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Slam poetry league founder: ‘Teachers can’t afford to be quiet’ about race | We the People

Matthew Kay turned a poetry club for teens into a league across 22 schools. Now he's written a book on how to talk about race in the classroom.

Matthew Kay stands in his classroom at the Science Leadership Academy in Center City.
Matthew Kay stands in his classroom at the Science Leadership Academy in Center City.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff

Matthew Kay first learned to tell stories as a child growing up in Germantown, by creating them with his mom.

"We'd see an old woman walking a dog and she'd be like, 'What's her story?' And I'd be like, 'Well, that's the dog's grandmother,' " Kay said.

Today, Kay, a 34-year-old English teacher at the Science Leadership Academy, a magnet high school in Center City, helps Philly teens learn to tell their own stories through Philly Slam League, a slam poetry league he founded eight years ago that draws an average of 300 students a week from 22 schools across the city.

"Normally I have a pretty bad stutter, but performing has really helped me get better with communicating and carrying myself in front of folks," he said. "It's been so beneficial for me that I have a legitimate desire to bring that to a lot of kids because there are a lot of kids who need confidence."

Kay also helps teach educators across the region about finding the confidence to engage their students in productive conversations about race. His first book about that issue, Not Light, but Fire: How to Have Meaningful Classroom Conversations About Race, is to be released in June by Stenhouse Publishers.

"Teachers can't afford to be quiet. None of us can," he said. "If we do not find a way to change the discourse about race, it will never get better. It will not naturally change. That's not the way history has worked."

As Kay, who also coaches varsity basketball, walks the art-covered halls of the Science Leadership Academy, students come up by the handful to give him hugs. In his classroom, art, photographs, and letters from students cover his walls.

"Dear Mr. Kay ….. My parents still don't believe that you act chill in class, yet I learn so much," one letter reads, in part. "I have never met a teacher, or person, that acts so genuine and open around others."

Kay grew up in a family of "teachers and preachers." His mom taught third grade in the Philadelphia School District for 36 years and his father teaches Sunday school at church.

Kay, who got into slam poetry while attending West Chester University, was one of the first teachers hired at Science Leadership Academy when it was founded in 2006. He began a poetry club at the high school, which eventually led to his founding the Philly Slam League.

Each school's team has its own coach, and every Friday, squads from 22 schools — public, private, and parochial — come together to perform their original works in a competition at the Free Library's main branch on Vine Street.

The program not only develops writers and performers, but also — perhaps, more important — listeners. Kay teaches the students how to be good audience members, as well as good speakers.

"What I try to make clear to the kids is you don't know when was the last time that someone listened to this person," he said. "You don't know, they could have been waiting all week for this moment — for three minutes — and you have the opportunity to make somebody feel really good."

Kay said every season there are poems that shock him, that make him wonder how that brave young person baring his or her soul on stage can even still be standing. But there are other poems and moments of joy that move him just as much, he said.

"The kids have an incredible capacity for being warm and kind. That's not always the image you get of teenagers. Sometimes that's their fault, they portray a hardness, but it's so thin," he said. "It's easy to be sad and cynical. There's a vulnerability in being this excited. I think it's equally brave in this climate to be appreciative and kind."

Despite his love for the art, Kay said he tells his kids that poetry doesn't heal anyone, not really.

"There are systemic issues that cause that," he said. "But the building of confidence, to me, is everything."

Through his book, which he named after a line from a speech by Frederick Douglass, Kay addresses the systemic issue of racism and tries to give teachers the tools and confidence to talk about it in their classrooms.

"We know we should discuss privilege, we know we should discuss race, but many just don't know how," he said. "It's the how part I figured I had something to say about."

Kay said the way for teachers to do that is not in isolated discussions, but by threading it into conversations about books, history, and current affairs that are already happening in the classroom.

"If good people can't talk to each other then the bad people win, and there are legit bad guys out there," he said. "White folks have got to get over being scared. Black people have got to get over white people of goodwill making mistakes. Everybody has to get over it. We've all got to cut each other some slack. There's real work to do."

Why Philadelphia?

"I was born here, I was raised here and I feel a certain responsibility over this place."

What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?

"The parade. Just seeing everybody out there just celebrating. It meant so much for the city not to be second fiddle to anybody, to get the inferiority complex off and just feel good."

If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?

"I want all of our kids to get a fair shot."

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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