Author and scholar Dr. Gholdy Muhammad encouraged more than 200 teachers from Illinois and beyond to look for the genius in their students and to bring joy to their classrooms by transforming their lessons into culturally and historically responsive intellectual pursuits.
“Listen, we need joy, you all, and when you are teaching about people of color, you start with their genius and joy first,” Muhammad said. “… Anything painful, you don’t start with what the oppressor or somebody did to a group of people. You start with who they are at their core and that calls for you to unearth knowledge that you may or may not have.”
Muhammad spoke via Zoom the night of February 4 for about an hour and then engaged in a 30-minute Q&A with attendees. Her keynote speech opened the 13th annual History-Social Sciences Teacher Symposium, whose theme was “Do You Read Me? Equity, Identity, and Literacy in the Social Studies Classroom.”
The two-day conference was held online due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Illinois State University’s Department of History, the McLean County Museum of History, and the Regional Office of Education #17 co-host the event for K-12 Illinois teachers and Illinois State teacher education students. This year’s virtual format also allowed for educators from across the country and many Illinois State alumni to attend.
Muhammad, a former social studies teacher, is an associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University, director of the Urban Literacy Collaborative and Clinic, and author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Her speech was titled “Culturally & Historically Responsive Education for Equity and Excellence: Introduction to the Theory & Model.”
Muhammad spoke about her research into the history of education, specifically related to Black people. This history is important to the current education system, she explained, because Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are often described by their teachers, including those she met with across the country, as poor academically, disadvantaged, and unmotivated. “No, we don’t have unmotivating children. We have an unmotivating system, structures, and curriculum. We don’t have struggling students. First, we have struggling systems. We must work to interrupt this.”
Muhammad said the word genius should not be reserved for a select few students or people.
“We’re going to disrupt that narrative and start with our students’ genius, their creativity, their way of seeing things that we cannot see, of making something out of nothing. They are genius.”
Muhammad said early Black literary societies provide a model for today’s teachers. These groups were the nation’s first book clubs, started by Black men and teenagers in 1828. They focused on mathematics, science, history, and language and came together to read, write, think, and enjoy literature. “See our people did not just leave us with generational trauma; they left us with the guide, the road map, the blueprint for educating all children across the whole country, across the whole world. Now we have to be open and smart enough to listen.”
She then outlined an equity model for teaching and learning based on identity, skills, intellectualism, and criticality and went through several specific lesson plans that the teachers could use in their classrooms.
“If you are teaching a lesson plan or a unit plan, I want you to ask yourself, How is this learning helping my students to learn something about themselves, others? What skills am I teaching? Intellect, what new knowledge am I teaching about people, places, communities, and the world? Criticality, is my lesson plan or unit helping students to become woke to understand oppression, race, racism, sexism, ableism, classism, equity, power, representation, exploitation? … And joy, how am I elevating beauty in humanity? We need joy, you all, now more than ever.”
The second day of the symposium drew more than 300 attendees, including 200 high school students, to 15 presentations related to this year’s theme. Presenters included Illinois State faculty and alumni and other educators from Illinois.
Dr. Monica Noraian, an associate professor of history and director of the history-social sciences education program at Illinois State, was one of the symposium’s organizers. This year, she helped create a book club composed of teachers, students, and groups from community libraries who discussed Muhammad’s book.
“We are thrilled by the community footprint of the symposium,” she said.
The symposium’s theme was chosen in part due to Illinois’ proposed implementation of new “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards,” Noraian said. “This is a hot topic.”
It was high school social studies teacher Kenya Sherrill’s first time presenting at the symposium. Sherrill, a 2016 graduate of ISU’s history education program, covered “Culture Matters: Teaching History Beyond the Textbook.”
Sherrill offered participants a real-world example of how she changed her class unit on the Holocaust from a standard discussion of the topic to one in which her students at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago could better relate to the material. In addition to teaching them about the relevant history, she had each of them identify a group of people who are discriminated against, discuss why they feel passionate about this group, and explain what they could do to stop this oppression.
Students will not engage with the material if the teacher presents facts alone and does not make the subject relevant to their lives, Sherrill said. “We are really doing our students a disservice (then).”
Fellow history education program alum Amanda Randolph ’11 presented on a panel titled “Being Seen: Student Organizations Creating Community.” Randolph, a social studies teacher at Rock Island High School, spoke about how she co-founded a women’s empowerment organization at her school named the Rocky Riveters.
“We focus on bringing in strong women to talk to our girls,” Randolph said.
The students also engage in community service projects. For example in 2019, the group collected and donated nearly 23,000 female hygienic products to schools within the students’ district. Randolph said research has shown that one of the biggest reasons female students skip school worldwide is because they don’t have those items.
Randolph is hoping to ignite a fire under her students. “It’s that next generation who will be carrying the torch.”