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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: ‘Cultivating Genius’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 28, 2020 15 min read
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Gholdy Muhammad agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

By the way, this is the 100th book-related column published in this blog, including 96 interviews with authors and a handful of book reviews and lists of book recommendations by teachers. You can see them all here.

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad is an associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University.

LF: You propose a four-part “equity framework” for literacy instruction including: “1) identity development; 2) skill development; 3) intellectual development; and 4) criticality.”

Could you describe these elements, particularly “identity development” and “criticality” since it seems that teachers might be more familiar with the middle two?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad:

The historically responsive equity framework is not just for literacy instruction or literacy educators per se but for all teachers across the disciplines. The framework does bring diverse texts and literacies into all content areas in K-12 classrooms. In my research, I take up the ways in which literacy was defined historically within black communities, particularly in black literary societies. And I found that literacy was synonymous with education. Literacy was also defined within the four frames of identity, skills, intellectualism, and criticality, the four-part equity model. In other words, as black people were learning, they were cultivating each of those four areas of their lives. If we compare these four areas to schools today, I find that most educators are teaching skills only, or their state learning standards. Yet, our students need more.

The four-part equity model was derived from examining archives and historical artifacts during the 19th century. I studied black literary societies to understand their literacy practices and learning. I asked questions such as, What types of texts did they read? What were some of their goals for learning? What factors contributed to their personal and academic success? I found that members of literary societies read diverse texts written by diverse authors. They were highly collaborative and believed in the collective responsibility for one another’s learning. But importantly, they did not seek to just advance their skills in language, history, math, or science. Instead, they had wider goals for learning, which resulted in the Historically Responsive Model for teaching and learning. Collectively teaching these four goals or standards helps to cultivate students who are socio-conscious beings, who deeply have a strong sense of self and others, and who are academically successful.

Identity is made up of who we say we are, who others say we are, and the people we desire to be. Students are constantly making sense of who they are, and, I argue, classroom instruction needs to be responsive to their identities. Because we are complex beings, we have racial, cultural, gender, environmental, and community identities, to name a few. Not only is it important to teach youths who they are, but educators should also teach students about the identities and cultures of others different from them. When we have true, clear, and complete understandings about people different from us, we are less inclined to hate, show bias, or hold false views of others. When youths have a strong sense of their own histories and identities, it becomes a refuge or a protection. When they don’t know themselves, others may tell them, and sometimes that may not be positive. With each lesson or unit plan, teachers should ask, How does our curriculum and instruction help students to learn about themselves or others?

Criticality is the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression. I define oppression simply as any wrongdoing, hurt, or harm. This can be racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or any other oppression. In my work, I discuss the difference between lower case “c” critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking. But Critical with a capital “c” is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression. It is helping youths to be “woke” socio-politically. Criticality calls for teachers to connect their teaching to the human condition and to frame their teaching practices in response to the social and uneven times in which we live. This means helping students understand content from marginalized perspectives. As long as oppression is present, students need spaces to name, interrogate, resist, agitate, and work toward social change. This will support students toward being critical consumers and producers of information. It will also help to build a better humanity for all. With each lesson or unit plan, teachers should ask, How does our curriculum and instruction help us understand power, equity, and anti-oppression?

These four learning standards connect with Gloria Ladson Billings’ definition of culturally relevant education as she pushed for academic success (skills and intellect), cultural competence (identity), and socio-political consciousness (criticality) in classrooms. The Historically Responsive Model or the four learning standards I discuss returns the excellence of black educative spaces and uses this history as a blueprint to improve classrooms today. There is not one child who does not need to advance identity development, skill development, intellectualism, or criticality. Collectively teaching and learning toward these four pursuits helps to teach the whole child to be successful for a full and quality life.

LF: You give this four-part framework the name of “Historically Responsive Literacy,” connecting it back to 19th century black literacy societies which, I, embarrassingly, had never heard of prior to reading your book. Could you talk about that historical connection?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad:

Actually, many people have not heard of this American history. The author of the prominent book that fully captures the history, Elizabeth McHenry, entitled her book, Forgotten Readers, because our ancestors’ stories and histories have been forgotten and left out. I would also add that these histories are not taught in K-12 schools. When I engaged in historical research to better understand these learning spaces, I wanted to know: How can we take the teachings from black historical excellence to advance educational achievement for all youths today? When I study state standards, curriculum programs, state assessments, and teacher evaluations, I don’t find that they largely focus on identity and criticality, which is why we don’t see this type of teaching in all classrooms. These four critical parts of the system lack culturally responsiveness. Across the nation, we have frameworks, textbooks, and literature that are oftentimes not written by people of color. Nor do these largely represent the fullness of people of color.

I learned that black literary societies were developed by black males in 1828 in the urban Northern cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. Membership was from 10-100 people. They were also called reading rooms, lyceums, literary institutions, and writing clubs. They met regularly in basements of churches, classrooms, homes, or anywhere where they could be in community with one another. They paid membership fees, and many of their funds went to texts and cultivating their libraries. Often, they would check out a book, read it, and present a short lecture on the content of the book upon returning it. They read across topics of mathematics, science, history, and English. But literacy was central to all their content learning. They did not just come together to read and enjoy literature (like many book clubs today), but they also had goals of using knowledge to benefit other black people and the conditions of society at large.

Black literary societies’ members left meticulous records for our learning today. They recorded and published their activities and other writings in newspapers, books, and pamphlets. I use their practices as a roadmap and plan for reimagining and redesigning curriculum and instruction for students. In Cultivating Genius, I give a fuller list of examples showing how I took teachings from history and applied them to today’s classrooms, but a few ideas include how:

  • Libraries were essential to all achievement, so teachers today can cultivate their classroom libraries to include diverse authorship and international texts.
  • Literacy was the foundation to all disciplinary learning, so teachers today can bring in opportunities for youths to read and study from multimodal texts in different genres.
  • Learning was highly collaborative, so teachers today can create opportunities where individualism and competition aren’t privileged over collectivism.

When we use the theories and teachings of black historic thinkers, we will have different and more advanced schools and classrooms. We have so long prescribed what youths need, all along leaving black history, black excellence, and black frameworks out of the picture. But when we “return” to and look back on history, we can advance in unique and exciting ways. Black Literary Societies are the blueprint.

LF: “Deficit” thinking and perspectives come up several times in your book. Can you talk about what you mean, how they can impact students, and what teachers can do to change those mindsets?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad:

Yes, “deficit thinking” comes up quite often in the book because deficit perspectives and thinking lead to poor and basic instructional practices. Deficit thinking can be viewed in different ways. First, it is any thinking, perspectives, or ideologies that are negative, false, incomplete, or destructive. It can also be defined as capturing someone’s story as a single narrative or starting one’s story in false, damaging, or incomplete ways. Deficit thinking is a type of oppression and leads to racism or other forms of harm. Sadly, we have a history of misrepresentation of certain groups using ads, literature, and other media. This type of propagation has conditioned the minds and hearts of people to have deficit views. The conditioning is then perpetuated in homes, communities, and schools.

The consequence of deficit thinking creates trauma and harms our young people. We talk a lot about emotional trauma or trauma from childhood but we talk less about the effects of racial trauma in schools for our students. What happens when teachers think less about other people who share the same race or identity of their students? Do teachers think this type of thinking never manifests or makes its way into classrooms? We don’t leave our racism, biases, political agendas, or ideologies at home when we enter classroom spaces. When deficit thinking leads to trauma, our students may be affected for the rest of their lives. Our young people may feel like they don’t belong; they may feel worthless or that they are not good enough. Their academics and engagement are negatively affected as a result. This can follow them throughout their lives and disrupt their joy.

When I ask teachers to tell me about their black and brown students, sometimes I hear comments such as, they are unmotivated, they can’t read, or they have discipline problems. I follow this question by asking if they would introduce their own children in the same way. Oftentimes, parents would not. They would find something positive to say about their own child. This is why I returned to black historical excellence and named the book Cultivating Genius. I am proclaiming that we start our children’s stories with genius, especially black children’s, because the nation has struggled to get it right with us the most. We must disrupt deficit ways of thinking and being. Our youths are genius. They are not all those things that systemic oppression has created. And young people deserve to be taught by geniuses, those who seek knowledge and deeply love the students in their classes.

To change the mindset, teachers must do their self-work or find another profession. Just as a person has to heal from abuse in order to be whole, happy, and productive, if teachers have deficit perspectives, they must recognize them, name them, and work toward disrupting and dissolving this type of thinking. That may come from proper education, therapy, or exercises that lead toward anti-racism, anti-bias, and anti-oppression.

LF: Can you share summaries of specific lessons that you think might reflect your recommendations for what literacy instruction could look like?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad:

Usually, when I develop lesson or unit plans, I try to connect the learning around the human condition or a social issue. For example, Flint, Mich., has a water crisis with a lack of clean water. This issue became the impetus for a science and math lesson I was working on for students in Atlanta and New York, but it is an issue that can be explored across different content areas. In this math example, the students learned about the percentages of lead content found in water and graphed equations. In the science class, they defined environmental justice and water quality, which was connected to Next Generation Science Standards. I started this lesson by showing a photo essay by real residents of Flint with captions depicting experiences. This led to the discussion of water and our personal use and dependency. We read political cartoons, youth-spoken word poetry, a timeline, a short news article, photographs, and statistical data of lead content. I layered these short, powerful, and engaging texts as a way for my students to access and engage in learning. We read and discussed the texts together, and the students worked collaboratively in groups. We also had textbooks available to support learning. The lesson plan went across multiple days. What I learned is that identity and criticality became great points of entry for students who struggled with math and science skills. They connected the water crisis in Flint to their local communities. One science teacher in New York followed up by testing the lead content in water near their school. Students also learned vocabulary such as Legionnaires’ disease, marginalization, and water crisis.

The students benefited from the unit plan and found the lessons engaging. Units like this prepare students for life and teach them not to be passive consumers of information and news. Instead, lessons like this one teach them to interrogate, critique, and agitate toward social change, especially in their own communities.

This historically responsive unit shifted traditional ways of teaching science and math. First, it brought more literacies and texts into these content areas. Students were taught to read the word and the world. Students read from diverse texts and even read poetry in their STEM classroom. The model also restored intellectualism into the learning, and students learned new knowledge in addition to skills. I assessed each learning standard using discussion, collaborative group worksheets, exit slips, and a summative assessment. This lesson plan can even be extended by setting learning goals in English/language arts or social studies classrooms, too. Here is a breakdown of how the lesson fits into the Historically Responsive Literacy Framework outlined in Cultivating Genius:

  1. Identity: Students will understand their personal dependency on water.
  2. Skill: (Math) Students will learn to examine percentages of lead content found in water. They will also learn how to create equations with two or more variables to represent relations between quantities as well as graph equations on coordinate axes with labels and scales.

    Skill: (Science) Students will define environmental justice and name the importance of water quality for humans.

  3. Intellect: Students will learn about the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
  4. Criticality: Students will learn to consider how the government prioritizes community needs based on socioeconomic status and/or race and understand the media’s role in the government’s response to a crisis.

More units like this are offered in the book. This is one example, but I have observed the pure genius of teachers designing learning around the model. In doing so, they keep a few questions in mind as they plan:

  • What issue is most urgent for students’ learning? How does this issue connect to the world? How can I connect content-learning skills to this issue?
  • What multimodal text can layer in my lesson or unit plan to teach this topic/issue? Teachers think about print and nonprint texts.
  • What creative and engaging exercises will I engage students in to teach this topic/issue?
  • How can I assess each of the four learning standards?

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: Cultivating Genius and the historically responsive model offered in the book is for all teachers K-12 across all discipline areas, even physical and health education. I also use the model to frame my college courses and syllabi at Georgia State University. The four learning standards of identity, skills, intellect, and criticality are areas of growth that EVERY child needs in every class.

I am reminded by many wonderful teachers with whom I work that some of the greatest anti-oppressive leaders and change agents in the world have held a strong sense of self and knowledge of other people (identity), skills, intellect, and criticality. We want to help cultivate students who will not be neutral on oppression or students who would contribute to more oppression in the world. Instead, we want to cultivate young people who, across the course of their lifetimes, will disrupt, disquiet, or unhinge oppression.

This means we must teach beyond sanctioned curriculum and standards such as the Common Core. We must evaluate and interrogate the curriculum we are given to teach. We must hold publishers accountable for the lack of diverse and critical content they produce. We must stop trying to make something culturally responsive when it wasn’t designed that way in the first place. We have to stop putting fresh coats of paint on the same debilitating structures of education. We must start fresh with a curriculum that was designed with black and brown youths in mind and written by black and brown people, too. We have a growing population of culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse youths and families. It’s time for the course of education to change. Indeed, the genius for this transformation is at hand. We need only to properly respond.

LF: Thank you, Dr. Muhammad!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.