How Historically Responsive Literacy Can Make Learning More Relevant to Students

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Today’s education system resembles much of what you’d see in the early 1900s: rote memorization, a teacher speaking to dozens of pupils who must remain silent unless called upon, curriculum at scale. Coronavirus-related distance learning pushed that same operation online, and because of the severity of the crisis, educators and parents understandably yearn for getting back to normal. But for educator Gholdy Muhammad, normal hasn’t served all students well, especially in literacy education, and no amount of testing or data has changed that. Instead of continuing with this form of education, Muhammad developed a model of learning that strikes more deeply into who we are and what agency we have in the world. 

In her book “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy,” Muhammad, a professor of education at Georgia State University, looks to 1830s-era literary societies as a highly engaged model for teaching and learning that can cultivate literacy, intellect and self-efficacy. Literary societies were spaces where groups of people could meet regularly, discuss ideas and better understand themselves. In Black literary societies in particular, the connections and learnings helped members build the resilience they needed in a world that was especially hostile to them. She studied speeches from prominent African Americans of that time and asked, “What were some of their goals for education? What did they read and write? How did they organize? What did their classroom experiences look like?” 

During that time, an estimated 320,000 Black people were living in Northern states that had abolished slavery, but they were denied most basic rights. They were excluded from schools, libraries and educational opportunities, among others, which is why being a part of a literary society was crucial for learning skills and learning about the world. It was also a place to test ideas among a group of people who also wanted intellectual refinement and joy among one another. Participating in a literary society meant closely reading relevant texts, writing opinions and debating them with others to really deepen one’s knowledge and skills. Having knowledge and skills enabled members to hold their own in debates and push against ideas of white supremacy and systemic racism of the time. 

“That was the beauty of these spaces. They were intellectual spaces where – reading, writing, debating, listening, meaning-making, questioning – all these literacy practices happened across disciplinary areas,” said Muhammad. 

At the heart of literary societies were several goals: identity development, skill development, intellectual development, criticality and  joy. For today’s teachers, Muhammad brings together these goals under the Historically Responsive Literacy framework.   

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Under HRL, one’s identity is central so you can take pride in who you are and also be grounded against potentially negative societal messages. Author and professor Bettina Love wrote in the forward of the book, “You must know who you are and why you are important to this world, and learn how to be you. And this is particularly true for our Black and Brown children – because this world will constantly tell you that you are not good enough based on the color of your skin.”

Skills are necessary to improve oneself, but intellectualism is about what can change the world, notes Muhammad. And when you can think with criticality, you can identify what change is needed for how things should be. Joy is another aspect of the framework because it’s essential to buoy one’s journey. 

Rethinking education with this framework is essential right now because so much of school curriculum and design centers white history and white identities.  

“When the world highlights you in positive ways, and white ways, you don't need to focus on identity as an explicit learning goal in school. When the world has not oppressed you, you don't need criticality as a goal,” Muhammad said. But folks of color, especially Black people, have been oppressed and marginalized. “The framework is a new way forward in education to really give a more complete and comprehensive education.”  

But the Historically Responsive Literacy framework isn’t just about Black or brown students, but can center other means of exclusion, like religious culture, sexism or ableism. 

“What the model helps teachers and leaders to do is to reframe curriculum, to set objectives and goals and standards around all five. Because right now we have been drawing upon European history and white history as our model and not Black history. And that has taught us to really just teach skill.” 

Since her book was released earlier this year, teachers have been widely sharing her book in order to apply the historically responsive literacy framework to their classrooms.  

But teachers Dominique Herard and Suzie McGlone say they have been teaching students this way for several years and trying to convince other teachers to do the same. Muhammad’s book and the ideas that are organized under HRL gave the teachers the framework to understand what they were doing and how to communicate those ideas with other educators and caregivers. 

“It validated things that I was trying to do with my students, as well as with other mostly Black or teachers of color that I work with in Boston public schools,” said McGlone. 

As a first-grade teacher at Public Schools of Brookline in Massachusetts, Dominique Herard is applying some of the lessons of HRL. In October, for a lesson on the election, the class read the book “V is for Voting” by Kate Farrell. Each letter stands for a word related to civics and social studies, such as “G is for govern: to lead and to guide.” When Herard got to the letter H, the book said “H is for homelands that we’ve occupied.” On the page were three ships approaching pristine land, signifying Christopher Columbus’s first trip to Hispaniola. This prompted a discussion about Indigenous people and she recalled telling her students, “‘There were people who came to our country who stole land that didn't belong to them,’ which led to a discussion of Indigenous People’s Day.”  

Brookline’s Select Board designated the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017, but several students in her class knew it as Columbus Day. 

Like so many changes in history, Indigenous People’s Day didn’t happen overnight. Native Americans had been pushing back against Columbus’s narrative of discovery with evidence of brutality. The first Indigenous People’s Day was recognized in Berkeley, California in 1992 after protests against commemorating the 500-year anniversary of his arrival. Members of these communities, like so many others in the United States, spent years thinking critically about Columbus Day, debating its history and applying the agency to change it to honor people who were here first. 

The conversation Herard held with her students covered the past and their present-day community. And then she asked her students why they thought the subject of homelands was in a book about voting. “We can, just with these questions, bring together the idea of the importance in having a voice and importance of knowing history, all throughout that particular book,” said Herard. 

As a middle school social studies teacher in Roxbury, Suzie McGlone wanted to teach her Black and Latino students some of the great works of by Black leaders. Roxbury describes itself as the “heart of Black culture in Boston.”

In addition to the standard curriculum, McGlone taught her students deep explorations of poems and speeches from prominent African Americans, like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  in order to understand the context of the time and discuss with one another how they’re relevant today. Students then had the opportunity to memorize and recite speeches after school to family members and the school community. Students could also perform dances or songs every spring. Diving more deeply into these texts was part of a program she started at her school with teachers of color called “Urban History Alive.” King was especially relevant to the students because he attended nearby Boston University, where he met his wife, and a plaque outside his former home commemorates his time there. McGlone also connects students with community activists, including local Cape Verdean Americans.

She said the depth of understanding the text made a difference for students. “This whole dynamic way of teaching that is so valuable and is so important really works to uplift the community. And it helps children learn, helps families learn and helps whole classes see learning a whole different way,” said McGlone. 

It’s the kind of teaching that unexpectedly inspired Dominique Herard into the profession at the start of her career. When Herard taught at an after school enrichment program for middle school students, she was given a curriculum guide to help keep her students engaged. Students were to select a song to listen to together, discuss the meaning and then create work based on their understanding. They agreed to listen to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which most students hadn’t heard before. What followed the listening session was a deep discussion about liberation and what it would mean to liberate yourselves. 

“And then there was this beautiful conversation that kind of flowered in front of me where I was feeling like I was the one doing all of the learning in that space,” recalled Herard. “That first experience also gave me an understanding of just the reciprocal nature that education provides, not me needing to know everything as the teacher, but in this space where we're all growing and we're learning together because that's certainly what it felt like for me.” 

The conversation then sparked student’s interpretations of liberation into poetry, songs and words. 

“All of my students were students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students, and that sort of gave me a window into what education could be,” she said. “It could involve imagination and could involve creativity and it could involve speaking to liberation and how you're surviving in a system that really wasn't built for you.” 

The experience was a departure for Herard, who attended private schools and private boarding schools. “Prior to that, my school experience had always been, you know, somebody talks at you for a long time and you read something and then you answer it and you repeat. And it was very, very rote.” Those lessons worked for her at the time but didn’t sit well with her over the years, especially when she was contemplating entering the education field. There were some classes during her school years that encouraged discussions and critical thinking. But feeling like she had a voice in the conversation didn’t occur for her as often as it did for her white peers. She attributes that observation to the school’s curriculum and teachers’ implicit bias. 

“I had teachers who didn't think that I could learn in the same way as other students who were there,” said Herard. 

It’s experiences like these that Muhammad is trying to address through HRL. Much of the teaching workforce grew up on a Eurocentric education and it’s not surprising bias is reflected in student achievement. She recommends starting small by trying out HRL techniques in one lesson and see how they can fold it in. In addition to lesson plans, she said there’s greater work to be done that starts with the self. 

“People got to get their hearts right first for it and then they have to work on their minds,” said Muhammad, critiquing how some of the tools for a more inclusive school experience, like HRL, can fall short on implementation. Often, educators want the strategies and toolkits, but they haven’t changed their opinions of students of color or those from marginalized communities, which makes strategies difficult to implement. They’re unable to ever see the genius in these students because of bias and systemic racism and most teacher education programs haven’t addressed anti-racism. 

“It is going to take very intentional work,” said Muhammad. “You cannot wait for your administrator to send you to a PD. Do the work now yourself.” 

For Herard, one of the obstacles she faces is getting buy-in from white teachers to try a way of teaching, like HRL, that better serves all students, especially Black and brown students. She said that oftentimes, white teachers don’t give her recommendations the same value that it would be given if a white teacher makes those recommendations, which is a prevalent micro aggression people of color face, especially in the workplace. But as more white educators are seeing the value of HRL and begin to spread the message to others, more teachers are adopting these strategies and beginning to see the genius in their students. She and McGlone are working together to educate caregivers and community members in this way of learning to get their support as well. 

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“We need to build our sense of criticality and our sense of identity so that no matter what space we're in, we know who we are and we know how to navigate those spaces because we know how to learn,” said Herard.