Student Choice and Student Voice: #EdCafe

My students and I have tried a lot of different discussion formats in my class: Socratic Seminar, informal Q & A, bean bag toss, and everything else I could think of over the years. Some were too formal and students were almost too nervous to participate. Others were in groups that were too large and not everyone was heard as much as they would have liked.  Sometimes the success depended on the time of day: morning classes were super quiet while afternoon classes were hard to control.  In all cases, discussion was framed around teacher goals and not around student inquiry.

We recently tried the EdCafe model.  EdCafe solves all of these problems.

Here's how to get started:

Learn About Being an EdCafe Facilitator

The ultimate authority on EdCafe is Katrina Kennett, she is the creator of the What is an EdCafe? website.  Within the website there is a guide for teachers and a guide for students.  There area also contributions from other teachers (like Alexandra Horelik) who have created graphic organizers, rubrics, and other resources that can help you with your EdCafe.  If you are on Twitter, follow the #EdCafe to see how other teachers are using it in their classrooms.

Choose a Topic and Let Students Develop an Independent Understanding - 1 to 2 weeks

I assigned a few readings around a common theme.  Our curriculum, in part, includes 19th century American history and so we read slave narratives and watched a short documentary with stories of real slaves' lives.  Students were given a reasonable time to complete the reading outside of school.  You could even simply teach the first half of a planned unit and then hold an EdCafe to see what questions students have about what they have learned so far.

Introduce EdCafe to Your Students - 1 class period

I gave my students a webquest-style activity to familiarize them with the EdCafe style of discussion and learning.
They watched the EdCafe video for students and read the Advice for Leading and the Advice for Attending.  Then they went to the Teenage Conference: Reflecting on EdCafe website and read a few of the student reflections.  This helped them understand what other high school students thought of the experience.  It also helped them identify common pitfalls to avoid when they had their own EdCafe.  The video helped them get a feel for how they might utilize the space in our classroom.

The Advice information and student reflections helped them learn about how they should conduct themselves and what they might expect of their classmates.  Based on what they learned the set the rules and designed the classroom layout.

Planning to Lead - 1 class period

Students decided to lead their first EdCafes in pairs.  They got together and compared their notes on the readings.  I gave them access to a graphic organizer to help them plan their EdCafe session based on this one from Alexandra Horelik. Once they had chosen their topic and written 7-10 open ended discussion questions that would help their EdCafe attendees to dig deeper, I signed them up for a time slot and location for our EdCafe day.
I made the schedule available as a Google Doc so students could look at the session topics that night and get a feel for which EdCafes they might want to attend.  Students who signed up to lead an EdCafe session near the SmartBoard or the white board in my classroom were expected to plan to use those resources.  Some came prepared with primary source images to project on the screen, some drew and filled in Venn Diagrams based on their discussion, some created concept maps. 

EdCafe Day - 1 class period

We got started immediately! 
  • Our four session leader pairs for Time Slot 1 gave 30 second introductions aimed at persuading their classmates to attend.
  • Students dragged their desks to the area with the topic that interests them and the timer begins! (Our sessions this time were 12 minutes each.)
  • Leaders launch into their 1 minute background speech to explain their topic in more detail to their attendees.
  • The discussion begins! Attendees and leaders ask and answer each others' questions.  The leader makes sure talking doesn't die down to an awkward silence with their 7 to 10 open ended questions.
  • At the end of the session, the leader gives a 30 second explanation of their EdCafe takeaway.  This could be new understandings the group reached or new questions that came up.

We repeated this process three times in one class period.  Students left with lots of notes and lots to think about.

EdCafe Reflection - 10 to 15 minutes at start of next class period plus homework

I asked students what they thought of our first EdCafe experience.
They had a lot to say and there was controversy.  The aspects that some students liked about EdCafe were the same aspects that others weren't sure about.  There was a lot of talk about how leading and attending were different experiences.  Some wanted the sessions to be longer next time.  Others wanted them to be shorter.  Some wanted to try to lead on their own, others liked the comfort of having a partner to fill in gaps.  A lot of them argued that since it is called an EdCafe, I should allow them to bring in baked goods next time (of course)!  After a 10 minute discussion I asked them to reflect on the experience and on what they learned on their blogs.  Since our class is paperless, this is how they submit most of their work and it seemed like the best way for me to assess them on it.

Here are some examples of positive reactions to EdCafe:

Some liked that small groups felt more informal and less intimidating:
"The main idea of an EdCafe was to allow students to have the chance to talk about certain topics in small, informal groups, without the awkwardness of a Socratic Seminar. In my opinion, the EdCafe went pretty well in our class."
Some thought that it really helped them learn more about the content and clarify their thoughts:
"It taught me a lot a lot about slavery and I liked that we were able to lead our own discussion, because sometimes its hard to get a chance to say what you want when you’re in a large group."
Some liked that they got to choose their own topics for leading and for attending:
"I also liked how we got to do it with a partner and how we had freedom in choosing what discussion to attend."
They also had suggestions for next time. Some are ideas for self-improvement.  Others are general suggestions on how the EdCafe should be structured.  Since EdCafe is all about student choice and student discussion, I will likely implement some of their suggestions and see if they see the improvements they're hoping for.

Group Size:
"I noticed that at certain times, one group would be overflowing with 10+ attendees, while another had only two.  Larger discussions, I noticed, flowed smoothly and were not as awkward as the smaller ones, and they did not require as much prompting.  As a future recommendation, I think that having a maximum of 8 people (for three groups) and a max of 6 (for 4 groups) would work well to help balance it out."

The Need to Be Prepared:
"What I could improve for the next time is I will have more questions. That is because this time my group finished the questions with a few minutes left and we had to repeat going over the same questions again."
Unique Engaging Topics:
"The class could have been better on coming up with different ideas on the subject, I felt that several of the ideas and subtopics were repetitive and could have been more unique." 
I will definitely use the EdCafe again.  My students have lots of questions and ideas that don't get air time during a normal class period. Students' academic experience should be just as much about what they are required to learn (based on curriculum and Common Core) as it is about pursuing the ideas and controversies that fascinate them.  EdCafe provides a place to balance all of these priorities.


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