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.


MJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Matt, and for your incredible book, Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. One of the things I love about your book is that you are very clear from the beginning about the fact that safe spaces where conversations about race can thrive don’t just magically appear because the teacher says it’s a safe space. Instead the teacher has to carefully and purposefully build the safe space and constantly cultivate it in order for the class to be safe enough for these discussions to work. Now, I know there are no experts on the type of teaching we are about to embark upon, but with that in mind, what are you planning to do remotely to cultivate and set up that safe space? What will be the same as you normally do in your classes and what will be different?

MK: In the spring one of the things that actually did work was the House Talk* activities. The kids wanted to do Good News,** they wanted to do High Grade Compliments,*** they wanted to do the informal talk in Burn Five. That stuff was one of the few things that actually translated smoothly into a virtual space.

So I’ll be leaning into those things and trying to create new ones. As long as I’m teaching, I’ll start each week with Good News and I’ll always make space for High Grade Compliments — both of those, by the way, when I talk about them, I give credit where credit is due. I didn’t make those up; Zac Chase made them — I’ll always do those, but I’ll have to imagine some more digital House Talk activities too.

I’m also adjusting my curriculum. Normally, I do large creative and analytical projects every quarter. Now I’m going to table all of the analytical work until the second semester when we might be in person and lean super heavy into creative writing stuff, so I can use the work product as getting to know you stuff too. I feel like I’ll get to know them better that way than by drilling thesis statements.

Another thing I love about your book is that you refer to your teaching approach as dialogic, pedagogy based in dialogue. I’d never heard this term before, but I can relate to it, and it is something I’ve been thinking a lot about because anyone who has been on a Zoom call knows that dialogue is different on it. With that in mind how will you adapt that dialogic style into a reality where your classes are boxes lined up on the screen?

MK: The first step is probably owning the limitations and being ok with that. We are not going to recreate what happens in the classroom over Zoom, we’re just not going to. So we need to come to terms with that, grieve that, and move on. I think it is important for me to not try to recreate everything from Not Light, But Fire over Zoom.

My only other answer I can come with, having not experienced it, is to reflect harder on how things are working and try to be as open about the process as possible. My instinct would be to have the kids use the chat function as a backchannel for the conversation as we are going, but then I have to think how does that impact listening activity. If I’m having a whole separate conversation in the backchannel than what is going on live, am I being a patient listener or active listener or no? Is part of patience waiting your turn for you to raise your hand and get called on? And how does that work with notebooks?

Basically, I just have a lot of questions, and I’m going to keep reflecting on things and trying to figure out the moments where in my traditional practice something would be synchronous, but right now this is a thing that is built for discussion board. I’m going to try and not force it because Zoom is disjointed, it’s weird, it’s not as human. I might have a 35 kid class, that’s a lot of boxes. It’s not the same thing as being in class.

This is all to say that I don’t have full answers besides maybe leaning away from some of the synchronous moments and trying to figure out how we can do this instead through writing and through projects and through workshopping. 

This is a somewhat related topic, but you recently brought up the fact that our classroom conversations when we teach in blended or remote circumstances are far more public than they normally are. They will be broadcast into living rooms, dining rooms, and dens that may have siblings, parents, grandparents present too. This seems like a really important point, as having spectators at home might change how the students act and what they say. What are your thoughts about how that will change conversations about race and what should teachers who are teaching remotely do? 

MK: First, I think it is important that teachers understand what kind of cover they have when it comes to these types of conversations. I don’t want teachers to be martyrs; I don’t encourage that. We need to understand what we have coverage for and what we don’t before anything else. 

Beyond that I don’t have many absolutes, but one is that in a synchronous conversation over Zoom, don’t ask kids for vulnerability. It sucks, but that is one of the adjustments. That is why I started off by saying that we need to own that this is limiting and not permanent. We will be back in classrooms eventually, hopefully this year. But being remote is naturally limiting, and don’t ask kids for vulnerability if you cannot secure the room. That is super important.

You can do a lot of teaching and learning and engage in topics in powerful ways, but I think specifically with vulnerability, be careful with what you ask from kids because you don’t know who else is in the room. The spaces are inherently not safe now. It is not safe now. It is important for us to get that in our head, especially the live synchronous settings. 

It’s like when you go to a website and you see the little ‘S’ that says this site is secure. If you don’t see that ‘S’, you are like, Ok, I can still be on this site, but I probably don’t want to put my bank information down. It is important for us to think about how when we are going virtual, there is no ‘S’, which means you can have a bunch of race conversations but don’t have race conversations that require vulnerability you can’t ensure.

MJ: This is primarily a blog on writing instruction, and you are an accomplished writing teacher. With that in mind, what role does writing play in your classroom when you are discussing race?

MK: When you think about what happens after the conversation, that is one place where writing fits in. If you have a great conversation and it doesn’t link itself to some sort of outward facing thing, then you may have missed an opportunity. I always try to make very clear that the conversation exists to help you with your analytical writing. I try to not just give lip service to the ideas expressed in class. We are not just talking just to talk. We are talking to kick ideas around for your writing. Everything ends in writing. Everything. I try to alway make clear threads between the conversation and the writing. For example, in the names section in the book, the end product were these memoirs where they wrote about their names.

I also focus on giving kids the opportunity and showing them ways to put their work outside of the classroom. I tell them that we’ve had this discussion, and through that discussion you were led to these new understandings, so now go ahead and share these understandings with the world. This is how college professors think, so I don’t see why 14 or 15 year olds can’t be given the same opportunity. Once you come up with something new, go ahead and publish. 

In the book you say that no discussion plan survives contact with the students. This is such an important point, as planning for what might go wrong is often really important (as any newly-digital teacher knows). What other potential issues do you see popping up this year when we talk and write about race from a distance?

MK: Well, there is the election. And there is a not insignificant chance the officers who killed George Floyd are gonna be let off. Also, the next time that there is an unarmed Black man that gets killed by the police, especially on video, if something like that happens again, I can imagine us having to deal with how to get kids through that.

There are also things like what if the vaccines don’t work the way they should, and we are actually virtual the whole year? That impacts more than a few things because a lot of times we have a little end clock in our head, but what if this is our new normal for the calendar year? How that would impact our teaching and learning?

I just want to be ready for all those things and I am preparing myself for those eventualities. You never want to give yourself to cynicism, but I never want to be again in this space that I describe in chapter 8.**** I was unprepared. I never want to be unprepared like that again. I wasn’t my best for supporting those kids because I had not prepared myself to mentor them through that moment because I didn’t think that would happen. I’m gonna prepare to help mentor kids this year. 

MJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Matt, and, I look forward to reading about the new activities and answers you find on your Twitter account and in your ASCD column.

MK: Thanks for having me.

*House Talk is Kay’s term for a suite of activities he uses to cultivate a community in his classroom that supports having meaningful discussions about race. Since reading, Not Light, But Fire, I have adopted nearly all of his House Talk activities and found them to work exceptionally well.

**Good news is a community-building activity from writer Zac Chase. Kay describes it this way in Not Light, But Fire: “Zac [Chase] takes [five minutes] and asks students to share any good things that might be going on in their lives, an activity he calls simply Good News. Zac noticed that people are naturally quicker to share negative ideas and reluctant to share good news. Yet there is a strange intimacy to sharing good news; asking someone to join you in celebration takes a degree of trust that they will be happy for you…I have since put my own touch on the activity, framing it as a way to practice our three discussion skills. While someone is sharing, the students must listen patiently. Their questions must show that they have been listening actively. The presenters must police their voices. For the same reasons that I burn the first five minutes of each class, every Monday begins with good news.”

***High grade compliments are another idea from Zac Chase, and Kay uses Chase’s words from a 2011 blog post to explain what they are: “The difference between a high-grade compliment and a low- or medium-grade compliment is the focus on complimenting who you see a person as being—the best parts of that character my mom was always so concerned with building…A high-grade compliment says, ‘I see you. I appreciate you. And here are some of the reasons why.'” Kay has his students take time to offer each other high-grade compliments on regular occasions, especially around holiday breaks.

****In chapter 8 of Not Light, But Fire, Kay examines how to discuss politics in our classes. The section he refers to above was the morning after the 2016 presidential election. Kay thought the outcome would be different, and so he wasn’t as prepared as he could have been to lead his students through the conversation about it that eventually popped-up. To see what happened next, you will just have to buy the book… 🙂

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