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Teaching Opinion

Gholdy Muhammad Champions ‘Unearthing Joy’ in Her New Book

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 01, 2023 15 min read
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Gholdy Muhammad has written a new book and agreed to talk to me about Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning.

Muhammad is a professor of curriculum and instruction with a focus on literacy, language, and culture. She has served as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, school district administrator, curriculum director, and school board president. You can read the interview we did about her previous book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework.

LF: Unearthing Joy provides a host of practical ideas on how to implement the ideas you wrote about in your previous book, Cultivating Genius, while stressing the importance of bringing joy into classrooms. We teachers, our students, and their families can certainly use as much joy as possible in this era of conservative attacks on literature for young people, social-emotional learning, and culturally responsive education. Can you talk about what led you to approach some of today’s education challenges with a focus on the idea of “joy”? And, can you share a few ideas of what they might actually look like in the classroom?

Muhammad: As I continue to teach young people, preservice teachers, and scholars, while working with school leaders, I find that we need joy more than ever. Teachers often tell me their hearts are overwhelmed and stressed. The pandemic exacerbated the need for joy. Also, as you said, there are ongoing attacks on literature and inclusive, humanizing curriculum. These are all reasons we need joy as I define it in the book. Joy should be the ultimate goal of teaching and learning. When I began to speak with educators about joy, they often responded, “Yes!” and “Finally!” They were ready.

Many of them had been doing joyful work for a long time—after all, joy is the reason many of us entered education in the first place—but they wanted it to be more formalized in terms of standards, evaluations, and curriculum.

Then there were those educators who thought joy was important for early-childhood and elementary students only. I then thought, Well, what about students beyond elementary school? Don’t they need joy? And what about adults? Don’t we need to embrace, practice, and rely on joy in our lives? Certainly! We have a growing number of suicides and mental health issues among young people today. Teaching them skills in decontextualized ways, while ignoring identity, intellect, criticality, and joy, is not enough to stop that growth.

In the book, I discuss historical ways of conceptualizing joy. I define joy as the ancestors defined it. I found that, for centuries, Black people have defined joy as something more than having fun or celebrating but as a sustained effort to recognize and honor the beauty of and within the Earth. To the ancestors, joy was art and aesthetics. It was teaching our children to name the beauty within themselves and within humanity. Joy meant coming together for advocacy and problem solving to make the world better. Joy was wellness, healing, and justice. The ancestors needed joy then, and we all need it now.

In the book, I suggest making joy a learning goal, or pursuit, to be taught and assessed. Joy can infuse our relationship building with students, as we check in on their hearts and on their wellness. It emerges when we integrate more art, poetry, and music into our instruction and when we create learning experiences that encourage students to have fun and problem solve, with their voices (and perspectives) centered.

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LF: So much of your book challenges the deficit thinking that seems to dominate the education narrative—the blaming of our students and their families (and, often, of teachers) for challenges to academic achievement. Instead, you argue that those challenges are systemic and changes need to be made to the system. Can you share two or three examples of situations where we tend to blame students when we should be focusing elsewhere? And then, what shifting that focus might look like in practical terms for practicing teachers?

Muhammad: First, let’s look at tests that typically screen for students’ reading and math proficiencies, such as the NAEP exam or state tests. In 2022, NAEP data showed that 17 percent of Black 4th graders were “proficient” or “advanced” in reading. Seventeen percent. We typically report data in that student-facing way instead of reporting what’s really going on: As a nation, our educational system has failed 83 percent of Black children, the group we fail the most often. How, then, are we creating policy, curriculum, standards, and assessments that are inclusive of Black youth and responsive to their genius and educational needs? We’re not. Instead, we believe it is the student who needs help and intervention—not the curriculum, not the test, not the system.

Another example relates to students’ behavior. I’ve found in my research that when Black girls don’t follow school rules or respond well to the curriculum, those in charge call them defiant. Those in charge fail to listen to them and make them feel safe and loved within the classroom—especially at schools without many Black teachers. They don’t typically ask, Was our policy written to respond to the genius and joy of Black girls?

Both examples suggest that we need to take a hard look at learning standards, curriculum, policies, evaluations, teacher education, practice, assessments, and the whole educational system. In this country, we have the genius and the tools to rewrite that system so that all students can ascend to reach their highest potential. We educators must be cognizant of the history that has shaped the system we have today, so we do not perpetuate deficit thinking about children or inflict deficit practices on them.

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LF: Your books are unique among professional books because of the time you take to look to history for lessons on what we need to do for schools today. Can you share three historical lessons that stand out to you as being especially useful?

Muhammad: Yes, Black history contains many teachings and affordances that help us to advance the genius and joy of our children and educators. I provide several examples in the books, and here’s a preview.

Lesson 1: Our Black ancestors centered introspection and self-examination. I found a beautiful and unique 19th-century artifact that captured how our ancestors spoke to the importance of recognizing one’s own “excellencies,” biases, and challenges. They knew the importance of beginning with one’s mind and heart before moving toward engaging others. It was a beautiful and very important lesson that we should look at ourselves and question our intentions and actions before teaching children or engaging families or colleagues.

Lesson 2: Our Black ancestors claimed and reclaimed their joy. It did not matter that the world was cruel or unfair or unloving because they had each other. They centered their creativity, their arts, their music, their language, their abolition, their poetry, their love, and their collaborative efforts to make the world better. It’s a beautiful lesson for us today. No matter what, remember your joy. Remember what matters. Remember your light and all your north stars in life.

Lesson 3: Our Black ancestors practiced collectivism and collaboration. In Cultivating Genius and Unearthing Joy, I explain how Dr. Cynthia Dillard calls attention to the importance of (re)membering—going back and back again to excellence in our Black past to teach us how to advance education today. Being in community was an important practice. The ancestors knew that transformation could not happen in isolation. It could not happen in a climate of individualism and competition. That is a great lesson for educators today. How can we collectively write policy, mandates, standards, and curriculum? How can we find time for teachers to work together to build their practice? These questions are vital for moving toward equity and excellence in education.

I can’t wait for educators to take in the details of this beautiful history and the beautiful lessons it holds!

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LF: What recommendations do you have for a teacher who wants to begin implementing the CHRE (culturally and historically responsive education) perspectives and strategies you write about?

Muhammad: Study the System and Curriculum. The first thing that educators can do is study the system in which they are employed, which includes evaluating the curriculum that they are given, ideally using the evaluation tool in Unearthing Joy. If they have not been given a curriculum, they need to understand the process of teaching and learning that is expected of them to learn if their genius and ideologies align with it.

Collect Texts. The second thing I would suggest is for teachers to think about the types of texts they want to use in their practice and why. I want teachers to consider texts that are responsive to the histories, identities, literacies, and liberation of students. I enjoy collecting teachable texts that support my students’ learning across the five pursuits—identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy. When I find a poem, article, story, video, Ted Talk or anything that seems teachable, I stow it away in my “curriculum vault” until I need it to write a new and exciting lesson, unit, or entire curriculum.

Engage in the Self-Work. The last thing they can do right away is self-work. I encourage teachers to ask themselves, How are the five pursuits already showing up in my personal and professional lives? I find that this question is easier to answer among teachers who are living a life of justice and joy. Those teachers can more easily translate the pursuits into the classroom. In the book, I provide questions for teachers to ask themselves. I also provide assessment tools that enable them to collect data on their students’ identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy. When was the last time we collected data on student joy? That data can then be used to inform teachers’ practices.

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LF: If they use certain ideas in your books, some educators might be accused of teaching “critical race theory” and reprimanded, attacked, or even fired, even though your ideas have nothing to do with CRT. What advice do you offer those educators?

Muhammad: It is devastating to think that, after all the work, pain, sacrifice, and labor of our ancestors—after all our ancestors have given to this county—we continue to live in a world where a teacher can be fired for teaching about Black joy and justice. Clearly, those that push hateful policies don’t recognize Black ancestral genius or teachings. So how far have we really come? And how far do we need to go?

Throughout history, there have been people who work to uphold anti-Blackness and who have written policies to sustain oppressive practices in schools. Banning critical race theory is nothing new under the beautiful sun that provides light to the Earth.

We must keep in mind that some teachers and administrators are attacked just for showing up to school Black. I have colleagues and friends who go to work with their dark skin, natural hair, and all the other characteristics that make them beautifully Black, only to be judged, criticized, and harassed. Such attacks were common long before people learned the three words critical race theory.

And sadly, many who denounce critical race theory have never read about it or studied the research behind it. They have never developed culturally responsive curriculum nor taught children. Nor have they listened to and trusted the voices of diverse students. And they may have never experienced racial, gender, or sexual violence. See, I find that when we experience hurt, harm, or pain because of identity, we may enter a space of humanity, empathy, and openness. So, some speak on hateful things without living in the world with it—without deeply knowing it.

What’s beautiful about the HILL Model, my instructional framework for CHRE, which is described in Unearthing Joy, is that it can make us all better. And the five pursuits offer a nice balance of theoretical perspectives in education. This is one way to know you have a strong framework in education—when it does not adhere to a single theory. I’ll give you an example. Most reading programs are grounded in cognitive theory only. They contain no explicit extensions to children’s lives or the world around them. Such programs teach only skills. When we teach collectively the pursuits of identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy, we embrace multiple theoretical perspectives such as cognitive theory, sociocultural theory, social constructivism, critical theory, and feminist theory.

Before I suggest what educators who are harmed should do, I must suggest what those who are inflicting harm should do. They should do some serious work to restore love in their hearts. I suggest they read deeply about theory, the genius and history of Blackness, and the benefits of joy. I suggest they take a course on the HILL Model and curriculum writing. This is why I address leadership in Unearthing Joy and include tools for creating school policy, teacher evaluations, and so many other responsibilities of administrators. It is my hope that school boards can use and recommend those tools as part of their leadership.

My hope for teachers is for them to be in schools where their intellect, genius, and cultures are nurtured and watered—not shut down. I advise teachers to rely on their village to lift them, keep them, and support them during these tumultuous times we are living in.

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LF: What are the three or so takeaways you hope readers get from Unearthing Joy?

Muhammad: I hope readers will recognize that the book is a practical guide designed to show them how to apply the five pursuits in teaching and learning. Curriculum can be very violent, rote, prescriptive, and unresponsive to the cultural lives of our youth and the social times we are living in. And sometimes it can be very basic. So, I also want this book to be a guide to rejuvenating curriculum and instructional practices. I want readers to know what curriculum is, beyond a packaged set of materials that’s handed to us. I want readers to know that curriculum can be the world around us, curriculum can be storytelling, and curriculum can be the legacies we leave for our children. Curriculum can be healing. And most important, curriculum can be joy. This book helps readers to rethink curriculum and expands the possibilities for curriculum. Unearthing Joy builds on the ideas in Cultivating Genius, guiding educators toward the type of curriculum we want to see in the world.

Second, I want readers to know that joy is a serious, rigorous pursuit in education. Joy is not just about having fun and being oblivious to truth and justice. Joy is truth- and justice-oriented. When we disrupt misrepresentation and injustice, we invite joy in. Justice and joy have a serious and important relationship. There is no joy without justice. Joy also balances criticality—when we are fighting for justice and building a better world, joy and beauty can then enter our lives.

Third, I want readers to understand that the types of children we wish to cultivate and develop are possible. The purpose of schools is not just to prepare students for state exams, college, and careers. We want so much more for them. We want joy for them. We want them to know themselves. We want them to be problem solvers, knowledge seekers, empathic and curious. We want them to have consciousness, social awareness, and criticality. We want them to have intellect. Essentially, I want readers to walk away from the book with the word possibility dancing in their heads. Schools can be more purposeful and help prepare youth for the fullness of their lives.

I also want teachers to understand that this critical CHRE work begins with the self. Sometimes, it feels like the self is the only thing we can control in the educational system. We may not be able to control policies, but we can control how we think, how we teach, and how we love. In Unearthing Joy, I include a chapter on what it means to unearth the self and engage in the self-work, exploring the realms of our hearts and our souls—considering our excellencies as well as our challenges. I challenge educators to think about ideologies that serve children and those that do not. Before we get to advancing our practices, I want us to do the necessary self-work.

I want readers to go to art—to music, to poetry, to literary writings and other creative writings and texts—to solve problems in education. It is not just researchers and scholars who teach us; artists do, too. I kept this in mind as I was writing this book.

Finally, I want teachers to know that I love and appreciate them. I feel in community with them and I recognize the joy that they need to teach well. Teachers bring so much joy to classrooms when they practice with excellence, using culturally responsive methods. They bring so much joy into the lives of children. Teachers deserve joy. I’ll say that again. Teachers deserve joy. And our leaders deserve it as well! They deserve to walk into schools where they feel safe, where they feel loved, where they are not discriminated against, where they are not pushed out, and where they are not mistreated. I want teachers to know that they deserve schools that serve as spaces of healing and wellness.

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LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wish I had?

Muhammad: Writing this book was an act of love. I felt excitement and urgency in my entire body as I penned each word. I also felt the ancestors beside me as I wrote, which is why I frequently use the collective “we.” I listened to the ancestors and followed their directions as I unpacked justice, genius, and joy. I used the strategy of layering text, which I wrote about in Cultivating Genius. Each chapter has layers of music, poetry, quotations, and artwork. I am grateful that creative artist Pharrell Williams penned a beautiful foreword. There are even coloring pages that cap off each chapter. The layered playlists of songs at the beginning of each chapter are intended to be played softly in the background while reading to extend the text’s meaning. My goal is for readers to experience a full embodiment of joy as they read.

The ancestors would always center joy, healing, and wellness in their lives, no matter the time, context, or oppression they faced. They taught me that joy enables us to be resilient when adversity, racism, or disappointment confronts us. Joy was their goal. So it must be our goal, too, to sustain who we are and advance the state of education. Joy is what the ancestors have fought for their entire lives, and it is what we need to unearth today.

LF: Thank you, Gholdy!

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.

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