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Anti-racism Education: A Conversation With Dr. Gholdy Muhammad

 //  Feb 16, 2021

Anti-racism Education: A Conversation With Dr. Gholdy Muhammad

According to the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, approximately 7 in 10 educators say they need supplemental materials to help them address racism with their students—both the history of racism in America and the state of racism today. Moreover, 73% of educators say they need supplemental materials to help teach students to be anti-racist. 

These findings come as no surprise to Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, an associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University and the author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. She recently spoke with Suzanne McCabe, host of the Scholastic Reads podcast, about how educators can incorporate anti-racism into their schools and classrooms. Below are highlights from their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the full podcast episode here:

Q: Tell us about your book, Cultivating Genius, and the four learning goals you propose.

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: Cultivating Genius looks at Black historical excellence as a model, as a playbook, and as a guide for better educating children today. I study Black literary societies, which originated in the 19th century. These were some of the nation’s first book clubs. Individuals came together to read, write, think, debate, and build their knowledge and understanding so that they could strategize and work towards creating a better world.

In my book, I present a four-layered model, which I call learning pursuits, not learning standards: identity development, skill development, intellectual development, and criticality. Although I don’t mention this as a fifth pursuit in the book explicitly, the fifth pursuit is joy. I encourage teachers and leaders to think about how you are cultivating these five elements with each unit plan, with each lesson plan, with each learning experience.

Q: Let’s start with identity development. How would you would like to see that applied in classrooms?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: Identity matters. Students have to see themselves honored, reflected, and validated in teaching and learning before we get to skills and standards like the Common Core. Identity is helping our young people know who they are, who they’re not, and who they want to be—all the different facets and manifestations of themselves. Identity matters because it’s like a refuge and a source of protection. When you know who you are, no one can tell you differently. Identity is something that builds confidence and self-esteem for our students. They should not only be learning about themselves with each math, science, social studies, ELA, and arts-based lesson, but also about the lives of others who are different than them. When you know the truth about people who are different than you, you are less inclined to hate, you are less inclined to judge and stereotype. With every lesson plan, teachers are asking themselves: How will this help my students learn something about themselves or others?

Q: What question are you getting the most from educators in response to Cultivating Genius?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: The question I get most is: “Do I have to teach all five of these pursuits in 45 minutes?” The answer is no. It depends on how you write the goals. I’ve taught a lesson in 45 minutes, and I’ve taught it across two weeks. I want teachers to think of themselves as designers and intellectuals and geniuses. Think about yourself as a genius and an artist when you write that design, that learning experience.

I also get questions regarding resistance, especially with the goal of criticality. Criticality is helping our students understand equity, power, and anti-racism, and helping them agitate in a world full of oppression and hurt and harm.Another question I get very often is: “What if my colleagues or my administrators are resistant to anti-racism and criticality as I try to connect it to math, science or whatever subject I’m teaching?” I recommend teaching the five learning pursuits as opposed to one skill. That’s more intellectually rigorous and invigorating than just teaching skills or teaching from worksheets or guided reading books.

This is about our humanity. This is about brothers and sisters who are Black and Brown who are being killed, whose spirits are being murdered in classrooms, being killed in society for their skin color. We are in a state of oppression, where we have a system that has greatly failed Black children. Now is not the time to get into your comfort zones. This is not about our egos, our feelings. This is about our students’ lives, and I’m not here to sell you their humanity. I am here to do what’s best for all of the children in the class. We have to be intellectual beings and be ready to defend excellent pedagogy.

Q: How did Black literary societies work?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: There were lots of organized efforts towards a better humanity and towards human and civil rights for Black folks and for all folks. They had anti-slavery societies, moral reform societies, and benevolent societies. If you study Black people, we have always organized and engaged in collectivism to improve the social conditions for everyone.

Black people, I notice, were never for the liberation of just Black people. They were for the liberation of all. In the late 1820s, young Black men, both adolescent and young adult, started what were called literary societies. They focused on mathematics, science, history, language, international current events, all sorts of arts. They focused on everything we would typically teach in schools today. And they had anywhere between 10 and more than 100 members. The members paid dues, and they met regularly in the basements of homes and churches, in classrooms and auditoriums, and any space they could get. When they met, they cultivated their libraries. Other than organizational costs, all of the membership dues went to books and libraries.

That was their starting point. Members would check out books. When someone returned a book, they had to give like a mini-lecture on the book. They had constitutions and by-laws. Black women had their own societies. And Black men and women had collective societies together. As I said, they would just read rich literature, they would write, they would debate, they would think, they would strategize and move to action.

These societies were very action-oriented and abolitionist in their thinking and in their responses to inhumanity. They are just a beautiful, beautiful part of our history. Unfortunately, when teachers are in university programs to become teachers, they don’t learn about these societies. Even in literacy programs, they don’t learn about this part of history. This history isn’t taught in social studies classes in K–12. This is such an incredible part of our history which has given us the blueprint and the playbook for education today.

Q: How do you envision a new way of teaching our history, much of which, like Black literary societies, has been left out of the textbooks?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: First, you have to understand why we have the situation we have today. Everything can be explained through history. Having Eurocentricity, having whiteness in everything, that was designed. It was organized. Just like abolitionists were organizing, so were white folks, historically, who did not want Black people, Black histories, and Black liberation expressed in the curriculum. And then we have to think about capitalism. People profit off of the failure of Black and Brown children, including people who put out the curriculum.

The research has been here for years, so why haven’t we designed a curriculum that is culturally and socio-politically conscious? Because folks want to keep profiting, perhaps. Because it’s easier. In some ways, it’s less rigorous. We think that teachers may be incapable of doing more. There are a lot of really important things that need to be addressed around this. But dynamic and very smart teachers are already acting. They’re either relinquishing or going beyond the curriculum that the district has adopted. I argue that they shouldn’t have to. First of all, if I’m a school district administrator, and I’m adopting a new mathematics, science, ELA, or social studies curriculum, it better be culturally and historically responsive, or I’m not paying the money to have it taught in my very diverse school district. We have to hold people who write curricula more accountable, whether it’s publishing companies or districts. We need a better framework for curriculum writing. That’s why I wrote this book. It offers a framework.

We also need to change the Common Core State Standards and other standards that are similar to it. In Georgia, where I am, the standards are grounded in the teaching of skills. They do not reflect the histories, identities, and liberation of Black students. According to NAEP data, we are struggling to get it right the most with Black students when it comes to educational achievement. We have to start with the group that has been underserved or marginalized the most. Is it ethical to keep a set of standards that do not reflect the needs of students whose ancestors were enslaved, a group of people who have never gotten educational reparations? I don’t think so. Reparations can look like better learning standards and better learning curricula for Black children.

We also need better assessments. We need to use assessments as they should be used. No more high stakes, no more connecting to people’s salaries. It’s simply unfair how we’ve been using standardized testing. And the tests are largely culturally biased.

We also need a different way to evaluate and recruit teachers. We don’t evaluate teachers on anything but academic success. And then we wonder why we don’t have a social, political consciousness in our schools. Teachers say, “I’m not evaluated on it. Why would I teach it?”

Finally, I would add that we need to improve teacher education. I’m a teacher-educator working in a university, in a college of education. These programs need to teach more scholars and theorists of color. I learned Vygotsky, Piaget, Maslow. I didn’t learn a lot about Black theorists. I didn’t learn about any Black theorists who actually worked with Black kids. The programs preparing teachers need to be culturally responsive. They need to be anti-racist, and they need to be grounded in equity. If we begin to transform all of these areas, I guarantee you, we will have a better and more advanced state of education, and we will certainly have higher achievement for all students.

Q: Are there other resources you can recommend for educators, or parents, who are starting on this journey?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: In terms of online picture books, read-alouds, I love Sankofa Read-Alouds right now. I love the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They have digitized photographs, maps, manuscripts, video, and more. Think of a primary source, like African American newspapers. I love to dive into them because they’re multi-genre. I love The Brownies’ Book. The entire collection is available online for free at The Library of Congress. Even if you do a Google search for Black scientists, Black women suffragists, Black anything, you’ll likely unearth something new that you haven’t learned before.

All children deserve these five pursuits. I don’t want any child to leave K–12 without ever experiencing authentic joy. Joy is something that we all deserve. Teachers deserve it, too.


For more insights from Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, don’t miss this Q&A discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and education today.