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Learning Cafés

Sunday 13 October 2013

I am lucky to live in one of Europe's most beautiful cities.  Prague is a city that sustained minimal damage in World War II, so the streets look very much as they looked at the rebuilding of the city after the Swedes burned a good part of it down during the 30 Years War.  One of the delights of the city is the significant number of turn-of-the-20th-century cafes.

One summer afternoon I was sitting in my favorite cafe, the Café Savoy (pictured here), waiting to meet up with a former student who wanted to catch me on her life since graduation.  As I sat there I thought about how much I enjoy the informal nature of the café culture.  No rush, enjoying a good cup of coffee - or a chilled glass of Chardonnay - in a beautiful setting. It was at that moment that I thought I need to bring café culture to our school.

This month we had our first ever "Psych café."  The goal of the café experience was for students to have an authentic learning experience. I wanted them to have those informed but informal conversation people have over a cup of coffee (alas, no chilled chardonnay). The results were even better than I had hoped.

We have been studying the development option.  We spent time looking at the role that parents have on a child's cognitive development.  We started with Vygotsky.  Then we looked at the the debate over who has more influence - parents or peers?  Then it was a look at Amy Chua's tiger mother argument and then the role of attachment on our lives.  That was the background they had going into the cafe. 

But the goal was not really to discuss research. Instead, it was to get past the research and to to discuss parenting with real people.  So, with the help of my amazing Kindergarten teacher colleagues, invitations were sent to parents who had children with at least one child being 4 to 6 years old. In our school's "blue room", tables were set and coffee, tea and muffins were served.  But most importantly, in small groups, three to four of my students would have a conversation with one or two mothers who came in to share their wisdom.  We started with a common question: What is the one thing that you wish you had been told before you became a parent? From there, students asked  questions that they had prepared as well asked follow-up questions to comments made by the parents.  A rather sneaky way of having them do a semi-structured interview.

It was all so damn authentic. And they learned a lot.

They learned that parents think about parenting; that culture plays a significant role in the goals they have for their child; the number of kids you have makes a difference; parents do treat their children differently - and they know it.  They learned that a lot of what parents do is based on their own experience of being parented.  And they learned that adults care enough to take time out of their day to share with young people what matters to them.

One of my Russian students was in a group with a highly articulate American mom.  When the café was done she hung around to talk.  She told me that she thought that the mom that she spoke to was so American!  Stereotypical.  I asked if she had learned anything in spite of this.  She said, "I learned that actually are different ways of parenting your children."  And then, after a reflective pause, "And I think that Russian mothers could learn a lot from her."

I am already thinking about other café topics for the future.  Maybe local refugees to talk about transition and mental health.  Maybe a local human rights group sharing about the plight of the mentally ill in Prague.  Maybe a chance to talk to sports and exercise coaches.  Maybe retired people coming in to share about the transition to not working and their thoughts on aging. 

I see a few more cups of Joe in my future...

Tags: development, cafe, interviews, authentic learning


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