Poetry Cafe


Something I love doing during each writing workshop unit is changing the physical space in the room. I’m a big believer in changing the classroom environment to complement the unit of study. For instance, when I’m teaching fantasy fiction I build a castle in the classroom with my students. Large boxes make walls and king-sized sheets make the roof. When I’m teaching mystery fiction, I create a crime scene with yellow caution tape and “clues” such as footprints, pieces of paper, and candy wrapper. I find that changing the physical space of the classroom engages and motivates my students.

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 8.48.43 PM

April is National Poetry Month. I will change my classroom space to be a poetry cafe (as seen in the first picture.) I make my desk groups into poetry cafe tables by adding small lamps to each group and fake flowers in place vases. With the help of our incredible art teacher, I created an awning for my classroom door that says “Les Deux Magots” just like the famous French poetry cafe. This awning serves as a great topic of conversation because my students are not used to seeing French words in our classroom and they are very curious about the word “Magots” on the sign.

I also strew books about poetry all around the classroom. The librarian at our school introduced me to the idea of “book strewing” as a way to entice readers. Strewing means that books are all around the physical space and not confined to one library area or bookshelf. This way students see books in all areas of the classroom and are more apt to pick a book up to read. Book strewing is also a great tip for parents hoping to entice their children to read more. Having books available in the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms helps children notice the covers and interact with books more often. Poetry books are especially great for strewing since they appeal to all readers. Throughout April, Sonja and I will blog about some of our favorites.

In addition to creating poetry cafe table groups in my classroom, I also make a space for a poetry stage. This is very simple to do in a corner or small section of the classroom. I do this in one of two ways. The first way to build a quick, simple stage is to tape off a section on the floor with easily removable painters tape. Just by marking this space on the floor designates it as a stage for my poets. Some years, I also like to make a simple curtain using rope for an outdoor clothing line OR a shower curtain rod. My students and I hang either a sheet or piece of cloth on the rope or rod to make the curtain. We use this stage for poetry readings and slams.

To top off my poetry cafe, I bring in a bag of coffee. Mmmmmmmm! It smells delicious in the room and makes it smell like a real poetry cafe. I’ve found that my students like the French Vanilla scent the best.

Creating a poetry cafe in my classroom really adds something special to my poetry unit. I look forward to creating it with my students each year and it makes the unit memorable. Please leave me a comment with your thoughts and if you make a poetry cafe too. I would love any tips on how to add to this experience.


Dana Johansen teaches fifth grade in Connecticut. She spent the whole of March teaching, going on spring vacation, and working on the final edits for her new book, Flip Your Writing Workshop, co-authored with Sonja Cherry-Paul, due out in April. She believes in bringing literacy learning to life in any way that she can. Dana uses digital texts, flipped lessons, and all things Google to differentiate, be time efficient, and increase her students’ autonomy in the workshop. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. 



Identifying The Main Idea

shattered lives

In an earlier post I shared my reflections about launching a nonfiction unit with my 6th graders. One of texts I’m currently using in this unit is a narrative nonfiction article from Scholastic titled Shattered Lives by Kristin Lewis.

This article helps middle school students learn about The Syrian Crisis from the perspective of a child, who along with her family and countless others, are refugees displaced by war. There are numerous reasons to return to this article again and again throughout my unit. Teaching and reviewing nonfiction features and structures are major reasons as this article offers opportunities for rich instruction in these areas.

The main way I’m using this article early in my unit, is to help students identify the main idea and support their thinking with details from the text. There are many terms used synonymously with the term main idea. This can be problematic for students who can become confused thinking that perhaps they’re being asked different things.  For example, while I teach students the difference between topic and main idea, sometimes these terms are interchangeable in texts and on exams. What I want my students to recognize is that all of these terms are asking students to think about the most important point an author is communicating to us in the writing. To make this process less murky for my students, I’ve created this graphic to demonstrate the sometimes-nebulous nature of the term main idea.

main idea

I decided to start this article with students in small, guided-reading groups. I modeled for students how to read nonfiction slower, in sections, and then to pause to monitor for meaning. The following chart helped me to assess students’ progress determining the main idea of a section, identifying details that connect to the main idea, and asking questions that would propel them forward as readers. Great resources for charts like this can be found in Jen Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book.

nonfiction main idea chart

Finally, as a result of reading A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park alongside of Shattered Lives by Kirsten Lewis, we made a list of subtopics that relate to these readings. We plan to use these subtopics, as well as others, to flex our researcher muscles and further investigate topics of interest. In this way, we will continue to cultivate our love of nonfiction!