During writing cafes, we transform the classroom into a cafe complete with soft music, tablecloths, place settings and tealight candles. With their writer’s notebook in hand, students move to different tables, each one promoting a writing inspiration such as quotes, music, sensory objects, and heart maps. These served as seed ideas for narrative writing.
Teachers built on this idea and customized it to create new experiences that supported student writers. These experiences included an open genre writing unit and writing cafes to spark informational writing.
Open Genre Writing Unit
During the season that leaves students antsy and anxious for winter break, middle school teacher, Kerri Brennan, approached me to discuss the idea of planning a writing mini-unit that would engage students in the weeks before the holidays. Having visited the writing cafe in Mrs. Reville’s room, Mrs. Brennan decided to host one with her students and use it to launch an open genre unit of study.
In his book, Joy Write: Cultivating High Impact, Low Stakes Writing, Ralph Fletcher makes a powerful case for giving students choice not only in writing topic but also in the genre. In this spirit of choice, Mrs. Brennan created a unit called “Write What You Want” in which she charged students with selecting the topic, genre and purpose (or audience ) for their writing. Mrs. Brennan shared: “I want kids to be excited about their writing and to bring a passion to it and see that it can be used for a real purpose.” Being that it is 2 weeks before the holidays, many students plan to give their writing as gifts. Their gifts will take the forms of:
- a calendar with a poem for each month of the year that a student gave to her grandmother.
- a picture book to give to the young neighbor across the street.
- a poem for an older sister coming home from her first semester in college.
- a graphic novel addressing the challenges of middle school social life for a good friend.
The impact of the writing cafe and open genre unit is clear. When walking into Mrs. Brennan’s room the other day, I discovered students, many of whom are striving writers, diligently writing and revising their pieces. There is pride and excitement in their voices as they speak about their projects.
Nonfiction Writing Cafe
While the original writing cafe inspired mostly narrative writing, a team of 3rd grade teachers took this idea and created a writing cafe to launch their upcoming informational writing unit. In this unit, students select a topic they know a lot about and teach others about it through their writing.
Students were already excited by the writing cafe format and happy to experience it again. Entries included the following:
- Name things you know a lot about and could teach someone.
- List what do you do on a typical Saturday.
- Peruse a basket of nonfiction books and write about ideas they inspire.
In past information writing units, some students struggled to come up with topics that they knew well enough to write about. Students could be a week into drafting and discover that they really didn’t have a lot to say about their topic. Not only did the writing cafe help students brainstorm possible topics, but it also guided them to consider whether they knew a topic well enough to sustain an entire writing piece.
One of our greatest joys in coaching is planting seeds and watching them grow. The writing cafe idea lead to so much teacher creativity. It sparked open genre units and cafes to support other genres. Mostly, it reinvigorated writing instruction in our schools. Our greatest celebration is that students and teachers experienced the joy and power of writing together.
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