From the classroom to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery: an AP Lang Field Trip

Starting off the AP English field trip at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery with an introduction to four baristas.

A field trip to Starbucks may seem like an unlikely activity for a group of AP English students. How could a visit to Starbucks connect with the curriculum? And how would a visit there offer a deeper learning experience for students?

A group of 45 AP Language and Composition (AP Lang) students spent the morning of March 28th at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Puxi, and their experience produced some robust answers to these questions.

“We introduced a new text this year on our AP Lang syllabus titled How Starbucks Saved My Life. It’s written by Michael Gates Gill and tells the story of how he hit rock bottom mid-life and then found answers to some of life’s big questions by getting a job as a barista at Starbucks,” said Concordia English teacher Eileen Beckman. “Gill learned some valuable lessons related to humility and generosity because of his new job, and this changed his character and his life journey in significant ways.”

 As part of their unit of study related to the memoir, students prepared questions in order to interview a Starbucks employee at the Roastery. Students spent the first part of the field trip in small groups, asking those questions and engaging in a dialogue with Starbucks baristas. Students asked all kinds of interesting questions related to the experience of working at Starbucks, the background of the barista and his/her plans for the future.

Miley, one of the baristas who was interviewed, said that "working at Starbucks has changed [her] life.” She is from Chengdu and, after starting to work at Starbucks, cultivated a passion for coffee and is excited about career opportunities. She has worked her way up to the professional barista level and now participates in competitions. She has even traveled to Seattle to see the original Starbucks there, and she loves her job.

Customer service is a priority for Starbucks employees (or partners, as they’re known in the company). Miley recounted a story of a regular customer who would come in each day wearing an impassive expression, seemingly sad and non-responsive. Miley decided to do something positive for this man and made sure she served him every morning, writing a positive message on his cup.

“That’s the kind of thing that is really positive about working here,” she said. “It’s a priority to care for each customer and to look for ways to connect with people.”

Students took notes during the interview and then wrote persuasive argument/personal narrative essays upon returning to school. They also engaged in a creative writing activity while at the Roastery, observing a Starbucks employee and then using those observations as a springboard to write prose or poetry.

Applied Chemical Engineering students accompanied the AP Lang students to Starbucks. They participated in coffee tastings and talked to people about roasting the coffee beans. All semester these students have been learning about the chemical processes behind roasting coffee, and visiting the Roastery allowed them to learn about mass roasting techniques and processes.

A coffee tasting for Applied Chemical Engineering students featured Ethiopian coffee prepared three different ways.

“This text has been a fresh addition to our AP Lang syllabus and we’re really happy with how our unit has turned out,” shared LeeAnne Lavender, another AP English teacher. “We had just finished a unit rooted in the study of another new text, the novel Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel. This novel is highly symbolic and figurative and allowed students the chance to explore a dense and meaningful literary text. To go from that unit to this one has been valuable because How Starbucks Saved My Life is, in many ways, the opposite of Beatrice and Virgil. Writer’s style and choices, genre, use of literary techniques: these are all very different between the two texts, giving students a chance to solidify understanding of the form and purpose of different types of writing.

Students enjoyed the field trip experience and felt it had helped them understand the class text in new ways.

“Because we got to have live interactions with people at Starbucks, we reinforced what we learned in the book and really got a chance to see how a work environment can change a person’s life. Miley was happy and charming and it seems like Starbucks is almost like a catalyst for happiness. It’s really interesting,” said grade 11 student Bill Y.

“The trip reaffirmed to me the idea of something ‘magical’ happening at Starbucks in terms of the employee experience. Hearing two baristas talk about how much they loved coffee made the book more believable to me,” said another grade 11 student, Kelly W.