In this Q&A, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, describes a path forward to help educators weave equity, anti-racism, anti-oppression, cultural responsiveness and the Black Lives Matter movement into pedagogy. Read the full interview below.
Q: The murder of George Floyd and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement are top of mind for us and for everyone right now. What have you been hearing from the educators you work with about how this is affecting them? How has this impacted you and your work?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: I’m hearing more urgency from educators to put the work around equity, anti-racism, and cultural responsiveness at the center and at the top. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in the United States, educators, scholars, and researchers said this work needed to be urgent, but Black lives continue to be taken. I think the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have made folks see this differently, and it has come into their hearts and minds as more of an urgent topic. So we have to think about authentic anti-racist practices.
I’m hearing that educators are trying to do more equitable work, and trying to rethink their pedagogy and curricula. For example, people are now creating Ethnic Studies courses and U.S. Black History courses for their high schools. So I’m seeing a shift in thinking, in curricula, and in the goals we set out for learning.
This is what my book Cultivating Genius is all about. I have been asked to speak a lot more about these topics. And when I do, I’m not just speaking to the hearts and minds of educators, but also to their hands. I’m asking them to consider: How does this look in leadership practices, pedagogy, and when designing curricula and lesson plans?
Q: What can teachers and administrators do right now to address issues of police violence, protests, and social justice with their students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and their white students?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: The first thing I will say is what you should not do, which is be silent on what’s happening or ignore it. It is very dangerous and harmful to pretend that racism doesn’t happen or that it hasn’t happened. And unfortunately, I see that a lot.
I once had a teacher tell me, “I don’t see racism and racial injustice in my school, so why should I teach about it?” I said, “Do you see it in society?” And the teacher responded, “If I do or if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make its way into the school.” And that’s just not true. This happened to be the same week that there were racist and anti-Semitic drawings found on the school’s walls. And even when it was right there is front of the teacher, it was still not “there” to her.
Often in our minds, if we’re not deeply affected by something, if the people who are having the violence forced upon their lives don’t look like us, or we don’t connect to their lives, we ignore it. We pretend that it’s not there and keep teaching in ways that make us comfortable. So what teachers and administrators can do right now is disrupt the norms, disrupt the things that they may have typically done to not bring it up, and really think about how their leadership practices and teaching practices are enabling identity development and learning the truth about people of color. This includes teaching about people of color and teaching about people who are in support of Black lives. In regards to my Historically Responsive Literacy Framework, educators can ask themselves how skills are enabling this teaching. Educators can ask themselves what new knowledge they are teaching, and how they are teaching their students to disrupt and understand oppression. These things need to happen.
For example, I tell principals all the time that they can disrupt their staff meetings. Play music, highlight a teacher, or highlight a person of color. Let them know that this is authentically embedded into your leadership.
What is problematic is when we tokenize Black Lives Matter by putting it as a spark question at the top of our agenda or lesson plan, and then we don’t address it any more. For example, “How has the death of George Floyd affected you?” That’s a powerful question. But we can’t just ask it and have that be it. We have to weave it into the fabric and the culture of our schools and our classrooms.
What teachers and administrators need to do right now is not ignore it. Bring in texts, teach about it. Your staff meeting is like a classroom. Teach Black Lives Matter to your teachers. Teach them the history of it. Ask them questions. Create a space where they can analyze, where they can feel, where they can think about their pedagogy and different ways forward. And teachers can then bring this into their math, science, social studies, and ELA curricula. You can’t just pretend that it’s not there.
Q: How do we ensure that this work is sustainable in the classroom?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: True sustainability happens when we change the systems and structures of education in the United States. Sometimes I take three-mile morning walks around my neighborhood, and I think about my whole plan for restructuring the education system in the United States. I wholeheartedly believe that we need learning standards, or what I call in Cultivating Genius learning pursuits, that are equitable, more excellent, and more complete. They should speak to the goals of identity and criticality just as much as they speak to goals of skills and intellectualism, because these learning standards and pursuits are going to inform the curricula that publishing companies write, teacher evaluations, and the state tests. For true sustainability, these different areas of our education system need to be transformed.
Now, while we have the system we have, of course we can still do this work. For true sustainability in the classroom today, with what we have, it starts with leadership. The leadership has to support our teachers. You have to say Black Lives Matter, and that has to be part of your leadership vision. Even beyond rhetoric, you have to support teachers, and show them what this type of teaching looks like. Model it. Get them from point A to point B. It’s all about leadership.
Then I would say, for the work to be sustainable, we have to put the right materials in front of teachers to support them in the teaching of this. I’m always a teacher. As someone who writes curricula and teaches students on a regular basis, it takes a long time for me to find materials to teach with. And they’re there. I can find them with research. But for it to really be sustainable, let’s give teachers the supports and resources through reimaged professional learning opportunities, through materials, and through modeling.
Q: In your book Cultivating Genius, you share a four-part equity framework for historically responsive literacy instruction that is rooted in Black excellence: identity development, skill development, intellectual development, and criticality. How does this historical blueprint connect to teaching the history being made today?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: It’s funny—I heard one of the teachers who supports this work call it the Historical Black Print!
The needs we’ve had historically are the same needs we have today. This starts from the time of the New England Primer, the first textbook for elementary school students to teach them reading in the 1600s. In the 1600s, skills were not enough. It was never enough, and it’s not enough today.
I think the Historically Responsive Literacy Framework gives more opportunity to prepare teachers and students for anti-oppression and anti-racism for a better humanity. If you’re talking about any current event today, you’re going to need to think about yourself as related to that current event. You need to become smarter about it, you need to understand the skills, and you need to be able to critique it and interrogate it. All of that is criticality. The framework prepares you for living today, full living, just as it prepared Black people and other abolitionists historically. It prepares you to not contribute to oppression.
In my work, I define oppression in many different scales, including wrongdoing and also violence. It could be a long continuum. And oppression can just be looking at someone in a mean way, or judging them with your eyes. We want our students to have healthy relationships with themselves and with others. We don’t want them to treat each other unfairly or wrongly, or oppress one another. As a matter of fact, we want them to disrupt oppression when they see it.
Oppression is a problem of the world. It’s the inhumanity of the world. We’re trying to help our students leave our schools and make the world a better place. We cannot keep repeating the same history.
So many times we have identical pictures from the past and today, and it almost looks like the same picture of pain and suffering. It’s time for a new way forward so that we are not here again in another five, 10, 20 years, looking at pictures across decades that are the same oppression, the same images, the same context. We want to make better and stronger progress. This blueprint is designed to improve the future and hopefully touch the minds, hearts, and social emotional well-being of our students and our teachers so they can live complete and quality lives.
I know that one pedagogical model isn’t going to save the world. We need healthcare, we need wellness, we need improvements in so many parts of our society. But this is something that can be within the strand of education if other folks do their work in society that can move us toward those goals.
Q: You have also addressed deficit thinking on the part of teachers, and the traumatic impact it can have on their students. What resources and actions do you recommend for educators who want to understand anti-racism and challenge both internal and systemic biases?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: There are a lot of readings and books available, as well as people who are doing this work, but I don’t suggest a lot of the books that are out there right now. Whatever you read, you have to really study the author, what they are about, and what they’re speaking about. If they’re writing about anti-racism, and they don’t bring in any Black historic scholarship, I question it, because I don’t know how you leave that part out of the puzzle. I also question titles that don’t talk about intersectionality of race, class, gender, and Black women’s involvement. Black women have been at the center of intersectionality, because they have been oppressed uniquely in so many different categories, so their voices are important, and they have something to say. If that’s not a part of the conversation, I really question the text.
With that said, there are a lot of useful readings across young adult literacy, picture books, and professional titles out right now, but I really suggest that teachers and educators go to primary source documents and the root of a lot of this work. Read from people like Mary McLeod Bethune, Carter G. Woodson, Anna Julia Cooper, Maria Stewart, and Frederick Douglass. Try to go back to history. This is important. That’s why in Cultivating Genius I introduce each chapter with a historical artifact. You have to cultivate your mind before you act.
You also have to be well. Consider resources in terms of reading for healing, joining healing circles with other educators or friends, and therapy, because this work is really hard and heavy. Educator, author, and activist Bettina Love also suggests anti-racist therapy, because if you are not well, and if you carry the trauma, or if you carry racism inside of you, you cannot move forward with this work. You have to get well. And that’s with anything we do in life.
I really suggest starting with the self-wellness first, and then move toward historical readings, and understanding, and then start to think about pedagogy. Write an anti-racist lesson plan or a unit plan using the Historically Responsive Literacy Framework as a starting point, and see how students respond to it. That’s the action, and that’s a way to start really changing the internal biases and doing the internal work.
As for the systemic changes needed, that’s the work I’m trying to tackle along with so many other educators. We’re trying to work with publishing companies to make it happen. For example, Bettina Love and her Abolitionist Teaching Network are trying to push for more systemic resources (i.e., curricula, equity standards, frameworks for leadership) for teachers and educators. Right now they’re creating a guidebook on returning to school. I think we all have to consider our different energies, our time, and what we’re able to do.
Q: Looking ahead to the new academic year in the fall and beyond, what self-reflective questions should educators consider for themselves and their teaching practices?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: I think the first question educators need to ask themselves is, “Am I well?” Again, it has to start with ourselves. And if we don’t feel well mentally or physically, we have to ask ourselves how we are going to take care of ourselves. Being a teacher is already very difficult. There’s no job on earth like it. And all of the changes and uncertainty can produce a lot of anxiety for teachers. We’re used to being in control of our classrooms, and we’re evaluated on that sense of control. Now that teachers have less control over what will happen with back-to-school, personal wellness has to be a priority.
The second question is, “Am I giving myself grace?” When I work with teachers, I will ask them how their heart is, and how they are feeling. Because of all of the anxiety, they’re putting a lot of pressure on themselves. Even though the state tests have gone away for a short time, they’re creating new pressures to put on themselves. But we have to show grace. We are living in a time unlike any we have experienced before. Be graceful with yourself. Show mercy for yourself. Say, “You know what, it’s OK. I may not have figured it all out today, but tomorrow, I’ll come closer to trying.”
Then, as teachers think about anti-racism, equity, and historically responsive education, they should ask themselves, “What have I done in my daily life today to be anti-oppressive?” This could include how you treated someone, greeted someone, or spoke to someone on your trail. This is important because anti-oppression needs to be a part of your life. It cannot just be a part of your teaching practices.
Then, teachers should ask themselves how and why they are doing this work. I have to ask myself this every day, because it gets heavy, and it gets overwhelming. It may feel so heavy that you just don’t want to do it anymore. But think about how it is going to help your students and help the world. Think about how it will bring wholeness to you. Reminding ourselves of why is powerful.
This is really a starting point. Always keep asking yourself, “What do I know? What am I still trying to understand?” We all have gaps in our knowledge, so if we are honest with ourselves, we can seek knowledge and truth.
Q: Lastly, we want to know: what are you reading right now?
Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: I’m reading On the Come Up by Angie Thomas. I’m a fan of her work, and I just completed an intensive STEM hip-hop literacy camp for kids in grades 6–8 that is grounded in Black literary societies of the 1800s. We gave the students “STEM is LIT(eracies)” goody bags, and On the Come Up was one of the books included.
We wanted to provide literature and other resources that were related to STEM, sound, music, and hip-hop. The camp was a really beautiful experience that helped students pursue joy and intellect. Each day, the students didn’t want it to end!