Café Conversations

Rationale

Students need an awareness of different perspectives in order to understand past events. The Café Conversation strategy helps students practice perspective-taking by requiring them to represent a particular point of view in a small-group discussion. By engaging in a conversation with people who represent other backgrounds and experiences, students become more aware of the role that many factors (e.g., social class, occupation, gender, age) play in shaping one’s attitudes and perspectives on historical events. Use the Café Conversations activity as an assessment tool or to prepare students to write an essay about a specific historical event.

Procedure

  1. Prepare Personalities and Topic for Conversation
    Select five to ten “personalities” that represent different political attitudes and backgrounds during the time period you are studying. The individuals you select to represent different attitudes can be real people or composites of real people. For each personality, prepare a short biography that includes information such as gender, age, family status (married, single, how many children, etc.), occupation, education level, and significant life events. Next, you will need to select an issue or event relevant to the time period that you want all of these personalities to discuss. For example, they can discuss who they will vote for in an upcoming election, or they might discuss how war is affecting their lives.
  2. Students Prepare for Conversation
    Assign each student a particular personality to represent. Give students the relevant background information and/or biography to read. After they read this background information, you might have students create an identity chart for their character. Then ask students to hypothesize how this person would feel about the matter at hand—the event or question they will be discussing during the Café Conversation. Often, teachers have students work on this step in small groups with other students who have been assigned the same person to represent in the discussion. To ensure that students accurately represent their person’s point of view, before the Café Conversation begins you might review a worksheet students are required to complete and/or have a brief check-in with groups.
  3. The Café Conversation
    During the Café Conversation, students represent their assigned personality in a discussion about the assigned topic. The conversation should begin with students introducing themselves. Then one member announces the conversation starter (often a question or statement prepared in advance). It can be as simple as, “So I heard that ___ is happening. What do you think about this?” Conversations typically last at least 20 minutes, but they can run much longer. Before beginning these conversations, it is important to go over norms about how to disagree respectfully and stay on topic. Here are two main ways you can structure Café Conversations:
    • Jigsaw: Divide the class into groups so that each group has students representing different personalities. In this format, many Café Conversations will be happening simultaneously. If one group ends early, you can let them go around the room and listen to the conversations other groups are having.
    • Fishbowl: Make a circle of chairs in the center of the room. The number of chairs should represent the number of assigned personalities. Invite one member from each group to join the conversation. The rest of the class watches the conversation. At certain moments, you can announce “Switch,” meaning that a student in the “fishbowl” is replaced by another group member. Or you can allow students to “tap” a group member on the shoulder when they want a turn to speak.
  4. Students Reflect in Journals
    After the Café Conversations have wrapped up, ask students to write a journal entry reflecting on their experience. Possible journal prompts include:
    • What do you think it might have felt like for your character to hear these different perspectives? How do you think this might have changed his/her point of view, if at all?
    • How did it feel for you to participate in the Café Conversation? During what part of the conversation did you feel most comfortable? Least comfortable? Why do you think that is?
    • What did you learn about this moment in history from participating in this activity?
    • What did you learn about yourself or about human behavior from participating in this activity?
  5. Debrief
    Give students the opportunity to debrief this activity. You could facilitate a class discussion, starting with a general question such as, “What did you learn from this activity?” Or you could begin the debrief discussion as a Wraparound activity, with each student sharing one idea from his or her journal entry.

Variations

  • Add a Research Component: Instead of preparing short biographies for students, you can assign a historical figure and have students research this person’s background. It is helpful to provide students with guidelines, such as a list of questions, that outline the information you expect them to find. Students can complete this research independently or in small groups.
  • Literature-Based Café: Rather than focus on personalities in a particular time period, you can structure a Café Conversation around characters from a novel or from books you have read. The focus of the conversation could be an event from a book or a question related to human nature.

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Use this discussion strategy to help students practice being contributors and listeners in a group conversation.

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