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Talking About Race in the Elementary Classroom

Posted by admin on May 16, 2023 9:37:44 AM

In this episode of Teacher’s Corner, we tune in to a conversation between Matthew Kay and Jennifer Orr, authors of We’re Gonna Keep On Talking: How To Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Elementary Classroom.  They discuss how they chose the book’s title, productive strategies for talking about race with young children, and what readers can expect in their new book. 


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Nate: This is Teacher’s Corner from Stenhouse Publishers. When readers of Not Light, But Fire asked author Matthew Kay to write a book about talking about race in the elementary classroom, he would jokingly ask them to co-author it with him. After all, Matt, a high school teacher and the child of an elementary school teacher, had tremendous respect for the unique talents and skills of those who teach elementary-aged students. It wasn’t until he met elementary school educator, Jennifer Orr, that the seed of a new book began to take root. Bringing their expertise and experiences together, Matt and Jen have co-authored We’re Gonna Keep On Talking: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Elementary Classroom.

Their book takes on important questions such as:

What should conversations about race look and sound like in the elementary classroom?

How do we respond authentically and truthfully to children’s questions about the world?

And how can we build classroom communities that encourage these meaningful conversations about race?  

In today’s podcast Mathew Kay and Jennifer Orr join Stenhouse’s Kassia Wedekind to discuss the perspectives they each brought to We’re Gonna Keep On Talking as well as practical strategies for facilitating conversations about race in the elementary classroom.

Kassia: You've chosen a powerful title for your book: We're Gonna Keep On Talking. Tell us a little bit about what that title means and why you chose it.

Jennifer: Throughout the process of writing the book, Matt and I kept referring to it as Not Light, But Fire Junior, a title that still sticks in my head regularly. I have to be thoughtful about the actual title we chose. But one of the conversations we had was around the power of that title, Not Light, But Fire, and where it came from. And could we find a similar title that had such weight and power and history behind it? And Matt found this protest song from the Children's March in Birmingham, Alabama, one line of which is, "We're going to keep on talking." And we both loved the history to it. We loved where it came from. But it also, every time I think about it, it feels more and more powerful to me. This idea that we're not stopping. Kids are not going to stop this work, teachers are not going to stop this work. We're going to keep on talking regardless of the many, many roadblocks that are being thrown up in the way of teachers and children at the moment.

Kassia: Yeah. It also feels like such a nod to the power of young children, which is evident in your writing this book.

Jennifer: Yeah, I think that when I started thinking about where we could find a title I hadn't gotten as far as Matt. And Matt immediately, upon finding this song, that many elementary kids were a part of marching and singing, that definitely made it feel like the absolute right choice.

Kassia: Well, as you've said, We're Gonna Keep On Talking is the elementary version of Not Light, But Fire. For readers who may already be familiar with Not Light, can you tell us about what to expect in this new book? What will feel familiar and what is different?

Matt: I think that structurally it should feel very familiar. I was kind of deliberate when I was designing Not Light. Just kind of like the last four chapters are going to be stories from my classroom that show me using stuff from the first... let me answer that again. It should seem super familiar to readers who read Not Light because of the structure. I was pretty deliberate with Not Light, having the first part of the book, part one, be here are some tips and tricks and pedagogy, and that sorts of thing with some storytelling. And then the last four chapters are part two, and Not Light being all of those things in practice in very long and patient composite discussions from my classroom so teachers can see me make mistakes in real time and how I reacted to it. Or teachers can see me do something well, and the thought process that came from it so it doesn't seem random. So that's a carbon copy in We're Gonna Keep On Talking. The first half of the book, part one, is the tips and tricks and the strategy and the pedagogy. And then the second half is longer stories from Jen's classroom that show those things in practice. So I think if it's not broke... I forgot the metaphor.

Kassia: Don't fix it?

Matt: Whatever it is. It's not broke, so we didn't fix it. That structure works, so we stuck with that.

Kassia: And I think that it's interesting, and we're going to keep on talking to hear you reference back to, in the first part, some of the moves you use as a high school teacher. And then Jen, think about, well, what does that look like with a five year old? What does that look like with a 10 year old? And think about what some of those same moves or ideas look like with much younger children.

Matt: I think we never stop telling stories. I think storytelling is the basis for our approach to helping teachers out with the book. It's never so far up in space that we don't describe what it looks like with kids. And I think we do a good job keeping ourselves honest, so we're not just theorizing. We're like, "And this is how it looked in the classroom." It's just the stories are longer in the second part, and they're like snippets in the first part. But storytelling is at our core.

Kassia: So Matt, you're a high school teacher and Jennifer is an elementary school teacher. What did you each bring to the writing of this book, and what unique perspectives do you each have?

Jennifer: I think this book... I don't think I could have done this book in any way without Matt and without the work he had already done. So much of this comes from Not Light, But Fire and the thinking Matt has been doing for the past 15 years about how to do this work with students and what it looks like to have these conversations in meaningful ways. Him thinking about those stories, even as a third grade teacher reading Not Light, But Fire, reading those stories and seeing how the talk moves he was making, the ways he was building the community in his classroom. All of those things made sense to me as a third grade teacher. So we took all of that expertise of Matt's and then took my two decades of experience in elementary school and thought, what does that look like? How do we take that work, that work that meant so much to me when I read Not Light, But Fire, and make that a little bit more clear for elementary teachers?

Kassia: You write that no conversation will stand on its own. And this idea comes up several times throughout the book. Can you talk about why this is so important?

Jennifer: I think as an elementary teacher, nothing ever stands on its own. It's one of the beauties of being an elementary teacher, is that I can keep coming back all year, building on the things that we've talked about. But when it comes to conversations about race, that's huge. Kids are still building their understanding of the world around them and of the way their society functions, and what it means to be a part of that, whatever that is in your world. And so there's no way that we do a conversation about race and go, "Yes, I checked that box. We get to move on." It's always going to be something of, "Okay, we talked about these pieces. They still have these questions. We're still building on this." It's going to keep coming back. We may have closed a conversation, and this is something that Matt makes big in Not Light and that we focused on in this book, is the idea that kids need closure. They need to not just get to the end of a day or the end of a conversation and walk away without a sense of bringing it all together. But bringing it all together doesn't mean it's done. It means we come to a stopping point and we feel comfortable in that moment, but we're still going to continue because kids are still going to be building their understanding. They're still going to have new questions. They're going to take what they've learned and see it in a new setting and think, oh, well now I don't understand this. And we're going to need to be prepared to continue.

Kassia: And your stories in part two of the book do such a nice job of demonstrating that, of how you had one conversation and then you kind of move us to another part of the year, or weeks later, and showing us another conversation that builds on the foundation that you brought there.

Matt: One thing I want to add to that is that's good teaching at the secondary level, too. And sometimes the way our universe is organized, as secondary teachers, we can forget that it's important to connect one unit to another if we can, and to make these connective threads as clear to the kids as they are to us. Sometimes we get what we're doing and sometimes we don't communicate to the kids, "Hey, we ordered these books on purpose in this way." Even if we do. Now, sometimes we don't. We don't order them on purpose. And if we don't, we need to start. But I think that's one of those things that's especially important with elementary kids. But it's good teaching practice for those of us who teach older kids, too.

Kassia: That's so true. In reading the introduction to your book, one of the parts that stands out to me is when you write, 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. Can you say more about what it means to have conversations about race in schools in this moment in time?

Matt: It was important to me with both books, but especially now, because Not Light came out in 2018. So I am honored that people still find it useful after 2020 because of what happened right after. But even now, it's important to me to ground teachers in this history so that we don't feel like we're going through something unsurvivable. That we feel connected to past struggles and past victories. Like if we beat them before, we can beat them again. And they're going to keep losing. And I think that that is an important thing, because we can forget that. And I think that's one of those reasons why a knowledge of these past curriculum struggles, a knowledge of the past struggles for justice are important. And so with that knowledge, we can be better in this moment and we can take the pressure off ourselves. And the humbling part of it is that we will beat them this time in this moment, and then our children will fight the same fight. Racism isn't dying and we're going to keep at it. It's going to be a struggle. And so it's humbling but it also takes the pressure off of us to secure these massive victories. We're just trying to keep talking. That is the struggle. We're going to keep talking, and we're going to win this time, just like we won in previous times. And our children will win when it's their turn.

Kassia: You share a lot of practical strategies for facilitating race conversations that are also really useful for facilitating any kind of classroom conversation. What's a classroom conversation move you feel is really powerful?

Jennifer: This is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about in recent years, and I have been so grateful for the chance to work with Matt on this and to really see what this looks like as kids get older, and how I can help build to that. And one of the things that I have really focused on and developed more is having kids not just listen to each other but bring each other's ideas back into the conversation. It's something I was doing, but it is definitely something Matt has helped me do better. So it's not just that, "Okay, I hear you and I agree with you, or I disagree with you, or I want to add on." But it's coming back and saying, "Okay, so when Justly said this earlier, it made me think this." Or, "I believe this, and I know that because George said this and it really reinforced my thinking." So really having them see each other as sources of knowledge and information that they can build on makes that conversation so much more powerful for them. They see the value in it because they see each other as teachers and educators in this space.

Kassia: If you had to choose one idea that you hope teachers will walk away with after reading this book, what might it be for each of you?

Jennifer: I think my hope for teachers walking away from this book is that seeing the conversations that kids have, seeing five and six year olds have these conversations, seeing 10 year olds engaging in these conversations makes it easier to step into that in the classroom. I'm hoping it means that teachers don't wait as long as I did to feel like, yeah, as a white woman in elementary education, which is the great majority of us, and the discomfort that that brings, especially when we're teaching children of color, and our uncertainty of whether or not we're able to do this work. I hope those conversations and seeing that kids are able to do it makes it a little bit easier for teachers to feel like they can step up and try in the classroom. And also, that honesty that you're going to make mistakes in there. There were parts that I'm going to have trouble rereading because they were stories I really didn't want to tell about mistakes I've made, because they still hurt. But there's no way we do this without being willing to make those mistakes and to know that's going to happen. So I hope that between the kids' voices and the teacher voices here, that it means that teachers are more confident, more willing to take this on.

Matt: I think my biggest takeaway is actually what I wrote in the epilogue. I was speaking about connectivity earlier. How important it is to connect units and conversations, and to thread them throughout the year. And I know elementary teachers are aware of how important they are, and in students' academic development and social development and all that kind of stuff. But I'd like every elementary teacher to leave the book. It's nice if you get a few tools. It's nice if you pick up some things. But a sense of where they are in the continuum in a kid's ability to participate in meaningful race conversations. And that them doing a good job means that we can do a good job with the kids when they're older. And that secondary teachers owe a debt of gratitude to elementary teachers for preparing kids for the conversations that we have.

Matt: That was something I was really heavily reflective on when writing this book. Seeing, oh, because Jen did this, I'll be able to do this. Like, because she does this when the kid is eight, I can do this when they're 16. And I can tell you as an secondary teacher that I can see the difference. I can see the difference. When you put in this work, the student that is sent to me is different. The way they engage tough things and the way that they listen to each other. The way that they don't shy away from... they are impatient with simple answers. That is due to the hard work of elementary teachers. So I think after all, yes, I'm hopeful that you pick up some really good practices. But the endgame, I just want you to put down the book... I feel like if an elementary teacher doesn't put down the book with a degree of swagger at the end, I haven't done my job. I want you to feel important. I want you to feel like, "Oh yeah, I do this stuff. I'm about that life. This is what I do, and I'm really important." And I think that's my biggest thing. I hope that that is communicated very clearly in the book.

Nate: We’re Gonna Keep on Talking: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Elementary Classroom is available from Stenhouse Publishers and other online retailers. Follow Matt and Jen on Twitter @MattRKay and @JenOrr. Check out where you can find blogs, podcast archives, book previews and more. 

Read and Listen More

Take a listen to We’re Gonna Keep On Talking’s introduction read by authors Matthew Kay and Jennifer Orr.



Topics: Classroom practice, Teachers Corner, Free Resources, Podcast, Elementary, equity