By Gholdy Muhammad
Over the past seven years, I have been deeply involved in studying archival documents of the 19th century that chronicled literacy development among Black Americans. I engaged in archeological digs through hundreds of historical documents and literary artifacts, such as articles published in Black newspapers, essays, public addresses, pamphlets, appeals written in prose and fiction, and other literary writings. I started studying these primary source documents because I was interested in learning about the ways in which early Black readers and writers defined and practiced literacy across urban contexts of the United States. I also had intentions on comparing these historical understandings to the ways in which literacy is defined and practiced across urban schools today.
I initially wondered, have we advanced in our craft and pedagogical practices in literacy education, or have we remained relatively stagnant? In essence, I wanted to know if we were getting it right and providing the most excellent learning standards for youth.
From my work, I learned that there is much that we can do to improve how education is framed today. I also quickly discovered that the ways in which literacy was conceptualized and practiced historically among Black populations were more advanced in the past compared to how we engage youth today and what we expect them to be able to do. I asked myself what we could learn from our history to return to this excellence for the sake of our students, teachers, and community.
Defining Literacy Education
Historically, literacy was synonymous with education. In other words, to be literate was to be educated. Literacy or education was conceptualized as more than just a set of skills to have and practice; literacy also connected to one’s social and cultural development.
Literacy was defined as identity development, skill development, intellectual development, and criticality.
Black people throughout this time had these four goals of learning, and each time they came together to read, write, and think, they were making sense of who they were (identity), developing their proficiencies in the content area they were learning within (skills), becoming smarter about something or gaining knowledge (intellect), and developing the ability to read texts (including print and social contexts) to understand power and oppression (criticality).
Identities. Identity is comprised of notions of who we are, who others say we are, and who we desire to be. It is a complex and dynamic dance between the three that we are changing and shaping due to our sociocultural environment. Examples of identities include racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, kinship, academic/intellectual, personal/individual, sexual, and community.
Skills. Skills and proficiencies are often measured on quantitative assessments. Skills are central to ways in which we “do school” today and typically define achievement standards. Skills are also central in designing the learning standards that govern teaching and learning in schools. Each content area has its own descriptions and set of skills that youth are expected to master and teachers are expected to teach.
Intellect. Intellect—the capacity for knowledge—is what we learn or understand about various topics and ideals. Often intellect becomes conflated with skills. An example of this is when I ask my pre-service teachers to tell me what goals they have for developing intellect; they list skills such as decoding or fluency. These are skills. Knowledge and intellect include what we want students to become smarter about.
Criticality. Criticality is the ability to read print and non-print text with a lens of understanding how power, oppression, and privilege are present. We must think outside of ourselves, including the cultural identities and values that we have come to know. It also calls for teachers and students to understand the ideologies and perspectives of marginalized communities and their ways of knowing and experiencing the world. Sometimes this can be different from our own ways of seeing, being, and understanding the world.
When comparing these four learning goals to the framework and written standards of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which is used as the main curriculum for many schools across the nation, I find that the CCSS falls short by focusing exclusively on skill and knowledge development. While these two areas are important for growth and development, they also exclude students’ personal development. Nor do we find that these two goals are enough when considering the social unrest and urgent times that we live in.
In fact, if we looked at the most violent people in history, they have typically (but not always) been very intelligent and skillful. What they have lacked, however, was a strong sense of self and knowledge of the identities of others. Nor have they held compassion for and understanding of the history of misery and injustices imposed on other people. Gulistan of Sadi (2008) once wrote that if one does not feel for the misery and oppression of another, then that person does not have the right to be called human.
Therefore, these four learning goals, when taught in excellent forms, are humanizing and more complete than the road maps currently offered to teachers. If we are to be responsive to the cultural and racial identities of our students and our times, we must recast the CCSS to be more inclusive of identity and criticality so that these new standards, derived from history, become the pathway to improve education for all youth today. They also become a gauge to measure learning and teaching.
Lesson Plan Goal Setting for Learning in All Classrooms
As teachers and pre-service teachers design lesson plans and select text to teach with, they should consider these four questions as they connect to the historical learning goals:
- Does the lesson plan have the potential to advance my students’ sense of the development of their identities and the identities of others? What will my students learn about themselves?
- Does the lesson plan have the potential to advance my students’ skills and proficiencies in the content area that I teach? What skills will my students learn?
- Does the lesson plan have the potential to advance my students’ intellectual development? What will my students become smarter about?
- Does the lesson plan have the potential to advance my students’ criticality? How will I engage my students’ thinking about power, privilege (entitlement), and oppression in the text, in communities, and society?
School leaders can expand their teaching observations for a more inclusive definition of achievement. This means that students should advance in each of the four areas from the beginning to the end of the school year; lesson plans and daily learning designed around these goals should provide the potential for advancement. For me, the larger goal would be to rewrite/revise the CCSS to be more inclusive of the four historical learning goals. I have started to do this as a personal goal for myself and for a local school system. So far, I have completed English language arts for grades K-8, and the rewrite is something our ancestors would be proud of.
This return to history can be innovative and provide new standards of learning.
To learn more about culturally and historically responsive literacy, read Gholdy Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.
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Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy at Georgia State University and the author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. She also serves as the director of the GSU Urban Literacy Collaborative and Clinic. Dr. Muhammad’s scholarship has appeared in leading educational journals and books. Some of her recognitions include the 2014 recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English, Promising New Researcher Award, the 2015 NCTE Alan C. Purves Award (honorable mention), the 2016 NCTE CEE Janet Emig awardee, the 2017 Georgia State University Urban Education Research Awardee, the 2018 UIC College of Education Researcher of the Year and the 2018 Emerald Literati Award.