In her groundbreaking book Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad convincingly argues that Black and Brown excellence has been erased from our curriculums and that contemporary education prioritizes the teaching of basic skills to the detriment of our students, particularly our students of color. To address these significant issues, Muhammad (2020) developed the Historically Responsive Literacy (HRL) Framework based on her research on Black Literary Societies of the early 1800s in which “literacy was not just for self-enjoyment or fulfillment, it was tied to action and efforts to shape the sociopolitical landscape of a country that was founded on oppression” (p. 22).
The four pursuits of the HRL Framework
The HRL Framework features four interwoven pursuits that also align with those of the Black Literary Societies of the early 19th century:
- Identity development: knowledge of one’s own and others’ identities, including the histories of those identities
- Skills development: proficiency in literacies within and across content areas—and experiencing joy while engaging in these literacies
- Intellectual development: knowledge of the discipline/content area and other concepts in the world
- Criticality: understanding power, injustice, and how to disrupt oppression
In her book, Muhammad argues that the HRL Framework is useful in all content areas at all levels. She explores each of the four pursuits in detail and convincingly argues the value of each one. For example, in describing identity development, Muhammad (2020) reminds us that identity was stripped from enslaved Africans and so it is vital that people of color know themselves in order to tell their own stories (p. 64). We must encourage our students to speak for themselves, and we must listen. We must also interrogate and resist our own deficit thinking (e.g., labeling students first/only as “at risk,” “defiant, “unmotivated, “tier 3”), and instead take an appreciative stance toward their existing literacies (Bomer, 2011, p. 21). We must check our (colleagues’) bias when speaking about students who have been and continue to be marginalized in schools. We must listen to Muhammad’s words: “I have never met an unmotivated child; I have, however, ‘met’ unmotivating curriculum and instruction” (2020, p. 65). Indeed, our students’ identity stories must begin with their excellence (Muhammad, 2020, p. 67).
Erasure of Black and Brown excellence
Dr. Muhammad convincingly argues that knowledge of Black Literary Societies and Black and Brown excellence has been erased from our curriculums throughout PreK-16, including in teacher education programs. Like Larry Ferlazzo (2020), I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Black Literary Societies before reading her book. She urges teacher educators (those who prepare future teachers) toward the following pursuits:
- Centralize anti-racism in our curriculums (see for example NCTE’s Statement on Anti-Racism to Support Teaching and Learning)
- Emphasize Black scholars and learning theorists, including Anna Julia Cooper, Mary McLeod Bethune, Carter G. Woodson, and W.E.B. Du Bois (to name just a few)
- Ground curriculum in intersectionality (see Kimberle Crenshaw)
- Focus on the excellence of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) (see for example NCTE’s Statement on Indigenous Peoples and People of Color in English and Language Arts Materials)
- Teach methods that help youth become socially and politically conscious (Muhammad, 2020, p. 40)
Exploring the HRL Framework
As teachers (at all levels), we must interrogate our own practice using the HRL framework, asking ourselves for each pursuit: “Where is the evidence in my practice?” and “What are my goals for improvement?” To engage in this work, I urge you to review questions for reflection from Dr. Muhammad that accompany each pursuit and consider how you might revise (or design new) lessons/units to fulfill these pursuits—and engage in your own intellectual development by exploring Dr. Muhammad’s work further (see links the list of references below):
- How will my instruction help students learn something about themselves and about others? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 58)
- How will I focus on the beauty and brilliance of children in my class—and resist deficit thinking? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 81)
- How will my instruction build students’ skills for the content area and encourage them to experience joy in their reading, writing, listening, and speaking? (Muhammad, 2020, pp. 57-58)
- How will I model the skills I am teaching (e.g., writing process, reading critically)? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 99)
- How will my instruction build students’ knowledge of the content? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 58)
- How will I identify as an intellectual in my personal and professional life? In my own professional development, whose intellectual histories are included/left out? Whose intellectual histories do I teach? What is the meaning and history of English language arts? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 115)
- How will my instruction engage students’ thinking about power, equity, and the disruption of oppression? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 58)
- How have others profited from the failure of Black and Brown youth? How will I actively teach about and disrupt oppression in my instruction? What social issues connect to the quality of life for my students, and how will I integrate this into English language arts? (Muhammad, 2020, p. 133)
Friends, we must interrogate our curriculums—the ones we design AND the ones provided by our school districts. As Dr. Muhammad (2021) reminds us, we “have enough genius to do this work.” So let us begin.
Bomer, R. (2011). Building adolescent literacy in today’s English classrooms. Heinemann.
Ferlazzo, L. (2020 Jan. 28). Author interview with Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: “Cultivating genius.” Edweek. https://www.edweek.org
Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.
Muhammad, G. (2021 Mar. 17). Cultivating genius and joy: An equity model for culturally and historically responsive literacy [Webinar]. WRITE Center. https://www.writecenter.org/webinars.html
Learn more about Dr. Gholdy Muhammad by viewing her faculty profile at Georgia State University.
For more information on Black Literary Societies, read Cultivating Genius and/or Forgotten readers: Recovering the lost history of African American literary societies (2002) by Elizabeth McHenry, the first chapter of which is available HERE.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.