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Getting Started with Classroom Writing Cafes (Part 1)

“How do we get our middle school students excited about writing?”

“How do we get our students to identify as writers?”

“What can we do to engage our students in a variety of writing activities independently?”

This is how the conversation began as we sat down with two middle school ELA teachers at the beginning of their first writing unit.

Engaging Student Writers for a Great Year of Writing

Before the formal writing instruction began, the teachers wanted to focus on student engagement, choice, and peer collaboration through a fun writing event.

The idea of the Writing Cafe was born!

The plan was simple:

  • The Writing Cafe would take place during one 80-minute block of time.

  • Students would be introduced to six different writing stations placed in a variety of small group areas throughout the classroom.

  • They would share their thoughts in their writer’s notebook and through digital platforms.

  • The writing activities would promote engagement, excitement, and inspiration for writing!

Building Off Our Summer Writing Experience for Teacher-Writers

The idea of Writing Cafes came from a summer writing experience that we hosted through our education consulting company, Lit Coach Connection.

In the summer of 2018, we offered educators around the country an opportunity to expand their instructional strategies for writing while exploring their own writing habits and identities. This work revolved around Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook - Unlocking the Writer Within You (affiliate link).

Each week the teacher writers read a chapter and tried out a new writing strategy that included:

  • Writing about unforgettable stories

  • Listening to snatches of talk to inspire

  • Writing small.

Our participants posted their writing in a closed Google community to share with others for encouragement and feedback.

Some of these ideas inspired the writing activities for the Writing Cafe.

The Stage is Set

We transformed classrooms into cafes complete with tablecloths, tea light candles, and soft music. The atmosphere that was created allowed students to feel writing as a joyful activity, a place where they could feel at ease creating their own writing and have the opportunity to share their writing with friends.

Students had a choice of participating in a variety of writing stations and wrote alongside teachers, administrators and parents. By the end of the period, students had 3 entries in their writer’s notebook!

We set the stage for a fun writing event:

  • Parents donated refreshments and writing supplies.

  • Invitations were sent to parents, administrators, staff, and Board of Education members.

  • Prizes were drawn allowing students to add to their supply of writing tools and to encourage them to continue on their writing journey.

Participants experienced being a part of a community of writers and engaged in the act of writing together at a Writing Cafe!

Our Writing Stations

To allow students to collect their ideas and gather inspirational artifacts, we introduced to the stations the day before the event was to take place.

Each station had room for 4-6 writers to participate with approximately 20 minutes at each station. If they completed their writing ahead of time, and there was room at another station they were free to move to their next writing activity.

Heart Maps: Gratitude Heart Maps were inspired by Georgia Heard’s book, Heart Maps: Helping Students Craft and Create Authentic Writing (affiliate link). Writers shared what gave them peace of mind, what they were grateful for, and people and places that inspired them.

Sensory Sensations: A variety of items were displayed in the small group area to help spark a story. Students were also given the choice to bring in an object from home that would help trigger a memory for writing. The Assistant Superintendent even got in on the fun and wrote with students!

Wonderings: Curiosity was sparked at the Wonderings station. Student and parent writers wrote about those lingering thoughts that resurface right before bed or perhaps when they are daydreaming.

Musical Inspiration: This station was a student favorite! Writers were asked to think about a song that they identified with or that inspired them. Students then wrote about a memory that was conjured up from the song. This concept was inspired by Stephanie Harvey’s, Walk Up Songs.

Inspirational Quotes: Adobe Spark was one option at the Inspirational Quotes station. Writers chose a quote from a published author, perhaps from their independent reading and created a digital representation. The posts were downloaded and then added to a grade level Padlet to share with peers. Students were also given the choice to expand upon their chosen quote in their notebook as an option.

A Timeline of Events in Your Life: This station was inspired by a strategy from Jennifer Serravallo’s, The Writing Strategies Book (affiliate link). Using 8-10 post-it notes students were asked to sequence an important event in their lives. They left space to insert sketches, pictures or additional thoughts and then shared their writing with a partner.

This experience was a success because it was fun, engaging, and accessible to all writers.

Up Next: In our next post, we share how our fragile writers engaged with Writing Cafes and experienced the inspiration and confidence to be writers.

Please note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links which means that we receive a small commission from Amazon when you purchase through one of our links. This comes at no expense to you. Thank you for supporting Teach Write.

Shelley Fenton and Krista Senatore are teacher leaders and literacy consultants in New York. They co-founded Lit Coach Connection in 2018 to provide both local and online professional development in the area of literacy. Both Shelley and Krista are avid writers and have presented at state and national literacy conferences. You can find out more about Lit Coach Connection on their website and can connect with them on Twitter.


Other Posts in the Classroom Writing Cafe Series:

Writing Cafes: Reaching Fragile Writers

Growing Teacher-Writers with Writing Cafes



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