Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations In the Classroom

reviewed by Dawn Demps - September 05, 2019

coverTitle: Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations In the Classroom
Author(s): Matthew R. Kay
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland
ISBN: 1625310986, Pages: 278, Year: 2018
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In the introduction to Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations In The Classroom, Matthew R. Kay makes plain his aspirations for the book: “This is an action book with a movement mission” (p. 5). What is that mission, you ask? “Molding thoughtful citizens, wise counselors and people of righteous passion” (p. 5). Matthew Kay, a spoken word coach and 10-year teaching veteran in Philadelphia whose mother was also a trailblazing educator of 36 years, makes these statements boldly. Perhaps his roots are what inspire his optimism despite our current social and political context. Much of the racialized angst we have borne witness to across social media, in newspapers, and through some of our own lived experiences has been poorly handled by most of the adults in the room. These dilemmas, prejudices, and incompetencies have spilled over our school walls to reveal the underbelly of the country’s racist past to young people not ready to traverse this rocky terrain and with educators not quite prepared to help them navigate the journey. If the grown-ups cannot get it right, how do we expect the young people to? Yet, in spite of (or because of) this seemingly arduous task, and against the backdrop of an ever-polarized citizenry, Kay utilizes the next 270 pages to inspire educators to be reflective tour guides for their students as they delve into conversations on race, ethnicity, power, and privilege.


The book is broken up into two sections. In Section One, “The Ecosystem,” Kay lays the foundation for creating an environment conducive to facilitating difficult conversations. In Chapter One, Kay challenges educators to do more than espouse the rhetoric of safe spaces and instead invest in learning the skills necessary to truly create them. He first requires teachers to examine their own views on what makes a space safe. He notes that a classroom with desks in proper order with silent students on-task is not the real definition of a safe space. Kay argues that “we must instruct where we used to admonish, encourage where we used to excoriate and carefully track what we used to ignore” (p. 17). He goes on to emphasize that we cannot punish our way into the illusion of a safe space and lays out the three discussion guidelines he uses during difficult conversations: listen patiently, listen actively, and police your voice. These rules apply not only to the students but to the teacher as well. He presents various activities to help the classroom family work on strengthening their usage of the three discussion rules.


In Chapter Two, “Developing Your Talking Game,” Kay speaks explicitly to the importance of teachers’ self-analyses. “Meaningful race conversations depend on teachers understanding the implications of their own racial and cultural perspectives” (p. 42). He offers three skills he believes are tantamount for teachers to possess as discussion facilitators: expressing yourself clearly, resolving conflict, and shifting gears. He further highlights the need for the dialogic teacher to be ever mindful that the growth of the student’s thinking is the goal, not reaching the “right” answer.


Chapter Three deals with structuring the dialogic curriculum and lays out the various forms of effective classroom conversation. Kay demonstrates how whole-group discussion, small learning communities, and one-on-one conversations can be strategically utilized to properly address controversial topics. He emphasizes that these discussions mustn’t be one-offs, but rather part of a threaded approach that weaves racial discussions throughout the curriculum in a thematic manner. This leads to the premise of Chapter Four, which instructs teachers to establish their purpose. Kay advises that the purpose of race conversations should be clearly linked to what else is happening in the classroom or students may feel it is okay to check out. Therefore, such discussions (as much as possible) should be connected to the thread established in the teacher’s class curriculum. Kay presents an additional, more essential purpose to be explored: the purpose that drives the dialogic teacher’s desire to have these difficult discussions in the first place.


We must begin our discussion planning with honest reflection on our personal catalysts for two reasons: First, they are usually glaringly obvious to our students… Second, and more importantly, our personal catalyst can push race conversations to the satisfaction of our needs, with less attention to showing kids the power of their voices. (p. 120)


Section Two is dedicated to revealing how the techniques cultivated in the previous chapters can look in real classroom situations. Each chapter is dedicated to a different provocative race topic that has taken place in his classroom. These chapters deal with the N-word, the pronunciation and impact of naming practices across racial groups, cultural appropriation, and the 2016 presidential election. In each of these instances, we witness Kay, the teacher, weave poetry exercises, films, journaling, and examinations of current news and research into his practices. Contrarily, he also reveals the failures he has experienced and learned from. For instance, when he intervened too late or too soon in students’ dialogue or when he was not aware enough of how a specific topic may bring up trauma for some students in the discussion. Through these demonstrations, Kay models the type of reflection he advocates throughout the text.  


As a reader, one thing I hoped for was some discussion of the potential adverse responses to these conversations that some teachers might receive from parents and administrators. While he touches on this subject when recounting a time that his principal walked into his classroom when he had the N-word scrawled across the whiteboard, there is not enough depth given to how to respond appropriately to such realities. Kay is practicing his craft in an educational space that is committed to the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection (Science and Leadership Academy, n.d.). He has an administration that has confidence in his abilities to facilitate difficult classroom conversations and that backs his efforts. Too many classroom educators do not have the good fortune of such an environment.


During discussions, Kay seems to effortlessly pull up applicable references from his mental hard drive to further engage and push students’ thinking, with examples ranging from the notion of passing to sharecropping, redlining, and the rapper Meek Mill. His technique involves more than serendipitous discoveries through pedagogical trial and error; he is grounded in a comprehensive knowledge base of cultural and racial history. While this could inadvertently discourage some teachers who do not believe they have the time to learn the history and cultural nuances necessary to ground their classroom dialogue in fertile soil, I hope it will empower and encourage educators. Revealing what is possible should implore individual teachers, principals, superintendents, and colleges of education to better address, support, and equip educators to lead meaningful race conversations that challenge, embolden, and uplift our students.   


I approached reading this book as an academic in the field of education, yet became engrossed through my more significant position as a Black mother of Black children. I have unfortunately experienced more than my share of principal visits in response to racial aggressions that my children have been witness to or targets of at their schools. Each time I approach administrators and teachers about these situations, I notice a reluctance on the part of the adults to even have the discussion. They are more comfortable apologizing quickly and hoping the matter never comes up again. Some schools have a “No Race or Politics” policy. Thus, there is no discussion around these matters and no learning happening in these classrooms about how such discussions should occur. Kay has taken advantage of the crucible of this moment and given us a guidebook to begin creating the thinkers and leaders of tomorrow. He does not evade because the trust he places in his students is planted in his belief that they are capable: capable of having these discussions, capable of being taken seriously as scholars in their own right, and capable of being more than just light. They are capable of being the fire we need to bravely lead us beyond the darkness on our screens, social media posts, and comment sections – and in our schools.  



Science and Leadership Academy (n.d.) Mission and vision. Retrieved from

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 05, 2019 ID Number: 23085, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:43:23 PM

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