Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad is an associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University, where she serves as the director of the Urban Literacy Collaborative and Clinic. She is the author of the 2020 book “Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.”

Dr. Muhammad spoke to Emily Freitag and Nicole Knight-Justice about five pursuits for teaching and learning that can serve as a guide for structuring education today: identity, skill development, intellectualism, criticality, and joy. 

Watch the full conversation or read the abridged Q&A below.

EF: Please share a story from your own journey as a learner and what that has taught you about learning.

GM: I’ve always wanted to teach, to learn, to inspire myself, and to inspire youth. I love the education that I received at Banneker Elementary school in Gary, Indiana. The teachers were so loving and so kind. My roots and Islam inspire me to do this work of teaching and learning. I’m inspired every day by youth and the potential in their eyes, and the magnificent teachers I work with who are doing the hard work. All of this informs my thinking.

My focus on literacy in history is very special to me because literacy brings me so much joy. I know the purpose and power of literacy and what it has done to my life. I’ve seen what is done to others. When I study the history of literacy and the history of education among black people, there is such a genius there, it’s such a joy, and it’s such an inspiration. I used to write poetry back to the black newspapers I would read from the 19th century—I was in love with their words and their language and their spirits and their abolitionist ways. It is the history and the excellence of our people that got me started really doing this work. And that keeps me going.

It is the history and the excellence of our people that got me started really doing this work. And that keeps me going.

EF: Can you tell us about your research on the literary circles of 19th century abolitionist communities? What can we draw from their example?

GM: Black literary societies started in the early 1800s, with brothers and sisters who had some freedoms and some liberties in the northeast part of our country, compared to brothers and sisters of the South. They came together and organized in very formal ways. They had constitutions and preambles, and rules and policies for checking out books. They came together around the study of mathematics, science, language, and history to read texts and to create spaces for their voices to be heard and celebrated, and validated. Not only did they read and write, but they held public lectures and debates. They had abolitionist, strategic, and humanizing plans to improve the social conditions of black people and all people.

I love that they were interdisciplinary in nature. When I studied these spaces, I started to learn that they were giving us the guidebook for education today. They gave what we need contextually in schools and in classrooms. They gave us the personal and the ideological things that we need, the approaches and values we should think about, and they gave us the framework for teaching and learning. The book really hones in on this framework because they had four major pursuits for learning, and I have more recently added a fifth major pursuit. They focused every aspect of their teaching and learning on identity development, skill development across the different content areas, intellectualism, and criticality. I made joy more formally a pursuit for schools today because I noticed that societies were always centered in joy and were intentional about receiving joy amid our nation’s harshest realities. Those five pursuits for learning serve as a guidebook for what we need to do and how we need to structure and frame all education today, for K–12, higher education, and adult education. 

EF: I am wondering about the logistics of how the societies worked, and what do you see missing from schools today?

GM: It started with just a few people coming together saying, “We need to organize.” Before literary societies, you had benevolent societies, moral societies, anti-slavery societies, and many different organizations that got at the moral character of folks, and after literary societies, you had black sororities and fraternities emerge in the early 1900s. Literary societies would get together around the same time when they started newspapers. The Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper, became an outlet and a platform to get the word out. I remember one call for black women to galvanize and come together with other black women to start their own literary societies—it said, “We need to induce our colored sisters to follow our example.” That was their way of saying, “Start your own literary society in your town.” And that’s what happened. It was a form of collectivism: “Let’s transform together.” They had membership dues and most of their money went to books and libraries. And they had expectations. In some societies, when you checked out a book you had to give a short lecture about the book before you returned it. 

There was a social responsibility for one another. When we compare that to schools today, as I do in the book, today it is all about individualism and competition. In literary societies, it was about social responsibility for each other. It was like, “Your triumph is my triumph, we triumph together. There isn’t a competition for justice.” I also see in schools today that libraries are treated differently. Everything was built around a library in a literary society. In some schools now, it’s like the library is the last thing to be funded or considered. We know that historically it was the center of all pursuits. We learned that identity mattered first and foremost, and sometimes now identity or race or antiracism feels like an add-on in a tokenized way in schools. Most importantly, historically we had cultural responsiveness, and now we don’t have it in our standards, in most of our adopted curriculum, in our teacher evaluation, or in our assessments. Assessments were not the final goal. The final goal was equality and a joyful life—it wasn’t it to pass a test. They could pass tests, certainly, but it’s kind of like when I was getting tenure. My goal was never tenure, my goal was to do righteousness by communities and youth and teachers. That was the goal. Passing a test is not the goal, and you’re going to lose a sense of purpose when you have that as the ultimate goal.

Passing a test is not the goal, and you're going to lose a sense of purpose when you have that as the ultimate goal.

NKJ: This makes me think about how we create a shift, because this looks so different from how schools are operationalized right now. As I’m reading the framework, I’m thinking how there is such an underlying mindset that has to exist in order to lift up these pursuits. Is it something that can exist within the current structures? 

GM: In my mind what the US Department of Education has to do is very simple. They have to ask themselves if they want to continue to let society members profit off the failure of black and brown children, or if they want to really be for all. Folks will say “All lives matter,” but do they? If they’re serious about how all lives matter, I want to see the administration change five central parts of our system. 

First, we need to get a team together to write new learning standards that are embedded in identity, skill development, intellectualism, joy, and criticality. We have the mind power to do this. We can do this in a month per content area. I know this because I’ve started to rewrite the Common Core standards for ELA.

The second thing we need is new standards for folks who are writing curriculum. You will no longer write a curriculum that’s absent of identity and cultural-responsiveness. We pay curriculum companies and they put forth the same harm of skills-only curriculum. That’s harmful, but our conscious leaders accept it. They need to hold them accountable for writing better curricula.

Third, we need to change the way we think about standardized testing. Skills-only does not measure success for a child’s life. Stop putting all this pressure on tests like, “You’re either going to pass it, or you won’t have a job.” It’s not right, and it’s not ethical for teachers, leaders, and parents.

Fourth, we need to change teacher evaluation. Along with teacher evaluation, we need to stop hiring folks who don’t have a justice-centered mindset. If they don’t have this justice-centered mindset, stop hiring them as Secretary of Education, stop hiring them as school board members, as superintendents, as principals, as teachers, as staff. Period. We need more rigorous standards for hiring, retention, recruiting more teachers of color, and more conscious teachers. Then, we need to evaluate them on cultural and historical responsiveness. 

The fifth part of the plan is teacher education. Teacher education programs need to do better. It cannot be that diversity is learned in one class. We cannot just teach Vygotsky and Piaget. We have to start diversifying our theorists, our readings, and our coursework, where it is authentically threaded throughout the entire program. This calls for hiring conscious professors who know how to research and teach within the realms of critical race theory and other theories like it.

To me, it is simple. Those five things are really embedded in the structural outcomes of K–12 education. We can do it.

EF: Can you tell us about the standards that you’re working on? I’m interested in the interdisciplinary connection to the literary societies.

GM: I’m going to draw from my framework. If you keep the standards how they are, which are very skills-driven, you can take the framework and make the learning standards the skills—one of the five pursuits. But, a lot of our teacher population will say, “I don’t want to teach justice. I don’t want to teach equity. I don’t want to teach antiracism. I don’t want to teach criticality. So I’m not going to do it. I’m just going to do the skill.” It’s like we have to mandate justice, and that’s what we have not been willing to do. Even black and brown leaders, we have not been willing to do it. We will mandate the Danielson model, we will mandate a reading workshop, but we will not mandate black and brown scholarship and frameworks, and we will not mandate justice. I want that same accountability for justice that you hold for these basic skills-only teaching. 


We will mandate a reading workshop, but we will not mandate black and brown scholarship and frameworks, and we will not mandate justice. I want that same accountability for justice that you hold for skills-only teaching.

You can take any standard and connect it. Let’s say the standard is writing clear coherent sentences in a personal narrative. If that is the learning standard, students will know how to write a personal narrative using sentence variety, organization, cohesion, grammar, and all these things that are standard skills-based. But you can add an identity goal that says, “Students will determine a moment in their life where they experienced change, or discovered something new and beautiful about themselves.” That’s an identity goal. Your intellectual goal can be a number of things, they can understand a new concept within a personal narrative. I have my students write community personal narratives where they have to write a personal narrative about their community. And the intellectual goal can be students will understand the importance of communities for people of color, and you can study different cultures and what unity has meant to them, such as Islamic culture or Latinx culture. For criticality, students can learn criticality is always rooted in liberation. Students will learn the internal, sociological, and economic things that can prohibit one from success, or what they had to overcome to reach that goal that they wrote about in their personal narrative—because that’s the liberation of the self. And joy can be how their community gives them joy.

EF: Teachers are working so hard and doing so much to try to meet the moment. This whole series is really rooted in trying to make sure that our response to the exacerbated inequity from the pandemic doesn’t actually further inequities. What are some things that people might be telling teachers to do that we know don’t actually work?

GM: We know that the Common Core standards, the assessments, the adopted curriculum, and teacher evaluation doesn’t work. Because if it did, why do we have 30-something percent of American children proficient in reading? Something’s not working. 30% is not something to celebrate. If you got a 30% on a test, you might be saying, “I got some work to do.” So, what’s not working is the system. Now if the system was a house, and if we look inside the house at practices that aren’t working, we know that skills-only teaching isn’t working. We know that not centering students’ identities and making teaching relevant to their lives isn’t working. We know that not connecting it to real social-political issues, where they don’t know the purpose, isn’t working. We don’t listen enough to students or respect them enough, their questions and their thinking and their demands of us. There is implicit harm there. People call it “implicit bias,” but there is implicit harm that is happening in our schools. Teaching skills-only, not relating it to their lives, tokenizing cultures—those are all what I call implicit harms. A harm as a harm. Of course, we still have these more explicit harms, like slavery games, and opt-out forms for Black History Month, and punishing children for loving themselves, and the very harmful language that teachers and leaders say outright. Those are the teachers and leaders who need to leave. I don’t know any other way of saying that. They are causing harm to our children. Maybe you can work and train them but they’re still not getting it right, they need to go. To me it’s all plain and simple.

EF: I love the plain and simple.

We know that skills-only teaching isn't working. We know that not centering students’ identities and making teaching relevant to their lives isn't working. We know that not connecting it to real social-political issues, where they don't know the purpose, isn't working.

GM: We make it difficult. Somebody was interviewing me, and she said, “What do we need to do?” And I said, “Parents need to remove their children from that school.”  And she said, “But that’s not easy, what else would you say?” I said, “Parents need to remove their children.” Nothing transformative is ever easy, don’t get me wrong. This work takes collaboration and we have people who know how and who are doing it in communities. What happens if all the black and brown parents took their children out of schools? We would have no schools. I bet people would get it right then. We have to look to black history to give us the playbook of what to do.

NKJ: What are you saying to the teacher who is in it right now, or the school leader who is in it right now? All of these things absolutely need to change, but what are you saying to the folks who want to do this work right now in the context that they’re in?

GM: I always remind people that you have folks who are working on the structural stuff on the house, and people working inside the house. We can do both at the same time. What can teachers do right now? Teach in culturally-responsive and historically-responsive ways. I gave the model because I wanted them to say, “My curriculum already gives me the skils goals and intellectual goals, now let me let me develop other pursuits around it.”  They can give their unit plans a curriculum makeover to be more responsive. They can add more text right now that will support the learning in multimodal ways, like video, primary-source documents, images, and art. They can teach better right now and they can affirm children’s lives and identities right now. They can start class with a freedom song, and ask, “What did that song mean to you? How does it sing to your freedom? Who are you? Do you know you are enough? Do you know that you are beautiful and genius?” That’s what teachers can do right now.

NKJ: What do you say to the people who don’t want to do that work? 

GM: To the people who don’t want to do that work, I want to first ask them on a human level, because this is humanity work. I’m going to first say, “If you don’t want to do this work, are you happy? Does this job give you joy? Is there something else you can be doing that you’ve always wanted to do that makes you want to be better, to do better? “And then I will ask them, “Do you love yourself? And do you love our children?” You have to get to the root of why they don’t want to do this work, why they can’t say, “Black lives matter,” why they can’t tell their children that they are enough and genius. It seems so simple and innate as a teacher. I want to get to the root, because that’s a self-problem, that’s not a student problem, that’s not a structural problem. It’s a you problem. We have to check our egos at the door and be honest with ourselves about who we are, who we are not, and who we really want to be, and work toward that. That’s the first thing I would say to that teacher. And they have to be open to be better. This is why leadership has to be very strong. Because leaders will say, “I can’t do nothing with the teacher who’s creating harm every day for our students.” That is a lie. You can do something and you should. And if you can’t do nothing, you should be advocating to that school board every day and to that union every day that we need different teacher evaluations. You need to be advocating to parents, because I bet you they’ll listen to the parents. If it wasn’t for the parents, we will have no schools, which means we have no salaries. When you connect it to capitalism and to people’s salaries and pockets, you have a different kind of response.

EF: Who are you learning from these days?

GM: I learn from everyone. The teachers I train and work with, I learn from the teachers every day. Of course, I learn from our ancestors, brother Malcolm, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary McLeod Bethune, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison. I learned from scholars today and the work that they’re doing, people in my own village like Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and Bettina Love. I learn from them, but I learn the most from the teachers and students that I teach. They teach me how to be better, and they teach me what they’re experiencing. I listen to them, and I trust them. And I’ll say, “Well, tell me about what you’re teaching.” They teach me new histories, new artwork, new short stories to read. Teachers are so brilliant and beautiful. Two things can be true—teachers can be brilliant and beautiful, and janky teachers need to go. So many are doing the work out here, in times of uncertainty in a pandemic and virtual learning and racial violence, they show up every day and they are trying their best given structures that are imperfect. They are doing their best and that’s who I’m learning from.