The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 217 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, Host
GONZALEZ: It is the fall of 2023, a time when discussing race in any classroom in America has become more of a professional risk than it ever was. When lawmakers around the country are working hard to stop teachers from having these discussions, many are afraid to go anywhere near a topic that might even marginally be construed as “woke.”
But if you happen to live in a place where conversations about race are allowed or even encouraged in school, or if you’ve decided that it’s worth it to try despite the risk — I’m here to recommend two books that will be incredibly helpful companions in that work.
The first book is called Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. It was written in 2018 by Philadelphia high school English teacher Matthew Kay, and he based it on his experiences having these conversations with his own students. A few years later, he teamed up with elementary teacher Jennifer Orr to write a follow-up book for elementary classrooms called We’re Gonna Keep On Talking: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Elementary Classroom.
What I love about both books is that their approach to these conversations is really thoughtful — they do not offer a bag of tricks you can pick from to try out every now and then. The first half of each book is devoted to setting the stage, building a classroom ecosystem made of trusting relationships, practice with interpersonal skills, and carefully structured discourse. In the second half, the books offer case studies of real classroom conversations on race-related topics, so the reader can see how the principles work in practice. As I read, I kept thinking how wonderful it would be if every student could have a teacher trained in this approach. I was also struck by how wildly different these conversations looked from how they are often portrayed: while right-wing media would have us believe that teachers are verbally pinning down their white students, lambasting them with accounts of historical wrongdoings until they feel the desired level of soul-crushing guilt, the conversations that Kay and Orr portray in their books are respectful, compassionate, curious, and age-appropriate.
Let me read you just one passage so you can see what I mean. It’s from page 15 of We’re Gonna Keep On Talking, where the authors are talking about helping students learn not to interrupt in a conversation:
Students who are having trouble listening patiently are often so excited to be a part of the conversation that they just can’t wait to speak up. The challenge for us as teachers is to help them wait without stomping on their excitement. On her better days, when a student interrupts a classmate, Jen might say, “Hang on, Cindy, you’ll get a turn to share your awesome ideas very soon. Right now we’re listening to Lisa’s ideas,” instead of “Cindy, it’s not your turn; stop interrupting.” While the latter option has the potential to shut Cindy down completely, the former clearly communicates to her both that her ideas are valued and that Jen is eager to hear those ideas — while also reminding her that the class wants to hear others’ ideas as well… Students learn that we are stopping interruptions not because they are being bad but because the student who was speaking deserves the space to finish… the result of treating patient listening as a skill to be developed and reflected upon (and not just a “behavior problem”) will be students who are more effective participants in classroom conversations about tough stuff. They might even take these skills into friend and family conversations.
There’s obviously a lot more to the books, but I’m hoping this gives you a taste of their approach. In my conversation with Matt and Jen, we talk about the value of discussion as a teaching tool, the elements that are necessary for creating a healthy ecosystem for race conversations, some strategies for having these conversations in organic and authentic ways, and a message for teachers working in states that are hostile to conversations about race.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank NoRedInk for sponsoring this episode. Are you looking for an easy, engaging way to teach kids how to show, not tell in their writing? What about how to build compound sentences while avoiding run-ons? Maybe you’re just trying to help your students understand the differences between commonly confused words like “then” and “than” or “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” Look no further than NoRedInk, teachers’ one-stop shop for interactive writing and grammar activities and instructional resources. If you’re an elementary teacher, now is the perfect time to give NoRedInk a try. To celebrate their recent expansion into Grades 3–5, NoRedInk is giving Cult of Pedagogy listeners free access to all their Premium elementary content. But hurry: This access only lasts until December 31. Sign up at cultofpedagogy.com/noredink to get started.
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Now here’s my conversation with Matthew Kay and Jennifer Orr.
GONZALEZ: So we’re going to start by introducing you both one at a time. Matt, if you could just tell us a little bit about what your teaching role is right now and then how you came to write “Not Light, But Fire.”
KAY: I teach 9th and 10th graders English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. And I’ve been, I’m on my 18th year now. This is my 18th year. I’m also a varsity basketball coach and football coach, and I run a slam poetry league in the spring. And how I came across the book, I did a session on how to lead conversations about race at EduCon, which is the conference that our school runs every spring. And it was fairly well received, I think, and just, we had some good conversations, nothing major. And then I don’t remember exactly how Stenhouse reached out to my boss, but Stenhouse reached out to my boss looking for someone who had some sort of, had something to say about that topic, about it because they were thinking of putting out a book. And Chris, I happened to be down in my office, and my principal poked his head out of his office and, you know, I was in the main office, he poked his head out of the principal’s office and says, “Hey, do you want to write a book?” And that’s exactly how it happened. It, I was down there to talk sports with him, and I ended up with being invited to write a book. So it kind of fell in my lap.
KAY: So that’s how that happened.
GONZALEZ: So, okay. So it was something you had already been kind of presenting on —
GONZALEZ: — a little bit, but man, to go, to leap from that to writing what I think is such a well-written book is really impressive. It’s just, I mean I just tweeted at you the other night because it’s, there was just even one sentence that jumped out at me as just being so beautifully written. So, okay, and you wrote this book four years ago, 2019 or 2018?
KAY: It came out in ’18, I think.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And so since that time, the two of you, you and Jen have now co-authored a second book because “Not Light, But Fire” was for secondary teachers.
KAY: Well, it was meant for teachers, like of all stripes.
KAY: But because I lean so heavily into storytelling and examples from my classroom, unless I was going to make things up, I kind of had to speak from my experience and the experiences of my colleagues. And so I never, I don’t think I was intentional about “Not Light” only being for secondary teachers. It’s just I respect teachers too much to lie to them.
KAY: And I wanted to like, this is, I felt like my only authenticity would come not from research, what other people, not from research, what about what works for other people in their classrooms. I think the unique touch of the book is that everything I say is something that I’ve done.
KAY: And so I, you know, I only could draw from the experiences in 9th, 10th, and 12th grade. That’s all.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So it’s got a lot that would apply to younger students, you just couldn’t necessarily vouch for sure that it would.
KAY: Yeah, so I didn’t want to like, you know, I didn’t want to overstep. Teachers deal with a lot of that.
KAY: People come in with like a little bit of experience and then they make really big assumptions about what our lives are like, and I didn’t want to do that. So I wanted to be like, this is exactly what I have experienced.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
KAY: From that, make it as useful as you can.
GONZALEZ: So then along comes Jenifer Orr who, and the relationship between you guys, you just read the book and knew of his work, was that basically it? Or do you all work near each other? No connection?
ORR: Nope, well, I had read the book, because as Matt said, you know, as an elementary teacher, I was thrilled to get “Not Light” and found it immensely helpful in spite of the fact that Matt’s students are quite a bit older than the ones I teach. But I have been attending EduCon for a long time now. So I had met Matt, I had been in sessions with Matt at EduCon, but that was the extent of it.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And so the two of you then ended up collaborating on the second book which was recently published called “We’re Going to Keep on Talking.” And that is directed toward teachers of younger students. So tell me a little bit about the goal, why you two needed to work together on this.
KAY: From my angle, whenever, you know, I’ve been so fortunate to get the opportunity to travel around a lot and speak to teachers. And one of the biggest questions that’s asked, that’s most consistently asked of me is, what would I say to someone who wants to do this at the elementary level? Or when people were feeling a little bit more, you know, assertive, they’d say, like, when are you going to write that book for elementary teachers? I heard that so much, and I felt, you know, that again, I thought that “Not Light” kind of, you know, was applicable everywhere.
KAY: But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that storytelling, it’s easy for me to say that because the quote-unquote character, the students in our, the same age students that I experience every day, but it is a bit of a leap to read a conversation between 16-year-olds and imagine it between 7-year-olds. Like, that is a larger leap than I was kind of putting together in my head, and so I think, yeah, if I was going to do this, I was never going to make things up. So I would need to find an awesome elementary school teacher to do this with me so that it would not lose any authenticity.
GONZALEZ: So Jen took the principles that you taught in “Not Light” and applied them to her classroom. And in both books, both books are, I’m explaining to the people listening, they’re structured the same way. First half is, it’s sort of teaching how to teach this stuff. Second half are stories of how these things play out in the classrooms, real conversations with students about topics around race. And so to see it in Jen’s class, these are all very, very young students, sort of middle elementary and then older elementary students. And Jen, remind us again what you teach, what subject you teach, or what your concentration is?
ORR: I currently teach 4th graders in Fairfax County outside of D.C., but I’ve taught in the past 25 years kindergartners through 5th graders.
GONZALEZ: Okay, got it. So I would like to sort of start our conversation with a quote from page 5 of “Not Light” which says, “Great learning happens when both teachers and students explore the limits of their own understanding through rigorous discussion.” And this is, you really do have a focus on the value of conversation in classrooms. So can you say more about the value of discussion as a teaching tool, both in secondary and elementary schools?
KAY: Sure. Jen, do you want to do with elementary kids first?
ORR: Sure. And this was something, you know, even before Matt reached out to me, had been a focus for me because I think that conversations are so crucial. The first book I wrote was all about academic conversations with elementary students. Learning is such a social act in so many ways, and the process of talking things through, both for what that means you do for yourself as you kind of think through your thinking in order to share it, and it clarifies things for you or helps you realize where you may have confusion. But also then the process of listening to others and whether you agree or disagree, whether you’re pushing back, whether you’re asking more questions of them. All of that process is co-constructing learning, and that is really, really powerful. It’s also such an important skill forever. As adults, we engage in conversations that help us learn all the time, and so the sooner we start to recognize that and respect that for kids and trust them to engage in that, the more powerful it will be for them forever.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I agree. And then what about at the secondary level as they get older? Kind of the same thing?
KAY: Yeah. I mean, students have to learn, especially now. I mean students have always had to learn how to speak to each other and learn something in a collective way and bounce ideas off of each other in a productive way. That’s always been important, but I think now it’s especially important because we have so many things that they’re exposed to that are teaching like the wrong lessons. I’m not a big social media basher. I’m not a real big “get off my lawn” on a lot of stuff, but I think at the same time, the kind of behaviors that we get in this “gotcha” culture of social media are directly the opposite of what is productive in conversation. So students learn so many bad habits so often that I think the classroom has taken on a much more important, you know, we are much more important even than we were in the past because they have their eyes on some really bad role models like all of the time.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of competition, basically, for their minds.
KAY: We have much more competition, yeah. And I think that’s the difference. I think it’s always been important but especially when it comes to discussing tough things like race.
KAY: There are so many examples of habits that are just not productive for society.
KAY: That I think, you know, in classrooms we have to be really deliberate with teaching the right way to do it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So on that note, before we start to get into some of the approaches that you recommend to teachers, we are living in a time when this specific act of discussing race is literally being forbidden in certain states and in certain communities where teachers not only are at risk of losing their jobs, but there could be even other risks involved in addressing race or anything even close to it in their classrooms. So with that in mind, you know, we’re going to have a group of people listening to this and reading your books that are like, “Yep, I’m on board. I’m ready to go.” And then a whole other group that will say, “We can’t.” So what would you say to that other group about this whole idea of having race-based discussions in the classroom?
KAY: I have, you know, there’s a couple ways I look at that. The first is like we, hopefully what Jen and I have put together on “We’re Going to Keep on Talking” and what I put together on “Not Light” shows a very defensible, among people of good will, strategy for how to discuss race. And it’s a very clear procedure and a workflow for how to discuss race in ways that is academically sound and rigorous and matches whatever state standard or national standard you are looking for for discussion. Basically, if you disagree, you’re probably racist, to keep it 100. Like, it’s one of those things where the strategies that we put together are good pedagogy.
KAY: It’s just flat-out good pedagogy. And so on one hand, I would say that hopefully through this book we have given teachers who might approach race conversations recklessly, in a way that’s going to get them in trouble, a way to approach it and a way that is less likely to get them in trouble among people of good will, if that makes sense.
KAY: Like, here is a way to do it in a way that’s safe for kids. Here’s a way to do it in a way that’s respectful of all the identities in the room. Here’s a way to do it that is pedagogically sound. So in that sense, I hope that it’s useful. And in the other sense, where you’re dealing in one of those spaces, we have the lines in “We’re Going to Keep on Talking” like, keep your resume updated. You might be in a place where you’re not permitted to be the best teacher that you can be. And even before race conversations, I was really easy on, and this is not a popular statement, you know, there’s a lot of talk of martyrdom in education and I’ve always been against that, and you’re in a place that’s killing your soul, I want you to leave.
KAY: Because the alternative is you get frustrated and leave and then you don’t teach no more. I’d rather you go bless some other kids somewhere, you know what I mean? Like, it’s everywhere. Everyone deserves you. Everyone deserves the best version of you and you will fall in love with the next set of kids just as much as you fell in love with these kids. Like, I know it’s hard to imagine, but it’s everywhere and they’re all awesome. And you’re in a space where, but if you’re in a space that does not allow you to be the best version of you, then you should, you know, do what you need to do to pay your mortgage while keeping your resume updated.
KAY: And it’s something that’s not said often enough so I’m always going to say it.
KAY: Like, some places don’t deserve you as a teacher. And so you have that swagger and say, look, I’m going to stay here so I can pay my bills until I can find a place that’s, that I can be the best self that I can be.
ORR: And Matt is eminently practical about this, and it has been so helpful for me to hear his perspective as we worked on the book. I’ll also say though as a white woman in elementary education, which makes me quite among the majority, a lot of people are scared to do it, and they were scared even before it became as divisive as it is now.
ORR: And I also have, you have to be willing to try, and you have to trust that you know your community and that you can, but man, there’s so much stuff kids don’t get from us because we’re afraid we’re going to get in trouble. And I think that’s extra true for the white women in the classrooms where we know that this is something we may not be good at and we may not know how to do. And Matt and I are really honest about the fact that you’re going to mess up a lot. We mess up a lot.
GONZALEZ: What I see all throughout the book, particularly in the narrations of the actual classroom conversations, is you’re continually editorializing about, “And this is how it went, and now I wish I could have gone back and done that differently,” and you’re sort of showing us conversations that actually went pretty well. But you’re still finding ways that you could have fine-tuned it, which I think is such a great model to set for teachers to know that this is never going to be done perfectly.
ORR: Absolutely, yeah.
GONZALEZ: It’s worth trying it anyway.
ORR: Yes, yes it is.
ORR: And the kids need it. This is an important conversation to have and some kids get that outside of school. They get those models. They get to engage in those conversations, and some kids don’t. And the kids that don’t are the ones that need us to offer it the most.
GONZALEZ: You know, I agree with you, and this is coming from somebody who cares so much, and I have read so much and consumed so much about it, but my own three teenagers a lot of times don’t want to hear it from me. They’re like, “Mom, you make everything about race, all the time.” And they make fun of it, and I’m like, “But it, everything is about race.” And they won’t sit down, and I really need other adults in their lives to take this stuff seriously because until they’re in their mid-20s they’re not going to take it from me.
ORR: I think that’s the kind of thing you don’t know until you become a parent. Like, oh, that’s why parents kept asking me to do things because the kids don’t hear it when the parent says it.
GONZALEZ: They don’t want it from the parents.
ORR: Yep. We have to be there.
GONZALEZ: You know, the more I read of these books too, as I was reading these classroom conversation examples, I was thinking, if somebody from the side that is so against any conversations about race read these, it would take away their fear. Because what they think is that teachers are just saying, “Hey, white kids. You’re terrible and you should feel bad about yourselves, and you’re all racist. The end.” And that is not anything what these conversations are like at all, especially the elementary levels. You’re really just like easing them in, and then it’s like, okay, you guys are bored now? Let’s move on to something else or we’re not quite, and it’s just so gently done. And it’s about everybody being proud of who they are, and it’s so respectful. So anyway, we’re going to get into the actual method behind all of this. But the more I read it I thought, this is the window people need into these classrooms where, you know, they can see that nobody’s, nobody’s yelling at white kids telling them that they’re awful.
GONZALEZ: That’s not what’s happening.
KAY: Really not.
GONZALEZ: Really not at all ever. So we’re going to, what I asked you to do is we could sort of look at the sort of elements, Matt, that you had laid out in “Not Light” and that are followed up in “We’re Going to Keep on Talking” as sort of the necessary elements for creating a healthy ecosystem, is what you call it, for race conversations. Because it’s not just going to class one day and start. There’s a lot of groundwork that you recommend that teachers lay. So if you could just sort of give us an overview of those elements, and then we’re going to talk a little bit about how to actually, like, what topics do you talk about and how do you structure it? What has to happen before you have the conversations?
KAY: Are you asking me about how it, like what I describe in “Not Light” or in what Jen described?
GONZALEZ: I guess I see this stuff in “We’re Going to Keep on Talking” as mirroring what’s in “Not Light” so I guess I sort of have perceived it as you kind of have this set of principles for building the ecosystem.
GONZALEZ: So sort of, what are those?
KAY: I think there’s two things. The first one is a classroom of listening where listening is something that is explicitly valued and explicitly taught. And I think that again is a reaction to what I see in the world not being taught to kids through many different avenues. Whenever I say stuff like that, I’m not talking about everyone’s parents and stuff. I’m talking about like the media and stuff like that or people are just not encouraging thoughtful listening. It’s always like, when can I say my next thing? When can I say another thing?
KAY: How can I counter that? How can I “own” that blah blah blah.
KAY: And I think that’s a big enough problem that students need to learn, like, in this classroom, we listen. This is what listening sounds like, looks like, smells like, tastes like. We are going to be, listening is going to be the core of what we do. And we do that through practicing about things that aren’t the race conversations, like listening about each other’s lives, listening about, you know. And I try to make it into things that I can directly coach like a sports coach. What does listening patiently sound like? What does listening actively sound like? What does policing your voice sound like? What are these things, like in a very clear skill-oriented way, instead of just like dealing with it through punishment and just, you know. I want them to actually own that they might not know.
KAY: Even at 16, they might not know and especially if they’re 7 they might not know.
KAY: Not only might they not know but also developmentally, they’re just able to do it. Like, they’re just starting to be able to do it.
KAY: But I don’t want to take it for granted. I think a lot of mistakes happen when we, a lot of the mistakes I’ve made started when I’ve taken certain developmental things for granted. The first thing is listening. Then the second thing is having, I call it a house talk environment. And so it’s like how do you build community with them before they engage in those kind of discussions to kind of inoculate the conversations, if it makes sense, against things, against natural human mistakes that people make. Like if we bond over something, either through one of the good news activities that I stole from Zac Chase or one of the, any of those kind of things, if we just bond over that and then 20 minutes later in a conversation you say something just a little bit off during a race conversation —
KAY: — it’s a little harder for me to jump down your throat. It’s a little harder for you to jump down my throat because we built on a level that supersedes that. And so it doesn’t solve the problem, but it makes it less likely, and it makes the blow-up less violent.
KAY: And so they’re in that space. It’s surprising to me how like in SLA, where I teach, the kids move from class to class in groups. We call it streams. And it’s surprising to me how late in the year we can get and kids in the stream don’t know each other’s names. And it’s actually kind of shocking. And that can happen, and I can imagine what that’s like at most of the schools in the country that are high schools where they don’t stream the kids.
KAY: Like it’s a random assortment of kids, and so then you, then it all, it actually makes sense. It’s a little bit less wild when you think of it then, when you’re like, we had this conversation, they started snapping at each other. They don’t know each other. They don’t have any, like there’s no, and so I think, you know, it’s important for me to do it, but it’s definitely important for people who have every class is a random assortment of kids. That’s a real big issue.
KAY: Those are the two things: Listening and the house talk, this kind of, like, trying to build us close to family relationships as possible in a classroom, which is not family. But as close as you can get in a classroom and then the second one.
GONZALEZ: Right. And for both of those, you offer in the book some really specific strategies for actually building that community with the house talk and explicitly teaching the listening skills through specific activities. So it’s not just a matter of saying, “Hey, in this class we all listen to each other,” and expecting that to just happen.
GONZALEZ: It’s sort of part of their curriculum.
KAY: Yeah, yeah. With the house talk I think especially, with both of them, but especially the house talk, it’s important to realize that I was just sharing what works for me. But it could be, there’s nothing magical about those activities.
KAY: It’s just they work for me, but there’s many different versions. Jen showed what she does to build community, you know.
KAY: It’s a different, I work with schools sometimes and every class will be trying to do good news the same way. And it’s like, oh. If we all do it, it gets weird. So maybe everyone needs to do their own thing.
GONZALEZ: Right. Right, right. And that’s a really important message to send out that this is not necessarily super strict, follow these exact same steps. Do what’s going to work for you, and the goal is to develop that trusting community. Yeah. So Jen, those same strategies translated in the, you know, lower elementary years. Did you find that you had to make some tweaks for the younger kids?
ORR: The kinds of activities we talk about in “We’re Going to Keep on Talking” are really different than the kind that Matt’s talking about in “Not Light.” And yet, you know, every time I talk with Matt, the more I think, oh, this is why these are so similar. It’s all about that community. You need to be able to trust each other. They need to know, you know, that as Matt said, when something goes kind of slightly off, you’re hesitant to be too quick because there’s that base, that foundation that has set you up for success with that. And in some ways I think that’s easier at the elementary level because we had the, you know, at least early years, we’ve got those kids all day, every day.
ORR: Like I have a lot more time with my kids than Matt does to build these, a lot more chance to just engage in kind of casual conversation and allow us to really talk together. But I do think that like Matt, there are things that elementary teachers do from day one to try and really encourage that and foster that community and that trust. And as Matt said, one of his ideas was one he stole from Zac Chase. I think, you know, talk to the teachers around you. The people you work with, the people you know, the people you follow on Twitter or Bluesky or wherever you are these days, have lots of great ideas. And you kind of have to figure out what fits your population and your own style and figure out how you bring them together to, as Matt said basically, form as close to a family as you can.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I did not put this question on but it’s coming to mind, so I’m going to ask it. And if you don’t really have anything yet, but I do remember, I think in one of the books especially that there’s a discussion about parents and how to prepare and maybe invite families in to these conversations as a way of engaging them and also as a way of preventing the kinds of problems that have come up in the news. So what can you tell us about that, because that’s probably coming up a lot of times in teacher’s minds as they listen to this.
ORR: I think that’s a bigger issue at the elementary level. I think these were moments where Matt was like, oh yeah, I don’t so much have to think about that in the same way.
ORR: Elementary kids go home and talk about their day. I mean, not all of them. We all have kids who are like, “What did you do?” “Nothing.” But there are plenty of kids who go and give mom and dad a whole blow by blow of the day, and they give it through their 7-year-old perception, which may not always be quite what we were perceiving, which is going to get at something I hope we’ll get to talk about where Matt talks about the importance of closure when it comes to these conversations so that we are hopefully mitigating that. But yeah, building the bridges with parents or families and having them understand the work you’re doing, keeping them informed about that work so that it’s not a surprise when the kids come home and talk about it. Whatever ways we can keep them informed and be seen as a team, together, will definitely both mean that kids get to build on these conversations at home, at least some, but also hopefully cover your butt a little bit as you, when things do maybe go a little off the rails in ways that you don’t want to. If you, it’s the same as when kids have that good will with each other. If families have that good will with us, then hopefully what they do is contact us and say, “Hey, what’s going on with this,” instead of calling the principal immediately.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
KAY: I will say, I, my daughter is in 1st grade now, and for the past two years she’s gotten these end of week notes that are like “these are the things we did” and “here are some things,” my favorite part is like “five questions to ask her at the table at dinner.” And I’m like, yo, and I ask and it’s fantastic, and I think I’m going to do that with my high schoolers.
GONZALEZ: Oh that’s great.
KAY: I am fascinated by this idea of, because I’m like, the cool conversations we have, like you said, it actually, to help show folks this is, here’s the stereotype of what these conversations are and here’s what they actually are. I think it’s actually a neat, I wouldn’t write about it because I haven’t done it yet, but I think it’s a neat, like, why not 16-year-olds?
KAY: Especially when you’re dealing with, “I don’t know what to talk to my kid about.” I don’t even know what to ask. But if I can give, you know, here are five things we’re talking about. I’m actually fascinated by that. I’m thinking I might try that this year.
ORR: I used to send my 1st graders, like the last thing we would do every day at the end of first grade was, “What are the things you want to go home and share with your family tonight?” Get it fresh in your mind again before you leave. Because of course if we had done it at 10 o’clock in the morning, by 3:30 in the afternoon, it is gone.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. What a good way to end the day too. And they don’t have those conversations in the car where they’re just like, “Nothing.” So let’s assume that we’ve got teachers that are ready to go. They understand the idea of sort of building the trust and getting to know each other and developing the listening skills. Then what do you talk about? How do you pick a topic? How do you design this conversation? You don’t just say, “Hey, let’s talk about race, guys. What do you think about, what does everybody think about it?” There’s definitely going to be some starting point. So how does one get started with these conversations?
KAY: I think there are, except for the pop-up situations, which are different, I think everything that I discuss in the book is curricular, and I think it’s the same thing with “We’re Going to Keep on Talking.” These aren’t outsider, these aren’t conversations that pop out of nowhere. These are conversations that are like, we are reading a book and there is a race issue in this book, or we’re studying a time period and there’s a race issue in this time period, etc. Like, we’re not artificially infusing race into an issue. We’re just, like, not ignoring the race issue that is in the thing. That’s a really big adjustment for a lot of folks because when they think about race conversations, they think about, well, okay, Twitter is telling me I need to talk about blah, blah, blah so I’ll talk about blah, blah, blah so I don’t get called a coward. Or so-and-so is happening in the world, and I need to, like, we have these artificial insertions of race into our curriculum in our heads when we think about race conversations. For me, I’m thinking, like, we are reading “Lord of the Flies.” My kids are about to start “Lord of the Flies” in two weeks, my sophomores. There’s a clear race angle there that is almost never discussed with “Lord of the Flies,” and it’s just ignored how Golding uses caricatures of Indigenous people to show that these white boys are losing their minds. Like, that’s just not talked about. Like we talk about everything else, but we usually don’t talk about it. And I think my biggest thing is like it’s the good conversations that are already in the curriculum. I’m not thinking of ways to engage race. I’m just seeing race in the thing, and then talking about it like I talk about everything else.
KAY: Like these are the same strategies that I use when I’m discussing gender and sexuality and the economy, so I think that’s the biggest thing. Literally, where is it in the text, and then figuring out then where are the cool decision points that characters are having if it’s a fictional thing or that people had if it’s a nonfictional, historical thing, social studies, etc. Just basically not, this is as much about not ignoring race as it is about infusing race into something.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. You use the term “layering” in the book. And so it’s just having that as a layer in whatever the curriculum is. If it comes up or if it’s something that you can see, which according to my kids I see it in everything, and so obviously it’s not hard to find it.
KAY: It’s everywhere!
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And it’s just a matter of not ignoring it, like you said. And then you also use this term “threading” too, which I see it, you know, it seemed like it came up more in the elementary where it’s because of their attention span anyway that the threading was almost a necessary approach to talking about race. Explain what threading is.
KAY: So in “Not Light” I called everything threading. And the idea of layering came from the professional development, like the hundred or so PDs I’ve done since then. I find myself continually getting sharper. Thankfully, I stand by everything I wrote in “Not Light” but I’m so much better at talking about it now than I was back then because I’ve had so many conversations with people.
KAY: And one of the things I realized is that there are two different things. One thing is connecting conversations over the course of a year, which I would call threading. And then finding race conversations in a text or in a moment that one wouldn’t ordinarily see, which I would call layering. So I think those were the two things. I spoke about them in “Not Light” as if they were one thing, and the more I spoke with teachers I realized that it’s two distinct skills.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
KAY: Which was a cool thing that just came from speaking with professionals everywhere.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, and I noticed, Jen, in your descriptions of a lot of your conversations, you were very attuned to the students’ energy and stamina in some of these conversations and the need for a lot of teachers to want to sort of wrap everything up and sort of solve all the world’s problems in one conversation. And realizing, especially with young kids, that sometimes if the conversation was going to have this natural end, you just needed to let it end and just sort of say, okay, well we’ll talk more about this later.
GONZALEZ: Say more about that, yeah.
ORR: It was so interesting because of course, you know, I have spent my whole career in elementary and Matt has spent his whole career in secondary. And the way he describes it in “Not Light” is that each of those conversations in the second half of the book is a bell to bell conversation. And when we first started talking, I said, that doesn’t exist in elementary. Bell to bell is all day. I have the kids all day. But also, they just don’t, you know, when you’re talking kindergartners or 1st graders but even 4th or 5th graders, the stamina isn’t there to engage for an hour around something. We have to be able to sort of chunk it. I also think it’s really helpful for younger kids, and I think threading gets at this even at the secondary level, to have some time to sort of sit with an idea that they’ve been thinking about or talking about, and then come back to it when they’ve had a chance to let it kind of simmer with them. Because their thinking kind of grows and develops and they realize questions they have or ideas that are kind of gelling. And so being able to come back over time. So some of that just comes out of we only can do so much in so much time with kids at different ages, but also coming back to it in that threading idea is really powerful in what they can walk away with.
GONZALEZ: So one of the things that I wanted to just sort of ask you since we definitely can’t cover everything that’s in the book is if there are teachers listening right now who really want to get started. And I had told you earlier before we started recording that unlike a lot of my other interviews, I don’t really want to give them anything where they can just take a small bit and think that they could run with it because I think you offer way too much valuable stuff in both of these books. But if you could offer some advice for a teacher who is wanting to get started and really get their toes wet in this, what are some things that you have learned over time? Some do’s and don’ts maybe that are super important to know?
KAY: Let me give, I’m going to throw Jen for the super practical. I’m going to have, like, a large one. Cut yourself some slack. I think one of my biggest things is really cut yourself some slack. Like early on Jen was talking about how hard it is for folks and they feel scared to engage in conversations.
KAY: And with white teachers and with Black teachers who feel like a certain responsibility to, like, “I’ve got to make sure these kids.” We can really be hard on ourselves when we attempt to have conversations about race and hold ourselves to a standard where we’re not allowed to make mistakes. And we have words, unfortunately, in this era for people who make mistakes in race conversations, all right. You’re going to get called names, and you’re going to get called sometimes really nasty names for, like, mistakes you made while leading a conversation.
KAY: In those moments, you’re going to be like, man, I should have just never brought it up, honestly. Now people think I’m racist. I shouldn’t have ever brought it up. Now people think I’m living in my white privilege. I should have never brought it up.
KAY: Now people think I should have, you know what I mean?
KAY: And I think some of my biggest, and that terrifies me because good people can take themselves off the field.
KAY: And I think, I’ve seen good people take themselves off the field, and I’m scared of the good people taking themselves off the field because they say, you know what? I’m never going to get in trouble for not having the conversation.
KAY: And so my biggest thing is to just cut yourself some slack and be, and surround yourselves with people who are going to cut you some slack. You need to have a group around you that’s like, we’re all just trying to figure it out together and we’re all, you know, and we’re going to realize that we’re going to make mistakes. And be open with your kids when you make a mistake. Be really quick and easy to say “I’m sorry,” “my bad,” “oops,” “that was silly.” Like, really, there should be a whole energy about us when we try to do this where we’re fair to the kids and we’re fair to ourselves. The kids are going to be less articulate than we are, and we don’t know what we’re talking about. So it’s got to be, like the wrong term is going to be used.
KAY: Like the wrong, you know what I mean?
KAY: And I think, my biggest thing from like a global scale is to chill, like just chill. Cut yourself some slack. Like Jen said, you ain’t going to save the world in one conversation. You’re not going to, and that’s not the goal. We’re just teachers. We’re just trying [inaudible] and so that’s my big thing.
ORR: And I would kind of add to that because that’s yes, absolutely, and then trust yourself and trust your kids. I didn’t early in my teaching career. I didn’t trust myself or them, and I made a lot of mistakes that, you know, 25 years later still kind of cause me pain. Know that like anything else we do as teachers, one, we’re not going to get every kid every day. They’re not all going to walk out of that lesson with exactly what we want them to. They don’t, out of that math lesson or out of that science experiment or out of that decoding lesson, nothing. Never do we get every kid every day. So trust that it will take time but that we’ll get there. And then trust that when you do cut yourself some slack and make a mistake that you have the professional ability to remedy that, to say, “I screwed up,” or to come back the next day and go, “Man, that didn’t work. Let me rethink. How do I bring the kids back around?” That trust in yourself and your kids is really freeing and really, really important.
GONZALEZ: That’s fantastic. So if people want to find you online, if they want to learn more from either of you, what would be the best place for them to go?
KAY: I guess as of now, I’m on X.
GONZALEZ: I can’t even call it that. I know. As long as it’s still standing.
KAY: As long as X still exists, I am @MattRKay on X.
GONZALEZ: On the platform formerly known as Twitter.
KAY: Formerly known as Twitter, but yeah, that’s, everything else is just like pictures of my kids and stuff. X is the only one.
ORR: Which are fabulous, for the record.
GONZALEZ: And your website, is it notlight.com?
GONZALEZ: Okay. If X happens to fall off the edge of the, yes. And Jen, what about you?
ORR: I’m @jenorr there, and I’m kind of hoping Bluesky is going to give us an option that’s going to work. We’ll see over time. But that’s been my new kind of attempt to find a replacement for Twitter.
GONZALEZ: I will be sending a link to your X presence on the site, and if it changes, I can always change the link over on the website.
ORR: Matt uses it so well too. There are lots of reasons I’m going to be sad if it goes away, but Matt is a prime one for me.
GONZALEZ: Thank you both so much. I would strongly encourage people listening to please go and get one or both of your books and I just, I really appreciate the work you’re doing. It’s very, very important.
KAY: Thank you.
ORR: Thank you.
For links to both books or to read a full transcript of this conversation, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 217. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.