How Historically Responsive Literacy Can Make Learning More Relevant to Students

But teachers Dominique Herard and Suzie McGlone say they have been teaching students this way for several years and trying to convince other teachers to do the same. Muhammad’s book and the ideas that are organized under HRL gave the teachers the framework to understand what they were doing and how to communicate those ideas with other educators and caregivers. 

“It validated things that I was trying to do with my students, as well as with other mostly Black or teachers of color that I work with in Boston public schools,” said McGlone. 

As a first-grade teacher at Public Schools of Brookline in Massachusetts, Dominique Herard is applying some of the lessons of HRL. In October, for a lesson on the election, the class read the book “V is for Voting” by Kate Farrell. Each letter stands for a word related to civics and social studies, such as “G is for govern: to lead and to guide.” When Herard got to the letter H, the book said “H is for homelands that we’ve occupied.” On the page were three ships approaching pristine land, signifying Christopher Columbus’s first trip to Hispaniola. This prompted a discussion about Indigenous people and she recalled telling her students, “‘There were people who came to our country who stole land that didn’t belong to them,’ which led to a discussion of Indigenous People’s Day.”  

Brookline’s Select Board designated the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017, but several students in her class knew it as Columbus Day. 

Like so many changes in history, Indigenous People’s Day didn’t happen overnight. Native Americans had been pushing back against Columbus’s narrative of discovery with evidence of brutality. The first Indigenous People’s Day was recognized in Berkeley, California in 1992 after protests against commemorating the 500-year anniversary of his arrival. Members of these communities, like so many others in the United States, spent years thinking critically about Columbus Day, debating its history and applying the agency to change it to honor people who were here first. 

The conversation Herard held with her students covered the past and their present-day community. And then she asked her students why they thought the subject of homelands was in a book about voting. “We can, just with these questions, bring together the idea of the importance in having a voice and importance of knowing history, all throughout that particular book,” said Herard. 

As a middle school social studies teacher in Roxbury, Suzie McGlone wanted to teach her Black and Latino students some of the great works of by Black leaders. Roxbury describes itself as the “heart of Black culture in Boston.”

In addition to the standard curriculum, McGlone taught her students deep explorations of poems and speeches from prominent African Americans, like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  in order to understand the context of the time and discuss with one another how they’re relevant today. Students then had the opportunity to memorize and recite speeches after school to family members and the school community. Students could also perform dances or songs every spring. Diving more deeply into these texts was part of a program she started at her school with teachers of color called “Urban History Alive.” King was especially relevant to the students because he attended nearby Boston University, where he met his wife, and a plaque outside his former home commemorates his time there. McGlone also connects students with community activists, including local Cape Verdean Americans.