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Preparing Our Students to Be Better Citizens, More Thoughtful Scholars, More Empathetic Neighbors

By Matthew Kay

Over the past half-decade, our students have been bombarded with high-profile race conflicts; the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner decisions, the riots in Baltimore, the mass-shooting in Charleston, supremacist marches and murder in Charlottesville, a tangible spike in hate speech and a sharp decline in civility. The same media that delivers these issues to students tends to serve as a terrible model for how to discuss them. Fully siloed, 24-hour news networks turn important race conversations into macabre theatre.  Hosts ask unsubstantial questions, which split-screen “experts” answer with bloviation and shouted accusations – each segment an attempt to inspire a viral YouTube clip. It’s just as difficult for our students to find meaningful race conversation modeled over social media, with its equally siloed Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Here, meaningful discourse is often twisted into a competition for likes and retweets, one that ultimately rewards rapidity over introspection, snark over humility. Too often, our students’ conversational habits are only made worse by engaging this social media exchange. These habits don’t fix themselves. If we, as educators, do not provide a counter vision, show another way to engage race thoughtfully, energetically, and empathetically, many of our students will never see one. Furthermore, if we do not provide opportunities for our students to practice habits that lead to quality race conversations, any nascent skills will atrophy, especially with so many bad examples out there.


We know this. As educators, we know just how many people are invested in our students’ destructive conversational habits. When White, Black, Latino, and Asian students remain strangers to each other, so many walls remain intact. If our students do not seek complexity, leaving both Conservative and Liberal orthodoxies to go unchallenged, our political parties can settle into a deleterious status quo. Most importantly, if our students are not encouraged to engage race issues with empathy, so many unethical power structures can continue to thrive. Kindness in conversations, so often spoken about as a foundational American quality, has always been more elusive than we admit. While America’s current political discourse has aggressively devalued kindness, we have never, in history, been particularly good at being compassionate to “the other side” when talking race. It’s just so much easier to tease and belittle, to attack with the intention to destroy, to bury, to end each other. It seems so much more fun to be a troll, so much more entertaining to be a troll’s audience, so satisfying to see an “enemy” bewildered and publicly embarrassed. Many have grown so attached to this congenital meanness (in conversation) that it has become a key part of their cultural identity. So key, in fact, that many are invested in passing it to the next generation. They mislabel it “toughness.” They praise an ability to “keep it real.” They roll their eyes at “political correctness.” To them, any teacher who closely examines any of these terms has chosen to challenge entrenched value systems, which leaves us open to accusations of overreach.

Which might be true, if our respective communities believe an educators’ job should end with giving our students the skills needed to compete in the workforce. But if we consider our job more expansively, we might find ourselves preparing our students to be better citizens, more thoughtful scholars, and more empathetic neighbors. If this is the case, our curriculum cannot afford to ignore race, to minimize it, or to treat it haphazardly. Gratefully, much has been written about this challenge. The next step, however, is moving past the WHY of talking race in the classroom to creating a discourse about HOW to get it done.

How do educators buck the momentum of mean, vapid, repetitive race conversations that our adult word is so intent on modeling for our students?

How do we meet our fears, listen to their counsel, but then keep pushing forward?

How do we create a community of empathetic scholars from a classroom of individuals?

How can we design curriculum that leads this community of scholars past where the adults are willing to go?

In my upcoming book, Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, I offer a method for getting these conversations right. While perfection is impossible, I have come to realize that success in race conversations can be consistent. These successes are for both young teachers and 30-year veterans. They can be led by both the charismatic and the introspective. They can be had in conservative and liberal communities, with rich students and poor students, in both racially diverse and segregated classrooms. Any teacher willing to put in the work can do the work.

And it is work. Despite what Hollywood teaches, our classroom time does not elapse in training montages. There are no home run, Freedom Writers speeches. No one discussion radically redirects the constant stream of bad habits that the world encourages. The classroom that can thoughtfully engage race conversations must be built from the ground up. Scholars must value complexity; they must be encouraged to seek it, then given deliberate, repetitive chances to attempt the quest. Hours must be devoted to developing empathy; not demanded, but thoughtfully nurtured, pruned, encouraged. Not Light, But Fire is a comprehensive guide, offered from one teacher to a respected community of peers, describing what I’ve learned in over a decade of leading meaningful race conversations. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and engaging educators in these conversations at the March 2019 PAWLPDAY.


Matt KayMatthew Rosamond Kay is the founder and coordinator of the Philly Slam League, which is now in its eighth season. Matthew is a founding teacher at Science Leadership Academy. He is the author of the forthcoming book Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Conversations about Race in the Classroom (to be released in June 2018 by Stenhouse Publishers). He is passionate about the development of youth confidence through the encouragement of their voices.


One Comment Post a comment
  1. mbuckelew #

    Thank you for sharing such thoughtful, valuable insights and observations regarding conversations about race. This is a post that I will share with my undergraduate and graduate students as a way of introducing your book. I am looking forward to reading your book and using it in my classes. We look forward to your presentation at the local conferences: PCTELA in October, 2018 & at the PAWLP Conference in March, 2019. Thank you!


    April 25, 2018

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