Indispensable Books for Equity #4: Cultivating Genius

Indispensable Books for Equity #4: Cultivating Genius

Book #4 in this series on equity resources is Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, by Gholdy Muhammad.  This book draws from the history of African American literary societies to create a framework for teaching and learning to address what is lacking in public schools for students of color: the push for excellence and the space to be heard and to hone their ideas about themselves and the wider world through reading, writing, and speaking.

As far back as 1840, African American writers were calling for literacy education that went beyond minimum competency in reading and writing.  They called for “literary character,” meaning full proficiency in reading and writing sufficient to be able to independently use literary tools to “project their voices”  through print. Essentially, they said the bar was too low:  we need to demand and offer more of and for students of color.

To that end, the book offers a framework that encompasses 4 distinct layers: Identity, Skill Development, Intellect, and Criticality.  Skill development, while an important piece of learning, has in some areas become the sole focus of teaching and learning: can a child “do” the learning?  Can s/he use verbs correctly, multiply with fluidity and speed, reel off the state capitals, name the parts of a food web?  Muhammad’s point is that skill development alone doesn’t require those higher order thinking skills and so children — particularly children of color and children of poverty —  are stuck in a system that only offers them “the basics;” either because it believes this is all they are capable of or because this is what the high stakes tests are requiring.  What gets lost here is making meaning of the content, applying it to the real world, making it relevant to the student. Because it may not be relevant, it doesn’t offer opportunities for students to develop their identities, to begin the long work of defining themselves as learners, thinkers, people in a community.  Because the work is not cognitively demanding, students don’t have opportunities to develop higher order thinking skills like analysis, evaluation, and creation.   Linked to this is the problem of consuming without thought.  They don’t learn ways to evaluate and synthesize information from a range of sources or develop discernment as they consume various types of media.  They don’t learn to look at media, marketing, systems, or institutions with a critical eye; they may not even learn that they should look at these things with a critical eye.  If Instagram shows it to them, it’s true…right?  In Muhammad’s model, every lesson is an opportunity for identity formation, for intellectual development, for criticality.

Here’s how the equity framework defines the four layers:

  • Identity: instruction helps students learn something about themselves or others.
  • Skills: instruction builds skills for the content area.
  • Intellect: instruction builds students’ knowledge and mental powers.
  • Criticality: instruction engages students thinking about power and equity and the disruption of oppression.

The book dives deep into each layer and the discussion of each is rich and helpful for understanding both the principle and the ways in which it can be addressed in the classroom.  I very much liked her assertion that literacy is the foundation of learning in every discipline; it’s one of the truths that is often paid lip service but not necessarily enacted with fidelity. Here, it is tightly woven into the framework. Especially good is the discussion of  literacy presence, literary pursuits, and literary character in the classroom. It is a broad vision that underscores the necessity of literacy in every content area.

The author offers many sample lesson plans which demonstrate how the framework can be applied across disciplines.  Here’s one where the primary learning is in Science:

Sample Lesson

Identity: Students will learn about their own unique blueprints in life (personal identity)


  • ELA: produce clear and coherent writing (personal narratives) in which development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Math: Use measurement and scale systems to create blueprints of spaces both real and imagined.
  • Science: Understand the pattern of inheritance; analyze Punnett squares and statistically analyze data on inheritance.
  • Social Studies: Examine the blueprint of America – who built this country?

Intellect:  Learn about architecture around the world and how blueprints relate to this discipline.

Criticality: Understand and describe barriers that inhibit people from overcoming adversity and reaching their life goals.

I like the way this has a primary focus (Science) and then complementary foci in other content areas. I especially like how Punnett Squares are set in a more real-world context for kids and connected conceptually to other concepts like blueprints and the building of the U.S..  There’s not always enough specificity here to really help teachers understand what mastery looks like, but the basic premise is very solid (and there is a more detailed template provided at the back of the book so my hunch is that some of the samples are edited for space considerations).  At first I thought this was really only workable for elementary and perhaps middle school settings, but it could work in a high school if care was taken to coordinate pacing between content areas. Many of the sample plans are inspired.  There’s one standout that combines a study of earthquakes and natural disasters (Science) with measuring magnitude of a quake and the Richter scale (Math), describing the relationship between historical events and scientific procedures (ELA), and the history of Haiti and the Haitian people (Social Studies), and includes a series of texts, interviews, images, maps, videos and primary source documents.  This puts the study of earthquakes and natural disasters into a solid context and then ties it to concepts of family identity in adversity.  Brilliant.

The real value in these sample plans is the vision they offer for a pedagogy that addresses more than the skills needed to complete a test.  They offer examples of connected learning across disciplines which not only increase the potential for retention but give the learning meaning and purpose for students, either in understanding their own identities, or by inspiring them to act in ways that make their world a better place.

Combatting Invisibility: Native Americans, State Standards, and Quality Resources
Indispensable Books for Equity #3: Mathematics for Equity

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