Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy is essential reading for those who want to understand how to teach in culturally and historically responsive ways. In this blog, we will review key insights from Dr. Muhammad’s book. We hope readers will be inspired to learn more about what it means to enact culturally and historically responsive instruction. We also hope this blog serves as a preview of the webinar that Dr. Gholdy Muhammad will offer on March 17th, 2021. This virtual workshop will engage teachers in practicing researched-based equity practices and offer pedagogical examples of lesson and unit plans that honor the cultural and linguistic diversity of our students.
Culturally and Historically Responsive Education
In her book, Dr. Muhammad describes the reasons behind and the affordances of her model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Education (CHRE). In short, the four-layered equity model includes developing each student’s:
With attention to all of these elements, Dr. Muhammad incorporates vital elements of culturally responsive education, culturally relevant/sustaining pedagogy, the work of critical theorists, and critical literacy practices. This integrative model develops students’ abilities to recognize their own power and genius to enact change in unjust structures they encounter.
The elements in the framework also interact. Identity, for example, is shaped by social environments, the texts we encounter, and the ways in which we read and respond to these texts. Our identities are also affected by the extent to which classroom tasks allow us to be critical, or respond to texts in meaningful ways. Muhammad describes these interactions in her book to help educators reflect on the ways they can promote identity, skills, intellect, and criticality in their classrooms.
Importantly, Dr. Mohammad shows how these four elements are inextricably linked to the histories and communities of students of color. Turning to the historical roots of literacy instruction that centered intellect, skill development, identity formation, and critical reflection and action to create emancipatory change, Muhammad recenters the rich literate practices of Black people in the U.S. This centering itself is an act of criticality that defies deficit narratives of students of color and highlights the capacity for literate communities to fight back against oppression and build critical consciousness.
Defining literacy as using tools to “further shape, define, and navigate their lives,” Muhammad emphasizes the need for literary presence, pursuits, and character in classrooms.
Ways to develop each of these is discussed at length in her book.
Knowing our students
In her book, Dr. Muhammad offers a number of guiding questions to consider as we try to better learn the histories, identities, and literacies of students. These include:
To answer these questions, Dr. Muhammad suggests listening, learning, engaging in research about students, and allowing students to share their personal narratives or narratives from their families.
Rethinking curriculum and practices
Throughout the book, Dr. Muhammad offers ways to engage students in developing identiy, skills, intellect, and criticality through literacy instruction. All of these insights respond to the cultural and historical realities of students. Sample lessons also show the connections between the four elements in the framework. For example, Dr. Muhammad shares lessons to develop 21st century lliteracy skills in activities that allow students to respond to social issues they encounter today. Such activities include media interrogation using critical literacy practices, or writing critical open letters that talk back to those in power
Dr. Muhammad also addresses the context students’ find themselves in. She notes that although Black literary societies that advanced collective growth and identity development are features of Black student’s literary genealogy, these values may not be reflected in schools today. Further, Dr. Muhammad notes the lack of texts that represent persons of color. She suggests conducting an audit of texts and practices, similar to what we at the WRITE Center have echoed here.
To encourage further reflection, Dr. Muhammad provides guiding questions for educators to question how their own identities and values may influence their curricular and instructional choices. Dr. Muhammad also notes how students have been largely absent from the process of selecting texts and suggests bringing them into process would result in more multimodal texts representative of students’ lived realities and interests. For teachers, Muhammad, offers questions for text selection in Chapter 7.
“As long as oppression is present in the world, young people need pedagogy that nurtures criticality.”
In her book, Dr. Muhammad describes her own thinking when reflecting on curricular and instructional choices by asking, “How does each phrase, chapter, or section in the curriculum explicitly address identifies, skills, intellect, and criticality?” She asks educators she works with to justify text selections given what they know about their students cultures and histories. Ultimately, this means knowledge of students’ experiences, especially students marginalized through text selection or deficit orientations, are a key factor for design of learning. In addition to the lessons and instructional moves offered to teachers, Dr. Muhammad offers questions to guide professional development or collaborative school wide discussions toward better knowledge of how education systems are meeting the needs of their students.
Given her comprehensive, integrative, and responsive framework, questions for reflection, and examples of lessons and instruction to promote equity, we see Muhmmad’s text as a key part of educators’ professional library and an excellent tool for school leaders to use in support of teachers’ professional learning. To learn more about Dr. Muhammad’s work, find her book here and be sure to attend her free professional development opportunity on March 17th, 2021. Please sign up for this free event on the WRITE Center’s Webinar page.