“We are endangering lives if we don't get better talking about race.”
That was the frank warning of Matthew Kay, a Philadelphia teacher and author of Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, who led a workshop for Groton faculty on January 13.
The advocate and educator explained how a student helped him redirect his own approach to teaching. Excited to be in Mr.Kay’s class, the boy told his soon-to-be teacher that he knew he would teach a more complete course about the Black experience, focusing not only on hardship, but also on culture, music, cuisine, and other facets of life that don’t involve adversity. The conversation was a wake-up call, and Mr. Kay quickly rewrote his syllabus for the course.
“Black people overcoming white people’s stories is the wrong focus; that’s not everything,” he told the Groton faculty.
Mr. Kay challenged his listeners to rethink curricular review and to examine all the influences that students carry into a classroom. What role models—from celebrities to parents—do children bring with them? The role of media received special scrutiny as Mr. Kay asked the faculty to evaluate a confrontational discussion on CNN and ponder what lessons students might take from it.
Among the misguided takeaways from the televised shouting match: that yelling shows passion, that it’s okay to speak with the intent to wound, and that speaking in absolutes is acceptable (when in fact it is a sign of a closed mind). Be honest, engage complexity, and lead with love, advised Mr. Kay. Ultimately he asked faculty to consider: what kind of person do you want to graduate from Groton?
During his Groton presentation, Mr. Kay shared racist passages from Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson and played “My Namesake” by Hiwot Adilow. "My name is insulted that you won't speak it," the poet said, insisting on the respect conveyed when people correctly pronounce unfamiliar names.
Director of Diversity & Inclusion Sravani Sen-Das said she plans to use Mr. Kay’s book with the school's Curricular Working Group and Residential Working Group. “With the events of the nation right now,” she said, “there’s a real feeling that we should step up the moral education and not be afraid to play a more assertive role in students’ lives.”