Do you feel prepared to initiate and facilitate meaningful, productive dialogues about race in your classroom? Are you looking for practical strategies to engage with your students?
Matthew Kay has spent his career learning how to lead students through the most difficult race conversations. Kay not only makes the case that high school classrooms are one of the best places to have those conversations, but he also offers a method for getting them right.
I like to think that it means that we should avoid showy conversations, and meaningless conversations, and we should try to push towards having conversations that are actually significant, and actually mean something. I don't know if you wanted me to get into the story that's in the book or anything? Oh okay. Well in 1852, Frederick Douglas was invited to speak at a convention, and it was celebrating the fourth of July. After spending the first around half of the speech thanking the people who invited him and giving the history of America, he made a really rapid turn and said, "But I don't know why anyone invited me here. It seems like it was all for show. Like you have a pet slave who has escaped and is here to tell their hero story and make everyone feel good. That's not what this is supposed to be, because there are actual things that need to change, and we need to do something about all the injustice that's out there. We're wasting our time with these shows and these showy conversations."
One of the lines from his speech was that, "We don't need anymore light, we need fire. We don't need anymore shows, we know we don't need anymore things that are just done for status, we need things that are ... We need conversations that are actually gonna lead to some sort of action." I encountered that speech in college, in a Frederick Douglas course, and I fell in love with it. It's been in the back of my mind for years and years. I had the opportunity to write this book, it drove me, and so I decided to let that really ride through the book. But what I love about it, it's not just a title, it's actually every piece of the book is, I want teachers to be thinking, "Is this a fire conversation? Can I be pushing towards something more meaningful? I tried to do that.
Great. In your book, you write that one of the key questions you ask of teachers is, "How healthy is your classroom?" What's behind that question?
How healthy is your classroom environment, and how healthy are the relationships that exist in your classroom between teacher to student, and student to student? I just think that if you are a student, you don't often come to class expecting the kind of vulnerability that race conversations ask of you. A lot of times, teachers just assume that that kind of vulnerability just comes naturally and will be appreciated. Where in fact, a lot of times, we're asking students to behave as if they trust us when we haven't given them reason to trust us yet.
We haven't given them the idea that we care about them outside of their academics, and outside of their ... How they perform as scholars, which normally isn't a problem, but if you're asking them to come up ... If you're asking them to encounter and deal with and wrestle with race conversations that are tough, you're stepping a little bit outside of what they were expecting from their classroom teacher, and what school has always expected of them. In order to ask for that kind of vulnerability, you kind of need to step up your game as far as being trustable, and as far as showing that you care about them beyond just their grades and their performance in the classroom.
I think how successful these conversations go, tends to have a very strong relationship with how healthy the relationships are in the room. Because it's almost important to get them perfect, and kids tend to cut you a little bit more slack once they know that you care about them. You get the freedom to make a few mistakes that won't get you thrown into the news, or won't get you spoken about in the hallway of somebody who doesn't care about them, when all those things that happen when we make mistakes.
Kids have a better chance of treating us like humans when we show our human side, and we respect their human side. I know I couldn't get very far in the book as far as thinking about my conversations without coming across a mistake I made. I don't think I go two or three pages without thinking, "Oh I used to do this," or, "I did this wrong. I did this wrong." I think the only reason I've been able to survive and grow towards thriving in these conversations is because my kids know that I care about them beyond maybe what they expected. They're willing to cut me a little bit more slack than what they would expect.
Related to that, one of the things that struck me about your book when I was reading it was, the importance of making sure that students weren't talking just to you, but that you were fostering an environment where they needed to speak to each other. Can you talk a little bit about how that changes the dynamic, having to speak to each other?
Yeah, well I think it changes the dynamic because they're not ... Students aren't necessarily used to being a part of a community of scholars, it's normally a series of one on one relationships with the teacher. Which again, is not necessarily bad, but when it ... I think it's step one. But I think students need to be able to understand that there are other people in the room, and they all have good ideas, and they all have been through something, and their story is not the only story that's out there.
I think that doesn't come naturally. We tend to assume that it comes naturally, but school's such an individual exercise from the moment they start taking school. They get their grade, all of the rewards are individual, and it goes all the way through senior year where the college scholarship you get is individual, and it goes through your adult life. There's not actually too much collaborative in their academic life, and so we shouldn't jump then to heavier conversations.
Again the vulnerability that I'm talking about, without teaching them how to communicate with each other so that everyone feels respected, and that everyone feels valued, and important, and smart. We need to not assume that they come by that naturally, because when would they have. Who would've taught them to listen to each other? Who would've taught them how to listen? In a lot of the kids cases. Some of them have, but in a lot of the kids cases, nothing about school has been about listening to each other authentically.
Yeah, that's interesting. When you think about it, everything that you are taught at school is to not talk to each other.
Yes, "Don't talk to them." They learn talking is bad. We do weird ... During our progression into being more student centered teachers, we do some things that are a little silly. Like sometimes we sit kids in groups, and then fuss at them when they speak to each other. It's weird. If you're sitting across from someone and I don't speak to them, I might actually have a problem, there might be something wrong with me. I'm supposed to want to talk to them. You put any group of four people together and have them face each other, and then fuss at them for talking to each other, it seems weird to me. But it seems like a step, it just comes from not reflecting as much, I guess.
Nate: Okay. This question is about pop up conversations. Can you talk a little bit about what you referred to as those pop up conversations in the book?
Yeah. Pop up conversations are scary to me, because I think that actually a lot of the worst things that can happen during a race conversation happen during them. I think a pop up conversation, which definition wise, a pop up, you didn't plan it, it's more based on something that happened out in the world. It could be a current event, it could be you had an idea that was fresh, so you ran with it. Like you were driving into school and you say, "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." Or it could be something like, "What's in the book," where like it's an election or something like that. It could be any of those things. But the one thing is, it's outside of your curriculum, and you did not necessarily spend that much time and energy and thought and reflection in planning it.
I think that's where a lot of the problems come, because you haven't had a chance to say, "But what if this happens? But what if this happens? What if one of my students is fresh from a refuge camp? What if I have a child of a police officer in this classroom? What if I have the child of someone who's been killed by a police officer in this classroom? What if ..." Like we haven't had those opportunities to actually reflect. We were so in love with our idea and so puffed up with our own perceived importance that we felt like a teachable moment was the most important thing. I think a lot of that's myth. I think that a lot of us are told about teachable moments, that we should immediately engage the things that happen in the world. It might even be a lot of our instincts, because we're powerful in the classroom so we feel like our kids needs us to do this. I just wanted to push against that, because I feel like reflection's important. But I think there are ways to have pop up conversations. I put that in there. I tried to describe ways, if you're going to have a pop up conversation, make sure that you do this. But I still think in almost every case, the rush that you feel is artificial. The kids will be there tomorrow, and they'll be there the next day, they'll be there next unit. They're not going anywhere. Think about your lesson. If you're gonna bring up ... Especially if it's a hot button issue, think about it, you have time. There's no reason for you to rush into it without bringing your best teacher energy, and your best teacher thought process to it.
In the book you talk about safe space. What do you mean about demystifying the safe space?
When I talk about demystifying the safe space, it's because most teachers speak about safe spaces with an air of magic, it's magical thinking, not intentionally. Good teachers, good, thoughtful, kind teachers, unintentionally approach safe space with a magical thinking concept. They walk in first couple days of class and they go, "I just want you to know that it's a safe space in this classroom. I want you to know that you should feel safe." They'll put stickers up on the doors that say, safe space. I think that's important, 'cause it's good right on. I've had kids say, "Thank you for having the LGBT safe space on your door, I feel good walking into your room."
I'm not saying those are bad, what I'm saying though is that it's not magic, right? If you have a sticker on your door saying it's a safe space, and then nothing else about your class environment is safe, the kids won't feel safe, it's just a sticker. A safe space is not magic, you can't just say, "Abracadabra," now I'm a safe space. Nor can you punish your way into it, or discipline your way into it. You have to practice the skills that make people feel safe. I have chosen to focus on listening. There are other things, but I chose to focus on listening, because the book's about conversation. A constant that folks say is, "I feel safest when listened to.
I feel unsafe when they're not listening to me." That's a basic, if you're asking 12 year olds, they say yes, if you're asking 60 year olds they say that. "When I feel listened to, I feel safe." Genuinely listened to. I figured, well, if you're gonna make a safe space, then it stands to reason that you need a listening space. Okay, what makes someone a good listener? There are lots of people who have written about this, there are plenty of experts on listening. I just shared what I do in the classroom. There are a lot of ways to approach listening, but I distill it into three skills, and those are the skills that are in the book.
But, mostly it's, after teaching the skills and practicing the skills, and refraining my discipline and everything around the skills. For example, if a kid shouts out in class, I'm not yelling at them to stop misbehaving, I'm reminding them to be patient. Those phrases matter. I get more like, "Oh my bad, I apologize. Go ahead, go ahead and finish, I got something to say." Whereas if I said, "Be quiet, wait your ..." If I come at it with a more disciplinary mindset, they whisper, "Mr. K don't like me." Now that kid doesn't feel safe. Now I might like them just the same. That the kids emotional decision. We know the kids can make up their own mind about it.
They freely make up their own minds about what teachers feel about them, and very little of it is true. But that's the point. If they don't feel like you like them, then you can't then turn around and say, "So how does it feel to be a minority in a ..." You can't sit around and ask them to dig deep into their emotional reservoir of hurt if they think you don't like them. Which seems basic, but ... I just decided to focus on listening, 'cause that's the thing that makes everyone feel better. Everyone feels better when someone is listening to them.