story by Braden Turner
Graduate Administrative Assistant, Office of the Provost
Gholnecsar Muhammad is an associate professor in the Department of Middle and Secondary Education at Georgia State. Her work and research are centered around culturally responsive education.
“Culturally responsive education is in response to students’ identities and the times we live in. It helps students with academic success, cultural competence, as well as social and political consciousness.”
Muhammad recently published a book titled, “Cultivating Genius: an Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.” It sold nearly 5,000 copies in the first six months. Her book, as well as her research, looks at 19th century Black literary societies. These groups came together to read and discuss literature, but they also had broader goals of improving conditions for humanity, as well as themselves.
Over the last 10 years, Muhammad has looked through old documents from the 19th-century and collected data in order to determine these groups’ learning standards, their choice of texts, and their literary practices.
Black literary societies started in 1828 by young black men. They organized around issues of math, science history and language. Their four main goals of the literary society were coming closer to self-hood and understanding their collective identity as black people, to build skills, to foster intellect, and to hone their criticality to understand and navigate racism and oppression in society.
“They worked towards the betterment of social conditions for themselves, for black people, and the betterment of humanity.”
While the joy of learning and reading brought them together, their thoughts and practices as a group was akin to abolitionist views of the time, Muhammad said.
“They met anywhere they could get space. Basements of churches, people’s home, auditorium halls. They even had membership dues, which consisted of normal fees and bills, but then used some of their dues to acquire books for their society.”
Muhammad said these societies offer great methods for us to approach education and humanity at large.
“I take that Black historical excellence as a blueprint or roadmap to reframe what we should be doing in schools today with all youth.”
In her book, she establishes a four-layered equity model. Her work aims to demystify what learning models and learning standards look like in practice.
“The model teaches four things. The first is identity development. The second is skill development. The third is intellectualism, and the fourth is criticality. In this way, I’m pushing towards a reframed learning standard for the United States, a different way of teaching the whole child.”
New York City’s department of education has been trained with Muhammad’s four-layered model. Many districts across New York City has adopted this model, Muhammad said. And this kind of process helps teachers better connect and instruct their students.
A large part of her work involves community involvement. At the College of Education & Human Development, academics work and become involved in communities to better improve the educational environment of students.
Muhammad said that making sure to foster scholarship that reflects the diversity in the classroom is critical to quality instruction. Being involved in and aware of communities that students come from assists in instruction across the university.
As of this interview, Muhammad said she is working with DeKalb County to look at what culturally responsive literacy practices look like in science and math classrooms.
“That’s an extension of the historical work, because I take a historicized view on what equity and culturally responsiveness looks like in classrooms. I try to make all of my work connect.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted education practices across the country, Muhammad has focused on continuing culturally inclusive education online. Using her equity lesson plans, she has focused on creating online teaching materials to adapt her four-step lesson plan to the new realm of remote-learning.
Teaching students of all levels of academia, Muhammad said she aims to be the kind of instructor with students at the university level that she wants them to be with youth.
“I take equitable practices. When reviewing my syllabus, I review it for: is it anti-racist? Is it anti-sexist, does it feel inclusive? Is it fair? Does it cultivate intellect? The model I proposed is the same model I use in my classroom.”
This kind of teaching practice helps cultivate identity, whether that be a future teach or a future scholar. Muhammad aims to help her students cultivate crucial skills that will help future educators better instruct youth in all educational settings.
Her book has garnered attention across the educational sector, and she hopes this exposure will help push culturally responsive pedagogical processes forward into the community of academia. Muhammad said that in the wake of anti-racism protests in the U.S., educational reform is necessary.
“We have systemic racism embedded in our country. It has been embedded in our structures, curriculums, policies, mandates, how we fund schools through property taxes. Society and schools are one in the same. When you start to understand that, how to you start to disrupt and change these things to give rise to healthier pedagogical options.”
Nonracism is not an option, she said. Her work serves to teach instructors how to reshape their curricular structure to incorporate antiracism into their lesson plans. These problems must be actively addressed, and Muhammad’s work focuses on just that.
“No matter what our background is, we should get into academia to improve spaces and places, society and humanity. Because, if not, what are we doing?”