14 Texts for Developing Culturally Responsive Instruction in Literacy Classrooms

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

A wonderful shift is taking place in the world of education, but particularly in literacy instruction. In the midst of a pandemic that will ultimately lead to a exodus of magnificent teachers from this profession simply due to mistreatment, the silver lining we can glean from this moment is better practices instructionally with the subsequent dismantling of twentieth century teaching practices and text selections that will soon be a thing of the past in favor of techniques that truly prepare our students for the world they are preparing to inherit: critical literacy.

During my time as a high school English teacher in the 2010s, I worked to develop in providing texts and instruction for my students through a philosophy that I was learning about called critical literacy. Much outside of research was not developed at that time, but I was very intrigued by the idea that what I put in front of my students should challenge their thinking about the world and develop their identities as intellectuals. This meant that the texts I put in front of them needed to be intentional, diverse, and relevant; it also meant that I had to be thoughtful about access for all students as readers.

In the last five years, I have worked more as a literacy specialist working to bring critical literacy and culturally responsive pedagogy into Humanities classrooms. When organizations have longstanding traditions that are not found to provide literacy success for all students, that organization is unable to develop students with life long literacy skills they will need to be productive citizens in this world. As the skills required to be economically successful shift drastically from those of yore, our students will need to be able to read critically and analytically with the ability to problem solve through social and emotional intelligence. No longer can literacy classes be a place to merely discuss books; students MUST be able to perform at very high levels in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in order to make a living for themselves. As a literacy leader for a school network, this has been my aim in making the administrative recommendations for Humanities programming-- change management must be systematic.

With the unfortunate murder of George Floyd this year though, urgency for schools to make shifts across the curriculum have taken shape with literacy organizations ramping up their efforts to make these shifts expeditiously. Implementing culturally responsive, anti-racist, literacy instruction is a tricky process. From a leadership perspective, to me, I believe people in charge of making these sweeping changes to curriculum, assessment, and instruction, there are different aspects of the change management that a literacy leader should consider such as the history of education for people of color, literacy best practices for developing students as proficient readers and writers, understanding the urgency for the shift through response to data, and the various emerging ideas that are drifting to the surface. Here is my go to list of texts I consult.

  1. A History of Negro Education in the South, Bullock (1970)

This text begins by illuminating the known fact that when education became a system in America, the education of Black people was not a part of any considerations for what education would look like. Of course, when Africans were brought to America in 1619 and throughout slavery, laws were in fact put in place to ensure Black people would not be educated. This text goes through the different phases of how education has been developed in America for Black people ending at the point of federal and local desegregation in schools in the 1970s. This text includes origins of the creation of HBCUs and the differences between those developed by Black people (such as Wilberforce) and those lead by white philanthropists. This book is extremely rare to find, but if you can get your hands on it, it is a precursor to educational liberation texts included on this list. .

2. Cultivating Genius, Muhammad (2020)

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad provides a full program of what culturally and historically responsive literacy looks like in classrooms. The book also provides a few frameworks for teachers to transform lesson plan tasks and instructional practices to culturally responsive ones including understanding how to not only teach skills and standards, but intertwine those aspects of rigor with identity and intellectual development, and criticality. Dr. Muhammad is leading literacy instruction work in Georgia and is currently completing nationwide lectures that are widely available. If nothing else, please get this book simply for her format to assessing if lesson plans are following the framework of critical literacy presented in chapter 7. It is a must read for literacy leaders and teachers alike.

3. Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen, (2018)

When I was an AP Language and Composition teacher, my AP US History team teacher and I read this book with our students; I wove much of the real life rhetoric from figures in the book into our class such as MLK and Abraham Lincoln. This book gives a different view that all history and literature teachers should consider when thinking about content they put in front of students and how historical figures are portrayed. People are multidimensional and multifaceted beings; when we make people out to be "heroes" or "martyrs", we unfortunately provide a short-sided view of the human condition. This book helps teachers to evolve their practices beyond these limiting descriptions of historical figures and challenges teachers to tap into the complexity of human identity.

4. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy,

Baker-Bell (2020)

A book that came out in 2020, Dr. Baker-Bell (a Detroit native!) discusses the need to walk away from the traditional ideas of spoken language and "code switching" or "ebonics" to allow for justice in the language patterns we use daily simply due to our environments. This book is a call for liberation against standard English conformity to allow for diversity in speech and language that has not been provided in this country.

5. Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning, Fritzgerald (2020)

Another text I fully expect to receive numerous awards this season is this text by Andratesha Fritzgerald who not only emphasizes Universal Design for Learning as a way to make learning accessible to all students, but she emphasizes the layer of antiracism in providing that access which is a trailblazer in the world of special education and lesson planning. This book provides very practical strategies that teachers can implement immediately to improve instruction for our most underserved populations.

6. Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools, Sleeter and Zavala (2020)

At the height of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, many school districts and organizations began to rethink its curriculum-- while the work of Ethnic Studies curriculum has existed in the college sphere since the late 1960s in our most progressive states, making this same understanding about identity, ethnicity, and critical literacy to secondary students (grades 7 and up) has not been widely practiced; thus, school districts (including the one I work) started considering ethnic studies as a way to approach this gap within humanities curriculum. Although there are different philosophies for this instruction (such as the camp that believes ethnic studies is limiting in scope and that ethnicity should be taught across the entire curriculum), this book gives very clear expectations for the major goal-- identity work students complete in order to begin to develop their own perspectives about the world they live in. This book emphasizes that teachers do their own work to develop "praxis" in understanding critical race theory and begin to view their students as intellectuals who already own authentic thoughts. This book is a best practices guide for either ethnic studies courses or Humanities courses that center around identity development.

7. Disrupting Thinking, Beers and Probst (2017)

When I was a young literacy coach in Metro Nashville Public Schools around 2007 and 2008, I received the ultimate opportunity to attend intimate literacy coaching training from Beers and Probst. Over a decade later, I still coach teachers to use many of their tools and techniques; I was extremely successful at implementing them for my students' growth as a teacher as well. As they both are cutting edge literacy gurus, they generally write texts before their time. Disrupting Thinking, written in 2017 before the words "antiracist" was even heard of, Beers and Probst set out to begin the work of training teachers how to dismantle the canon or traditional methods of literacy instruction that we know are generally ineffective. They emphasize in this book students really engaging in worthwhile text from a place of empathy and tolerance; this kind of literacy instruction make it imperative that teachers are intentional about the texts they choose to put in front of their students. This book breaks down how teachers can begin the work of building towards critical literacy and easy to implement strategies that are hallmarks of all their other books. A must read for those starting out in critical literacy instruction.

8. How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi (2019)

At this point in our current state of social justice affairs in the United States, I hardly believe this book needs an introduction. I just want to raise that as a Black woman though, while it is clear that racism is a structure of power that Black people have yet to be achieved, it is clear that we have been indoctrinated and conditioned in our thinking to perpetuate racist ideologies. As a woman who grew up in Detroit in the 80s and 90s which was about 90% Black, I did not experience overt racism; however, I was provided a public education that was rooted in Eurocentric ways of thinking, the traditional literary canon, and an absence of my own history as a Black person. Reading this book has continued to help me come to grips with that reality so that I am cognizant of where my thinking has been conditioned to be anti-black or even accepting the comfort of control and conformity. It is very hard to live in a society that is still governed by white supremacy, but with what I learned in this book, I work on it every day of my life personally and professionally. Thus, I watch many of Kendi's lectures and follow him on social media just so I can continue to do the work. We have to work to dismantle white supremacy in our world; that work starts with looking in the mirror at oneself. This book will definitely help you get on the journey. No matter your race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or the like.

9. Results Now, Schmoker (2006)

One of my favorite books about literacy achievement in schools, this book breaks down what school districts should aim for as the goals of instructional practice and curriculum and how to achieve getting there. Schmoker introduces the compelling data about shifts that need to take place in literacy instruction, but also walks readers through the very difficult processes of change management and other systemic changes in current practices. Must read for administrators and coaches.

10. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Tatum (1997)

A classic in the realm of culturally responsive pedagogy, this text brings to life the experiences of students of many different demographics in order to start a conversation on the importance of identity instruction our classrooms with adolescents. In making shifts to curriculum that infuses the idea of identity as teachers select texts and topics to cover in classrooms, this book gives teachers and administrators the terminology to talk about it with students, parents, and community members.

11. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Hammond (2014)

One thing that I think is totally missing in literacy instruction is teachers having a very deep understanding as to how the brain learns to critical think and process information. This book takes that neuroscience a step further and adds the layer of how Culturally Responsive Instruction develops the brain. It is the quintessential reason why teachers must invest in CRP at this critical point in our history-- understanding that teaching with cultural responsiveness is critical thinking; it is not something that lessens rigor when done correctly. Some things people can have an opinion about; this book is not one of those kinds of books. Facts on top of facts!

12. The Knowledge Gap, Wexler (2019)

This book really explicates how many schools are continuing to inhibit students' intellectual power through archaic practices that does not unlock information for students. The research that speaks to this unfortunate gap drives this much needed discussion about new ways we can engage students in taking ownership of their learning and thinking.

13. Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People's Children, Delpit (2012)

I am a Lisa Delpit superfan. In this book, she breaks down exactly what is happening in classrooms and what coaching moves can take place to impact teacher development. Why this book is so important to my practice is the fact that she discusses the concept of critical thinking in literacy classrooms and what that looks like. A lot of the conferences I present includes her work as I believe it is a hallmark to what makes change happen in literacy coursework. She also uses a lot of data and classroom stories to drive her premise and gives very actionable steps that can be taken to improve student thinking and discourse in classrooms K through secondary.

14. The Miseducation of the Negro, Woodson (1933)

Lisa Delpit consistently refers to this book as a seminal text about what is not happening in our classrooms today. While this book was written almost a century ago, his philosophies on what shifts need to occur in the education of Black students specifically are still needed and relevant in today's classrooms. In addition, Woodson speaks on mental conditioning that Black students are privy to in Eurocentric driven classrooms. Hopefully before we hit 100 years since the publication of this book, we will make significant strides in what we need to accomplish with students of color. If you are a teacher or leader developing your praxis in delivering culturally responsive pedagogy, this book is a must read. There are a lot of audio books on this text on book platforms as well as YouTube. At the beginning of each school year, I listen to this book again to anchor myself in the tasks at hand.

Hopefully, this list of my go to texts is helpful to you in really figuring out what you can do to improve the instruction that teachers deliver to students. In addition I also suggest reading The Opportunity Myth to understand the challenge at hand. Arm yourself with these textual tools to make the right moves and implement the right strategies!

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Keena discusses the need for Ethnic Studies and equivalent cultural relevant courses in secondary humanities.