Bringing Books to Life with Literacy Cafés

By Alyson Beecher, Principal at Pasadena Unified School District in Pasadena, Calif.

Several years ago I had an epiphany while listening to a close friend’s 7-year-old daughter read a story from her Language Arts book. The story referenced a variety of literary Jacks — Jack in the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, Jack jumped over the candlestick, etc., and my friend’s child knew every reference.

The next day I went to one of my teachers and asked her how many students she thought would be able to identify all of those Jacks out of the 60 second-graders at our school. She thought about it for a moment and said, “Five percent.” I was shocked — three out of 60 kids. Yet, about 95 percent of my friend’s daughter’s class was familiar with those references. It was then that I knew I had to find a better way to encourage and support the students at my school in reading.

Each year, the teachers and I discussed how to build greater reading comprehension and greater reading abilities in all children. We tried new strategies and techniques, and each year our students seemed to show less interest, rather than more interest, in reading. Then came the concept of a Literacy Café.

The idea came from fellow book lover and parent Angie Arzili, who had heard of the concept several years ago when she was a teacher. The idea behind it is to link reading (something not all students take pleasure in) with food (something students do like)! One thing led to the next, and before you knew it, we had embarked on a journey to create a passion in children for books.

A Literacy Café challenges students to think about literature beyond the pages of the book – and to look forward to how everything will come together. As you could guess, we always include food in an activity at each Café. It may be a prompt for a writing task, something that helps children generate sensory adjectives, or any activity that promotes exploration, creativity, language, writing, and learning on multiple levels.

We’ve seen Cafés truly bring books alive for the students. They walk away from the Café seeing a book in a whole new light and understanding the concepts at a higher level.

For example, our goal with The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan was to help children feel a little like Pablo Neruda: They explored nature, created poetry, and made their own journals from materials they found in nature while nibbling on empanadas.

Cafés allow a teacher, called the “host,” to create a series of activities that address the learning needs of the students and is focused on their particular grade-level vocabulary and standards. Most activities are easily adaptable for all levels of learners. We have children who are gifted working alongside children who have special needs, all focused on variations of the same activity.

A Café is also a much better way of seeing how a student grasped a book than by just assigning a book report.

When we started doing Cafés, we promised each teacher that we would design one Café for them as a kind of gift to them. By the end of the year, we had hosted 18 regular Cafés, and several “Special Edition Cafés,” which are usually centered on an author or illustrator visit.

Even when we repeat a Café, we often change it up to meet the needs of a particular class or to strengthen something we weren’t quite satisfied with the first time. The only common elements to all of the Cafés is that food is always involved, and the events are always connected to a book or story. We did a Café on Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes three times, and each time it was completely different.

I am convinced that the Cafés have led to an increased passion for reading and will ultimately lead our school to our desired literacy gains! The students love them and are always incredibly excited to participate in this special experience. Plus our librarian has seen a steady increase in the number of books being checked out, especially the ones that we discuss. Children also seem to show more interest in books now, too. When they see me, they excitedly tell me what they are reading.

I highly encourage every principal to host a Literacy Café at his or her school. It does take preparation, but it’s not difficult to plan. To get started, I look for a book that I think will be a good fit and share it with Angie. We start thinking about activities and then fine-tune the Café. Once we have our plan, Angie prepares the materials and the setup, and if needed, contacts volunteers. (Once we did a Café for all 60 kindergartners at the same time, and we found having a team of support volunteers was incredibly helpful.)

In the end, the payoff is worth so much more than the effort it took!

Several important things we learned:

  • Start small.
  • Visit classes and share your favorite children’s books with the students. Children will get excited when they see you excited.
  • Designate some time each week to read aloud in various classes. This allows you to get to know students on a new level, model for teachers how to ask children questions about what is being read, help children make connections, and show children that you value reading enough to make it a priority in your schedule.
  • Lead a book club with a class during lunchtime or after school.
  • Ask children about what they are reading and take time to listen to their responses.
  • Leave a book on a child’s desk with a note indicating you hand-selected that book just for him or her.
  • Try a Pajama Day at your school. Invite kids to come to school in their PJs. Have breakfast for lunch, and then pair the older kids with younger kids to share their favorite stories in the afternoon. Follow that with milk and cookies. Our Pajama Day was a hit with kids, parents, and teachers alike!

Alyson Beecher, a former special education teacher, is principal of an elementary school in Pasadena, Calif. She is a self-confessed book geek and thinks the best words from a child are “What new books do you have for me?” You can follow her on twitter @alybee930 or on her book blog:
Connect Kids With Books They Want to
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