Coffee Club sparks classroom engagement at Caldwell High

It’s not even 9 a.m. when the second period bell rings and a couple dozen Caldwell High School seniors take their seats in Andi Arnold’s English class.

But based on the discussion that ensues, you wouldn’t guess the teenagers were sleepy, or that some had just wandered in for their first academic period of the day.

The teens are leading class discussion, asking one another questions and sharing personal stories about how tragic poems resonate with their personal experiences with grief and loss.

“These discussions didn’t happen in my classroom last year,” Arnold says after the bell rings and her students file out. “They’re authentic. They’re thought provoking and they’re safe.”

Perhaps the class dynamic has something to do with the teacher, who is wearing shiny blue shoes and has pink, purple, green and blue “mermaid” hair she dyed for a student fundraiser.

Or maybe their strength stems from the cups of coffee, tea and hot cocoa on many of the student’s desks, which they sip casually as they discuss their take on poems.

Last year, Arnold — who has been teaching at Caldwell High School for more than a decade — stumbled onto a new tactic to facilitate student engagement in her classes, by accident.

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Students started asking Arnold if they could have a cup of coffee from the pot she’d brewed for herself. As the fad caught on, and students started to help themselves to part of the pot, Arnold noticed a change in the classroom dynamic.

“It just shifted,” she says. “It went from me lecturing to kids about poetry and literature, and then all the sudden I had this engagement. It was like: I’ve got something here.”

Arnold decided to take “Coffee Club” to a bigger scale. With the help of mugs, coffee and other supplies donated by her Facebook friends, the English teacher started offering hot beverages to students in every one of her classes. Her goal is to help foster an environment where the students feel comfortable, valued and willing to participate.

So far, she says, it’s working. She doesn’t have to lecture anymore, kids facilitate their own discussions. This semester, the number of tardy students has gone down.  Grades are better, she said, and student writing is deeper and more introspective.

“I’m not saying it’s a direct correlation,” Arnold says, “But the only thing I’ve changed is coffee.”

Aislin Benitez, a senior at Caldwell High, prepares hot chocolate in Andi Arnold’s Coffee Club.

She has a theory: Grabbing a hot drink is an equalizer, of sorts, for her students. It gives each student the chance to come into class and make themselves feel at home.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Arnold said, “there’s something about having a mug in your hand that all the sudden you’re equal to that guy, because you’re investing in the same things.”

Students say Arnold’s class is almost a sanctuary.

“I feel like it helps when you have a really bad day and you’re frustrated and you just want to calm down,” Arnold’s student aid Tora Russell said. “If I come in and get hot cocoa, it just makes my day better.”

Lizzie Oropeza says something about the classroom environment encourages her to speak up. Typically she’s shy and doesn’t contribute much to class discussions, she says, but in Arnold’s class, she doesn’t feel the same paralyzing pressure.

The class also discusses deep topics, Oropeza says: “Things that people don’t ask us.”

The conversations aren’t the only adult dynamic, either.

“They do all their own dishes,” Arnold says. “I don’t have time for that.”

While Arnold has noticed a shift in student outcomes over the two semesters Coffee Club has been official, she plans to collect student surveys to ask students if the beverage bar impacted their classroom experience. She’ll use the research for a project on classroom engagement she’s working on for a state led teachers association called the Idaho Coaching Network.

Ask students now, and they’ll say they’re all for it.

“It brings us together as a class in general, and makes us participate better,” senior Britney Huntley says. “Coffee helps warm you up.”

Arnold is always looking for donations: It takes multiple pots of coffee a day to meet student demand, and the costs start to stack up. Community donations of coffee, tea and hot cocoa to Arnold’s Coffee Club are greatly appreciated, she said, and can be sent to Caldwell High School.

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