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February 25, 2020

19th-Century Literacy Groups Help Shape New Educational Approach

In the 19th century, black intellectuals in the northeast gathered regularly in literacy groups to research, debate, and write about everything from mathematical theories, history and language, to women’s fashion in China.

“It’s a part of black history that’s been pushed under the table that most people don’t learn about. I wanted to use it to study and reframe education today,” said Gholdy Muhammad, associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University and author of the recently published book “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.”

“They came together to increase benefits to all of society and had practices that were so intellectually invigorating, that if we took what they did as a blueprint for learning, we would be doing better in classrooms today,” said Muhammad.

Her dig into those forgotten 19th-century contributions shaped the basis of a proposed four-part “equity framework” for K-12 literacy instruction.
• Identity development: Maintaining a strong sense of one’s values and beliefs and those of others.
• Skill development: Learning skills like reading and writing to access knowledge.
• Intellectual development: To become smarter about people, places, things, histories, and current events.
• Criticality: The ability to detect falsehood at a glance and understand social power systems and equity.

The author argues that the current educational model is often limited to teaching “skill development,” an element easier to measure and learn through worksheets, flashcards, and drills, but which does not usually leave space for deeper comprehension across concepts.

With concrete K-12 lesson plans included, the book is aimed at teachers, teacher educators, and curriculum writers. She also wrote it to engage anyone who cares about equity, and for parents who want to advocate for their children within the educational system.

“When it comes to children’s education, we still look to Europeans. Most of the time, we depend on scholars who have never worked with black kids coming up from slavery and don’t have the experience to look at intersections of race,” Muhammad said.

“I wanted to stop continuing to use something that has not served children of color well. When we look across the nation, the group we’re struggling with getting it right the most is black children. Why are we not starting with frameworks, models, researchers, or scholars who are black?” she added.

Just 35% of fourth-graders in the U.S. are proficient readers. That number drops to as low as 19% for children of color, according to 2019 Kids Count data.

With children of color now outnumbering white students in classrooms nationwide, and teachers who may feel unprepared to teach them, a curriculum update may be what’s needed.

Applying an equity framework, a kindergarten lesson plan on how to write names might look like this:
• Identity development: Ask, “Where does the name come from?”
• Skill Development: How to hold a pencil and write my name.
• Intellectual development: “What does my name mean? “Do I know any historical or famous figures who also share my name?”
• Criticality: “Would you say it’s a girl or boy name?” “Why?” “What might other people think about my name?”

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community.

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