Cultivating
Genius
An Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy
By Dr. Gholdy Muhammad
W

hen you study the reading sciences and how schools traditionally teach curriculum, skill development is the primary connection. But teaching culturally and historically responsive literacy means going deeper than simply cultivating skills. Literacy has to be connected to action. What is the point of students learning new things in your classroom if they do not go and create social change and action in communities?

In my work, I talk about a novel way forward. One founded in genius. Here I will share some best practices from my book, “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.” This is just a quick introduction to the model I created. The book draws from Black history and Black historical excellence to reframe, readjust, and reimagine what we need to do in schools today for all children.

Founding Instruction on Genius
We currently have 20 percent proficiency in literacy for Black children across the nation in fourth grade. This is because we have never grounded the instruction in genius, in their histories, in their liberation. It is like designing a dress and never asking for their measurements and then expecting them to fit a dress that was never designed for their bodies.

If you think about the genius during the 19th century of the Black people in literacy — using sounds to communicate liberation — that is genius. Who would have thought that when you were stolen from your land and your literacies, language, and identity stripped away from you, that you would develop communicative devices to signify freedom? That is genius. Braiding hair maps for mathematics and for directions in young girls’ hair to signify, “Go this way for freedom.” That is genius.

Student with hand raised to ask a question
We have come away from this kind of genius in our schools, although Black people have always been talking about the genius in their race. It was other people who said we were not genius and called us nonreaders. Yet we can see the literary genius and the literacy of Blackness throughout history.
Headshot of a black female with glowing lightsstudent
Maria Stewart, a most beloved Black essayist, used rhetoric in powerful ways. Zora Neale Hurston showed us the way you talk — your Black language — is good enough, even when many others said it was not. Jamila Lyiscott taught us you can speak multiple languages and multiple types of English.

We have jazz. We have bounce music. We have hip-hop. We have literacy and genius, but our schools never value our types of literacy. And then we wonder why our students do not respond in the classroom.

Digital illustration of a silhouette
We have jazz. We have bounce music. We have hip-hop. We have literacy and genius, but our schools never value our types of literacy. And then we wonder why our students do not respond in the classroom.
5 Central Goals for Learning
In studying the work of the Black literacy societies, I found they had five central goals for learning. In today’s schools, we have one — cultivating skills — but they had five, which is more intellectually rigorous and invigorating. And they did not call their learning objectives standards, but pursuits. While a standard is trapped in smallness and shows a ceiling, a pursuit means, “I am learning this for my life, for self-determination, self-reliance, self-empowerment.”

Today, every child should have those things.

These are the pursuits:

Pursuit #1: Identity
You are helping your students discover who they are, who others say they are, and who they desire to be. Ask yourself: How does my instruction help students to learn something about themselves or others who may not look like them, think like them, or be like them?

Pursuit #2: Skill
These are the proficiencies we currently teach in literacy. Decoding, vocabulary, citing textual evidence, but it is not what we want students to become smarter about. We want students to become smarter about the intellect through the use of those skills.

Pursuit #3: Intellectualism
Rather than just becoming smarter about fluency and phonics, students should be learning new histories, new people, new places, and new things. If I say, “What did your students learn today?” you should not say, “Citing textual evidence.” Instead, say, “Citing textual evidence about a story about frogs.” Or whatever you are teaching.

Pursuit #4: Criticality
This is helping students to become woke. It is helping students to understand power, privilege, humanity, inequities, oppression, anti-sexism, and anti-racism. It involves so much, but start with anti-racism because anti-racism is a type of oppression that will help you understand other oppression. If you want to understand sexism better, start with racism.

Why do we need criticality and literacy learning? The simple answer is because we have oppression, hurt, and wrongdoing in the world, and we want to cultivate the child who does not contribute to other people’s hurt and harm. We want to cultivate the child who is not silent on other people’s harm, who does not make jokes that are hurtful.

Pursuit #5: Joy
I have to share this with you because it is beautiful, and we all deserve some beauty. An anonymous Black author wrote this in 1837. “By reading, you can visit countries. You can converse with the wise. You can view elegance while reading. You can view elegance and architecture through a book. You can view sculpture and painting. You can ascend. By reading, you can enkindle the most sublime emotions that can animate your human soul.”

Now, this is a beautiful thing, and this is the new goal for your literacy instruction. How does my literacy instruction animate the human soul?

To teach these goals, think about layering powerful pieces of texts on the anchor text so it can invite students in to take part. You have the textbook, but think about what short, powerful multimodal text you can add or layer.

It can be a video, an image, or a song. The idea is to go beyond just cultivating skills to teaching culturally responsive material.

Reevaluating Your Curriculum
We have racial injustice, problems with education, virtual learning, and a pandemic. We have so much going on right now; it is time for our curriculum writing to be responsive to the times we are living in. When is the last time your school did a curriculum evaluation? Is it culturally responsive or culturally destructive in the words of the NYU Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard?

Young black student studying with a laptop
Rather than just becoming smarter about fluency and phonics, students should be learning new histories, new people, new places, and new things. If I say, “What did your students learn today?” you should not say, “Citing textual evidence.” Instead, say, “Citing textual evidence about a story about frogs.” Or whatever you are teaching.
Do not just stay comfortable with the teaching of worksheets and skills and textbooks. When the curriculum is not good enough, what do you do? When the standards are not responsive to Black children, what do you do? Do you keep them? Is it ethical? You know how doctors take the oath of doing no harm. If you keep them, that is a source of harm. If you do more with them, that is better.

Study the history of your discipline across different cultural contexts. Know yourself and your bias. Cultivate your own genius. In other words, cultivate your mind and your heart, and then move to your pedagogy.

About the author
Best-selling author of “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy,” and transformative leader in culturally responsive education, Dr. Muhammad works with teachers and young people across the United States and South Africa to instill best practices for culturally responsive instruction. Dr. Muhammad is currently an associate professor of Language and Literacy at Georgia State University. Additionally, she serves as the director of the Urban Literacy Collaborative and Clinic.