Historically Responsive Literacy: A More Complete Education for All Students

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Historically Responsive Literacy: A More Complete Education for All Students

Cult of Pedagogy 2020-08-02

Listen to my interview with Gholdy Muhammad (transcript):

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For years teachers have been looking for ways to improve the academic performance of all students, especially students of color and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. While some of these efforts have been successful, many more have had lackluster results. 

In the past, we’ve explored different approaches teachers can take to do a better job of reaching all students: interviews with Dena Simmons, Zaretta Hammond, Pedro Noguera, and Hedreich Nichols, to name a few. In these conversations, we looked at more effective ways of relating to students, strategies for working toward equity outside the classroom, and instructional methods that are more culturally responsive.

This post continues that work with a fresh response to the question of how to better serve diverse students. It’s a framework that deals directly with the curriculum side of things, the standards, the actual content we teach in our classrooms. The framework is called Historically Responsive Literacy, and it was developed by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, a professor, a former middle school educator, and the author of the book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, where she makes the case for this framework.

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad

In short, Muhammad believes we’re not reaching many of our students, especially Black students, because our curricula and standards are lacking. The emphasis in our current standards is mainly on skills—skills that can be measured easily on standardized tests—and not a whole lot else. Some teachers go beyond the tested material, pushing students to think critically, exploring social emotional competencies, and designing opportunities for inquiry-based learning; unfortunately, the standards themselves don’t require those things. 

But there was a time in history when a more complete, more human form of “curriculum” did exist, and it energized and inspired its students—all of them Black men and women—to read, write, speak, and publish with the kind of passion and dedication we would want all of our students to have about learning. This curriculum evolved within the Black literary societies of the 19th century. These groups met regularly to read, write about, and discuss a wide range of texts and ideas. Their goals were far loftier than basic skill development or scores on a test, and engagement—to borrow a term we use in modern education—was at an all-time high.

These societies were the inspiration for Muhammad’s Historically Responsive Literacy framework, a four-layered pedagogical model that places skills on an equal plane with three other learning pursuits: identity, intellect, and criticality. 

The framework was designed with Black students in mind, but it will benefit all students. Muhammad explains it this way: “If we start with Blackness (which we have not traditionally done in schooling) or the group of people who have uniquely survived the harshest oppressions in this country, then we begin to understand ways to get literacy education right for all” (p. 22).

In our interview, she unpacks all four layers of her framework and helps us understand what it looks like to implement them in the classroom. What follows is a summary of our conversation.

First, Two Clarifications

Is Historically Responsive Literacy Just for “Literacy” Teachers?

No. In the book, Muhammad explains that in the past, “literacy was synonymous with education, so although I name ‘literacy,’ these four pursuits can be used and layered with math, science, ELA, social studies, or physical education/health” (p. 57).

In other words, this is not just a framework for ELA teachers, and in the book, Muhammad explores how to implement HRL in many different subject areas.

Is HRL different from Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Think of HRL as living under the broader umbrella of Culturally Responsive Teaching, which includes relationship-building, instructional strategies, and curriculum. “My work is taking a more historic look back and putting a practical model to the theory,” Muhammad says.

The Four Layers of Historically Responsive Literacy

Historically Responsive Literacy is built on four layers, four “learning pursuits” that Muhammad believes should receive equal priority

1. Identity

For students to be fully engaged in school they must first find it relevant, and that starts with identity. 

“Identity is who you say you are, who others say you are… (and) who you desire to be,” Muhammad says. “I feel like children are trying to make sense of all three areas, and the curriculum and the pedagogy should be an opportunity for students to know themselves.”

Muhammad believes this is especially important for children of color because “when we look at representation in children’s literature, in society oftentimes, and historically, they are invisible or represented in negative ways. So the classroom needs to be a space for students to affirm and celebrate and validate who they are, so that they know they are enough, so they know they are brilliant and excellent and beautiful. Because society doesn’t tell us that all the time.”

Along with self-knowledge, the learning pursuit of identity should also include knowledge of others who are different from ourselves. “When students learn about the lives of other people,” Muhammad says, “they are less prone to hate, to treat them in harmful or hurtful ways.”

What it looks like in the classroom: Start by asking yourself, “How does my teaching and learning help students to learn about themselves and about others?”

From there, plan instruction and write learning goals to satisfy that question. Muhammad gives an example from science. “Some teachers have written it (in language like) Students will understand their environmental identity and their roles and responsibilities regarding the planet. Then in the lesson or unit there are opportunities for students to deeply reflect about how they recycle or (whether) they take care of the earth and the planet and the environment.”Finally, be sure to assess for it. “Kids know that if my teacher values it that she or he or they are going to test it,” Muhammad says. “You can assess it in discussion, in a quiz, or a summative kind of test at the end: What are five things you can do to take care of the planet? Or Name five roles that humans play on climate change. So it could be a qualitative or a quantitative assessment, but if you value it enough, you can assess it.”


2. Skills

So much of our current curricula and standards already focus on skills, so this part of the framework is nothing new; what’s important is to not throw it out when the other three layers are added.

Muhammad explains that this abandonment of skills is a common problem when new approaches to schooling are introduced. “That’s a way of thinking that we have to dismantle,” she says. “Sometimes we think that when we add identity or when we add voice and freedom of expression, that somehow we don’t focus on skills at all. But that’s just simply not true. You can have it all. You can have voice and fun and engagement and skills.”

What it looks like in the classroom: Teaching skills is more or less what you’d expect typical school content to be, what our current standards are already prescribing. “In math it can be learning equations. In ELA it can be citing textual evidence. In social studies, it can be questioning the source. In physical education it can be learning to play basketball.” 

So the skills themselves may be taught in whatever way works best for your students. The difference now is that in terms of class time and assessment, their weight will be equal to that of the other three layers.

3. Intellect

Along with identifying the skills students need to acquire, Muhammad urges us to ask What do we want our students to become smarter about?  

Because our recent standards have been so skills-driven, knowledge has fallen by the wayside in a lot of schools, and that can strip away the joy that comes from simply learning new things about the world. But the Black Literary Societies of the 19th century valued knowledge as a vital part of a person’s development. “So I’m pushing this idea of intellectualism,” Muhammad says, “of treating young people as if they are scholars and intellectuals and thinkers.”

She sees the loss of intellectualism even in how we prepare and treat teachers. “It’s like we’re sucking the power out of them by telling them to read a script in a curriculum. We need to go back to teacher as intellectual, teacher as scholar, reserving the field for the brightest among us who are knowledge-seekers.”

And Muhammad’s definition of intellectualism goes beyond simply gathering facts. “Intellectualism is when you do something with that knowledge, where you apply it somehow, in your discussion, in your activism, in your actions.” 

What it looks like in the classroom: When developing lessons and units, ask yourself, “How does my teaching and learning help to teach students new knowledge and concepts? New histories, new people, places, and things?” 

Muhammad cautions teachers not to confuse skills for knowledge. “You shouldn’t say they became smarter about equations or citing textual evidence,” she says. “That’s not intellect. Those are skills.”

4. Criticality

“Criticality is helping students to read, write and think in active ways,” Muhammad explains, “as opposed to passive—when you ask a question and there’s one correct answer, and you just take it in. We don’t want them to be passive consumers of knowledge. We want them to question what they hear on the news.”

“We see the word critical and sometimes our minds can go to critical thinking,” she continues. “But it’s more than just deep and analytical thinking. Criticality is deep and analytical thinking to understand power, equity, anti-racism and other anti-oppressions. This is where we help students to be woke.”

This fourth layer is essential “because oppression exists in the world. Period. We want students to leave our schools not contributing to more oppression or wrongdoing and hurt in their relationships and with strangers. We also don’t want them to be silent. If they see oppression, we want them to actively respond to it.” 

What it looks like in the classroom: “With criticality,” Muhammad says, “the teacher is asking, How does my teaching and learning help students to understand power, equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression? So (students are) reading, writing, thinking in active ways to understand power, inequality, equity, oppression. They’re investigating different standpoints, especially the marginalized point of view, and reading between the lines. In other words, reading for what’s not being said and for what’s not there.

The brilliance of the framework is revealed when Muhammad explains that the four layers are not separate, but progressive, each one building on the layers that came before it, starting with identity: “They see themselves, they validate themselves, they’re learning about other people, which creates a safe space to learn the skills. If you learn the skills, you can learn the intellect. You cannot learn the intellectualism without first having those skills to do so. If you have the intellectualism and that knowledge, you can critique the knowledge. Because of all the layers that came before it, you now have the capacity to disrupt and to dismantle. If you’re just woke without the identity and the skills and the intellect, you’re not going to be able to make change in ways that you could with those things.”

Tough, but Possible

Making this kind of shift—especially if our standards still don’t reflect these four layers—will not be an easy task to take on. This concern has been expressed when Muhammad presents her framework to teachers. But despite its challenges, she feels this type of curriculum is exactly what any parent would want for their child.

“It’s not a matter or a question of if it’s tough,” she says. “The question is, is it possible? Everything is tough. And if you had your own child, if you’re a parent, parents are going to equally value the beautiful ways that their child loves themselves: identity, the skills they have, the intellect they have, and the social consciousness they have. I don’t see parents saying No, let’s just talk about my child’s reading skills. They talk about their emotional intelligence, they talk about the whole child.”

“And that’s what we’re trying to get to,” she says. “This is humanizing work.”


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