- Matthew R. Kay and Jennifer Orr’s book, “We’re Gonna Keep on Talking,” focuses on leading meaningful race conversations in elementary classrooms.
- This post emphasizes the importance of fostering important mindsets like understanding that race discussions are ongoing and cannot be a one-time conversation.
- The book also highlights co-creating discussions with students, building their discussion skills, providing effective prompts for student-led discussions about race, and offers numerous examples and practical insights for educators.
“We’re Gonna Keep On Talking” Reflections
I loved Matthew R. Kay’s book, Not Light But Fire, and as an instructional coach for teachers in all parts of the K-12 continuum, I deeply appreciate his latest book with Jennifer Orr, We’re Gonna Keep on Talking: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Elementary Classroom. If you are a teacher or instructional leader interested in fostering student-led discussion about race in your school or district, I highly recommend this book. (Honestly, despite the elementary focus, I think there’s a lot of value in this one for high school educators as well.)If you are a teacher or instructional leader interested in fostering student-led discussion about race in your school or district, I highly recommend this book. Click To Tweet
There were lots of important mindset ideas in this book. One that was particularly helpful for me is that each conversation is not and cannot be the conversation about race by which students learn and understand everything they need to know. A recommendation they offer for supporting extended learning is “threading” conversations about race throughout the year, connecting across time—including the present—and various content areas.
The idea is to develop rich understandings by sequencing conversations. This may mean looking at the same issue from different angles. I love planning units around this idea by using a “case study” section within each unit. In elementary classes, embedded opportunities to talk about race include holidays and book selections (both class texts and independent reading choices).
Trust is a critical requirement for facilitating student-led discussions about race. Kay and Orr list three areas where trust is required: trusting young students to engage in race conversations; trusting the process of conversation; and trusting ourselves to jump in when necessary.
To this last point, one of the largest challenges for me in facilitating student-led conversations is knowing when to talk and when not to talk. Relatedly, Kay shares that students and families should know that when we talk about race in class, “they will be loved, listened to, and to a developmentally appropriate degree, challenged” (p. 53) Taking time to co-create class agreements is central to making sure this happens.
Co-Creating with Students
Conversations about race are excellent opportunities to engage in student inquiry routines. Some of the sample conversations in the second half of the book closely mirrored the 3-part inquiry cycle present in DESE’s Investigating History curriculum: Launch the Question, Investigate Sources, Put It Together. In my experience, basing conversations on student interests and questions typically generates more engaged, high-quality conversation. The authors offer the idea of inviting students to share topics or questions for discussion and then asking the class to vote on one to discuss.
As students share, teachers can chart student ideas. Both authors share examples of what this has looked like in their classes. When students have had time to grapple with ideas inside the classroom, the authors encourage teachers to offer opportunities for students to share their ideas beyond the classroom. Both of these ideas—co-creating an anchor chart and connecting students with authentic audiences—emphasize the importance of students’ ideas.
For teachers who like to plan in advance, co-creation can be a challenge. Preceding the sample conversations at the end of Not Light But Fire and We’re Gonna Keep on Talking, the authors explain these chapters are “composite conversations” as they facilitated the topic-specific discussions with multiple groups of students. I appreciate this approach, as it shows teachers that it’s possible to repeat the same types of conversations while recognizing that different groups of students will respond differently and take the conversation in different directions. (Tangents are okay!) Teachers, too, are constantly evolving and learning, so our responses to the same situations may change over time, leading the conversation in new directions.
Build Each Student’s Discussion Skills
Listening is an important skill students need to be successful in all conversations in school and outside of school. Educators will need to intentionally help students build up their listening muscles, and this book offers several ways to do that. They categorize listening skills into listening patiently—offering strategies for young students to hold onto what they want to say—and listening actively. They highlight interactive read-alouds in the elementary classroom as regular opportunities to practice listening in class conversations.
Another piece of building each student’s skillset is the reality that students prefer different formats of conversation. Some thrive in whole-class conversations, others in small groups. Some want to think through their ideas with a partner first, and others prefer silent time to think and write before sharing aloud. (There are many examples of these formats and specific prompts and questions for each of these types of conversations in the book!)
How to Prompt Student-Led Discussion
Prompts that begin conversations about race should encourage students to question and critically analyze ideas. The wording of a prompt is important. For example, the authors share including language such as “Why do you think?” helps students understand there’s no one right answer, so there may be less fear of responding incorrectly. I found the authors’ point that prompts may vary based on students’ prior knowledge and experience to be insightful. They suggest that as students have more background knowledge, the prompts may look less like providing students with information and more like preparing students for a challenge.
Orr shares several specific examples of prompts she has used in her elementary classes. She often uses broad prompts like notice and wonder to begin and she seeks opportunities for students wondering aloud to pose their questions to the class. Similarly, Orr’s students may organically offer classmates a sentence starter, which happens when students mirror the first several words of a previous student’s response to a question.
Small Group Conversations
In small group conversations, she may prompt all groups to think about an idea she overheard in one group. Speaking to her preference for broad prompts, she writes, “I knew that I could narrow the scope if we didn’t get there naturally from a broader start. It’s often worth it to see if the conversation can be sparked by a student comment, so that students can feel more ownership of the thread” (p. 166).
Orr also reflects on a list of more specific questions she has posed to her class, sharing, “My wording wasn’t super kid friendly, a choice I had made deliberately. I had no intention of oversimplifying this discussion because I underestimated my students. Underestimating my students is something I work to remain vigilant about because it is easy to slip up” (p. 134).
The authors suggest prompts to close conversations be “deliberately positive, encouraging, or reassuring” (p. 56). How we close conversations about race, Kay tells us, impacts how the conversation is remembered and how likely participants are to engage in conversations about race again.[scroll down to keep reading]
Tons of Examples
This book contains many examples of teacher reflections, student comments, elementary books to prompt conversation, and topic and question ideas. There’s an example of a family newsletter Orr sends to her students’ caretakers (p. 42). Here are a few more specific examples I loved.
- To develop students’ celebration of mistakes as part of learning, teach students that mistakes help our brain grow. You may say to a student who just made a mistake, “Can you feel your brain growing? You’re getting new synapses right now!” (p. 40).
- Responding to a student who doesn’t have the same background information or lived experience as another student in the class, but remains curious, Orr has said, “Mason, thank you for sharing that question. We may not always understand each other in our conversations. Asking for more information can be really important, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes you might worry you won’t look very smart or that you’ll hurt someone’s feelings if you don’t understand. It’s a risk, and I’m so glad you took that risk right now because I am sure Nala has more to share” (p. 137).
A final piece I enjoyed about the structure of the book was Matthew Kay’s “upon further reflection” sections throughout the book, in which he adds thoughts to points he made in Not Light But Fire. Not only were his additional thoughts helpful, but in writing these sections he thoughtfully models what it looks like to be in an ongoing cycle of discussion and reflection, a practice we’d like our students and ourselves to embrace both in the classroom and in life!
Kay ends We’re Gonna Keep On Talking with a sentiment that, as a high school educator, I whole-heartedly agree with, so it seems fitting to use it to end this article as well. He writes, “Secondary educators are able to dream big, design ambitiously, and teach tough stuff with confidence because elementary teachers have set solid foundations for our students” (p. 175). Thank you, elementary educators for taking on this challenging and necessary work.
About Lindsay Lyons
Lindsay Lyons is an educational consultant who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.