The opportunity to observe a master teacher is a rare gift. To the readers of his book Not Light but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, as to the students in his classes, Matthew R. Kay positions himself as a fellow traveler on the learning journey who bears the added responsibility of keeping everyone on the expedition safe.
His genius comes not in having the right answers or in granting approval but rather from reading the map and ensuring the group moves together as a true community along the path it needs—which does not always mean covering the ground he had anticipated for the day ahead. He has a plan. He knows his group. He pivots when needed.
Valuing people over plans is one of Kay’s clear principles, which flows from his belief that students do not need to be empowered. Rather, they need to have their inherent power recognized by teachers. He is willing to take the risks inherent in powerful class discussions because he believes that the strongest way for learners to sharpen their ideas is through skillfully managed conflict.
He helps students value the ideas developed within the learning community by ensuring that their conversational threads are not only recorded but also referred back to, tied into year-long goals, and cited by students in written assignments.
Teachers can and must help students converse about ideas meaningful in their lives, such as race. Thus, the book uses race conversations as a guiding framework; however, it is about all aspects of teaching and building classroom—and school—community.
Disavowing the notion that facilitating deep, critical discussions is the domain of the few, natural-born, all-star teachers, Kay makes it clear that any teacher can lead discussions that make a difference in students’ lives.
The key commitment is to building and maintaining a truly safe classroom community, not just declaring a safe space. He acknowledges that giving students ownership in the work of developing community and growing skillful dialogue means being ready to be called out by students, too.
He lays out practical strategies and tools for how to build a healthy community inside the classroom with contexts and connections to wider school culture. Then, he exemplifies the tools in action with case studies from his own classroom, including all of the ways in which he has messed up, as well as how and why (his encouragement of teachers to examine our own egos is crucial and refreshing). He is frank that messing up is part of the game, and though we hope to get better and mess up less over time, we must accept and confront failure.
If you are a teacher or leader at any point in your career who wants to hone your skills in creating a powerful classroom community, one that can hold meaningful conversations safely and build ideas together, Kay has plenty to offer you.
Whether your pedagogy is specifically dialogic like Kay’s or not, as long as you believe students’ voices are an essential tool in their learning, you will find ideas you can use immediately. If you are open to critical self-reflection, you will find guidance here. If you believe it is your job as a teacher to have all the answers and to awe students with your infinite wisdom, then this book will shake you and will challenge that vision at its core.
Introduction through epilogue, every page is a joy. Beautifully crafted and authentic, Kay’s writing will give you pause, compel you to reflect, make you laugh at yourself. I recommend reading with critical friends and using the study guide. I am on my second read and am sure it will not be my last.
Kelli Powling teaches grade 7 ELA at Singapore American School.