Did your children write poems in honor of Poetry Month? If so, what better way to celebrate their poems than to read them aloud in an authentic cafe setting? For the past two years, my teaching partner and I have set up a Poetry Cafe at our school and invited parents and other special guests to come hear students recite their favorite poems aloud. Since so much of poetry is about the rhythm and the phrasing of the words, the only way their poems can be truly appreciated is to read them aloud. A Poetry Cafe allows students to share the work they have done not only with their classmates and teachers, but also with the special guests that they invite. Even the parents are asked to join in the fun by reading their own favorite poems aloud.
What Is the Poetry Cafe?
One of the best things about having a teaching partner is the opportunity to share ideas. The Poetry Cafe is something my teaching partner did with her class years before we began teaching together. I loved the idea, and, together, we created what we feel is an awesome learning experience for our students. After the students study poetry in reading workshop and write poetry in writing workshop for a month, we celebrate their finished pieces by opening a Poetry Cafe and having students invite their parents and other family members to an evening event. The student poets read aloud some of the poems they wrote in class and also read one favorite poem by an author that they studied during reading workshop.
We transform a common area of our school into our Poetry Cafe. We cover TV trays with black tablecloths, create a stage with a microphone for the student readers, serve snacks and coffee, and turn the lights down low to set the mood. Students are asked to wear black shirts and jeans to honor the beatnik culture in which poetry readings at small coffee shops were popular.
Preparation for the Poetry Cafe
Poetry Workshop: To start, students study and write poetry in our classroom for a month. At the end of the unit, students create poetry books where they publish and illustrate their five favorite poems they wrote in writing workshop and also add two poems from favorite authors they studied in reading workshop. You can see pictures below of some of the students’ books along with some sample poem pages.
Invite Family Members to the Event: A few weeks before we open the Poetry Cafe for a special evening of poetry reading, we send home an invitation to parents along with a slip for them to RSVP. This helps us determine how many tables and chairs we will need.
Setting Up a Poetry Cafe
1. Determine a Location: Before planning the event, you will need to determine where in your school would be the best place to set up a cafe. A regular classroom may not be large enough to accommodate all of the guests, but you also do not want to pick a place (such as a gymnasium or cafeteria) that is so large that it loses the quaintness of a crowded coffee shop. We use a common area in our building called the LGI (large group instruction area). It is large enough to fit a small stage and lots of little tables, but not so big that it lacks the coziness of a cafe.
2. Create a Stage or Speaking Area: We are lucky to have plastic risers in our building that can also be folded up to create a mini stage. We use this as the place where students read their poems. It’s nice because it puts them slightly higher than the audience but not so high that it loses the feel of a coffee shop. On the stage we have nothing but a microphone stand, a stool, and an antique lamp to add some authenticity.
3. Use TV Trays for Tables: To make guests feel like they are truly in a small coffee shop, we choose to use TV trays as opposed to larger tables. TV trays are small and can be placed close together to help create the cafe feeling. It is important that the audience is close to the readers, so TV trays work best. We buy black plastic tablecloths to cover the TV trays and place two or three chairs around each tray.
4. Set the Mood With (Fake) Candles and Dim Lighting: We keep very few lights on in our Poetry Cafe and instead use the light from the lamp on the stage and battery-powered candles on each of the tables. We do keep some lights on in the back of the room so that the audience can see who is reading, but the dim lighting sets the mood for our beatnik-inspired Poetry Cafe.
5. Serve Food and Coffee: We ask parents to volunteer to make treats to serve. We bring our favorite serving pieces to school on the night of the cafe to “dress up” the sweets that parents choose to bring. Coffee can also be served for the parents. Having a person who is in charge of the coffee station ensures that there are no spills, and additional coffee can be brewed if necessary.
6. Ask Students to Play the Part: The beatnik culture of the 1950s and early 1960s that is often associated with poetry readings at coffee shops also had its own fashion. In honor of that culture, we encourage students to at least wear jeans and black t-shirts. Sunglasses and berets are optional if students have access to such accessories.
7. Create a Program: We create programs for this evening event. Even though students read more than one poem, we just list the main poem that they read first in the program. The programs are sitting on each TV tray when the guests arrive. This is a special memento that students and parents can keep from the event.
8. Create Signs or Banners for Your Cafe: To make our cafe look authentic, we add a festive banner above the stage and also put an “Open Mic Night” sign on an easel near the stage.
What Happens When the Poetry Cafe Opens?
When parents and students first arrive at the Poetry Cafe, jazz plays in the background. Parents find their seats, and all guests are encouraged to fill small plates with delicious treats and their cups with freshly brewed coffee.
Once all students have arrived, students retrieve their poetry books from the classroom and take a seat to the right of the stage so that they can easily come to the stage when their name is called.
One at a time, we call the students’ names and announce the title of their poem. They take their place on the stage and read their poem aloud from their book. Instead of clapping at the end of each poem, guests are asked to snap their fingers in honor of the true beatnik culture. Each student reads two original poems and one poem by an author he or she studied during poetry workshop in class.
Before students read their poems, they tell the audience the poetic devices (learned in class) that they should listen for while the poem is being read aloud. We put a helpful “Poetic Devices” card on a holder on each TV tray so that the audience knows the meaning of each poetic device.
Throughout the student readings we have “open mic” breaks where parents and siblings can read aloud their own poems or read a poem from a favorite author or book. The students love when their family members take part in our Poetry Cafe!