In this episode of Teacher's Corner, Matthew Kay and Jennifer Orr give us a peek into their book, We’re Gonna Keep On Talking, sharing a read aloud of the book’s powerful introduction.
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In the years since Not Light, But Fire came out, I’ve met many teachers during scores of trips to schools and conferences around the country. These colleagues—and new fast friends—have been generous with their praise and gentle with their criticism. They’ve also been quick to give encouragement, from playful “Okay, I see you!” daps in 2019 to earnest and knowing “Hang in there!” elbow bumps in 2021. There has been plenty of advice too. First it was “Make a website!” (check!), then it was “Record an audiobook!” (check!). But far and away the most common suggestion has come as a question: How do we do this at the elementary level?
In response to this, I would laugh, pointing to the near-perfect timing of my first daughter being born right after the Not Light draft was submitted to Stenhouse Publishers. The thought of writing anything with a bawling newborn in the house gave me heart palpitations. Also, writing a book was hard! In my 2015 book proposal, I’d told my prospective editor that, with all the ideas I had ready to go, I could crank out a book in six months. It took me two years. It wasn’t just the interviews, reflections, and research but also the challenge of writing as life just barreled on. I had the best (I got married!) and the worst (my mom passed away unexpectedly) days of my life while writing Not Light. My school packed up and moved to a new location while I was writing Not Light. I juggled coaching basketball, teaching kids English and drama, and running a nonprofit slam poetry league while writing Not Light. I was so happy when writing was finished!
But more important than that, I was thoroughly intimidated by the prospect of writing for elementary teachers. My mom was one, for thirty-six years. The first time I experienced education from the teacher’s side was in her classroom; the first lessons I taught were to her students. I saw and understood the incredible artistry needed to meaningfully engage our youngest students. And now, I am fully aware that my successes with secondary students are built on the foundation of elementary teachers’ hard work, skill, and dedication. Even if I could find the energy and time to write for elementary colleagues, there was no way I could do it without the help of an amazing elementary teacher. When readers of Not Light requested an “elementary version” of the book, I would often (with tongue firmly in cheek) ask them to go in on a book with me, and we would laugh and both go on about our days.
But their requests stuck with me, especially throughout the maelstrom that was 2020 and then the coordinated state-by-state assault on discussions of race in the classroom over the following years. Very quickly, it seemed to matter less that I was tired. What was my fatigue to a fifth-grade teacher somewhere bravely planning a powerful race conversation that was sure to upset a community? I had to try, and I was going to need an excellent elementary school teacher to coauthor such a project. Someone precisely like the author of Demystifying Discussion, Jennifer Orr.
I read Not Light as soon as it was published. Multiple times. I recommended it to plenty of other elementary teachers. When Matt reached out to suggest collaborating on an elementary version, I immediately said yes. Then turned to my husband and said, “I just agreed to do this . . . and I have no idea if I am able to.” I’ve done a lot of writing in recent years. Nothing, I believe, has felt this difficult. Not long after that conversation with Matt, I read an essay by Imani Perry in which she writes, “Sometimes, I have read, people use the second person instead of ‘I’ when they are talking about something that is especially painful because it is less frightening if you distance yourself from it” (2021, 192). When I read it, I stopped cold. My first draft of this introduction was not written in the first person. Facing my own fears, my self-doubts as a leader of classroom race conversations, was too hard. Perry’s words helped me recognize what I was doing and try again.
Having taught elementary school students for more than two decades now, I have faced and overcome many fears. Some fears (such as worrying about being younger than the parents of my students—something that is definitely not a concern these days) simply faded, thanks to aging and gaining experience, and some fears had to be faced head on. As a straight, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class, native-English-speaking White woman, I had many fears about teaching and talking with my students about, well, just about anything. I told myself I didn’t have the life experiences, the background knowledge, the expertise to talk about race, class, queerness, disability, and more.
Early in my career I didn’t even have the time or energy to think too hard about race in the classroom. Everything I had went into getting to know my students, learning better how to teach and support them, and just getting through each week to crash by 8:00 p.m. on Friday. As some of the basics became ingrained and I continued learning, I began to wonder if, by not leading race conversations, I was doing my students a disservice.
Even as I pondered this question, the discomfort didn’t go away. I considered whether elementary students (I taught fourth and fifth graders at this point) were too young to have these conversations. I could see plenty of people around me refusing to discuss difficult social issues with children this age, intentionally shielding them from facts some might find uncomfortable. Of course, what I wasn’t seeing then was that those people, the teachers I was looking to as models, were White folks like me. When I pushed myself (and I don’t like to think about how long it took me), I could see that many young children of color were already discussing these topics. A kindergartner who was excluded from a game at recess by her peers because of her skin color is likely to ask the adults in her life about race. A fourth grader who is relied on to be the class expert when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement or rap music will know how others see him. Children who are pushed to read, write, or research specific topics that fit stereotypes about them often question why that isn’t happening to certain classmates.
It took me a full decade of teaching, and three different grade levels, before I recognized that many of my young students could, and regularly did, have these conversations about race. By then, I was also a parent of two young White kids, and our interactions clarified for me how crucial race conversations were. My youngest went to two different home daycares before starting elementary school. In the first, the adults were first-generation immigrants from South Asia. In the second, the caregiver was a Black woman. My child began asking good questions about race very early on. Engaging in these conversations with a two or three-year-old made it a lot easier for me to begin to see how to lead similar conversations with kids twice that age.
I’ll admit, though, this didn’t stop me from worrying about leading such conversations with my students. What if a parent got upset and complained? How should I handle colleagues who thought my students were too young for these discussions? What if, agreeing with them, my administration wouldn’t support me?
Yet, in the midst of these fears, I knew what I could count on: my willingness to communicate openly and honestly. Because of this openness and honesty, I knew my students’ families and they knew me. In my more than twenty years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of times a family and I couldn’t resolve an issue by talking together about it. My colleagues and administrators, too, were people with whom I had relationships, people with whom I’ve talked about teaching and the choices we make. We would work together through any reasonable question or concern, and I wouldn’t allow hypothetical naysayers to stop our forward momentum.
In the end, I teach young children. They are observant and they are curious. They are full of questions and frequently aware of when we, the adults in their lives, are avoiding certain conversations. We can tell ourselves that avoiding the topic of race is a way of remaining neutral, of not taking a stance. However, our students are aware of this avoidance, and they do not see it as neutral. They recognize the importance of their questions, and we must do the same. It is okay for us to be nervous, to be worried, and then, after trying hard, to make mistakes. But the young children we spend our days with need us to keep pushing through our nervousness. To refuse to let our anxieties stifle us. And we, as knowledgeable, thoughtful professionals, can do this work for them.
Before we leave this introduction, it helps to remember that these are not the first challenging times for educators determined to discuss race meaningfully in the classroom. This is not the first time that teaching the truth has been unpopular, or that authentic analysis of “controversial” topics has been legislated against. It certainly is not the first time that our youngest students’ ability to tackle race issues has been underestimated by the communities that claim to believe in them the most. We teachers of good will need more than a general understanding of this history; we need to collect this history like fuel. Bad actors have tried all of this before—and they have failed because of the righteous stubbornness of teachers just like us.
I gave Not Light, But Fire its title to remind myself of this urgent truth-telling legacy. Frederick Douglass, in 1852, was invited to speak at Corinthian Hall by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. He delivered his most famous speech that day, furiously asking the question that pops up on some of our social media feeds every Independence Day: What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? The withering next few paragraphs detailing the unrelenting brutality of America’s antebellum slave system are brilliant, and worth every ounce of their current fame. However, for me, it’s always been all about Douglass’s frustration over being asked to waste his time “shedding light” on race issues, clarifying stuff for those who are disingenuously confused. A century and a half later, I can almost hear the exasperation in his voice: Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government . . . It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man! (Douglass 1852)
Douglass, an abolitionist orator whose resume attested to his boundless stamina, spoke here like a man well aware of his human limitations. While some people seemed to always have energy for inconsequential and showy “debates,” inauthentic sermonizing, and hardhearted trolling, he did not. He was committed to honest conversations about our nation’s complex racial history, its layered racial present, and the uncertain future that was being built for all of its children. Making sure his point wasn’t lost, Douglass soon bellowed, “It is not light that is needed, but fire!” (Douglass 1852). Whereas light merely illuminates injustice, fire actually does something about it.
One morning in 1963—little more than a century after Douglass described this thirst for action—scores of young Black children gathered excitedly in Birmingham, Alabama. During a series of mass meetings, they’d been told, as participant Janice Kelsey recalled years later, that “a day would come when we could really do something about all of these inequities we’d been experiencing” (History Channel, 2014). Inspired by these conversations, droves of students, many of them still in elementary school, had left their classes to meet at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. There they meant to organize themselves, and then march to nearby Kelly Ingram Park, where Jim Crow laws forbade them to play. While many of the adults in their lives had been supportive, just as many cautious parents, neighbors, and teachers had discouraged the children from attending. This reluctance made sense—and in many ways proved prescient—as the notorious Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, would infamously set his dogs and fire hoses on many of the young protesters. Still, in rapidly increasing numbers, the children continued to show up. As they waited in the church, they sang freedom songs—many of which echoed Douglass’s eagerness. My favorite of these, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, had the children proclaiming, “I’m gonna keep on awalkin’, keep on a-talkin’ / Marchin’ up to freedom land!” This, even though they were still young children. Even though they might not have had all the answers. Even though the discourse might have been scary, or unpopular, or hard. These little kids were going to keep on talking despite every obstacle that the adult world threw in their faces.
We’re Gonna Keep On Talking is for teachers who share not only Frederick Douglass’s hunger for authentic race discourse but also the courage of those young children who gathered in Birmingham to continue the conversation against all odds. Essentially, this is a book for teachers of young children who believe that learning
to have meaningful race conversations is just as foundational as developing literacy and numeracy. For just as literacy and numeracy might enable students to better chase their dreams, a foundation in meaningful race discourse will help them to seek justice for themselves and their neighbors, to be kinder, more thoughtful,
less willing to see their considerable potential hamstrung by the same old restrictive prejudices. This book is for teachers who— like us—are far from perfect, but who are willing to try to meet this moment.
For those who like to read with a pen and highlighter in hand, we’re also sharing the print version of the introduction to the book. To find out more about We’re Gonna Keep On Talking, visit our website or Amazon.