By Meline Akashian

Maybe it’s rude in a blog post to tell you to read something else, but here it is: read Matthew Kay’s Not Light But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

And be ready. He says stuff like this:

Just as we cannot conjure safe spaces from midair, we should not expect the familial intimacy, vulnerability, and forgiveness needed for meaningful race conversations to emerge from traditional classroom relationships.

Frankly, that’s nothing compared to page twenty-seven. On page twenty-seven, my note in the margin is an expletive.

That’s where Kay chronicles an informal conversation between his poetry club students in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson–or, more specifically, in the immediate aftermath of a black student suffering through a class discussion about Ferguson.  Kay’s students offer raw revelation of what many students are probably thinking when teachers lead such discussions. 

My takeaways were layered, and they came in depressing waves, but here is a big one: Many kids wear masks during difficult classroom discussions. And during race conversations, some kids might wear the mask. I’m just going to leave that there for a second. For any teacher who wants to help students use their voices and activate their agency, it’s a crushing thought. But let’s be clear–the mask itself is not the problem. All of us disguise our vulnerabilities from most people, for good reason. All of us have public and private selves, and each of us alone decides who sees what. 

OK, so combine that reality with our reality, that nearly every ERWC module could be a touchy subject or tap into someone’s past trauma. ERWC teachers are routinely doing what Kay describes as opening “academic” discussions around topics that are “visceral” for some of our students. The whole course is designed around dialogue aimed at productive conflict.  But productive conflict requires openness and honesty.

For me, the practical implication is this: it doesn’t matter if I think I’m an ally; it doesn’t matter what’s in my heart; it definitely doesn’t matter what I do with my free time; it doesn’t even matter if my students love and respect me. What matters is that my students trust me with their bruised and battered insides. And trust not just me, but their classmates. Only then can I hope that students will decide, when they are ready, to be real–in front of me and everyone else in the room. 

Like–I was already a person who loses sleep the night before a touchy classroom discussion.  So around page twenty-seven, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, doubting Kay’s ability to offer a workable solution, particularly one for me, an especially private person myself. But then he got down to it.

His first chapter offers specific protocols to build a safe space. Three simple discussion norms and three routine activities honor students as individuals and develop a classroom culture devoted to building and maintaining relationships. They require class time and commitment, and perhaps a mild restructuring of the value system driving instructional decision-making.

His second chapter introduces discussion moves designed, not to eliminate conflict, but to help make conflict productive. For example, “Surfacing the Conflict”: teachers figure out what category of conflict is at hand (around fact? process? purpose? values?) in order to determine their most useful next move directing discussion traffic. I’m pretty excited about this approach, because in an ERWC class, the rhetorical thinking involved with categorizing the conflict can be farmed out to students, giving me more time to figure out my next move. 

More value added in Chapter Two? It closes with protocols for discussion prep using hypothetical case studies. By imagining various scenarios, I can anticipate the more likely conflicts or diversions that could derail discussion and ready myself with some “next moves” in advance. Then I can go to bed and actually get some sleep.

Though there’s 24k gold in the rest of Kay’s book, I’ll start by trying to implement Chapters One and Two–or maybe just Chapter One.  Whatever my measured first step, I’m all in to take it. Because when students’ sincere and passionate engagement with a topic is perceived as a risk, it’s a gross, malignant irony. And because Matthew Kay shows us, guiding real talk about hard things isn’t about being a natural-born Mr. Keating; it’s about the groundwork we lay in advance and our ongoing commitment to the cause.

Meline Akashian is an experienced ERWC teacher with grades 7-12 and former Riverside County Teacher of the Year. She has co-written modules for ERWC and is a member of the ERWC Steering Committee.

Work Cited

Kay, Matthew. Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Stenhouse, 2018.

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