Leading Meaningful Race Conversations with Kids
Reviewed by Kathleen Palmieri
When I was first asked to read and review this book, I was intrigued by the title and the subtitle, “How to lead meaningful race conversations in the elementary classroom.” As I began to read the introduction, I was immediately hooked by the thoughtful manner in which this book was born.
Matthew R. Kay’s first book Not Light, But Fire discussed the topic of race and offered a method to get to the harder, more meaningful conversations. We’re Gonna Keep on Talking is written with the same goal in place, but for a much younger, elementary audience.
One thing that needs to be highlighted from the start is the role that Jennifer Orr has played in co-authoring this book. Jennifer walks the walk – in other words, she teaches fifth grade in an elementary school. There is nothing more powerful than learning from peers and educators who have “skin in the game.”
She is very honest and clear about her intention of realizing the importance of these crucial, authentic conversations. However, Jennifer also states that while she was excited, she was also worried about how other educators, administrators, and parents would perceive the intention of the conversations regarding race in the younger grades.
The book begins in part 1 “The Ecosystem” with the idea that “[l]ike living things, classroom race conversations rely on a very specific ecosystem to thrive – and on hard days, to merely survive.” (page 11) This part of the book delves into the need to build community together and be mindful to teach our students “how” to respectfully and realistically discuss race issues. Part of being able to discuss any important topic is to be able to “listen patiently” as the authors lay out.
Within the strategies is the idea that hands being raised while another student is talking shows lack of focus, and this strategy can apply to any subject, topic, or concept. Being able to truly listen to each other is so important in understanding, as is being able to respectfully agree to disagree.
Listening actively and patiently is also for educators to model. “When we listen actively to our students, we gain a deeper understanding of their thinking, and we are better prepared to help them continue growing.” (page 26)
The why and how to race conversations
“Improving our dialogic pedagogy” begins the “dive into the nitty-gritty of how to design and execute powerful race conversations.” (page 67) The text explores why we want to have these important race conversations. In order to make students invested and interested, we need to base race conversations on students’ interests and needs. For example, Jennifer offers Sandra Neil Wallace’s book Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery because it appeals to students interested in sports. (page 68)
“Whole-Class Conversation Reflection Questions,” focusing on the issue of supporting introverts and extroverts in whole-class conversations, and “Additional Whole-Class-Conversation Reflection Questions,” focusing on the issue of managing my talk-time as a teacher in whole-class conversations, are a few of the resources offered that help us as educators. (pages 72 and 73)
“A Study of Conversations” is the lead-in for part 2. In this part of the book are authentic conversations between students over several years. “Some of these race conversations have succeeded, and others have failed. The highs have been spectacular, the lows humbling.” (page 93)
Chapter 4 is a very special chapter as it explores the “names and identities in preschool and early elementary,” looking to have students provide the story of their names. A great book to start this conversation is Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. This is a wonderful book that I have used in past years to start this very conversation.
Even more important than the reading and discussion is the sharing by students with other students as they take pride in their name whether it has historical meaning, familial meaning, or special meaning to their parents.
Working with middle and upper elementary students
“How the past impacts the present in middle elementary” brings us into the idea of history. “If elementary students never discuss how past actions, court decisions, legislation, and more still play a large role in how society currently functions, they will not be prepared to richly discuss current inequities, both now and in their later academic lives.” (page 125) It is up to us to help our students develop an understanding of both the past and the present and be able to build authentically upon this as they grow.
Following up how the past impacts the present is the topic of voting rights discussed in upper elementary. Students in these grades have more knowledge from their study in the younger grades, as well as from their life experiences paying attention to adult conversations around them, TV, and social media.
“In addition to this,” the authors write, “older elementary kids also have generally stronger conversation skills gained from more years of speaking with others. This all makes for different challenges in facilitating race conversations in the upper elementary grades. Planning for these conversations requires us to thoughtfully reflect about our students’ background knowledge and developmental stages and about their sophistication with language and conversation skills.” (page 151)
Why race conversations are needed in elementary school
I can’t say enough about how this book has helped me to think deeply about my students and the conversations I have heard from 9, 10 and 11 year olds.
When the question “Are elementary students too young for this topic?” is posed, it is important to consider the diversity of our classrooms and the observations and conversations of these very students being had daily. I found as I read and reflected that students already have these conversations socially, and finding ways to lead conversations about race is not easy.
We as educators must remember that students are observant and curious. They are aware of how we act, what we say, and the messages our body language relays. With this in mind, communicating openly, honestly, and age appropriately helps our kids develop an authentic awareness and understanding of the world that they can build upon as they grow.
Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews and writes regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, and math presentations. As a lifelong learner, she is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter https://twitter.com/Kathie_Palmieri and expanding her education adventures at www.kathleenpalmieri.com are ongoing practices.