A 19th-Century Lens for Equitable Literacy Education Today

Cultivating Genius Book Study

This is the fourth post in our summer book study; see all contributions here. If you are reading Cultivating Genius with us, share your thoughts on our discussion board.

In Gholdy Muhammad’s new book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, she uses the history of 19th-century Black literary societies to develop a layered Historically Responsive Literacy framework that ensures all students have space in K-12 education to demonstrate their excellence. This text asks the reader to confront how majority-centered educational systems have marginalized Black and Brown students with deficit language, ahistorical instruction, and a heavy focus on standards that were not written by or for people of color. 

Black literary societies linked literacy to social action. Muhammad explains: 

“Engaging in texts led to acts of reading, writing, debating, and speaking, and gave them a means to meet the greater end of elevating their minds and social conditions.”

Through the study of these societies, Muhammad has developed a layered framework for Historically Responsive Literacy which includes four learning goals: 

  • Identity development

  • Skill development

  • Intellectual development

  • Criticality

All are necessary at every level of education for students to demonstrate their excellence and to end future oppression. Muhammad’s book will cause readers to do a deep-dive into self-reflection and change the way you think about school. 

As an example, I live and work where the summer break from school is only days old and I have attended many culminating end-of-the-year or moving up ceremonies and events over the last few weeks. Having read Cultivating Genius just before the end of the school year, I was suddenly struck by a common thread between all of the events that, without doubt, I have noticed at the end of every year, yet this year something felt wrong and I knew what it was immediately.  

During those end-of-the-year culminating and moving up events, I saw awards given for all kinds of achievements and personal characteristics. I saw poignant presentations about what students want to be when they grow up. It was powerful. I noticed that students’ writing and illustrations about their desired life goals were detailed and done with care. I suddenly saw this ceremony differently than in the past. I was finding out what some of my students’ life goals were after teaching them for anywhere between 1-3 years. Asking about their life goals was a sentimental act saved for special occasions, or worse when they leave, with the rest of their time spent learning the skills of our curriculum, unconnected to their unique lives. What a contradictory message we are sending to our youth, that at the end of our time with them as when we ask who they are and what they want to be. 

Curriculum tends to be very static. In order to develop identity, skills, intellect, and criticality, it must be responsive and ever-changing. Looking at traditional school ceremonies through a new lens has me wondering how much more students would know themselves and others if we started by asking who they are at the beginning of the year, and then used the answers to guide our text selections, our scope and sequence, and our use of media and materials. What if their answers to “Who are you?” were used as working documents throughout the year, and that end-of-the-year ceremony showed not just shiny new pictures and sentences but also a well-worn draft that had been edited, added to, and changed? What if we celebrated growth in identity at the end of the year? What message would that send to our students? 

Providing space in K-12 classrooms for this type of framework can prevent future oppression. There is no other goal that could be more important than that. Any other goal around test scores, grading, or curriculum seems to pale in its proximity. Muhammad’s book will cause you to reflect and to act. I urge you to look at your educational practices through this lens and put this framework in front of all the educational stakeholders, to transform how we think about the purpose of school.  

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