Calling All Writers! Writers Cafe Success Stories

by Joan Lange, Librarian, Pope John Paul II High School

How does the library mission to prepare 21st century learners relate to creative writing?  Should librarians expand their role of guiding students in information and research skills to a more active role in encouraging creative writing?  In an online Global Education Conference , Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, stressed the following as “survival skills” in today’s world:

Oral and Written Communication
Creativity and Imagination

In fact, the senior executives that Wagner polled listed the inability to write convincingly “with voice”–finding an authentic voice in writing–as the number one deficit in their employees.

Six years ago, our library Teen Read Advisory pondered a similar concern about creative writing. One teen pointed out that creative writers were “invisible” at our high school (creative writing seemed underappreciated or writing kept “secret” by fledgling writers). From that meeting, an idea for a Writers Café began to form. Six years later, our annual Writers Café continues to be a much-loved event that celebrates creativity and imagination in an open-mike, café setting.  This article will describe some ways our school reaches out to encourage creative writers and will offer some practical tips for a library-sponsored Writers Café.

Create a Display on Writers about Writing

Feature the words of writers and books on the art of writing in a library book display. Quotes, such as the following from Anne Lamott, stress the importance of students finding their own passionate voice:

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way.
What you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or
insider pathos or meaning…everything we need in order to tell our stories…exists in each of us.
Anne Lamott,  Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 “Be a voracious reader”

Bret Anthony Johnston, editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, offered the following advice to writers during Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books:

  • Be a voracious reader. Apprentice yourself to literature that you love.
  • Enjoy it as a reader first, paying attention to where you connect with the story.
  • On the third and fourth reading, begin to examine the structure; how do you explain it on a craft level.
  • As Saul Bellows observed, “Every writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

Johnston’s book offers a wide range of creative writing activities from noted contemporary authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, in order to “provide tools in a toolbox for a student to ‘take a risk.’”

Incorporate Visual and Performing Arts

Educator and author Barry Gilmore’s book Drawing the Line suggests using famous artwork or photos as poetry prompts.  Students write through the eyes of a character in the artwork, using sensory words to describe the mood/conflict/setting of the scene. This activity was used with interesting results in our Public Speaking class.  One student used a photo of children in a Holocaust camp to write her poem. An excerpt below shows how concrete details depict inner emotions:

A few strands of barbed wire are all that separates
these twelve children from freedom…
Still, hope lingers through the air like a butterfly fluttering
searching for a spot to rest its tired wings
One girl stares past the prison where she had thought
she would breathe her last breath
And wonders about what’s left for her now,
waiting on the other side,
Morgan Roth, “Hope”

Field trips can be opportunities for writing as well.  While at a Thespian conference, two theater students did a fast-write exercise and created dynamic, short monologues that were later performed at the Writers Café.

Writing is a Cross-Curricular Activity

Foreign Language teachers have encouraged students to write poems. Latin students used a Latin motto such as “Carpe Diem” or “Mormento Mori” for poetic reveries.  They have also retold Greek myths.   AP Spanish students dramatized pressures of teen life in poems after studying the works of Latin American poets.

In Morality class, a student researched the sex slave trade and was inspired to write a poem from the perspective of a teen mother who promises to save her child from the fate she suffered.

Don’t Forget the Newspaper Staff!

Humorous editorials, satiric book reviews, and poignant opinion pieces came from the online school newspaper.  Give these journalists even greater readership through a featured spot at the Writers Café.

Special Guest Authors

Teachers, local authors, and musicians have showcased their creativity at the café.  On two occasions, country music artists have worked with our Hand-in-Hand students, those students with learning disabilities, to create heartwarming songs.  One teen boy’s experience as the assistant manager of the basketball team was told in a song, “My Season with the Team.”  In a joyous moment of the song, this teen called a play that led to a winning basket for the team.

Promoting the Writers Café

Use contests to involve faculty and students and help promote the Writers Café.  In a Fairy
Tale contest, teachers creatively explored their inner psyches and wrote why they connected to
a particular character.  Students were challenged to correctly match the teacher to the chosen character.  For instance, the school nurse wrote the following clue:

            Favorite character: Gretel from the story Hansel and Gretel.
Instead of panic, she used her intellect in a stressful situation, saving the day.

Teachers also dressed as their favorite book character or author, and students were asked to predict which teachers would be characters such as Tinker Bell or Nancy Drew , or authors such as Agatha Christie or Ernest Hemingway. Dress Down Day video and photos of costumed teachers helped build anticipation of the Writers Café.

Create an album of memories with photos posted online (and linked to your LibGuides).  Writers Café 2014 and a photo slideshow of Writers Café 2013.

Organizing the Event

Backdrop. Theater Dept. sets up brick wall backdrop, add a pole lamp, a few stools and a microphone and the stage is set for a poetry reading.

Decorations. Art students and student volunteers created a variety of table decorations.  Ceramic votives; abstract plaster sculptures; book sculpture; bird houses and origami birds; and “messages in a bottle”—lines from poetry and stories cut apart and curled inside clear, corked bottles–are just some of the decorations they have created.

Program.  Use art images/photos from art students to set off themes of writing performances.

Bookmarks.  A nice take-away from the event, create bookmarks to feature excerpts from the writing performances.

Free Refreshments.  Offering refreshments prior to the event makes an enjoyable gathering at the Writers Café.

Teen Seating.  Families and friends are invited to the Writers Café, but creating comfortable seating close to the performance stage is a must so that teens have their own space to support their peers.

Literary Magazine. Our English Department publishes a literary magazine that has been distributed the evening of the Writers Café.

Student Emcees.  Librarians helped with the planning and organized student volunteers–now it is time to sit back and enjoy the Writers Café as selected student(s) emcees the event.

Learn from Success Stories of Other Schools

In sharing our school’s experience with writing events, I hope other librarians will write in and share their success stories.  How do you encourage writers and showcase this creativity to the school community?


2 thoughts on “Calling All Writers! Writers Cafe Success Stories

  1. So glad to hear that others are supporting poetry in such wonderful ways. I try to squeeze in poetry writing workshops for fourth and fifth graders in the spring. Whenever I do the workshops, my students are thrilled to escape into creative writing. I usually publish the poems to a bulletin boards near the library and front office. Our faculty, admin, students and parents love the displays. Fourth and fifth graders are wonderful poets!

  2. I applaud your efforts, Suzanne, to immerse students in poems. By publishing them on a prominent bulletin board, you are showing students that their work is being appreciated by a wider audience.
    You might have an interest in reading Billy Collins’ commencement address on Slowing Down
    It is a must read on how poems allow us to slow down and ponder our relationship to the world and build empathy.

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