Book Review: Not Light but Fire

Kay, Matthew. R. Not Light but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Portsmouth NH: Stenhouse Publishers, 2018. 278 pp. ISBN (Paperback): 9781625310989.

By Jean Dunlavy, Independent Scholar

When incidents of racist violence like the killing of George Floyd rivet national attention, educators want to support student conversations about race and racism. Many professors seek guidance when they realize, from either experience or observation, that such conversations may dead-end in platitudes, closed minds or political slings and arrows as often as they may spark student insight and positive action. Matthew Kay’s practical guide to class discussions about race offers guidance for more effective classroom experiences. Kay, an English teacher in the Philadelphia public schools, draws on pedagogy and 11 years of experience at an acclaimed city high school to offer an effective way to talk about race with students. Kay’s central audience is other high-school teachers, but his approach and examples suggest possibilities for college instructors as well.

Kay builds his book on two premises. First, conversation about race and racism in the classroom should be, as his title states, “not light but fire.” Borrowing a phrase from a searing speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Kay emphasizes that classroom talk about race needs to examine hard questions if an instructor hopes to foster not merely the “light” of student awareness but the “fire” of their meaningful engagement with difficult subjects. Second, Kay posits that the dialogic classroom, which emphasizes student-centered discussion, makes such fiery conversation possible. These touchstones shape the book, which is organized in two parts. The first section identifies strategies for creating a classroom environment that can sustain difficult conversations; the second walks through four classroom discussions on challenging topics about race.

In the first part of his book, Kay discusses how to build student and teacher readiness for effective conversations about race. Some of his recommendations, such as advice that teachers acknowledge their own emotions about discussing race and create an emotional “safe space” for students, appear in a variety of other sources. To these topics, Kay adds the insight of a teacher who knows his students and himself. For example, in a chapter on identifying the purpose of a discussion about race, he observes that teachers usually have a personal motivation, such as assuaging personal guilt or pushing students to speak about an uncomfortable subject. He observes the following: “I have been, and will continue to be, moved” by the personal as well as the pedagogical, and that a teacher’s personal motivation, whether a help or a hindrance, is “usually glaringly obvious to…students” (120). Kay’s willingness to share his own experiences and realizations throughout the book reveals one source of his approach to teaching about race; it also nudges his readers to acknowledge what shapes and motivates them.

Many of Kay’s recommendations are distinctive. In explaining how to create a classroom climate that can handle tough conversations, Kay promotes ideas and practices of dialogic teaching. This teaching and learning style emphasizes dialogue among students and between students and teacher, rather than centering the teacher’s voice and ideas. In a dialogic classroom, students learn effective ways to listen and speak to one another instead of being passive receptors for an instructor’s talk. Kay persuasively argues that teaching students how to listen and speak thoughtfully prepares them to take on topics of race and racism, because they learn to ask hard questions and work through complex answers. Much of the book’s first section focuses on how to foster student questioning, vulnerability, and risk-taking. Kay describes how he teaches his students to listen attentively to peers, to speak deliberatively, and to assess the strengths of their own and others’ arguments. He also offers strategies for teachers to develop their own skills as mediators of discussion, such as expressing “hot” ideas clearly and helping students resolve conflict during discussion.

In the book’s second half, Kay’s sample discussions on race show how a class with developing dialogic skills and a well-prepared teacher can move through challenging conversations about race and racism. He portrays four single-class discussions about race, three of them well honed over several years. One uses Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred to examine literary and public uses of the N-word. Another is part of a unit on cultural memoir and uses three short pieces as prompts for students to discuss their own names as elements of culture. A third discussion examines cultural appropriation and misperception through Richard Wright’s Native Son. The final conversation evaluates how race factored in the 2016 presidential election. These chapters read rather like a director’s cut of movie scenes, revealing student discourse, Kay’s moves to keep talk deliberative, and his commentary about what did and did not work in class during different years. Crucially, he also weaves into his narratives the myriad ways that he anticipates possible student reactions and then prepares materials and responses for those possibilities. Kay demonstrates in these chapters that classroom talk about the emotional, buried, and contentious ideas surrounding race in America is difficult even in a dialogic classroom. However, he models how students can productively take on this challenge, with guidance from an agile instructor.

Kay has fashioned a very readable book: well organized, with lively writing and a tone of generosity toward his audience and his students. Its practical approach is evident in short suggestions for “Professional Practice” at the end of each chapter. These pieces include ideas for individual action and work with colleagues. His references include both pedagogical and class materials.

Kay shows himself to be a highly skilled and committed teacher with a strong belief in the goodwill and capacity of others to do this work. However, can his model of effective communication work in post-secondary classrooms? It is easy to doubt. Kay’s emphasis on developing classroom culture over time, for example, seems on its face to be out of reach. He teaches at an innovative school that is institutionally committed to dialogic education; hence, students develop discussion skills in all their classes, every day of the week. Yearlong classes allow students and teachers to build rapport over an extended time. College educators have much less contact with their students each week and have roughly 12 weeks to inculcate habits of class participation that Kay argues are necessary to conduct challenging conversations. University patterns of anonymous crowds in lecture halls and small meetings led by inexperienced teaching assistants or harried junior faculty limit these possibilities further. In short, most university instructors, like most public-school teachers, do not teach in a school like Matthew Kay’s school.

Nevertheless, college-level faculty will find much of value in Kay’s methodology and models. His reports of rich class discussion demonstrate what students are capable of: students as young as 13 and 14 participate in ways that college instructors would envy. The book’s early chapters offer specific practices that his students learn in order to converse productively, and he gives examples of how he helps them learn those practices. For example, in his first chapter, Kay identifies three guidelines for discussion that his classes practice formally in the first few weeks of class: “listen patiently, listen actively, and police your voice” (17). In just eight pages, he explains how he helps groups of 30 teenagers listen better and speak succinctly. In these early chapters, Kay also articulates the other work that teachers need to do in order to have difficult conversations about race. In addition to developing self-awareness of one’s own social identity and classroom practice, he offers guidance on building class rapport, choosing effective content and questions for discussion, and constructing a long view about the relationship between individual discussions of race and the goals and insights of the course as a whole. Kay’s model conversations in the latter half of the book also make insightful reading, by demonstrating the value and applications of practices that Kay introduces in earlier chapters. Kay weaves into his book not only sources that he introduces to students, but also sources of the pedagogy that underpin his work. The latter include material well known to K-12 educators (such as Understanding by Design and Courageous Conversations about Race), recent work (such as The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools) and sources from American literature and history. For college instructors who are trained in their discipline but who have learned teaching by their bootstraps, Kay’s sources offer a useful intellectual framework; his guidance and practical examples also apply to college classrooms and students.

Throughout his book, Kay emphasizes that preparing for and holding challenging class conversation about race is not quick work, and that his approach is not a cookie-cutter template. “Teachers,” he writes in his first chapter, are “some of the most creative people on earth” who should adapt his strategies to their needs (17). Kay nonetheless offers a compelling method for teachers at any level of education to help students talk productively with one another about race and racism in the classroom.