The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 151 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, Host
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 previous episodes, we’ve talked about different approaches teachers can take to do a better job of reaching all students: the interview with Dena Simmons in episode 64, with Zaretta Hammond in episode 78, with Pedro Noguera in episode 110, and with Hedreich Nichols in episode 140. In all of these conversations, we looked at ways of relating to students, strategies for working toward equity outside the classroom, and instructional methods that are more culturally responsive.
This episode 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, developed by my guest, Gholdy Muhammad. Dr. Muhammad is 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.
In short, Muhammad believes we’re not reaching many students, especially Black students, because our curricula and standards are lacking. The emphasis 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, but the standards themselves don’t require those things.
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, as I’m calling it, 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.
I have to add that I was so excited reading this book. I have personally fallen into the trap of focusing largely on skills and leaving the other “stuff” to the side, but reading about this framework reminded me that so much more is possible.
And now is the time to change the way we do things. Before the dumpster fire we’re calling 2020 came along, we were running on this awful treadmill of test-driven schooling, but hardly anyone seemed willing to jump off. Now we’ve been thrown into crisis mode. One of the blessings of that crisis has been a more urgent focus on better serving our students of color. Another blessing is that it has thrown school into a fricking blender. And yes, I’m saying that is a blessing, because ultimately I think that’s how we’ll end up seeing it. Although the process has been incredibly painful, it’s forcing us to face the fact that school has never really worked for far too many students. And that reckoning opens the door for people like Gholdy Muhammad to step in with elegant solutions like the one she presents in Cultivating Genius.
Before I play the interview, I want to thank ISTE U for sponsoring this episode. Sharpen your skills and learn to accelerate innovation in your school or learning community when you take a course from ISTE U. These flexible online courses put pedagogy first, and they’re built to help educators, librarians, tech coaches and leaders develop digital competencies and advance their careers by exploring critical topics in education like project-based learning, game-based learning, the learning sciences, and ensuring equity and inclusion in online learning. Choose the topic and time commitment that fit your needs. Learn more at iste.org/cult.
Support also comes from Pear Deck. As teachers, we know that when kids are truly engaged and excited about learning, it’s the best feeling in the world. And with new challenges, that can feel harder to achieve than ever before. Pear Deck is here to help. With Pear Deck, you can easily transform your presentations into engaging, active lessons using Pear Deck formative assessments and questions, and send them straight to student devices so they can participate in real time. Ready to get started? Pear Deck is offering educators free Premium access and free webinars every day so that you can get going right away! Plus, they’ve teamed up with other educators to offer special edition webinars to share insight from a variety of educator perspectives. Save your seat at their next webinar today – head to peardeck.com/learn-pear-deck to register!
Now here’s my interview with Gholdy Muhammad.
GONZALEZ: Gholdy, welcome to the podcast.
MUHAMMAD: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
GONZALEZ: I actually have had your book for a little while, but I didn’t realize it. I saw you on a really great webinar a couple of weeks ago that was hosted by Haymarket, and you were talking with Bettina Love and Dena Simmons about abolitionist teaching. As you were talking, I think Bettina held your book up or maybe you held your book up, and I said, hold on, I have that book. I realized, oh my gosh, this book is really important, because you started talking a little bit about the content in this conversation. I realized I really wanted to jump on this quickly because right now so many teachers are getting into sharper focus about the need to do better in the classroom for their students of color and in particular their black students. I think they’ve got the awareness more than they used to, the white teachers do anyway, but now they don’t necessarily know what to do differently. I feel like your book really, really answers that question. So we’re going to get into what you’re talking about in this book. Before we do, if you could just tell our listeners about some of your recent work in education so people who aren’t familiar with you can get to know you.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. So let me first say I love the line that you said, getting into sharper focus. That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. So yeah, let me tell you a little bit about my work. I started a lot of my research with black girls. I wanted to know why black girls write, how they write about their identities, and how it connects to historical writing practices of black women. So I started about 11 years ago doing these summer literacy institutes that reflects and mimics these black literary societies of the 19th century. My work, starting about 10 years ago and now, I really look at studying black literacy, black education, historically from the 18th and 19th century forward and trying to understand how do we use black historical excellence as a way forward for all, for education for all youth today. In my study of literacy and education, I find that we have been using the model set by Europe and Euro-centricity and whiteness from the earlier days of The New England Primer, which was the first elementary textbook in the 1600s in the United States. And when I studied the Primer as an example, I noticed that the same problems that were held in the primer are the same problems that we see in education in 2020 today. So I started doing, like I said, these summer institutes with the youth that reflects these literacy and educational practices held by black communities and black literary societies, and I found that when you educate children today in much of the same way and when you create similar spaces, genius happens. So my work has really just been studying that genius through my four-layered equity model. I studied the four different ways that they cultivate a defined education and particularly educational standards. When I say “they,” I’m talking about early readers, writers and thinkers, and they had four goals or standards which they called pursuits. I love the word “pursuits” rather than “standard.” They had four pursuits of learning, which included identity, skill development, intellectualism and criticality. So my work, my grant work, my research currently is really studying those four elements into pedagogy to see what happens when we design teaching and learning to be inclusive of those four elements.
GONZALEZ: We’re going to get into all four of those sort of one at a time later on. I’m really excited to do that. Let’s start by looking at what the current problem is that we’re dealing with. We have had for decades now, we’ve seen all of education stakeholders trying to find ways to improve academic outcomes for lots of students. One of the target groups has been black students and other culturally and linguistically diverse populations. For the most part, those efforts have failed based on the metrics that they’re using, anyway. Why do you think the efforts that they have made to this point have not been successful?
MUHAMMAD: They haven’t been successful because the efforts, the systems, the structures, the standards, the curriculum, the teacher evaluation, the assessments were never designed fully with black and brown students in mind. When you have something that was never designed for you, that wasn’t designed for your body to fit it, your spirit, your history. It wasn’t designed for your identities, it’s not going to fit. I use the analogy of talking about clothing. If a designer designed a size 2 dress, and you’re a size 10, it’s not going to fit and is not going to look and feel good, right? What we’ve been trying to do is cut the sleeves off and trying to fit students into this and refine what is already, what never designed for them, right? That’s been the problem. We’ve never had a reckoning in the United States when it comes to our education system. What I mean by this, we have never dismantled the system that was grounded in racism, that was grounded in whiteness, and we haven’t rebuilt. We have just been putting fresh coats of paint on the old structures with new labels and new titles and new initiatives and new mandates, like Common Core to make it sounds new need fresh, and it’s just not. So it’s very clear why some students may have more opportunity, more inclusiveness, and more opportunities to succeed and some students don’t, because the system was never designed for them to succeed.
GONZALEZ: Right. And you know a lot of what I’ve seen people doing in this effort to improve things has been kind of working around that existing curriculum. I’m not aware of a lot of conversations about what we’re actually teaching. There has been a lot about relationship-building, which I think is really important, and there are wraparound programs in schools and all of those things. But these things are still sort of built around getting the size 10 body into the size 2 dress.
GONZALEZ: It’s still about finding ways to wedge it in there and make it work instead of making the container itself a better fit for those students.
MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. So what you just said, you hit it on the nail, because people are doing wonderful, equitable, justice-centered work. But that’s what they’re doing. They’re doing it around a jacked-up system, you know? So what happens is that you have social justice not deeply intricate and threaded throughout the fabric of the United States or the district school system. You have it sort of on the side. And we have plenty of examples of this. New York has a P for all, preschool for all, they have for all initiatives, computer science for all. You name it, and it’s a for-all initiative. But when you study that initiative, that initiative should be just the system. We shouldn’t have to have to have extra programs to increase access and inclusivity. Although look, we have, I’m not knocking those programs, because they help.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
MUHAMMAD: But my point is those programs should be the system.
MUHAMMAD: They should be the foundation so that we’re not doing work. We have to start with the standards, and that’s why it’s my goal in life to rewrite the standards so that they are equitable, so that they are excellent, and that they are for everyone, and that they are embedded into the histories and the identities of black and brown students.
GONZALEZ: I loved when I read that, and I thought, wow, this is great, because we’ve got these standards in place, and I’m envisioning it now sort of with you this idea that we would have something like the common core, but it would be a revised version of it with your approach in mind. So this is why I’m just so excited about this, because you’re really taking the core of what we’re teaching and saying, let’s fix that. One other thing I was just reading about in your book too, another example of this “let’s try to work around it” was the adversity scores added to the SATs.
GONZALEZ: Which to me is such a perfect, it’s like a public admission, like this system is super flawed, so we’re going to just try to figure out a way to say, hey. I mean adding an extra metric to say, you know, this kid’s life has been a little different, and this test doesn’t even fit them and here’s how badly it doesn’t fit them, by the way.
MUHAMMAD: Exactly. I talk about that test in my book.
MUHAMMAD: Because it’s like, that’s what we’re doing. I don’t know what we would name that, that thing, but we’ve been doing it for a long time. Instead of just deconstructing the test and writing a test that is more responsive culturally, anti-biased. That seems to be the better fix, but we have to be very clear. Adding an adversity score, adding all these other initiatives and not changing the system means that we are still retaining and keeping the opportunities for those students the system was designed for and keeping other students on the margins.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So before we get into the actual model, I’m so fascinated by how you actually came to this in the first place by discovering and studying the work of black literary societies. I had to double-check because you’d said the 19th century, and I kept looking at the dates and thinking in my head, these are early 1800s when slavery was still happening in large, large parts of the United States. So the timing of this is just really pretty incredible to me, the empowering stories of these societies happening, I’m guessing more in the North than they were in the South?
MUHAMMAD: Oh, all are in the North.
GONZALEZ: Okay, okay. So these weren’t necessarily hidden sort of underground things happening in the South. These were in the North?
GONZALEZ: Okay. And you kept noticing the practices that these societies were operating under and found a really good model that we should be applying in schools. So before we actually get into what this looks like in the classroom, what did you discover about these societies that really lit this inspiration for you?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. So I took a class in graduate school called the Archeological and Historical Literacy Development of African American Males — it was such an official title — by my adviser Alfred Tatum. It was a really cool class because we had to historicize, we had to take our research topics and historicize them or study the history of them. I was really interested in collaborative literacy and learning what happens when we all come together. So I discovered the work of Elizabeth McHenry, who wrote a book called “Forgotten Readers.” I started to just find historical artifact after artifact, artifact after artifact. Around this same time in 1827, you have the Freedom’s Journal, which is the first African American newspaper. So the newspaper circulation and the newspapers that came after the Freedoms Journals, they started to just, there just started to be many and many newspapers, right? And the newspapers served as the central reading material for literary society members. So in the North, in cities like New York, D.C., Philadelphia, black folks had some more freedoms and liberties. Of course we know we can put quotation marks on that, right? Because that still came with oppression, but they gathered together and organized themselves as they had been doing in moral societies, anti-slavery societies. So we have to keep in mind, this is within the work of abolitionists during that time. So they came together to read, write and think and cultivate a sense of consciousness to help advance the conditions of black folks, and then of the whole society at large. Because when you improve the society within blackness, you can improve the society for all. I think that was sort of their intent. So I started to ask the question, what were their goals for learning? Why did they come together? How did they define literacy because of the word “literary” in their title? And so I discovered that literacy was synonymous with education. To be literate was to be educated, and reading and writing and thinking and speaking, listening, debating, these were all literacy practices that they did within their mathematics, their science, their history and their language learning. So I asked myself, what were their goals for learning? And I found that they had those four goals, and so what I would do is as I read the historical artifact, I would say, wow, this is really connected to identity. This is really connected to what became criticality. This is really connected to skill development. So I started to sort of organize the research and the documents in that way, and that’s how I came to those four areas. If I were to add a fifth area, it would be joy and love, because they were so, they found joy in education even in the most harshest conditions. I don’t want to romanticize that because it was harsh conditions.
MUHAMMAD: But for them to still find joy and to travel to other lands through literature was a beautiful thing to read.
GONZALEZ: Now I want you to come up with a second edition of your book that has that in there. Well, I’m just thinking about the past few months and how I’m seeing people do such hard work and also dealing with this virus and finding, being basically trapped in our homes a lot of the times, and sometimes all we have is sort of text in one form or another, whether it’s through video or reading or blog posts or podcasts or whatever it is. I’m seeing people finding, needing to find that joy also and needing to exchange that love. And we’re doing it basically through literacy tools.
MUHAMMAD: Yes, exactly.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, as a form of self-care in a different kind of time, but with different struggles but still, that’s part of the human condition.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So let’s dig into the model. What you’re calling it is historically responsive literacy, which is, I think, an important term for people to wrap their brains around, because a lot of us have been talking now about culturally responsive teaching. This is sort of like a subsection of that basically. Is that accurate?
MUHAMMAD: Yes. I mean I’m certainly like within all the wonderful, started with Gloria Ladson-Billings who’s like the queen of CRE, right? I’m writing in company and community what all of the scholars who have done work around culturally, relevancy, responsiveness, sustaining pedagogy. My work is taking a more historic look back and making and putting a practical model to the theory.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. So people listening shouldn’t see this as separate from culturally responsive teaching. It feels like you’re sort of refining that into let’s just look at the curriculum and the standards and what we’re actually teaching in class. So all of those other practices can work with this?
MUHAMMAD: Correct. It works with it. It is in community with it. It is not in opposition at all. It just, it sort of extends the work that has already been done.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. And so your model, historically responsive literacy is built around four different layers, and that’s what we’re going to talk about next: Identity, skills, intellect and criticality. So let’s take each one of these one at a time. So let’s take each one of these one at a time, and I would love it if you would talk about why each one is essential for, and I’m quoting you in the book, “a more humanizing and complete education,” and then what it looks like to actually teach with these pursuits in mind.
MUHAMMAD: So if we start with identity, I feel like no matter what, students are first looking for themselves, in a classroom, in the curriculum, in the learning. And I compare children to adults a lot.
GONZALEZ: We should, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: I always say that my next book is going to be “Adults Are Just Like Children.” because I notice in my professional development sessions that teachers always sit with people they know.
MUHAMMAD: And if they don’t know anybody, they’ll find somebody who looks like them, whether their style, their appearance, and they’re finding themselves, right? That’s why Beverly Tatum wrote, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Part of that work is they weren’t trying to self-segregate. They’re trying to find themselves.
MUHAMMAD: And so identity and representation matters. Identity is who you say you are, who others say you are, which can be positive or negative. If it’s negative, children need classroom spaces to disrupt the negative representations of their lives, right? And then identity is also who you desire to be, sort of like your future, most desired form of self. And so I feel like children are trying to make sense of all those three areas, and the curriculum and the pedagogy should be an opportunity for students to know themselves, come closer to selfhood. But also learn about people who are different than them, because they have to live, work, thrive in society with people who are different. I don’t care, identity, I use the word “identities” because it’s so multiple, it’s so complex. We’re talking about your racial identity, your ethnic, your gender, your sexual community. We have an environmental identity. We have a travel identity. We have a risk identity. We have so many layered identities that we don’t have enough time to say them all. That identity pursuit, if you will, asks the question, how does my teaching and learning help students to learn about themselves and about others? Because that’s what we should be constantly teaching. The identity is very 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 that they are enough, so that they know that they are brilliant and that they are excellent and beautiful. Because society doesn’t tell us that all the time.
GONZALEZ: I feel like this is where you’ve sort of, you get the closest anyway, to this idea of the joy and the love also. Of the four different layers, this is the one that kind of comes closest to it. You know when I read this chapter, it was sort of like a smack in the face, because I was an English teacher for seven years, and I ended up getting more and more skills driven, and that’s not really why I even went into teaching. But I sort of started to take the identity work and push it to the side because I wanted measurable stuff that would show up a little bit more on things like standardized or whatever. So I got sucked right into that system that you’re pointing a finger at now. We talk so much about ways to make our curriculum relevant to students, and I think a lot of educators acknowledge that if curriculum is not relevant, then students won’t be engaged. This identity piece seems to be the way that we make curriculum relevant.
MUHAMMAD: Exactly. And it’s so important for students to, when students learn about the lives of other people, they are less prone to hate, to treat them in harmful or hurtful ways, so that other piece is important, of studying the lives of people who are different than you. Because we all have a lack of understanding about at least one group of people.
MUHAMMAD: So that’s why it’s important because like you said, the system has conditioned us for skills, skills, skills. They have put pressure on teachers.
MUHAMMAD: And teacher education programs have only supported that oftentimes.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, absolutely. And I was guilty of that as a teacher educator too. I think it’s right. You measure what you value. One of the things that you emphasize in your book is that none of these four layers is more important than any of the others. They should be treated equally, which is a lot easier said than done, because we give a lot of lip service to the other things being important, but we don’t measure them, apart from the skills. So what does it actually look like to place this first layer of identity, put it on an equal plane with the others, in terms of our teaching, in terms of our assessment? What does it look like to do this?
MUHAMMAD: So if a teacher asks how is my lesson plan or unit plan advancing students’ understanding of self, you just write a learning goal to that. Some teachers have written it as a way of students will understand their environmental identity and their roles and responsibilities regarding the planet. And sometimes they’ve written it in “I can” statements, where in the student voice they say, “I can understand my roles and responsibilities regarding the planet.” And so then in the lesson or in the unit there are opportunities for students to deeply reflect about how they recycle or do they take care of the earth and the planet and the environment. You see what I’m saying? And then when you assess it, you can assess it in discussion, if they were able to talk about it. You can assess it in a quiz or a summative kind of test at the end. How do you see, what are five things you can do to take care of the planet? Or name five roles that humans play on climate change? So you can even do like a multiple choice. So it could be a qualitative or a quantitative assessment, but if you value it enough, you can assess it.
GONZALEZ: That’s interesting. For somebody who’s sort of type A and really measurement-driven I’m thinking like that’s the type of thing that I would have put into a lesson plan maybe, but then if I was running out of time, I’d say, ah, OK. Well we can get to that some other time, because I’m going to stick with the things that are easier to measure. So I think just really absorbing these four layers as equally important, I think that can really help teachers to realize, no, I’m going to set aside five minutes to just talk about this identity piece and really have students stop and reflect. And I think the teacher can also really model. If you say it’s important and you embody that in your behavior as a teacher, that can communicate a lot to students, as opposed to just being like, oh yeah, okay. We’re going to talk about the identity thing now.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Exactly. It’s not a fun thing. This is real life. We need to know ourselves to survive in this world. I don’t care who you are. So usually kids know that if my teacher values it that she or he or they are going to test it.
GONZALEZ: Yes, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: They’re going to assess. It’s going to show up on the test or on the quiz.
MUHAMMAD: And so that’s, I just gave like three examples of questions that can be on a test. We make it difficult. Someone said, well that seems like it would be tough. That’s what they said in my session yesterday. I said, it’s not a matter or a question of if it’s tough. The question is, is it possible? Everything is tough. Being a teacher every day is tough, especially in a society that doesn’t always value teachers. That’s not the question, is it possible? And if you had your own child, right, 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 that 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 comprehensive whole child.
MUHAMMAD: And for much of the same way we need to treat our students in classrooms like that.
GONZALEZ: They do, yeah. This is making me think about, I had a friend one time who had gone to a very expensive private school, and he walked me through the building one time and showed me one of his classrooms, and it was just a Harkness table, it was just a long rectangular table, and I said, this was your English class? And he said, yeah, we would just sit around and have these debates and conversations. I can just remember thinking like, wow, private school’s really different. They’re not just doing drill and kill. They’re sitting around having these deep conversations, and that’s what’s valued, and that’s why those skills are seen as these excellent places to get an education. Because the intellectualism and all this other stuff is given an equal footing to just the skills that you would see in poorly funded skills where they’re just kind of rushing the bodies through and drilling them in skills.
MUHAMMAD: Exactly. And it felt more human, I bet, right?
GONZALEZ: Yes. Oh, I couldn’t believe it.
MUHAMMAD: And that’s what we’re trying to get to. This is humanizing work.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So okay, we’ve done the identity piece. So then the next is skills, and this was the thing that really grabbed me in the abolitionist teaching webinar when you said, what we do only is teach for skills in schools and we need to be teaching for these other things also. But you are including that as part of the four layers. So let’s talk about the way that you would recommend teachers teach skills through historically responsive literacy.
MUHAMMAD: So if we start it with identity, let’s say that students now see themselves, they feel affirmed, they feel like they matter, they’re enough. Because all those things contribute to students being, having the capacity to learn skills. So now it’s like you set the foundation for them to feel comfortable, to be engaged, to have the opportunity. If you get it right as a teacher, like you got the child now with the identity part, because we all want to feel that way if we’re in a board meeting or no matter what. We want to know that we are affirmed, we want to feel safe, right?
MUHAMMAD: And so identity is the safety piece. If we move to skills, skills are proficiencies, competencies. These are the things that we deem as worthwhile and important for students to learn in different content areas, right? So in other words, this is what state standards like the Common Core state standards, this is what they embody. They embody more skills-driven work. So in math it can be learning equations. In ELA it can be citing textual evidence. In social studies, it can be questioning the source. These are the skills for different content areas. In physical education it can be learning to play basketball. This is what we deem as important for the different discipline or content areas. We have been so conditioned to understand skills and to teach skills. And to teach skills, I’m not saying that’s an easy thing. It’s not easy to teach any of these four layers. So because we have understood skills so much in our system, really in Cultivating Genius in my book, I really focus on why it’s problematic to just focus on skills.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. That’s what I’m, now I’m looking at these four things, and I’m thinking, we don’t even really need to talk much about the skills piece. It’s just to say, yeah, it’s still there, but now we have these other three layers, so yes, keep teaching that, but it’s really in the service of these other things.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, and people ask sometimes, like when I do my summer programs, I call them different things. For a long time I do Black Girls Write, these summer literary societies for adolescent youth. And they ask me, like, oh, you’re writing, we write a number of things. We write short stories, poetry, letters, essays, the first three chapters of their novels, we write narratives. We write all sorts of things. I used to get this question a lot. Like, do you work on their spelling and punctuation and grammar? I just kind of look at them, and I’m like, of course. What do you think? We’re going to do a whole writing institute with some sentences that nobody can understand?
MUHAMMAD: It’s like sometimes when 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.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
MUHAMMAD: That’s a way of thinking that we have to dismantle too, because that’s just simply not true. You can have it all. You can have voice and fun and engagement and skills.
GONZALEZ: Well and I think too if a person is being taught in a way that grows themselves in all of these other areas, then the skills are the tools. And if they’re so much more motivated to pursue an education, then they’re going to see those skills as necessary. So many of the quotes that you put in your book from these literary societies really emphasize that, that we need to be developing ourselves as literary people so that we can further our lives in all of these other ways. So these are just really necessary tools that we need to be building.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: You just said. We need skills. I always, I thought about those, the four areas. Like what do we need in our lives? And we do need skills, we do need to, whether we’re shopping at the store and calculating our percentage off or writing a letter for customer service, because I’m sure we’ve all had to do that. Like these more daily, regular life practices, we need skills. But when we focus on skills, but we know that life is not skills only. We need to read the room. We need to read environments. We need to question our world. We need to have relationships. We need to pick partners. We need to pick friends. Skills won’t teach us that, necessarily. We need other types of learning pursuits to help us with those things.
GONZALEZ: Right. What you just said reminded me of that section in your book that you’re talking about. Yeah, we need experience with text, but we need to expand what the word “text” means. There’s a lot of things to be reading apart from just words on paper.
MUHAMMAD: Exactly. We could read the world as text. That’s why I don’t like it when people say, the teenage child can’t read. You can say that they struggle with decoding or fluency or reading text. That’s a fair statement. But don’t say they can’t read, because reading is not just print text. You can read an image. You can read a video or a film. You can read the sky. You can read somebody’s facial expression, their body language. Language is more than just words on a page. Language is sound. I have looked at some women at their face, and I knew exactly what they were saying without even uttering one word. So language is so much than just print text.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Man, and some people don’t have skills in reading those things at all, and they could use it, yes.
MUHAMMAD: And they’re important.
MUHAMMAD: We probably do more of that reading as adults than we do reading print text.
GONZALEZ: Right. Oh my gosh.
MUHAMMAD: You know what I’m saying? Or equal or maybe equal.
MUHAMMAD: And that’s the discernment. We want students to be able to do both, as they say, read the word and read the world.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Okay, let’s move to the third layer, intellect. Now talk about that one a little bit.
MUHAMMAD: Intellectualism, I like to think of the question of what do we want our students to become smarter about? When I was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was the teaching assistant of the literacy clinic. Alfred Tatum and I would work with candidates who wanted to be reading specialists. We would notice that when students left, when the youth left after being tutored and we would ask, what did the child become smarter about, the teacher would say decoding fluency vocabulary. And I’m like, are you teaching them to be reading specialists? Only my ELA people get that joke really.
MUHAMMAD: But it’s like, what was held, and you read some sort of text. What content was in the text? What people, places, things, concepts did you teach? You shouldn’t say that they became smarter about equations or citing textual evidence. That’s not intellect. Those are skills.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, okay.
MUHAMMAD: And so intellect is the knowledge. And I think the difference between knowledge and intellect, intellectualism is when you do something with that knowledge, where you apply it somehow, in your discussion, in your activism, in your actions, in your exercises, in learning. Intellectualism has been so diminished in education.
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.
MUHAMMAD: Even how we prepare teachers. It’s like we’re sucking the power out of them by telling them to read a script in a curriculum. Like, we need to go back to teacher as intellectual, teacher as scholar, reserving the field for the brightest among us who are knowledge-seekers.
MUHAMMAD: Because an intellectual is someone who knows their field, who goes out and sees the world in mathematics, in science. As an ELA teacher, you probably would live each of your days with seeing the world in literature and poetry. Everything you see would remind you of something an author may have said, because that’s what we do as teachers. So I’m pushing this idea of intellectualism of treating young people as if they are scholars and intellectuals and thinkers, and asking yourself as a teacher, how does my teaching and learning help to teach students new knowledge and concepts? Right? New histories, new people, places and concepts and things. This is the part where we want them to be smarter about new things.
MUHAMMAD: And to create. In the book, I talk about just different ways to create an intellectual culture. How do you greet the students each day? What’s on your walls? Who’s on your walls? Are you open to students critiquing your ideas? Do you feel like a community of learners, or you feel like student teacher? So I present some ways that we can rethink how to create an intellectual culture.
GONZALEZ: This again sounds a lot like modeling too. If you’re a teacher who is modeling just a curiosity about the world, a love of learning, an appreciation for just new facts to learn about. That’s going to bleed over, particularly if the students already respect you and admire you as a person. Then they’re going to see that joy that you get just from learning and knowing things about the world, and then applying that in different ways.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Okay. I keep thinking about Cornelius Minor’s quote on the back of your book. Like as you’re talking, I kept flipping it over and looking at it, because it was so true for me. He said there were several times that I had to put the book down to emote, to think, to mourn, to dream. And that happened to me also. I mean what you’re doing in this book, Gholdy, is sort of bringing back the reminder that teaching and learning should be this soul-filling joyful experience and not just for fun, but because learning is this amazing experience. And we have lost that. And I do think that this is going to be great for black students, but I’m also thinking, I’ve worked a lot with Kentucky kids, a lot of white kids in Kentucky who just kind of grew up in rural areas who could care less about school because of the way school is delivered to them also. They see no relevance to their lives. They don’t see themselves in the curriculum, and they are just, they’re knocking out the hours until they graduate, if they get that far.
GONZALEZ: And so I’m seeing this approach being so relevant to so many kids who I think some of them that get through it get through it because they just know what they’re supposed to do to get through it. My own kids are good students, but they can’t stand school.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah because, and some kids don’t like writing. They don’t like social studies.
MUHAMMAD: I’m like, how do you not like social studies?
GONZALEZ: I know.
MUHAMMAD: Because they’ve been, when you do drill and kill and prompts and worksheets and packets, that will make anybody not like school.
GONZALEZ: There’s no relevance, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: A lot of adults hate writing because of their experiences in school.
GONZALEZ: In education, yeah.
MUHAMMAD: And I’m glad you brought up the rural kiddos, because that’s another group. There’s so many kids who are left on the margins. Queer kids. And so this model is truly designed for all as opposed to what we have been doing.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Okay, I’m keeping you for such a long time. Let’s do the fourth layer, because I know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you. Let’s do the last layer, criticality.
MUHAMMAD: So criticality is again, in I guess I would say the realm of critical theory, critical literacy, critical race theory. All the critical theories. There’s so many in the research. But critical theory is really looking at power, liberation, freedom, representation, voice, exploitation, marginalization. Critical theory is going to critique whiteness and white supremacy and that sort of thing. So this is in community with that work. So criticality is a word. In my work I differentiate lowercase “C” critical and uppercase “C” Critical, because when we think of criticality, we see the word critical and sometimes our minds can go to critical thinking. 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. So this is the justice piece. This is the equity. I mean collectively the four goals and pursuits are equitable, right? But this is where we help students to be woke. So if we look at the continuum at this point, we had students’ 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.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
MUHAMMAD: If I say, what do you think, give me your word and your critique about what’s happening in Palestine. And if the person says, well I don’t know what’s happening in Palestine, how can we even get to criticality?
MUHAMMAD: So criticality is helping students to read, write and think in active ways as opposed to passive. Passive is like when you learn something and 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 want to question. Somebody wants to one day be their partner? They need to be questioned. They want to one day be their friend? You’re not just going to come into my life, right? This also comes with some protections. So they’re reading, writing, thinking in active ways to understand power, inequality, equity, oppression. They’re investigating different standpoints, especially the marginalized point of view. They are questioning, even this act of interrogation is important in criticality, because they are questioning from different standpoints. And reading in between the lines. In other words, reading for what’s not being said and for what’s not there.
So with criticality, the teacher is asking, how does my teaching and learning help students to understand power, equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression? Racism is a big part of criticality because hate and pain and hurt often stems from racism, and racism can be an example to better dismantle sexism, homophobia and other types of oppressions. That’s why racism is a big part of criticality. Why do we need criticality? Because oppression exists in the world. Period. If there’s no more oppression, and I define oppression as wrongdoing, hurt, harm. It can be bullying, it can be mean-mugging somebody, all the way to oppression and discrimination and racism. And so we want students to leave our K-12 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 on the issue. So many people are silent on racism. They’re like, well, I’m not contributing to it, I’m just non-racist. I’m not contributing to it, but I’m not disrupting. We want them to actively, if they see oppression to respond to it. And so that’s the goal of criticality. Once you have criticality, you have a social, political consciousness. You know how to navigate the world. And because of all the layers that came before it, you now have the capacity to disrupt and to dismantle. You can’t disrupt. If you have criticality, 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.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Right, right.
MUHAMMAD: You might just be somebody who’s speaking real loud, right? We’ve seen those people.
GONZALEZ: Oh yes we have.
MUHAMMAD: Okay, well, what you doing? So criticality is important because we have too many times where the oppression of our history has repeated itself. We have sexism. We need criticality because we have sexism. We have ageism. We have ableism. We have religious discrimination. If we get to a place in society where no more hate exists, we do not need criticality. But, you know, that’s just not where we are.
GONZALEZ: No. Nope. It is not. We have plenty of it to deal with. Yeah.
GONZALEZ: Oh my goodness. Oh, thank you so much for taking all this time. The book is “Cultivating Genius.” I want everybody listening to get a copy, although it looks like it just came back into stock in some booksellers, so they may have to wait awhile. But if listeners want to learn more from you, where can they find you online?
MUHAMMAD: So I’m on Twitter, @GholdyM. That’s where I post a lot of my talks. I try to do a lot of free webinars now and workshops. I’m also on Instagram. Yeah. I’m a professor at Georgia State University and so they can also find my email if they want to reach out to me on the website there.
GONZALEZ: Great, great. Have a great day with your young leaders.
MUHAMMAD: This was such a lovely interview. I really enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful way to start my morning.
GONZALEZ: Thank you. Thank you so much, and thank you so much for all the work that you put into this book. I agree with all the people that wrote about it on the back that it’s a really important piece of work, and I’m going to do everything I can to get it in teachers’ hands.
MUHAMMAD: I really appreciate that.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, including Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 151. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.