"I actually got the idea for a Coffee House/Poetry Night in 2003," recalls Doris Wright. "I just thought it would be a wonderful way to display the talents of our students. It gave them a reason to write original poems and creative writing."
Wright recognized that the students at Whitney M. Young School in Cleveland could strengthen their writing and reading skills through a poetry night. Because writing is a big part of Ohio's standardized tests, she hoped that the experience would also enhance their scores on those exams. As a family liaison with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, she invited students in grades eight through twelve to share their original poetry with an authentic audience of peers, teachers, parents, and community members.
"I knew this program was working when I got teacher buy-in," Wright told Education World. "English teachers did a section on poetry and encouraged the students to write poems for the poetry night. The reports from the teachers about the progress of the students were encouraging."
Wright had every confidence that Coffee House/Poetry Night was a winning concept, but even she was stunned by the creativity that the students displayed through their work.
"The students not only read their poems, they actually performed them," observed Wright. "The poems spoke of life, death, love, hope, God, and more."
Good planning is essential to the event. At the Whitney M. Young School's evening of poetry, the media center becomes a coffee house, complete with a menu of finger foods such as veggies and dip, fruit, small sandwiches, and cookies; and beverages like coffee, tea, hot chocolate and bottled water. Tables are covered with cloths and centerpieces and student art hangs on the walls.
"You want to showcase the students' talents for parents and family members, so you want to invite everyone. Advertising is everything," says Wright.
Wright has learned that it is wise to prescreen the poems to make sure that they are appropriate, and she awards every student a certificate of participation. This year, the students also received extra credit for their effort. In this night reminiscent of the Beat Generation, bland roses-are-red poetry is not encouraged. Poets are cheered for their originality and depth.
"A guest poet is always good. If you have a parent who writes poetry, you might invite him or her [to read], but please ask to see a copy of the poem first," Wright advised. "You don't want any surprises. I had that happen to me once."