Chicago-based educator and twitter wunderkind Jess Lifshitz joins Jeanie on the podcast to talk about Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s seminal text on equity and criticality: Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.
Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Jess. Just tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Jess: Thank you for having me. My name is Jess Lifshitz. And I teach fifth grade in a public school in the suburbs of Chicago. I teach ELA, so I get to teach two groups of fifth graders; I teach literacy to them both. And I am mom to an eight year old who’s in second grade. So that keeps me busy when I’m not in the classroom.
Jeanie: I see all around you, Jess, on our Zoom call, books, books, and books, and more books. It’s like a room after my own heart. I recognize things I’ve read even! What are you reading right now?
Jess: Right now I am in the middle of a book that I know my fifth graders will love. It’s called The Jumbies at least that’s how I say it in my own head by Tracy Baptiste. And it is a creepy, super creepy fantasy, and I am loving it, but I’ve been reading it before bed and it, it creeps me out — which means my fifth graders will love it. Then teacher-wise, the most recent thing I read that is The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop and that’s by Felicia Rose Chavez. And I finished that probably a month or two ago. And it was one of those transformative books. So that has stuck with me as well.
Jeanie: Thank you for those suggestions. I’m totally adding those to my, to be read list. Yeah,
Jess: I sure that I will bring up the anti-racist writing workshop again, at some point in this conversation because there’s so many connections to cultivating genius with the book.
Jeanie: Excellent. Well, this book, Cultivating Genius, came my way via a tweet. You put out saying you were revisiting it. And I, I just want to start by saying we haven’t met in person, but I’m a huge fan of yours and the Twittersphere.
And one of the things I love so much is the way you publicly share your work on Twitter. You’re often sharing plans. You share examples of student work and most especially you share charts that you’re using with your students. And like, it’s such a deep and thoughtful practice. And I’m so grateful that you put it out there. I wonder: I think that’s really scary for a lot of teachers. What was your journey to making your practice public like that? How did you come to have the courage to do that? And what does it mean to you?
Jess: It’s so funny because it doesn’t at all feel courageous. It feels like it has enhanced my teaching in so many ways. I can’t even remember when I first got on Twitter. Maybe six years ago? Maybe it was longer than that? I don’t know time is weird now.
But when I first got on, I was at a point in my career where I had sort of plateaued in terms of my own development. I think I, you know, had sort of gone as far as I could in terms of what my district was offering. I just sort of felt stuck. And I remember we had some PD where someone had mentioned twitter and I was like, Oh, well I’ll try that. And when I first got on there, I just thought the world it opened up in terms of the voices that I was hearing? Was really powerful.
For a long time, I didn’t necessarily share my own practice, but just learned from the practice of others.
And the more that I, I think I learned from others, the more I wanted to grow my own practice.
And the more thinking that it led me to, the more I wanted to, I don’t know, cultivate my, my own teaching in a way that I could share it with others in the way I was gaining from teachers I was reading about.
So I guess I just started sharing and it led me to connect with people who thought similarly and also thought in a different way, but that enhanced my own thinking? And the community that I found — especially in terms of educators dedicated to social justice — has really helped me to grow. My world was very white. Especially my educational world. I’m also just not a very social human being in real life.
So this was a really safe place for me to reach out and expand my own circle and who I was hearing from.
The more deliberate I was, especially in reaching out and seeking out voices of educators of color, the more I found myself growing in ways I hadn’t before. That sort of then, you know, continued to lead me to, to share some of that new thinking.
I’m always so amazed at what my students do with what I bring them. I’m so amazed at the work that they’re capable of. And so to be able to share that with others and show people what’s possible? Is really fulfilling to me. It also sort of motivates me to keep going. So I know it’s funny, people always ask about the chart paper, always about the charts, and the truth is I am just a really scattered human and my brain goes in so many places.
When I bring a lesson to my kids that has this series of complex thoughts, I want to make sure that I remember all the points I want to hit.
So those charts started as a way for me to guide my students but then also made the conversations really easy to share publicly as well. Without *ever* putting my own students in, in that vulnerable spot. Especially, you know, if I didn’t have explicit permission to do so.
So…yeah! It helps me be a better teacher to share in that way. I love the feedback that I get from others, the resources that people share. I know that the world of social media can be a pretty terrible place and it can also be a really beautiful place. And I think it’s depending on who you follow and the sort of relationships that you grow there. So I’ve been really grateful to be able to share my work, but also to learn from the work of so many other brilliant educators.
Jeanie: I love all of that folks, listeners, if you don’t already, you got to follow Jess on Twitter. Her Twitter handle is @Jess5th.
You both share charts and Google Docs all the time — two great ways to share without putting pictures of students up. And I’m so grateful for all you put out there. I’ve learned so much from your teaching from afar. Who knew I could learn from a teacher outside of Chicago? If you’d asked me five years ago, I would’ve been like, “Not much of a confluence there!”
Jeanie: So this book once you put it out there, I was like: Oh, I gotta read this book. And I’m so glad I did.
Let’s frame the book a little bit for our listeners. I guess the way I’ll start is the way Gholdy Muhammad starts, which is with her research of Black literary societies from the 19th century. Which I think she stumbled upon, and then she did a deep dive into. And she writes about them:
“Literary societies were organized reading and writing groups for developing literacy literacy skills, but they also help members to read, write and think in ways that would help foster a better humanity for all.”
And then she goes on to say, “Reading and writing are transformative acts that improve self and society.”
And I found these opening lines in her books. So inspirational and *aspirational*. I like aspire to that: to literacy as a way to improve humanity for all. How did that resonate for you when you read it, given that you teach ELA? That literacy is your whole thing?
Jess: It is my whole thing. To the point that a student of mine the other day was like, “Do you *know* things about math?” And I chuckled and said: “Very little.”
But yeah, I, for me, what was so powerful about this book is just that idea that we get so bogged down in sort of this checklist mentality of education.
And I think in particular of literacy that we start to see it as a list of standards that we have to check off.
For so long in my teaching, I’d say that first, probably decade of my teaching, I taught with that checklist mentality in mind.
- “I am teaching how to infer.” (Check.)
- “I am teaching how to synthesize.” (Check.)
What this book reinforces — and where I got to in my own thinking about teaching literacy — is that all of those skills are tools for a greater purpose.
And it’s the greater purpose we have to have in mind when we’re teaching literacy or our students will not understand what to do with the skills that we’re teaching them. And Gholdy Muhammad talks about that so often in her book, as she refers to, you know, the four aspects of her framework. That we can’t teach these isolated skills to kids and then expect kids to go out into the world and make the kind of changes that we know are needed? And that we hope for them to make.
For so long kids have been doing that in spite of us. And we want kids to do that *because* of what we’re teaching in school.
And so the way she’s framed literacy in this book just really reinforced that idea for me. That we need to have a greater purpose. We need these skills to help kids think critically about texts, so that kids can learn to think critically about the world.
And the texts are almost the vehicles for that thinking? And the list of skills become the vehicles for that kind of thinking? But the greater purpose is that we’re tapping into this genius that exists within the kids.
For me, that was what was so powerful about her book. To the point where I feel like I almost need a re-read of it every school year. Because it’s so easy to exist in this truth when you’re reading the book? And then the second you walk into the classroom, right, we’re in the middle of standardized testing season, it’s so easy to feel the weight of that in the day to day? That her book gives us that reminder that there needs to be more than that. And that we’re capable of more than that.
Not only is she so affirming of children, but she’s so affirming of teachers. That we are capable of so much more than I think we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
Jeanie: That’s. Beautiful. And it makes me think of a couple of things.
One is, you know, in Vermont, we have this state legislation called Act 77. And one portion of it is that we’re required to make learning *personally meaningful* to our students. And in many ways, what you’re talking about is that personally meaningful part. I’m not saying, Jess, we do that all the time. But that’s one of the mandates: learning should be personally meaningful. And what I hear you saying is that we, and often, I think what happens, especially as kids are younger is we say, “Oh, once they can do all the skills, *then* we’ll do the meaningful stuff.”
Butwhat Dr. Muhammad is saying, what you are saying, is that is that they learn the skills through the meaningful stuff. That’s the whole point of the reading and the writing. Is to do the meaningful work. Otherwise, why do it?
Then the other thing you say is drawing out that genius.
And so that’s the other thing that I just, I love how this book is framed because Dr Muhammad is really clear that that power and genius come from within the young people themselves. It reminded me of Dr. Jamila Scott, and her saying, “If you think you’re giving kids voice, you’re fooling yourself. They already have voice. It is not our job to give it to them.” And so Dr. Muhammad like Dr. Scott says our job isn’t to empower them, but rather — and I’m going to quote her again because she’s so quotable — “deeply knowing them and their ancestries to teach in ways that raise, grow, and develop their existing genius” (pg. 13).
Another part of Act 77 really is knowing learners, knowing students, well. ‘Cause you have to know them well in order to cultivate what’s great within them.
I don’t have a question there, I guess, but assume I left a question mark at the end?
Jess: I think that that is *the* truth, right? And it’s, it is the thing that matters most? Yet somehow it’s the first thing to go when we’re feeling rushed.
And it is soul crushing, right? To know that there are so many kids who feel unseen and feel unknown.
Again, teachers are capable of so many amazing things. And I think this year has really shown it to us? I think that remote learning obviously has been a struggle and awful for so many things. *And yet* teachers have done these amazing things.
My daughter has been remote this whole year. And the way her second grade teacher knows her? Is unbelievable. She has never met my child in person. Yet she has made a conscious choice to place her relationships with these kids above everything else. I’m sure it’ll come up again in our conversation.
My kid is not the kid that school is made for. She doesn’t see herself as a reader and writer and mathematician in a way that school always values. And yet my daughter’s teacher sees genius in her. And sees brilliance because she’s made that choice, right? She’s consciously chosen to do the things, to get to know my kid.
And as a mom, *nothing* could be more important.
So I try to remember that when I’m feeling frustrated with a child, right? When I’m feeling frustrated with a student. That I need to know them, I need to understand them or nothing that we do is going to work. Again, Cultivating Genius just reinforces all of that. And it gives us this framework that allows us to use our curriculum, to get to know our students, but to know them in more ways than just can they get the right answer when I ask them a question.
It gives us so many inroads to be able to get to know our students so that it’s not something separate, right? It’s not something we do the first month of the school year. It is something that’s woven into the framework of our teaching. And that I think, is so much of what is brilliant about this book.
Jeanie: Yeah. And kids have great BS detectors. My son was, you know, hard to like in the classroom. And he knew when teachers appreciated him. When they used a strengths-based lens around him. When they could see some sort of genius or brilliance in him. And he knew when they couldn’t.
And it doesn’t matter how hard how nice teachers were or how hard they tried to hide it. Kids know if you see something in them, that’s positive. Or if you only see what’s in them, that’s inconvenient, or troublesome.
Jess: You know, kids also give grace.
I always re remind coworkers and other teachers we’re humans. So yes, in a moment, I am going to get frustrated with a child. Because they’re human and I’m human.
But when that frustration rests on a foundation of love. When they know I love them first, and sometimes frustrated with them? They are willing to give such grace.
It’s been said many times before, but one of the greatest things I think kids can see us do is apologize for when we are short on patience and remind them, I love you… *and* the way you were acting brought me to a point where I didn’t like the way I was acting. Again, she reminds us that relationships are the foundation of everything else and they give us the space to be human.
Jeanie: Yeah. Well, I’m going to reveal some of my humanity now. And I’m going to get really humble, and vulnerable.
I attended a webinar with Dr. Muhammad recently because I love this book so much.
And and I had one of those moments of like, Oh, a Doh! moment, I would say. A paradigm shift. And this happens to me.
Sometimes paradigm shifts are fun and you’re like: Woo! I see things through a new vantage!
And sometimes they’re just like: Ugh. Crud. How did I not see this before?
Now, I’m a librarian, right? And I’m an advocate for reading from diverse perspectives. I make sure that I’m always reading more than half of my books by people of color. And I cite Black women, I encourage others to do so — I’m not new to this game.
And yet when Dr. Muhammad started talking about all of the foundational educational scholarship we’re all exposed to during our pre-service teacher training (or in my case librarian training) years, that it was all from white people and mostly men, Dewey and Piaget, Vygotsky and Bloom–
I just had that moment of like: why haven’t I noticed that before?
Because I hadn’t. I never thought about that before.
And then *her* book, which is based on the work of real Black scholars and educators — Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and so many others. And I was just like: Right, why haven’t I read them? Like, I know those names, but why haven’t I studied them? Why haven’t I gone deep?
And so there’s this like both-and of like, mortification? And also like: Oh, I have all this rich ideas and texts to reach into and to enlighten myself with.
I don’t know. How do you deal with those moments of like utter humility and mortification when the paradigm shift is a little embarrassing? Does that happen to you or just me?
Jess: Oh, it happens to me all the time. All the time. And usually then I like talk about it publicly. Someone points it out to me.
I think that doing the work means that we have those moments, especially as white women. Right. the, I think the only way to not have those moments is if we weren’t doing any of the work.
Jeanie: Thank you for that. Thank you so much for that.
Jess: I always think of it as the growing pains that I grew up and continue to exist in a really racist world, centered around white supremacy. The more I understand that, the more… of the holes in my own learning, I can identify. I don’t waste time feeling guilty about the holes, because that stops me from starting to fill them in. Right? I work to understand how those gaps happen. And I work to understand why I didn’t notice those gaps? That you know, in my own sort of journey… towards understanding my own race and my own racial identity?
I think the more that I can start to see the way that the character characteristics of white supremacy I mistook for, for norms, for so long as, as truth.
And the more I worked to understand how white supremacy shows up in so many ways — and that’s a phrase that Trisha Barbia and Dr. Sonya Cherry Paul introduced at their racial literacy institute this summer. When we can work to understand the ways that white supremacy shows up in all aspects of our lives, then we’re more capable to do something about it.
And so, yes! Those moments feel heavy, and those moments feel you know, to me… not even embarrassing as much as as an understanding of the world that we live in.
And so my solution is just to be more deliberate in the voices I’m listening to now. Because not only do I notice that all of, sort of my foundational understandings of education, but then current professional development has been really white as well. And when we just sit with the professional development, our own districts give us? Sometimes that just continues to perpetuate the problem.
And so I am no longer waiting for people to give me the right development? I am seeking it out myself. Because the responsibility is on me. We can say we don’t know what we don’t know, but we can’t stop there. We have a responsibility to question what it is we don’t know and why we don’t know it. And how we can go and seek it out.
So those moments happens to me all the time. I try not to get sort of stuck in my own feelings about them and instead think about what that’s the result of? How I’m complicit in it? And how I can work to do better.
Jeanie: I so appreciate that approach. And it’s like, yes, we’re all inculturated in white supremacy, but it doesn’t mean we have to stay there. Right?
Jess: As we’re saying this, this is the exact conversation I have with my ten-year-old students, too! Right?
And what’s beautiful about children is they’re so willing and eager to blame adults around them, that they are willing to accept that they carry bias and that a lot of their racial biases lead to racism. They’re willing to accept that, once they understand that’s because they’ve grown up in a world that’s racist, and those messages have been fed to them since they were younger. And what’s great about kids. They’re like: “Yeah! you all have really messed us up!”
And it’s like, well, we can accept that. How do we do better? Right? How do we teach kids to notice when the information they’re being given by their schools is centering whiteness and how do we teach kids to demand better?
Because I truly think that’s where the change is going to come. Right?
I think when students start pushing for a curriculum that honors and centers more than whiteness, that’s when we’re going to start to see the changes. Because kids are loud.
And so I want to take them processes so that they question what’s put in front of them even, and especially when I’m the one putting information in front of them. So I think this is a really important conversation to have with educators? And specifically white educators? Because it’s the set of skills then that we can teach to our students, which is exactly what is described in Cultivating Genius. Right? It’s, it’s exactly what all of the framework that’s provided is sort of giving us. That we can teach kids to do more with literacy.
Jeanie: A teacher in my own, my son’s former middle school, Cliff DeMarais in Vermont took a challenge I gave. Which is just to stack all the books in your classroom library, all the books you read, stack them by race.
So his students stack them by race and gender. Books by white men, books by white women. And at one point the books by white men was getting so tall, he said, that one of his students was like, “Oh! We wouldn’t want all these white men to topple all over the ground!” And this was his students. Right?
There is a bit of a distortion in that almost all of the books that are currently checked out are from non-white male authors, but not enough to make this less embarrassing… https://t.co/ty6p3dn02f pic.twitter.com/wDIqyjlGl5
— Cliff DesMarais (@FloodBrooktrout) April 10, 2021
Which is exactly what you’re saying. They’re quick to develop a critical consciousness if we give them the opportunity.
And the other thing I want to note is that I saw that you are doing some analysis on how gender shows up recently in your classroom in a similar way. Like, working with your students to interrogate gender stereotypes.
Jess: Yeah. It it’s, it’s fascinating. And it is so inspiring to watch their eyes open to the world around them.
We started with some work that I, you know, I’m sure people are sick of seeing me talk about — but every year it’s so powerful to me — but I show my students, lots of picture books. I just reveal images on the covers. And I ask them to match those images with summaries of what they think the book is about. I don’t really tell them what we’re doing and they just sort of go along with it.
Ass we go through these sets of picture books, I ask to tell me: What is it that made you guess book A was about this and book B was about this? And they’re so willing to talk about the things that they use to make these guesses, whether that’s the gender of the person on the cover, whether that’s the race, whether it looks like they’re in a rural village or in a big city, whether the characters look like them or not.
As we start to reveal that often they make the wrong guesses, the kids start to realize that a lot of their guesses and they don’t use this language, but I sort of provide it to them. As we reveal these understandings, a lot of their guesses are based on the biases they carry. And the emotions they associate with gender or race.
It’s a really safe way for them to confront the fact that they do have biases and that their biases do in fact, impact the decisions that they make? And then we ask the question, well, where do these biases come from? And so that’s the work we’re doing right now.
We start with gender and we looked at the Pottery Barn Kids website and the bedrooms that are still separated: boys, bedrooms and girls bedrooms. And I teach them how to make observations of what you can see on the screen, and then interpret those observations into what messages might those send.
Because I want them to understand how that implicit bias is formed.
That no one on Pottery Barn is writing out, “Boys are better at science than girls.” And yet when image after image and the boys room is filled with science-themed bedrooms, and none are in the girls, the closest we get are flowers? That is sending a message. So it starts to get them to understand how these messages form, even when adults aren’t saying word for word, those stereotypes, how do we get those in our heads?
It is amazing when the kids start to notice it. And then once we do those websites, now, we’re looking at Sleeping Beauty and talking about how it’s very based on word choices, really pulling out the individual words that are used to represent different genders. In which genders are represented and which aren’t in these stories to begin with. It is amazing what kids are able to see.
Then once they see it in one place, they’re seeing it everywhere. And I get emails from parents about, “Oh, we were at the store and my son insisted, I take this picture to send you a display of books for boys and books for girls.” So they see it everywhere!
Again, I think that’s the kind of learning that Dr. Muhammad is talking about, right? That really impacts the way they’re looking at the world. And! We’re still teaching skills like “supporting our claims with evidence from the text” and “inferring the author’s message”. Right? It just looks a little different than what we may have been used to in the past.
Jeanie: Wow. We could use you teaching these skills to adults. This is like, I wish more adults had these skills. Right.
And you made me think about this picture book from a few years back, We Forgot Brock! by Carter Goodrich, which is just so full of those stereotypes about gender. And I’ve seen librarians — I’m a school librarian by training — use that book to sort of think about: why is the imaginary friend of the girl a princess? And the boy a pirate? How are these imaginary friends different? Right? And how narrow are those notions?
Jess: Yeah! And, you know, I say all the time, we work really hard to protect our students from problematic texts, right? At least I think we’re getting better at that?
And yet the second they walk out of our learning spaces, they are confronted with problematic texts *everywhere*. from what they see in advertising, when they log onto the internet to the books their parents are reading them, because they were read to them as children as well.
So instead of just protecting them by bringing the right books into my classroom and being really deliberate about what that means, I also want to provide them with the skills they will need to identify the problems within a text when they encounter them.
Because as I say to my students, the more aware we can be of the way biases form? The more power we have to interrupt those processes and push back against them.
And, you know, I was really grateful today that that’s the work we’ve been doing because as I woke up to news of yet another Black man killed by police officers, I… I couldn’t, you know… not say anything to my students. I told them:
You know, as I was listening to the news today, I thought about the work we were doing, and it feels kind of light and easy that we’re reading these fairytales but as I watched even footage from the Derek Chauvin trial, there’s so much conversation of what bias do police officers carry into a situation? And as we’ve talked about, sometimes we’re not even aware of our own biases! What a world we would live in. If more people were willing to confront their own biases? And learn how to interrupt them. So the work we’re doing it is so much bigger than identifying bias messages in a fairy tale.
It is about how do we stop ourselves from walking around the world, carrying biases that can lead us to harm other human beings.
And this is how that works starts, right? So when you’re doing this really relevant work, it makes it so much easier to bring in these moments that are unfolding around us in a way that feels really natural because this is the work we’re doing. And so I was grateful to have that work today to kind of ground us and to, you know, remind me of why we do it.
Jeanie: That just speaks of authenticity, right? Like, this is authentic work that we need to do just to understand the world.
But I’m also thinking about all the layers that you are teaching students to do this. And by doing that, you’re sending this message of like: whoever you are, when you show up here, I’m going to interrogate my own biases and make this a space you can learn in.
And I’m sure your students are picking up that message as well. Right?
Oh, such appreciation for that.
Now, thinking about how I love how Dr. Muhammad made me think more broadly about literacy. Changed my notions about literacy. And on page 33 of her book, she has 10 lessons from Black literary societies.
And number four is literacy.
Instruction was responsive to social events and people at the time, which you just nailed.
Number five — which is my personal favorite — is literacy was tied to joy, love and aesthetic fulfillment.
That was so true for me as a young person. And still is! That like reading and writing? Are about love and about belonging and about (sometimes, for me) escape. So I just felt this to my core: reading and writing as a way to practice love and joy.
And I wondered if one of these especially rang true for you.
Jess: Yeah. Again, because I think I’m stuck in the world of, you know, worrying about my own kid as a reader, that idea that number three, literacy learning involved print and oral literacy, and these were developed simultaneously? The way that school just puts the written word sort of high up in terms of hierarchy and it is the end all be all of what a text is?
I think about how many kids that leaves out, right.
Again, under my own journey and understanding white supremacy and understanding that the written word above all else is one of the traits of white supremacy. It really reminded me of how much more inclusive our teaching could be if we didn’t insist that the only texts that are worthy of reading are the written ones.
Really, her discussion of that, that it is oral to write that. Telling stories is a part of literacy. That looking at images and collecting images and creating images, is a form of literacy. And the way she really honors that? I think has so much power for us.
If we say we really want to reach all kids, we can’t leave out those who struggle with the written word. And so for me, that was really impactful because I see that with my own kid too, you know? I see how much more she’s capable of when I’m reading to her versus when she is struggling through a text on her own.
Jeanie: That resonates to my core. My son was sort of considered behind reading and second grade and I was like, that’s just decoding. I read chapter books to him like crazy! He can comprehend all sorts of things! And so this, this false equivalency of decoding as literacy, I appreciate.
And then also this idea of that Dr. Muhammad uses of text sets, right. Of like rich text sets or what does she call it? She has another word for it. Anyway, where she curates images, poetry, journalism, fiction, non-fiction, oral storytelling, video — and like sort of thinks about how do these things work together to as tools for literacy development?
I really appreciated that as a librarian and who made sure anybody who wanted an audio book could get that audio book because listening to audio books is reading, folks…
Jess: Well, and what it does is it provides us more opportunities to teach kids, to navigate the world beyond our classroom. Because most of the things that, you know, if we think of reading as taking in information, most of the ways our students are doing that when they’re not doing work we assign them is not through a written word.
It’s through image and video.
Being able to bring those into the classroom means I can then teach you how to navigate these responsibly.
If I am limiting you to only articles that are written, you know, on a news site, that’s only teaching you to navigate one very narrow area of the world when I know most of you are getting your information from YouTube, right?
So I can say YouTube is not allowed here in the classroom, or I can say, let’s learn what YouTube is and how we can use it responsibly. I don’t mean responsibly so we’re not on inappropriate sites. I mean, responsibly so that we can tell what’s valid and what’s not. So we can seek out multiple perspectives. And we can use all of these tools in really powerful ways.
But I have to allow them and bring them in before I can teach you to use them appropriately. And I don’t think we always do that in school.
Jeanie: Right. And then that what she calls layered texts. See, I remembered the layered texts of being able to pair that with other things in order to really develop a fuller picture. A fuller understanding.
Okay. Let’s dive into her framework. Cause her framework itself is really powerful. It’s going to take us a little bit to to unpack it.
So she calls it historically responsive literacy. And she really does tie it to you know, this whole field of scholarship mostly by Black scholars of culturally responsive pedagogies, culturally sustaining pedagogies, culturally relevant pedagogies. She’s tying it to this rich field that I adore. I’ve been doing a deep dive in culturally responsive pedagogy. So I’m really appreciative of that.
Using this historically responsive approach, she thinks of literacy practices as multiple and diverse, just as you were just saying about YouTube video and all sorts of formats.
And then she uses these four different frames, if you will.
And the first is identity development.
I think you, you already have alluded to this and like how you continue to get to know your students throughout the year. But what does Dr. Muhammad mean? And what does it look like to use identity development with literacy?
Jess: So for me identity development is sort of — like I’ve said before — sort of the foundation of everything. This year I actually rewrote and am currently rewriting our social, emotional learning curriculum in fifth grade. Because I found that it taught a lot of like school skills? Which were sort of replicating these systems of oppression that I was trying to teach my students to break down.
So I started our year on identity.
And we spent the first third of our required sort of SEL minutes thinking about identity and the parts of our identity.
What I realized is after reading Cultivating Genius, is that that made it so much easier for me to teach students that who we are impacts what we understand about a text.
And I think one of the saddest sort of consequences of Common Core is this idea that what it means to read is contained within the corners of a page, right? That meaning is simply the words written on a page.
And that discounted everything that child brings into that reading.
We can help kids understand that, but that becomes so much more powerful when they first understand themselves, right? They understand their own identity. *Then* they can think about: how does my identity impact what I understand about the text?
Jeanie: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You’re just like blowing my mind here, because just that thing you said about reading isn’t just about the corners of the page. But I’m a reader. I read a lot and reading isn’t about the page. It’s about what happens inside of me when I’m interacting with the page or the audiobook or the image. Whatever it is I’m reading or the story I’m listening to. It’s all about what’s happening in my body and brain. And heart. So I just so appreciate, like, it’s not about the page. Okay.
Jess: We wonder why kids hate reading, but we’ve taken them completely out of the experience, right? That’s why we read: because it moves us.
But when we take emotion out of it and, and who we are out of it and why I can get something from a book one year and get something totally different from it another year?
We as teachers need to honor that in children too, it’s not that you don’t understand a text because you understand something differently than I do. It’s because we are two different readers interacting with one text and isn’t that a beautiful thing. Right?
Jeanie: That’s so humanizing, right? Like honestly? I wouldn’t read just for the ideas. Right. Don’t tell anyone, but I read because of the feelings.
Jess: Right, right. And your feelings are based on your identity. And again, we need to honor that with kids.
In fact, you know, as I mentioned earlier, we’re heading into this awful standardized testing season, and what I tell my students is, I am really honest with them, that these testing companies are profiting off of tricking us.
So we’re gonna talk a little bit about how we can outsmart them. And figure out what they want us to pick as the right answer.
I’m really deliberate in my language that we’re not finding the right answer. We’re finding what the testing company says is the right answer. And that’s such a more empowering place to be.
Jeanie: And subversive.
Jess: Absolutely! And I write it up on a chart.
I was just writing these charts this morning and I put up there, “The testing companies are profiting off of us.” So that any administrator that walks in my room — I mean, at this point, they all expect it — but they can see that too.
Okay, you want me to prepare these kids for standardized testing? I’ll prepare them. I want them to know this isn’t the right answer. We’re figuring out what the testing company says is the right answer.
Again, that’s honoring kids. That’s being honest with them.
And to tie it back to the book? (See, this is why I need anchor charts, because all of a sudden I’m talking about standardized testing, which is not in this book.) But again, I want them to know that who they are is going to impact what they think is the right answer.
I want them to use who they are when they’re taking a standardized test. We’re going to just figure out the game and we’ll play it. I want them to understand the real reading, right. So that I can teach them in this moment. We’re gonna suspend that.
Jeanie: Well, and then it seems to me, if, if learning’s going to be personally meaningful — back to Vermont’s Act 77 — it has to engage my identity in some way. It has to be important to me in some way. Because it impacts me and people like me, because it makes me worried about people who were like, or not like me. Like, what is it that brings it to life for me? Because I know nothing about it, because I know a lot about it. Like, there are so many ways in which my identity helps me create interest in something.
Jess: Right? It goes back to giving kids an authentic purpose for reading, you know? She talks about how kids have to see themselves in their learning. And I want them to know that one reason to read is so that we feel less alone in the world, right?
Jess: And that’s how we start our school year. Like, tell me about a time you read something and you felt like: Oh my goodness, I’m not the only one! Right? That’s a power reading can have.
I want them to know those things and that honors their identity. And it honors, you know, the reason that we’re readers, because it connects us to this world. And we can also read so that we better understand those who have experiences that are different than ours.
Jeanie: Love all of that. So it really, these aren’t separate by the way? They like compound and build, but we’re sort of treating them separate. But the second goal is skills development.
And this is, I think when I, when I saw Dr. Muhammad in a webinar, she said, this is the thing: most teachers know how know how to do the proficiencies or the standards that are connected to the learning, but she asks us to step it up a little bit. She’s like those standards aren’t good enough. That it’s also about that those experiences have to be rich and meaningful.
Like we were just talking about, this seems connected both to motivation and like stickiness, if it doesn’t mean anything, it’s not going to stick with me. I’m not going to remember it.
So I felt this section was a little hard for me. And so maybe it’s because I don’t teach in a classroom. And I wondered if you could tell me what I’m missing.
Jess: I don’t think you’re missing anything. But I do think this is, to me, skills was the one place that schools tend to put the focus on. Right.
But what I got from reading the book is we have to be better about those skills. We have to work harder to find meaning behind them.
And I think this is where, especially white educators, say we don’t have power? When we do.
I think we look at a list of skills and we teach it the way we think we’re told to teach it. Except a lot of that is self-imposed.
Yes, there are mandates from districts. Yes. There are things we have to do. And! I think we can be more creative with the mandates that we’re given, but we’re scared. Because we don’t want to make people unhappy. We don’t want to veer away from the way things have always been done.
And I think we’re afraid of the discomfort.
I was just having this conversation over the weekend. We have to really evaluate:
- Am I stuck doing this because if I don’t I will lose my job?
- Or am I stuck doing this because I might face this comfort if I try it a different way?
And if it’s the discomfort I say, we have to push through that. We have to choose children over potential discomfort for ourselves.
There are moments where that’s not possible. Where it is a true fear: if I don’t do this, I will lose my livelihood. And I can’t support my family. I’m not talking about that. (I also think as a white educator, I have a privilege in terms of my own whiteness. And, and I recognize that is not the case for everyone.)
But when we can choose to see a list of skilled and envision them as more than they’ve been? I don’t know that we are always making that choice. And I think we need to do that more often. That’s what this section or chapter really said to me
Jeanie: That reminds me that Dr. Muhammad in the webinar said: “Yeah, the Common Core. I mean, it’s a start like, like there’s so much more, it could be.”
Jess: I always tell teachers know the Common Core so that you can use it, right? So that you can use it to get to the work we really need to be doing.
I use that as a way for us to look at and evaluate the images within a picture book. To talk about how they either reinforce stereotypes or push us beyond them. But what it requires of us as educators is to be vigilant as ourselves about what we’re reading, right?
Because I read the information that Dr. Debbie Reese, so generously puts into the world in terms of how to be critical about the ways Indigenous people are represented in children’s literature, I have that information and I can look at a standard, right? I know the standards well, and I know more than the standards.
So I can use those standards to get in the teaching that I really think is necessary.
So great. There’s a standard that talks about using images to support meaning or whatever it is? Great. I’ll use that and I’ll use it for when a parent questions, “Well, why are you teaching about how pictures reinforce stereotypes?”
Well, I’ll tell you it’s connected to this standard.
So that’s on us, right? That is the work we have to do. And I think it’s become too easy not to do that work for teachers when we’re handed this book that has done it for us already.
Jeanie: I love everything you just said, and I’m a big fan of Dr. Debbie Reese.
One of the things that I’m hearing from you — and I just did a consult with somebody today that, that mirrored this — is that we as educators, don’t have to know all the answers about how stereotypes or oppression shows up.
We have to have the willingness to be curious enough to learn with alongside of our students, right? And so you don’t need to know everything.
You just have to, you know, use that instructional time for your learning and their learning in the way you’re talking about it. I really appreciate that.
And it, to me, it links to the third goal in this framework, which is creating an intellectual culture. The pursuit of intellect, right? Cause what you’re really doing is creating intellectual students who can think critically about the world.
Jess: And it brings it back to that idea of inquiry being at the center of so much.
When I read the chapter on intellect, I just kept thinking about: to me, that’s what inquiry is, right? Just really teaching kids to notice what they’re curious about? And giving them processes to seek out information in a way that provides multiple perspectives on their own curiosity.
There is no greater thing we can teach our students in terms of literacy.
That idea that we’re teaching toward the pursuit of intellect, as she titled the chapter.
It is what allows us to say, I am not teaching children, what to think. I am giving them processes that allow them to notice their own thinking and seek out responsibly information that enhances it.
Right? And develops that intellect. If that’s what we’re doing, then we’re, we’re empowering our students. And we’re honoring who they are and what they want to know. So this chapter really resonated with me because it reinforced so much of what I believe about what teaching can be and what literacy can be for students.
Jeanie: Yeah. So for me, this is the difference of like, I have this content that must get into your head. And I want you to understand yourself as a lifelong learner.
Jess: Yeah. Yeah!
Jeanie: I want you to have everything you need so that you can learn about anything things I will never know about. Yeah. Phew! So now we get to my favorite, my favorite goal in the four: criticality. First off I needed that word: criticality.
Jess: Agreed. And now that I know it, I use it all the time.
Jeanie: Same, right. Like I didn’t have that word in my vocabulary before I met Dr. Muhammad.
And and speaking of which, if I could invite one scholar to tea it would be Dr. Muhammad. She’s such a joy to be around. She makes you feel good. And to thank her, I would make her quite a tea, to thank her for the word criticality. I love how she sort of defines criticality on page 120. Would you, would you like to read that for as long as you’d like?
Jess: Yeah, I would. And it’s funny cause I have that part underlined and starred and obviously it spoke to me as well.
So she asks:
What is criticality? Criticality is the capacity to read, write and think in ways of understanding power privilege, social justice and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world. [And there is cited ‘Muhammad 2018’.] When you have criticality, they are able to see name and interrogate the world. Not only to make sense of injustice, but also to work towards social transformation. Thus students need spaces to name and critique injustice, and ultimately have the agency to build a better world for all. As long as oppression is present in the world, students need pedagogy that nurtures criticality, and we have never had a world free from oppression.
I’ll stop there.
Jeanie: Mm that’s so good.
Jess: Oh, it’s so good.
Jeanie: Right? One of our transferable skills to Vermont is critical thinking. This is the ultimate critical thinking, right? Being able to notice what’s not right in the world and critique it. And look for a path forward.
Jess: And just that idea that everything we teach provides an opportunity for us to reveal the systems that are at play in the world we’re living in. And for us to question our own role within those systems.
But as teachers, we need to be looking for those spaces. And that’s what this chapter gave me. That idea that everything I teach can be an opportunity to pull aside the curtain and reveal the systems at work.
I teach in a very wealthy, mostly white district and it is amazing to watch fifth graders really come to terms with their role in the systems they’re a part of. And they are willing to do it. They’re so brave in doing it.
But again, we have to help them to see those things or to have the skills, to question those things.
And I think texts give us the perfect place to practice, right? When I can teach them to read a fairy tale. To notice that there are only two genders represented, which means there are all sorts of people not being represented.
Then I’m also teaching them when they grow up to walk into a boardroom and do the same thing. Right?
So the more I can teach them to be critical as readers, the more likely they are to notice the systems of oppression. They may be a part of in rung one role or another in the world in general.
Jeanie: I love that. And I love that Dr. Muhammad frames it as like: we don’t just do the social justice, a unit during Black history moms. Right, right. Like that you can use critical quality as a lens in anything.
Thank you so much for making your work public for sharing your thoughts for inspiring me for making me laugh. I so appreciate you taking this hour or so with me.
Jess: Thank you for having me. This has been such a joyful conversation. That’s it really tie it all together. It really is. The time went so quickly. So thank you for having me and having such thoughtful questions for discussion.