Classroom Turned Cafe’

Hey there, It’s been a very long while since Sunshine with Waves popped into your mailbox. I’m happy to be back thanks to the gentle nudge from a dear friend to get writing. This article is really focused on my life as an educator and something happening in my “former classroom” at school. So, if education-related content isn’t for you, feel free to move on. If you choose to read, I hope you’ll be glad you did. Maybe you’ll have some ideas for Wonder World Cafe’. If so, please comment below. With that… thanks for reading.

To understand the inspiration for a classroom Turned Cafe’ I will first give you some background. Travel is my joy and sometimes one of the few thoughts that propels me to a difficult day’s finish line. Travel restores my soul. Reminiscing about it helps, too. I don’t need the research, but maybe you do. Study upon study shows simply recalling happy memories brings about positivity and is a stress-coping strategy while planning for future events serves a similar purpose. Recalling travel and planning for it is restorative.

Wandering through the city centre. Taking photos of monuments. Feeding my postcard addiction. Collecting stories. Feeling awed with the breathtaking landscape. Soaking it up because the photos can’t possibly do a place and space justice; I take them anyway. Getting lost, intentionally. Dedicating time to learning about the local history-especially the people. Maneuvering places via public transportation (getting lost, unintentionally). Engaging in a conversation with locals and other wanderers. I love and long for almost every part of traveling. Near the top of my ‘to love’ list always includes a vanilla latte at local cafes. 

It’s true, coffee is the star of my (every) morning. Each cafe’ I visit, whether in my hometown in California’s Central Valley or heading east to Washington. D.C., to crossing the Atlantic to Scotland, even further to a souk in Cairo, Egypt, and south from there to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Each cafe’ has its own soul. Some quirky. Some whimsical. Others famous. “A hole in the wall’ and anything in-between. A haven in a storm. A respite for overworked feet. To quench my thirst or satiate the need for a caffeine boost. Bonus points earned if my vanilla latte is served in a lovely ceramic cup topped with foam art (a heart, please or even a leaf will do). Oh, a saucer is a must. Disposable cups are almost a dealbreaker. 

Even if you don’t drink coffee; have tea. Don’t drink either, still, cafes are a hub for culture and not a place to skip while on holiday. Some of my favorites have books for borrow, magazines, or newspapers and maybe an entire book store, event announcements (how else would I have signed up for Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl while on the Emerald Isle?), and local artisans’ creations. The atmosphere changes from place to place, and surely I see people popping in on their way to work, others engaged in a business meeting with laptops open and creative minds collaborating, others relaxing solo, or deep in conversation with friends. 

Of the many interesting cafe’ elements, I tune into seating arrangements. Some configurations encourage a cozy, long chat with friends, others offer nooks where people can stay awhile and work away from home. Many writers have penned bestsellers at their local cafe.’ Some offer over-stuffed sofas and barstools, and some are a grab-and-go with no seating whatsoever. It’s tough to not find some joy in a cafe. 

My love of visiting cafes around the world and my educator eye kept circling back to this question: How can I create the cafe’ vibe in my classroom space? In small ways, I went for it. This is an ongoing endeavor, and like most projects, it will continue to evolve in ways I have yet to consider. 

To begin, I branded our space as Wonder World Cafe – where learning is always on our menu. We then needed cafe-style seating to include options for learners based on the activity, just like the many cafes I’d visited. This became an engaging class project as we researched options and tried to remain optimistic as the costs of our desires didn’t measure up to our non-existent budget. Reading- cozy chairs. Collaborating with peers- easy-to-move furniture best suited for the number of creative thinkers in the group is helpful. And, sometimes we need more formal seating, classroom style, for direct instruction. Several years ago, I’d written a grant for tall desks with a fidget bar and barstool seating. This was the first step to our cafe’s seating options. Here learners can sit or stand, and push the desks together in a variety of configurations. Next, we needed places that were not desks, so I wrote another grant for some small classroom couches (Lakeshore Learning). Then, I repeated the grant writing process until I had an ample amount of various seating types. I brought in easy-to-wash and maintain pillows for added comfort. A favorite. While I still have more ideas on seating and would like a few items more suitable for 8th graders, I shelved this idea for now; it’s an expensive endeavor. 

The missing piece in Wonder World Cafe’ continued to be beverages. Every cafe’, everywhere has drink options. Logistically, I didn’t have a viable and safe option. I knew I couldn’t serve everyone each day. I’d be able to serve a warm beverage to a few at the start of class, and after that, I couldn’t make it work. Two learners having a warm beverage hardly brings out that cafe’ vibe I’d hoped to achieve. 

This year, I had to try. Eighth graders may already drink coffee or perhaps will discover it on their own later, so hot tea was the best option for us. Somehow encouraging coffee didn’t feel like the best decision. 

Ever so mindful of our environment, disposable items are not an option. I brought a few teacups, saucers, spoons, a sugar bowl I already own- purchased upon my arrival back home from Scotland where a lovely friend taught me to make proper tea in a pot and all. As much as I’d love to use the teapot in our cafe,’ it isn’t feasible. It’s important to me that we have proper cups with saucers. These items are dainty and still prove to be novel for our young tea drinkers. 

Quick lessons

Some students are expert tea drinkers; others have never tried it. We had a few quick lessons. 

  1. How to free the string from the teabag to place it in the teacup
  2. How long to leave the teabag in the cup is a matter of taste
  3. Proper use of a teaspoon and sugarbowl with attention to hygiene and the need for being sanitary 
  4. When finished, place tea bags in the bin, and dishes in the sink
  5. Table etiquette

In the beginning, our tea service was so simple. I bought black tea and sugar. (I wanted sugar cubes, but they are pricey compared to a bag of sugar.) It is a small expense I’m willing to incur. Sharing the addition of tea service in Wonder World Cafe’ with my same dear friend who taught me to make proper tea in a pot, she asked about the type of biscuits I serve. “Biscuits?” I asked.

“You must serve biscuits with tea,” she replied, and even through text messages, I saw her gentle face and heard her lovely accent, so off to the market to purchase biscuits.

In between lessons and especially during our fiercely guarded independent reading time, I become the barista. We have our cafe table placed in front of a large wall of windows. Here is the only place we enjoy tea. It’s close to the counter where I warm the water and the sink. This way I’m not carrying hot water about the cafe’. In all, I get to about six to eight students per class. 

Recently, in my second-period English class, one learner volunteered to be our tea server, so in her class, she’s quite efficient, and more learners enjoy tea served by her. She’s efficient and no, it’s not taking away from her own learning. I appreciate her servant’s heart. 

Our evolving space

When I realized tea service was to be a continuing tradition, I visited yard sales and our local charity shops to purchase inexpensive cups, saucers, and spoons. Jackpot! One yardsale vendor had ten teacups with saucers, eager to help an educator, he sold all to me for under $5. I enjoyed the hunt for cafe’ treasures over several Saturday afternoons, even scoring a large wooden sign that reads: CAFE. 

As our initial supply of black tea bags dwindled, I approached students’ guardians to request individually wrapped tea bags if they had any to spare. Our options grew on a large scale. This is when students who had been reluctant to try a cup of tea decided to try. 

As the desire for a warm cup of tea grew, I added a menu board. Here, interested parties can place their order based on the day’s tea flavors. This added a fun new element. As learners come in, some head straight to the menu board excited to see the flavors of the day. Sometimes they’ll enjoy tea with a friend, and sometimes I place two people together who may not have paried up naturally. 

Not all students place an order. I’ve nudged them. Some just don’t like tea. Some are waiting for hot cocoa (coming in December). Some just are not interested for a variety of reasons. This is quite fine. I often say, “If we all loved the same things in the world, it would be a boring place.” 

Relationship building with learners 

It’s never about the tea, really. Tea became the catalyst for more conversations about school, books they’re reading, and life. When I sense a learner is having a rough day, offering tea is a tangible way to let them know I’m thinking of them. Every so often, a student will ask for biscuits without tea; I take this as code: I’m hungry and am happy to serve only biscuits. Unexpected outcomes are abound in the cafe’. The idea of serving tea coincides with Roald Dahl’s creepy short story, “The Land Lady” where an old woman welcomes an unsuspecting guest into her Bed and Breakfast, showers him with offers of tea, then later, it is implied she’s a killer. As one who doesn’t dress up for Halloween, when I came dressed as The Landlady, the reaction from our learners created a priceless memory for me. It’s a common workplace ritual – arrive at work, pour a warm beverage and get to work. I hope serving tea builds the idea that I trust my learners and recognize their growing teenage desire for independence.

Relationship building with adults

All I had to do was ask. Parents and guardians started sending tea in all types of flavors from Egyptian chamomile, winter spice, salted caramel, mint, and all flavors fruity. 

Many parents and guardians want to be involved in their child’s classroom. By the time they reach 8th grade, I still like to find opportunities for adult involvement even though they are not as ample with older ones. Sending tea supplies to stock our cafe’ is one small, inexpensive way to maintain the involvement many adults still want.

During parent/teacher conferences in November, I created a welcoming environment with the offer of tea to the adult and their child. Just a lovely way to start the meeting and hopefully reduce any tension some may feel about academic progress toward 8th-grade promotion.

Since this, the adults continue to ask what I need to keep the cafe’ going and I always request tea and sugar. The only item I now purchase are biscuits, mostly because I want to keep it very simple. Plain vanilla cookies work great for hot tea. Plus, I want to remember tea etiquette lessons from my dear friend and my love of all things Scottish.

Changing seasons

When autumn arrived, our cafe’ table was made over in all things fall including fall fruits such as pomegranates and persimmons, and for some, they’d seen such items, but couldn’t identify them. (Mini vocab lesson!) I added hot apple cider to our menu. Served with a few marshmallows floating on the top, it was quite popular. December brings hot cocoa, another round of marshmallow toppers, and new table decor. A generous staff member with a true love of our kids sent over a gigantic bag of peppermint sticks for stirring. Maybe the cocoa will allow me to serve our non-tea lovers a warm winter beverage.

Other lessons

Running low on sugar? As 8th-grade is the year to study American History, concern for the dwindling supply of sugar is always a fun opportunity to circle back to the sugar tax (and all the taxes) the King of England imposed on the colonists – a fun way to reinforce how much we love sugar, just like the colonists. Sometimes a learner brings up the Boston Tea Party to which we reminisce about how this rebellion caused the colonists to go without tea or find other means to obtain it. “Would you like that to happen here? To do away with your tea supply?” I inquire. “Noooo,” is always the response. 

A student asked if I’d serve hot cocoa in styrofoam cups. Secretly, they may be hoping for a larger portion than our little teacups can hold. My response turned into a fruitful conversation about being kind to our environment. Styrofoam cups are not kind.

Learners bring items in the spirit of sharing such as a jar of honey from a dad’s workplace. Some bring their favorite tea flavors, knowing it will be a menu option for all to enjoy soon. It’s fun to learn tea preferences. Some are traditionalists always ordering black tea, regardless of the day’s menu options. This sometimes opens up conversations about other likes and dislikes and discussing if they’re traditionalists in other ways, too. Some even have a favorite tea cup. Finally, some days are tough for our young ones. When I want to say something but don’t know what, I can always start with, “May I serve you a cup of tea?”

Day’s end

Yes, I personally wash all the cups, saucers, and spoons. Turning dishwashing into a mindful practice, I enjoy the process and watch the way the bubbles grow, count the cups and reflect on how the amount of cups equals the number of learners whose day was perhaps a little brighter. Some suggest I ask students to wash the dishes. Since I do want to ensure all are properly washed, and I do enjoy the process, for now, I’m glad to do it. It’s the last activity I do before heading home; it’s a way to relax my over-active mind. 

In such a time as we are in, November of 2021, our cafe’ vibe and tea drinking is a small joy in the day. Small joy. I’ll embrace the little things. Who knew when adding tea to Wonder World Cafe’ that the tea would be a bridge to so many relationships, conversations, and small joys? 

It may sound cumbersome and time-consuming. It’s not. I still teach. I still wander around from learner to learner. Learners are patient. Sometimes they remind me or politely ask at the end of a lesson if I can continue with cafe’ service. They have yet to complain if they order and are not served. If possible, I try to get to them the next day. 

The cost

For less than $20, I supplied our cafe’ with tea, sugar, and plenty of cups, saucers, and spoons. Admittedly, I already had the eclectic kettle for heating water. But, later I did splurge on a type where I can set and maintain the desired water temperature. This option feels safer since I can have hot water but not boiling. My peace of mind was worth this cost.


Start small. See if and how it grows. You know your community and if this is worthy of a try. When I started, I really intended it to be one week, a short-term novelty. Too much goodness came from it, so I continue. A deep commitment made to myself stands firm: I will not use our cafe’ as leverage. It’s not a carrot for positive choices or a consequence for poor ones. In fact, sometimes it’s the most loving offer I can provide to a learner who is dealing with a poor choice. I also didn’t start the year by serving tea. We built our cafe’ culture from the first day, and foster it daily. It continues to be a special part of our daily rhythms in Wonder World Cafe – where learning is always on our menu.