Putting Theory into Practice
Cultivating Genius Book Study
I started a new job in August 2020 - yep, in the midst of a pandemic. I was hired as the reading specialist for an approved private school; if you’re unfamiliar with approved private schools, they are where students attend if their home school or district cannot provide the needed support. Students attend my school for emotional and behavioral needs. There is also a program for students diagnosed with more severe intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder. I learned there wasn’t a reading specialist at my school in a number of years, and later found out there hadn’t been any kind of literacy program in a while, either. I had my work cut out for me.
After learning what worked, what needed to be put in place, meeting the students, and having conversations with my colleagues, I started to formulate a plan. Because there had been nothing in place, I pretty much had to start from scratch in building a literacy program. Cue the book Cultivating Genius. The school and its management company (it is run by a large health company) was starting to focus more on equity. That has been one of my focus points for years: finding books and materials that students could connect to and that would ensure literacy success. The tagline “An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy” was exactly what I was looking for.
Dr. Muhammad’s book was the literal framework for how I designed the literacy program at my school and how we started shaping the way literacy was approached at my school. The two main areas I focus on here are “Teaching Intellectualism” and “Selecting Texts for Classrooms and Schools Today.”
The materials being used for literacy instruction were a heavily scripted, packaged curriculum. These are two examples of anti-intellectualism, according to Dr. Muhammad. She writes “…they may begin to focus on what students can’t do and miss the brilliance that the test may not have captured.” This practically jumped out at me when I read with a student after I was asked to “get her reading level”. I was told that she was on a 4th grade level based on the current assessment materials. When I read with her, I used a story that wasn’t from the scripted curriculum, and I gave her a choice of what she wanted to read. She was able to summarize the story beautifully and completely; I asked her what made it so easy for her to do that (she had shared with me that she usually has trouble) and she said, “Well, I liked the story.”
This led me to the next focus: selecting texts. In part because of how my school is set up and run, I had the flexibility to select texts and materials in a way that I hadn’t been able to when I worked in a public school. I got to know the students the best I could this year and selected books that reflected them and could connect to. A majority of students at my school are Black and brown (the over-representation of Black and brown children in special education is a different post), and there were very few books there that reflected that. I cannot wait until the new school year starts (in just about a month!) when the students see all the beautiful new books that were purchased for them to read and they see themselves on the cover and in the pages.
This past year, I read the fantastic book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut to a class. As soon as I held up the book, I heard “Hey! That looks like J on the cover!” As you might imagine, J LOVED this and proceeded to dance around his living room singing a little song, “That’s me on the cover!” It was a truly heart-warming moment and showed that choosing the right book doesn’t just work in theory.
When I heard the book Cultivating Genius was going to be the summer book study selection, I knew I wanted to be a part of the discussion. In my experience, it has been an invaluable resource in working to create an equitable literacy program. One final note about this book - I am one of the founding members of the Diversity Group at my school. We have been asked to conduct first rounds of interviews to see if candidates’ values align with where the school is headed. The “Questions for Further Consideration” are fantastic interview questions; I tweaked some a bit to fit our needs, but I think they lead to good information from potential colleagues.
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