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Showcasing Jan McManus and "Kool-Aid House"

"My students love Kool-Aid House," Jan McManus told Education World. "They love speaking into a microphone, having all ears and eyes focused on them, and they love the response to their work. They maintain their enthusiasm for the event throughout the year."

McManus, a reading and language arts teacher, and her K-2 students celebrate the tradition of the "coffee house" on a monthly basis, sharing their written work amid drinks and snacks. The audience even snaps its fingers, instead of applauding, after each child reads! Although the students at St. Vivian School in Cincinnati, Ohio, sometimes choose to invite parents and other students, most Kool-Aid House meetings are just for the kids.

"The Kool-Aid House idea was conceived during a graduate course called Teaching of Writing," recalled McManus. "Think 1960's coffee houses and open mike time at which writers and poets would share their work. That's what Kool-Aid House is -- minus the java! Having an audience makes the writing purpose-driven."

McManus and her students write in journals every day. The writing is often student-directed because the children prefer to develop their own topics, but she also makes available prompts to help them get going.

"After four weeks pass, we review what we've written and decide which piece of writing we would like to develop and share with a larger group at Kool-Aid House," McManus explained. "Then we begin the revision process; adding detail, deleting what we don't want, conferencing (teacher and/or peer conferencing), editing, and rewriting."

The students' parents donate Kool-Aid drink pouches and pretzels for the actual Kool-Aid House festivities. McManus borrows a small riser, microphone and stand, and amplifier from the music director, and students assemble around tables, taking turns reading their stories on the "stage."

"I always ask the children who they want to invite," said McManus. "Writing is a risk-taking activity. It's their work, and they have to feel comfortable with the audience. Once I asked if we could invite third and/or first graders. The majority of second graders said no! Shocked, I asked why. One child raised her hand and said, 'We don't know them.' I responded, 'Fair enough.' They have to feel comfortable to do the work."

The attention students have given to one another during presentations has impressed McManus. She expected fidgeting or side conversations and getting up for frequent bathroom breaks. Those things haven't happened. As students become more comfortable with the format, they do advance planning as they write in preparation for the next Kool-Aid House.

"The first time parents came to listen, I had paper and pens ready for the adults," McManus stated. "After each child read, the adults wrote a note of encouragement to each of the writers. Every child had quite a few notes. After the parents left, kids read the letters. An awesome silence fell over the room as the children pored over the notes. One child said, 'This is my first fan mail!' Another whispered, 'This is better than Valentine's Day.'"

When students have selected stories with questionable content to share at the Kool-Aid House, McManus has steered them toward other material to protect both the audience and the writers. She finds it important to respond to her students from the heart.

"The kids are so proud of themselves and their work," she noted. "They need adult encouragement that the work is good, no matter how brief or how involved the writing is."

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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