Historically Responsive Literacy: Identity and Skills

Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius is focused on bringing out historical approaches to literacy to improve the learning experiences of, specifically, students with marginalized identities, but also students of all identities. Her book invites teachers to engage deeply with the identity and legacy of each of their students, being mindful of how this history, genealogy, and atmosphere can be utilized to improve the learning experience in the classroom. She forwards “historically responsive literacy,” which “responds to the histories, identities, and literacy and language practices of students” (Ch. 2). For each of her assignments, lesson plans, and evaluative methods of education she focuses on four aspects: identity, skills, intellect, and criticality.

In this blog post, I focus on the first two aspects—identity and skills—to discuss possibilities of how they might be engaged in our writing classrooms. I conclude with some thoughts on how identity and skills might be brought together in different classroom activities.


The identity aspect of historically responsive literacy emphasizes the meaning-making that occurs through literacy—in other words, how words, texts, and, to think through multimodality, ways of communication shape our individual self. Muhammad centers this in “the ability to read one’s world,” which means “understanding the self within local and broader contexts and reading the signs of the time to inform . . . actions and behaviors” (Ch. 2).

Lesson Idea: Developing Identity through Interviews

If you have a project that utilizes interviewing skills, try out this exercise with students (for more, see Ch. 3 in Cultivating Genius; adapted from Muhammad’s “Brief ‘Who Are You?’ Exercise”)

  • Pair students up and have them decide who is “a” and who is “b”
  • Have the students take turns asking the other “Who are you?” The other student can only respond with one sentence, and it must be different than what was previously stated. Have them answer quickly and get as many answers within one minute as they can give.
  • Have the students write down what they remember the other student said, as though they are reporting on the other person’s “Who Are You?”
  • Invite the students to share with each other their short paragraphs on the other person. How did the person’s recollection match up to their partner’s words?
  • This activity can lead into a discussion about interview integrity and representing other people on the page. Reporting on what other people say (and who they are) doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s worth the practice.

Identity can be integrated into every activity because writing allows students to put their identity on their page—no matter what they are writing. One of the tasks for us as teachers is to point out how a student’s self comes through in writing and how their identity affects what they say and how they say it (for good!).


Muhammad’s book pulls on her training as a historian and illustrates her four aspects of historically responsive literacy through the history of Black literary groups from the 1800s. “Sharing and shaping their writings through . . . peer critique,” Muhammad writes, describing a particular writing group led by William Garrison of The Liberator, “created stronger compositions—and exemplifies the skill development that took place in the literary societies” (Ch. 4). Peer review and feedback, critiquing and revising drafts, is a long and treasured process of developing writing skills.

Muhammad offers the following two-pronged approach to develop skill in writing: “First, the teacher should teach the genre of the writing, whether students are writing responses to literature or a word problem or writing poetry or essays. This is best accomplished by using several examples of authentic and meaningful texts. Then it is important to craft elements and assessment language of that particular genre and connect them to the learning standards. Then students need to learn those elements and practice their writing with several stages of feedback from peers and the teacher” (Ch. 3). Key for Muhammad in this relationship is not only working with students on the genre they’re writing but also teaching them how to assess their writing so they have a vocabulary of skills to match up when they are talking with their peers and with you.

For example, if you’re focusing the teaching of writing on the habits of practice (what we’ve called Writing Moves), you might develop vocabulary to explain the habits of practice and to assess the habits of practice, as seen in the table below. In the “skills to learn” column, I have taken one of the learning objectives from the table provided on the writing moves page linked earlier in this paragraph. In the “Language of Assessment” column, I have tried to provide a way that you might explain your assessment process of that learning objective to your students, while still trying to give students the freedom to play with their assignments.

Habit of Practice Skills to Learn Language of Assessment
Collecting and Curating Create a purposeful assemblage using collected artifacts for your audience. A “purposeful assemblage” is something created with an intention or reason. Your intention or reason will be clearly stated in your curation note of the assignment.
Engaging Determine a text or texts’ set of ideas and questions to find a way into other texts/to formulate a response to it/to make use of a text You will be assessed on how well you introduce a text, quote or paraphrase the text, and analyze the text. To introduce a text, you should tell us a little bit about the text. To quote or paraphrase the text, you should choose a short part that encapsulates what you’re pointing to. To analyze or respond to the text, you will need to write how that text applies to what you’re saying overall. You will be assessed on these three components of engaging.
Contextualizing Situate your project, issue, or event within the relevant context(s) Throughout your project, do you explain how the text you’re engaging or the idea you’re discussing relates to broader communities, arguments, or ideas. You will be assessed on whether or not you do this at least once in your assignment.
Theorizing Intervene, contribute to, change, or provide new ways of seeing a conversation, question, topic, or issue You will be assessed on whether or not you say something about the information you’ve collected. This does not need to be an argument, but you do need to offer a new idea or new way of looking at things. This should be done in your own words, not through a quote or idea of someone else.
Circulating Experiment with different platforms to determine how audiences might interact with your text on those platforms. You will be assessed on your reflection on circulating that you do after the project. You should answer how your process changed with the different way that you shared the information.

Muhammad outlines further ways of giving students different ideas to support their development of their writing skills. If you have any ways of developing skills in your classroom that create a vocabulary and teach that language of assessment, we’d love to hear about it! We can share it with other teachers through the blog or through a recording of you explaining it.

We’d love to hear about any examples of bringing optimism, positivity, and joy into your critiquing process. Please email us about your experiences, and we can highlight them on the blog and share them with your fellow first-year writing teachers.

Registration is open for our October 6 Conference. We’d love to see you there!

If you missed it, Jason Courtmanche in The Write Space wrote about some weird and interesting experiences in a reflection on his teaching career.

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