Choosing to Do Right: Five Texts for Identity Work in Classrooms

Cultivating Genius Book Study

This is the fifth 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.

So many questions and feelings of inadequacy roll through me as I read and reread Gholdy Muhammad’s book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

First, the feelings this book invoked. 

It is wrong for me to have avoided this book and books like it because I knew that feeling of inadequacy would come. I’m a white teacher, living in a white privileged world; how could I ever begin to do this work justice? How could I even have the audacity to try? Then I realized: It is not a choice. I have to. Today. Now. I have to make a choice to do what is right even if I feel lost and unsure about how to proceed or fear that I won’t approach this work in appropriate ways every time and in every situation. That I am going to make mistakes along the way.

As I read Gholdy’s work, I was relieved by the invitation she provides to become a more culturally and historically responsive teacher. There is no judgement, just a call to action and a well thought out plan based on what has worked in the past. 

For example, when she wrote, “I discovered that the ways in which literacy was conceptualized and practiced throughout the 19th century among Black populations were more advanced and compared to how we engage youth today, more challenging and intellectually invigorating”, she had me thinking, Why have we moved backwards from what was working in the past? This does not make sense? Then I realized that it does, as educators in our country are predominantly white and have been taught by predominantly white educators. We just do what has always been done and done to us. So, thank you Dr. Muhammad for recognizing and bringing to light the brilliance that once was and should be for voices that are not being heard. 

It is also very clear, as our Twitter feeds fill up with Science of Reading, that for many it will be much of our professional development. We can get so caught up in teaching kids “how” to read and write, that we forget to teach them “why” to read and write. The end goal should be the why. 

When Dr. Muhammad reminds us that reading and literacy should not just be about skill development but also about identity development, intellectual development, and criticality, it is a reminder of what we have known all along but forget in the day to day of test prep, grades and parent pressure. We should be constantly asking kids, “How are you different after reading that book?”, or “What will you do differently in your life now?” I can do better. I can help students dig deeper. We all can. 

So now what? I find myself in that all too predictable moment where I know that if I don’t commit to some discernible action, the day to day grind and the “do what we always have done” will take over once I get back to school. What I know is that the body of research that Dr. Muhammad presented is too important to let go. 

Second, the big question I am asking myself:  “What does this work look like for our youngest learners?” 

I am going to begin with asking teachers that are also interested in exploring this work to think about identity work with me. We all spend the first few weeks at school “doing” activities to “get to know” our students and each other. Yet upon closer look, the activities can be superficial and barely scratch the surface of getting to know who students truly are and giving them the time, space and guidance to figure it out for themselves. 

Here are a few ideas I’m thinking about for my students and for you.


Read aloud the book, You Are Loved, by Jane Stoepker. This talks about the uniqueness of each individual such as this page:

Celebrate all of the ways that the students look different and how amazing it is that we each get to be our own unique selves. To begin to build criticality with students, I may ask, “Who is represented in this picture? Who might be missing? Do you see yourself in this book?” Then have students draw their self portraits and create a class book that showcases all the amazing uniqueness in a class. 

First Grade

Read these books to students and talk about the uniqueness and identity that names bring. Discuss what kinds of representation these book characters highlight, and who is missing that students would also like to see and read about. Have students explore the history of their own names by conducting interviews with family members. (Checking first to make sure this is a safe activity for all of your students with regards to whether they live with adults that can help answer these questions.) Let the kids share with each other the history, significance, and uniqueness of their names. Let students create name tags with images and fonts that bring in their heritage. 

Second Grade

Read aloud these books to the students and begin to develop the idea of food being a significant part of a culture. Ask, “How does food represent culture across the different books? What food is an important part of their family and their lives? How does food play into a person’s identity?” After reading these three books, we can wonder what other cultures should be represented. They can create their own personal narrative around a time that they cooked or enjoyed a certain food with family or friends. (Again, be aware whether this is safe for all students and their current living situations.) Maybe create a class recipe book or bring in foods important to a student’s culture (mindful of allergies) to share with the class. 

Third Grade

Read aloud this book and use the text as a guide to help students come up with questions they could ask themselves about their own identities. Ask: “How does Derrick Barnes help us get to know the identity traits of his character? What does he tell us? What doesn’t he tell us that we still want to know?” For example, on the page below the author tells us that his character loves basketball and baseball and is really good at both sports. This is part of his identity. 

Have students create collages from drawings, magazine cut outs, and downloaded pictures to create a collage identity quilt to hang on the wall. They can then celebrate their unique and different identities using the questions they come up with as a guide. 

Fourth Grade

Show students Renee Watson’s poem, Where I’m From. Hand out a hard copy of the poem and discuss what you learn about Renee’s identity. Chart student answers and start to move them in the direction of personal identifiers and social identities. Have students begin to think about their own personal identifiers and social identities and create their own, “Where I’m From…” poems. Illustrate and display poems based on student comfort level. 

These are beginning ideas for identity work, with more to come as we begin to move students past the “how” and into the “why” and begin to build not only the skills of reading but also the student’s personal identities, intellect, and criticality needed for a better tomorrow. We can all do better. I can do better. This is a start. 

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