Seeing With New Eyes: Applying Criticality to the Literacy Curriculum

Cultivating Genius Book Study

This is the sixth 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.

Summer has always provided me the mental space to play with ideas and mentally wander through possibilities. I know I am firmly into summer break and relaxation mode when the days have blended together and it takes some mental energy to figure out exactly what day of the week it is. I acknowledge this is a place of privilege. I appreciate my summer break because it gives me concentrated time with my family but also provides space for me to imagine how the upcoming school year could be.

July is perfect to ponder Gholdy Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. This is not a book you read in one day or one week. Her book is one you will return to over time, with each reading providing new pieces you did not see before.

  • Muhammad’s Historically Responsive Literacy model (HRL) “conceptualized in four ways – as identity development, skills development, intellect, and criticality” (p. 59). 

  • Muhammed offers practical suggestions to explore identity as “notions of who we are, who others say we are (in both positive and negative ways), and whom we desire to be” (p. 67). 

  • She offers ideas on how to take up criticality as “the capacity to read, write and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world” (p. 120). 

  • Her chapter dedicated to criticality also links her framework with other familiar literacies such as critical literacy, racial literacy, and agitation literacies (p. 123). 

Muhammad specifically notes that:

“identity and criticality elements of the HRL framework help to differentiate between good teaching and responsive teaching. In other words, good teaching may just be the teaching of skills and intellect, but historically responsive literacy teaching is the teaching of all four literary pursuits” (p. 59).

I will own my shortcomings here. It is not that I did not know how important identity and criticality are. It is more that skills and intellect are more visible in our current climate. We are surrounded by curriculum and resources that privilege skills over everything else. To purposefully create equitable classrooms and schools, we must look past what is most visible and intentionally start with and lift-up identity and criticality.

After thinking about the ‘So what?” of reading a book such as Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius, here are the first steps I am imagining towards starting the school year with an intentional focus on identity and criticality, in service of equity.

For background knowledge, I teach at an urban K-6 school with community classes and three specialized setting programs. Our school is diverse and we work with our school board and community agencies to provide food and multi-disciplinary services to ensure students have what they need to be ready to learn. Our staff are amazing! But we are human. And, after teaching in a space for many years, it feels like a good time to think about the implicit bias that each of us carries with us into our schools and classrooms.

“We must challenge those teachers who judge their students from a deficit perspective… We must start their stories and identities with their excellence.” (p. 67).

For our August start up as a staff, I would like to begin with Matt de la Pena’s book Milo Imagines the World. This picture book provides both a spark and year-long foundation to explore identity and develop criticality. It is about a boy who is riding the subway and imagines the stories of the people he sees. Matt’s powerful prose invites us into examining how we see our world, and how we might instead see it with new eyes. You can hear Matt read Milo Imagines the World here.

A key piece of criticality is that it “helps students tell the difference between facts and truths” (p. 120). Muhammad’s questions paired with this text, would help us think about the “facts” we think we know about our students. After reading Milo Imagines the World, we could use Muhammad’s key identity questions to think about our context and our students (p. 61):

  • Who are your students? Through their own eyes this moment, through others’ eyes, and their future eyes?

  • What are their histories and their literary practices outside of the classroom?

  • How can we prepare to teach in response to students’ histories, identities, literacies, and language?

With our students and Muhammad’s definition of identity in mind, I would like to do some Asset Mapping (Smith, Fisher, Frey, 2021, p. 84-87) as a staff. This activity offers a bridge from professional learning into “student-generated visual representation of the cultural strengths and community resources they draw on” (p. 84). In the first phase, teachers create their own Asset Maps – images that “stand alone so that others can view it without explanation” (p. 86). In the next phase teachers share their Asset Map with students and then invite students to create their own. Finally, the third phase is a gallery walk where each student shares their own Asset map and can clarify their pieces to further “shed light on what needs to further be refined” (p. 87).

Muhammad states, “When I think of the greatest leaders of our time, they hold identity (or a strong sense of self and others), plus skills, intellect and criticality. On the other hand, the greatest oppressors of the world lack criticality and knowledge of self and others.” (p. 61). If we are to truly commit towards knowing better and doing better, we start with ourselves and our students.

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