In a courtyard gazebo at Booker Middle School in Sarasota, dozens of kids with berets on are eating cake. Parents and assorted family members mingle with school staff as creative writing teacher Joanna Fox arrives, brandishing a giant pair of scissors. A ribbon is stretched across her classroom door.
The occasion for this ribbon cutting ceremony is the celebration of the grand reopening of Booker Middle School's coffeehouse classroom, otherwise known as the Dragonfly Cafe. One night each quarter, the community is invited inside for a live poetry reading.
"We drink tea everyday with one lump of sugar or a teaspoon of honey,” said Fox. “It’s just a place where everyone is comfortable to pursue their thoughts and their relationships with other people."
The teacher’s three-year program introduces concepts of creative writing by grade level.
“Sixth grade is an exploration of the world of words,” said Fox.
"Seventh grade is an exploration of the world around you through words," she said. "Then eighth grade is an exploration of the world within you, so you know what you believe in and know how to voice who you are and what you stand for.”
Inside the classroom cafe, quotes from famous writers adorn the walls. Kitschy lamps sit on tabletops and there are vintage typewriters the students use to create their work. The cafe furniture is all brand new, purchased with money Fox received for winning the Maya Angelou Teacher Award for Poetry last November.
During school days at the Dragonfly Cafe, Fox's creative writing class starts with a processing circle, where children can share their thoughts and feelings. Next, students grab their notebooks and free-write based on a word or scenario their teacher has written on the chalkboard. Then, it's time for the young poets to stand up and recite what they've created.
Like this poem from seventh-grader, Annabelle Truong.
“Masterpieces--they're everywhere, from the deepest of nature to the promise of man. Indeed, this is the evidence of who I have been, who I am, and who I wish to become."
In class, the curriculum is designed for students to analyze themes, interpret words and phrases and assess how a point of view shapes the text. And for Truong, poetry is also a confidence booster.
"I’ve discovered that I can do things that I didn’t expect I could do” she said. “I used to be really shy and I didn’t open up much to anybody except for people like my family. I feel like poetry gave me a form of expression that I didn't have before."
Poetry can help express feelings and convey ideas. And for educators, the literacy device is used to help students build vocabulary and reading aptitude.
For students in the Dragonfly Cafe, poetry can also build interpersonal skills. That’s because the program also exists outside of the classroom. Throughout the school year, the young poets pack up those vintage typewriters and take their act on the road at gatherings throughout the community.
At a recent event at Art Ovation hotel in downtown Sarasota, patrons could pick out three strips of paper from a jar, each with a word written on them. Then students used those three words to write a poem on the spot.
Here's one from eighth-grader, Lucian Christinzio.
"Gold dust falls slowly, dripping from the yellow sun, summer has woken."
Christinzio thinks a lot of people think that poems are just about rhythm and rhyme.
"But I’d like to say that you can write all kinds of poetry,” he said. "You can write free form poems, haikus, or make your own kind of poems. I just feel a poem is something that comes from the heart. There are no mistakes in poetry, unless you write in pen of course."
Teacher Joanna Fox echoes that sentiment. She says besides learning about stanzas, syllables and similes, Dragonfly Café is about expression and how students learn to use words to engage with the world. It's something she feels is more important than ever for generations raised on social media.
“Our kids are getting further and further away from the human experience,” she said. "Being on social media makes you not present. If we can immerse them in the arts and get them thinking and being aware, man, that's what education is all about. It's the thinking that's important in literacy."
For emphasis, Fox points to her favorite quote which is painted on the wall above her desk. The one that reads, "words will take you places. How far do you want to go?"