  Next year, I'd also like to have the students write their own "poet biographies," like the author bios we see on book jackets. We can incorporate them somewhere in the classroom or even in the program. Finally, I'd like to make more time for rehearsal. We had an entire morning for it, but some students could have benefited from more than one run-through.

While we teachers are  always thinking of ways to be better, we also know that this experience is one of the most important that we give our students. It is worth the time, practice, and preparation to see it all come to fruition. Creating poetry teaches kids in a way that other writing genres can't. It's vital to upper-middle grade literacy, as a form of expression and communication for those students who might struggle with prose. Poetry can be a gateway to confidence as a writer, and I am grateful that we, as a team, see its necessity in our literacy curriculum.

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I am so grateful for the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me a space to share my Slice of Life.


  1. Wow...just, WOW! I'm speechless. This looks amazing and powerful! I LOVE every single thing about this. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Michelle! It is one of our absolute favorite days of the year. The kids are always so nervous - and a bit skeptical. But then they DO IT. And they love it. Every single time!


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