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The Historically Responsive Literacy Model: Identity, Skills, Intellect, and Criticality

Author: Gholdy Muhammad

Muhammad, Gholdy. Cultivating Genius: an Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Scholastic Inc., 2020.

As I investigated historical records, literacy and responsive education across Black literary communities were largely conceptualized in four ways—as identity development, skills development, intellect, and criticality. These four goals or pursuits connected to the body of literacy research on cognitive and sociocultural perspectives of literacy development and what youth need to attain personal and academic success. It’s key to remember that literacy was synonymous with education, so although I name “literacy,” these four pursuits can be used and layered with math, science, ELA, social studies, or physical education/health.

1. Literacy as Identity Meaning-Making

While historic Black communities in literary societies read and wrote texts, they also defined literacy as the ability to read and write their lives (Freire & Macedo, 1987). The ability to read one’s world meant understanding the self within local and broader contexts and reading the signs of the time to inform their actions and behaviors. They were able to make meaning of their many and complex identities including their collective Black identity in America to their larger global identities and positions in the world. The topics and texts selected for study held themes that supported defining their lives and helped them to gain confidence in knowing who they are.

2. Literacy as Skills

Aligned with traditional definitions, literacy was identified as cognitive acts of reading, writing, and speaking skills—as being able to read and write print independently. Finding meaning in language and the construction of meaning was the central goal for their literacy development. Learning and practicing acts of reading, writing, and speaking would lead members to experience joy in literature and give them a platform to project their voices to public audiences. They also learned skills necessary across other content areas.

3. Literacy as Intellect

Literacy was viewed as an intellectual endeavor. As they were reading, writing, and speaking, they were doing so to gain new academic knowledge. Acts of literacy were tied to the historical tradition of scholasticism during this time (Kallus & Ratliff, 2011) and they were gaining knowledge across disciplinary areas. Literacy development was the root of all other learning in the disciplines including literature, language, science, history, and mathematics.

4. Literacy as Criticality

An end goal of literacy entailed a transformative purpose for change and liberation. In this way, literacy was also a step toward social change and linked to the ideals of liberation, security, and protection. Acts of reading, writing, and speaking served both oppressive and emancipatory functions in the 19th century (Harris, 1992). Because rights were denied and the ideologies of those in legislative power neglected to fully represent the rights and presence of Black people, they began to use literacy as the means to counter injustice and misrepresentations. Gaining authority over print meant that they did not wait or seek permission from others to use language in ways to infuse their own voices, ideals, and stances.

As teachers think of these four pursuits in their HRL instruction, they should ask themselves:

  • Identity: How will my instruction help students to learn something about themselves and/or about others?
  • Skills: How will my instruction build students’ skills for the content area?
  • Intellect: How will my instruction build students’ knowledge and mental powers?
  • Criticality: How will my instruction engage students’ thinking about power and equity and the disruption of oppression?

I argue that young people in classrooms today need teaching and learning opportunities to cultivate these four pursuits and learning goals. These four ways of conceptualizing literacy become the four-layered equity framework and begin to take culturally responsive theory and put it into a practical model that teachers can take up in classrooms across content areas. The Historically Responsive Literacy Framework is a set of interdisciplinary learning goals for rethinking and redesigning curriculum and pedagogy. The identity and criticality elements of the HRL Framework also help to differentiate between good teaching and responsive teaching. In other words, good teaching may just be the teaching of skills and intellect, but historically responsive literacy teaching is the teaching of all four.

Historically, people of color, living in conditions of turmoil, still held much stronger and more intellectually invigorating learning goals for their educational achievement. Still, we have to ask what happens when we just teach one or two of the four goals. When studying several states’ learning goals, I find they are either focused solely on skills or on skills and knowledge development. But historically, people of color, living in conditions of turmoil, still held much stronger and more intellectually invigorating learning goals for their educational achievement. Given the richness in technology and resources that we have now, why can’t we align to these same goals today? This shouldn’t be an either/or challenge (Tatum, 2006), suggesting that we either have to advance students’ identity and criticality or their content skills, knowledge, test preparation, and college readiness (see Figure below). Historically, our ancestors of color didn’t make this distinction, so why do we have to choose one or the other now?

For this reason, over the past few years, I have been rewriting the Common Core State Standards and other state learning goals to infuse them with the Historically Responsive Literacy learning standards. The HRL Framework encourages educators to go beyond skills and knowledge in their lesson planning and practice. These goals build upon one another. If students know themselves, they are engaged with the confidence to learn the skills. If they have the skills, they can learn new knowledge and critique that knowledge. HRL as a theory teaches the whole child and is a framework for scaffolding learning that was designed for people of color and all underserved students. We must stop implementing curriculum and literacy models that were not designed for or by people of color, expecting that these models will advance the educational achievement of children of color. This is the same as designing a size 2 ball gown for a size 10 model. We expect youth to work inside frameworks that were not designed for them.

When we further consider these four pursuits (each discussed in upcoming chapters), we know that we are cultivating children’s quality of life in their post K–12 experiences. When I think of the greatest leaders of our time, they hold identity (or a strong sense of self and others), plus skills, intellect, and criticality. On the other hand, the greatest oppressors of the world lack criticality and knowledge of self and of others. The next chapters will explicitly discuss each of the four pursuits of the HRL Framework.

Questions for Further Consideration: Teachers and Preservice Teachers

1. What are the histories of the students in your class? Think about their histories in the school, community, home, and wider society.

2. How do the students’ histories connect to your content areas? How have their people historically contributed to the development of mathematics, science, social studies, literature, and language?

3. Who are your students? Whom do they say they are? Who do others say they are (think also how they are portrayed in the media)? Whom do they desire to be?

4. What are your students’ literacy practices outside of the classroom? What do they read and write? How do they speak? What are the ways in which they know about the world around them?

5. How do the students’ histories, identities, and literacies compare to your own?

Questions for Further Consideration: Principals and School Leaders

1. How do your interview questions screen potential teachers for culturally and historically responsive education? You may need to rewrite or revise interview questions to screen for teachers who are prepared to teach to respond to the students’ identities and sociopolitical consciousness.

2. How does the diversity of teachers align with diversity of students and of the community?

3. Do students have teachers who look like them and share cultural identities? What are some ways you recruit teachers of color?

4. Are teachers prepared to teach in response to students’ histories, identities, literacies, and language? How do you know?

5. Are you asking teachers to teach in culturally and historically responsive ways but implicitly pushing the teaching of skills or test preparation only? How do your observational and evaluation tools support the teaching of culturally and historically responsiveness?

DMU Timestamp: July 12, 2021 17:15

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