How Do We Talk and Write About Race and Equity from a Distance? A Q+A with Matthew Kay

After a summer of protests that was bookended by the tragic shootings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, I want to conclude my series on major questions going into the fall by looking at a question that I hope teachers across the country are thinking about closely: How can we discuss issues of race and equity (through conversation and writing) if we are teaching from a distance?

To help me with that, I was lucky enough to digitally sit down with Matthew Kay last weekend to hear how he will be approaching conversations about race remotely this year (he is starting fully online, with the potential to switch to blended learning at the quarter). For those who don’t know him, Kay is a high school teacher from Philadelphia, the founder of the Philadelphia Slam League, and the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

Regular readers will likely know that Not Light, But Fire has quickly become one of my all-time favorite teaching books since I read it last winter. What makes it such an essential read (seriously, everyone should buy this book) is that while it does give clear and thoughtful guidance for approaching and structuring conversations about race, it also does so much more. It is a masterclass in building meaningful connections and relationships with students; creating a safe, supportive, and engaging classroom–the type of classroom where discussions of race can thrive; and engaging in meaningful writing instruction, as Kay views writing followed by student publishing as essential next steps after any good conversation. 

I should also note that this interview happened on Saturday, the day before Jacob Blake was shot by police and three days before two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin were killed. Those shootings and deaths, while not discussed in the question and answer, underscore just how important it is for us teachers to think carefully and deeply about how we, even from a distance, can support our students in discussing, processing, and writing about traumatic events like these during this year.

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Creating a Culturally Responsive Community of Practice: A Guest Post by Chris Butts

Today’s post is written Chris Butts, one of the co-authors of Planning Powerful Instruction, a book (actually two books, as it is broken into two levels: elementary and secondary) that introduces the EMPOWER model of inquiry through apprenticeship. I had never heard of inquiry through apprenticeship or EMPOWER until I attended a session by Jeffrey Wilhelm at last year’s National Council of Teachers of English conference, but I have been using both ever since when designing my lessons, as they are fabulous tools for thinking about lesson design. In today’s blog post, Chris Butts explores the role that one piece of the framework–priming–is playing in making his classroom a more culturally responsive place this year.

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What Does a Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Last year I wrote a piece called Rethinking the First Day of Class. Its premise was pretty simple: Humans are more open to changes in perspective, behavior, and motivation in moments that mark a “fresh start” (more on this “Fresh Start Effect” here) and the second students walk into our rooms, they begin doing the calculus concerning the value of our class, and how valuable they find it matters a great deal. Put these two together and the first day of class is incredibly valuable real estate–real estate that is far too often squandered with taking role and reading off of a syllabus.

The post goes on to discuss how my first day has shifted from logistics and boilerplate icebreakers to something closer to that of a hook in a piece of writing that both piques the students’ interest and establishes the key themes of my class.

This year though, much of what I normally do on the first day won’t work, as my school has decided to go remote for at least the first six weeks. This has me thinking a lot about my question of this week:

What Should My Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Like the other posts in this series of questions, I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share the voices that are guiding me and what I’ve got so far in the hopes that it might help others to plan their own first days. Also, I recognize that some have started school already and many readers will be doing blended learning or distanced in-person instead of remote. For those fellow teachers, I have tried to design this post to have lots of good stuff for you as well. Ok, onto the post about what I’m doing my first day…

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How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

Two weeks ago my district announced that we would start online for at least the first six weeks, with the hope of returning in-person after that. My feelings about this were too wide-ranging and complex for the scope of this post, but in short, I was at once relieved that I won’t be spending hours upon hours in a small brick room that has no ventilation (we still have boilers and radiators) with 150+ teenagers who can seemingly spread Covid as effectively as any adult, frustrated at how little is being done nationally to get case levels down to where it would be at least reasonably safe to send students and teachers to school, and deeply concerned about how additional months of learning from a distance will affect many of my students.

My guess is that many of you might be experiencing some similar feelings, and what makes them even more acute for me is that I can do so little about so many of the issues. Our country’s infection rate, the state of our over 100 year old building, and district, state, and national policy lie largely outside of my immediate control.

There is one of these areas of concern that I can impact in a significant way though, and it brings me to my question for the week:

How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

I might not have the nation’s ear or even my local school board’s ear, but my students will be listening to me, which means I have an opportunity to provide meaningful support to them, even if it is from a distance.

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