How to Implement the Café Conversations Teaching Strategy in Your Classroom
Learners need an awareness of different perspectives to understand past events. The Café Conversation method helps learners practice vantage points by requiring them to represent a particular point of view in a small-group conversation. By participating in a conversation with people who represent other backgrounds and experiences, learners become more aware of the role that many factors play in developing one’s historical or political attitudes and perspectives. Use the Café Conversations activity as an assessment tool or to prepare learners to write an essay about a specific past event.
- Prepare Personalities and Topic for Conversation: Select five to ten “personalities” that reflect the various political attitudes and backgrounds during the period of history you are studying. The individuals you select to represent different attitudes can be real people or aggregates of real people. For every personality, create a brief biography that contains information such as gender, age, family status, occupation, education level, and significant life events. Next, select an issue or event applicable to the period that you want all of these personalities to discuss. For instance, they can consider whom they will vote for in an upcoming election, or they may explain how war is affecting their lives.
- Learners Prepare for Conversation: Assign each learner a particular personality to represent. Give learners the applicable background information or biography to read. Once they read this background information, you may have learners create an identity chart for their character. Then ask learners to hypothesize how this person would feel about the situation, the question, or event they will be discussing during the Café Conversation. Often, instructors have learners work on this step in small groups with other learners who have been given the same person to represent in the discussion. To ensure that learners accurately represent their person’s point of view, before the Café Conversation begins, you may review a worksheet that learners are required to complete or have a brief check-in with groups.
- The Café Conversation: During the Café Conversation, learners represent their assigned personality in a discussion about the assigned topic. The conversation must begin with learners introducing themselves. Then one member announces the conversation starter. 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 essential to go over the instructions about how to disagree courteously and stay on topic. Here are two main ways you can format Café Conversations:
- Jigsaw: Divide the learners into groups so that each group has learners representing various personalities. Many Café Conversations will be occurring concurrently. If one group finishes 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 must 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 another group member replaces a learner in the “fishbowl.” Or you can allow learners to “tap” a group member on the muster when they want a turn to speak.
- Learners Reflect in Journals: After the Café Conversations have wrapped up, ask learners to compose a journal entry reflecting on their experience. Possible journal entry prompts include:
- How do you think your character felt hearing these various perspectives?
- 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?
- Debrief: Allow learners to debrief this activity. You could convene a class discussion, starting with the question, “What did you learn from this activity?”
- Add a Research Component: Assign a historical figure and have learners research this person’s background. It is helpful to provide learners with guidelines, such as a list of questions that outline the information you expect them to find. Learners can complete this research independently or in small groups.
- Literature-Based Café: Instead of focusing on personalities in a specific period, you can format it around characters from a novel or from stories you have read. The focus of the conversation could be a situation or event from a book, or it can be a question related to human nature.