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What you need: 

– a class of students and a space to work with them (12-15 students work with three corners, 15-23 with four corners, 24+ use the center of the room too)

– a way to make and see the schedule (a piece of paper on an overhead, a whiteboard, or a projected Google Doc)

– a topic / theme / text / stage in the writing process (ex. WWII, Leaders as Behavior Monsters, 1984, thesis statements)

What to do: 

1. Talk with students about why you’re using this discussion format

…how does it connect to other discussion formats you have used? how and why will they create the topics? and why does choice matter when considering what sessions to attend? Establishing a common purpose will help build a culture around the use of EdCafes.

2. Discuss the role note-taking plays

…is it part of a broader expectation (10pg by end of unit), by day (notes on all three sessions will be collected at end of period), or by session (group leaders collect notes taken by participants)? This will depend on your time frame, your unit assessments (are they working towards an essay?), and when the EdCafes fall within the unit (are you using them early in a unit, or for thesis statements?).

3. Have students create topics and write them on the schedule

…the first few times, you might have students share topics out loud and you type them up, thereby helping set norms for the schedule document.

4. Make the expectations clear for each part of the EdCafe

…presenters stand to introduce their topic sessions, students choose sessions by interest (and not by friend group), and presenters provide a ‘take-away’ at the end of the session. Often, early EdCafes have shorter sessions, and as students become more familiar (with the text, the format, and varying group dynamics), the sessions gradually grow longer.

5. Enjoy facilitating!

…you’re now a timekeeper, chair re-organizer, technology troubleshooter, while the students run the show.

Embrace the various group sizes that will emerge – sometimes a group of 10 can have just as powerful a conversation as a group of 2.

  • Note: if students don’t have anyone attend their session, it might be because of their topic is weak or unclear (which provides an opportunity to sit one-on-one with them – are they not reading? do they not understand the text? were they just having trouble phrasing? etc.), or because their topic is ‘up against’  a similar one (then either tweak the schedule or have them co-present).
  • Also, invite others in! Hosting guests at their sessions provides a different audience to student conversation as well as shows them that other people want to hear what they have to say. If possible, I print out the schedule ahead of class and distribute it to colleagues and administration (though I usually do this after EdCafes are a norm in the classroom)

A note on classroom dynamics:

There is a shift in student autonomy when using EdCafes, and a corresponding amount of intentional letting go on the teacher’s part for students to truly become independent. However, this increased freedom does not equate to student anarchy. EdCafes are an intentional and designed instructional practice that provide the space and time for student ownership in the classroom. Teachers aren’t in control of the topics or the conversations themselves, but in giving students that space, they provide ground for students to explore their interests, connections, questions, and to talk through their ideas with their peers.

A note on assessment:

You can choose what parts of EdCafes to assess and when to assess them. I often assess the participation components – did they sign up with a topic, introduce and lead a session, and provide a take away. My belief is that structure will gradually result in quality. Whether this is from maturity, intellectual growth, or sheer peer pressure (students won’t go to their peers’ sessions if they won’t get anything out of it), assessing participation encourages students to make it worth their while, since they have to do it. With that said, students don’t ‘naturally’ know how to become effective group leaders and conversationalists – this is where you can target mini-lessons on leadership facilitation, collaborative meaning-making, and using disciplinary conversation to understand the texts/ideas.

A note on classroom culture:

Since students are leading more of the classroom talk, there are obviously more opportunities for them to shape classroom culture and socialization – in both positive and negative ways. Talk with students about how to respectfully disagree, about how to handle potentially provocative situations, and how to support each other if personal issues arise. At the end of the class sessions, be explicit about your observations – what did they do well? what might need attention? If you see negative patterns emerge, establish interventions and give them language to use – use it as a learning opportunity to teach them how to work well with each other.


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