Criticality in the Classroom

As most schools begin to enter the final stretch in the year, many educators are beginning to plan their curriculum for the next school year. With the pandemic still impacting the lives of many across the country, educators are tasked with looking to the future with a lot of uncertainty and anxious anticipation. What will the school year 2021-2022 look and sound like? Where will my students be emotionally, socially, and academically? How can I plan with intentionality when there are so many unknowns? I know these are questions that I am considering as I begin to plan for the upcoming school year. However, one idea that I will be mindful of, and I hope others will as well, is how to teach and nurture criticality in the classroom through intentional curriculum planning.


I first became interested in this idea after watching a brief clip of Dr. Gholnecsar (Ghouldy) Muhammad speak. (The video clip may be viewed on YouTube by searching “Presenter Spotlight: Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad”) She spoke of the need for students to find refuge in a sense of self and loving who they are. In addition, Dr. Muhammad shared that students need to be given the opportunity to experience learning with a criticality lens because it will allow them to read the world. Through these experiences they will know the truth about people who are different and learn not to be passive consumers of knowledge. I believe that her words resonated with me so deeply because this year has left many educators, like myself, wondering what they can do to support their students during these challenging times.


Curious to learn more about what Dr. Muhammad meant when she mentioned a “criticality lens”, I decided to search online for additional sources on this idea. I came across an EducationWeek interview by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and Social Studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. In the interview, Ferlazzo asked Dr. Muhammad a series of questions about her book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. It was in reading the transcript of the interview that I learned more about criticality and the implications for teaching. Below are some of my major takeaways from reading the interview:

  • Criticality is the capacity and ability to read, write, think, speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression.

  • “In my work, I discuss the difference between lower case ‘c’ critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking. But Critical with a capital “c” is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression. It is helping youths to be ‘woke’ socio-politically.”

  • When planning with criticality in mind, an educator needs to connect teaching to the human condition and to frame teaching practices in response to these social and uneven times.

  • Thus, we have a responsibility to help students understand content from marginalized perspectives.

  • Educators must ask themselves, “How does our curriculum and instruction help us understand power, equity, and anti-oppression?”


What does this mean for educators? ─ We need to take what we know about criticality presented by Dr. Muhammad, the Social Justice Standards (commonly referred to by its four domains IDJA ─ Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action), and cultural sensitivity when planning curriculum and instruction. For educators, these ideas can be used to guide curriculum development and begin having meaningful discourse with colleagues about how to enhance the learning experience. As stated in the OCDE Project GLAD®️ learning guide under the section of cultural sensitivity, “educators need to be open to embracing new practices, modifying outlooks, and changing traditions.”


With that being said, there is still time to begin this work as the year comes to an end. As previously stated, when planning a lesson or unit, it is important to connect teaching to a human condition. In addition, Dr. Muhammed says that educators need to consider the following questions:

  • What issue is most urgent for students’ learning? How does this issue connect to the world? How can I connect content-learning skills to this issue?

  • What multimodal text can I layer in my lesson or unit plan to teach this topic/issue? Teachers think about print and nonprint texts.

  • What creative and engaging exercises will I engage students in to teach this topic/issue?

  • How can I assess each of the four learning standards (identity, skills, intellect, and criticality)? *These learning standards are part of the Historically Responsive Literacy Framework outlined in Cultivating Genius.

In the interview, Dr. Muhammad shared that she used the water crisis in Flint, Michigan as the basis for a math and social studies lesson. She brought in realia and various text sources (such as political cartoons and youth-spoken word poetry) that allowed for marginalized perspectives to be utilized as a source of knowledge and information. According to Dr. Muhammad, she strategically picked these sources of information in order to make the content accessible and engaging for all students. Students took part in collaborative conversations and engaged with peers in making sense of the sources. The process allowed students to take the crisis in Flint, Michigan and apply it to issues in their own communities. These types of lessons can help students to “interrogate, critique, and agitate toward social change, especially in their own communities” (Dr. Muhammad). The plan for these lessons addressed the four learning standards in the following ways.:

  • Identity: Students will understand their personal dependency on water.

  • Skill: 

    • Math – Students will learn to examine percentages of lead content found in water. They will also learn how to create equations with two or more variables to represent relations between quantities as well as graph equations on coordinate axes with labels and scales.

    • Science – Students will define environmental justice and name the importance of water quality for humans.

  • Intellect: Students will learn about the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

  • Criticality: Students will learn to consider how the government prioritizes community needs based on socioeconomic status and/or race and understand the media’s role in the government’s response to a crisis.


As Earth Day approaches, educators can use this time to teach about important issues concerning their communities. For example, in Hawaii the idea of sustainability has been part of the fabric of the Hawaiian culture for centuries. One aspect I hope to bring to my classroom is to share with my students the impact of the Hōkūlea and Hikianalia. Members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society have traveled the world on these voyaging canoes in hopes to strengthen a global community towards a common cause to save the ocean and planet. Along their travels, the people of the voyaging society have met with communities, institutions, and governments to make mālama honua, or caring for the earth, a priority. During these meetings, all those involved have shared approaches to sustainability that are innovative and appropriate to that place and culture. The idea of a sense of place and culture is deeply rooted in the history of the Hawaiian people. I believe that it is important to expose students to this perspective and to show them that the core values of an early community still resonate and are relevant to our communities today. 


What does this mean for your individual organizations? ─ As shared in the document for the Social Justice standards, school administration can use the standards to make schools more just, equitable and safe. It can be used to begin the conversation for all stakeholders at a school or educational institution to consider their own implicit biases and to reflect on their own ideals that impact how we teach our students. As shared by the National Equity Project, there needs to be a process of looking in a mirror and looking out of a window. When “looking in a mirror”, educators need to consider insight into themselves ─ beliefs, identity, experiences, strengths, fears. When “looking out a window”, educators need to have insight into their context ─ students, families, colleagues, schools, organization, and community. There needs to be honest conversations about the ideas that come about during these times of reflection. It is imperative that everyone takes into consideration that the process may be uncomfortable and may force people to acknowledge parts of themselves that they may not have realized were present. The process must also be collaborative and one where growth is celebrated. Everyone needs to be on the same page that the purpose is for transformation as a unified group working towards supporting students and their best interests.


In addition to independent and group reflection, Dr. Muhammad encourages educators to be ready to “cultivate young people who, across the course of their lifetimes, will disrupt, disquiet, or unhinge oppression.” In order to do this, we as educators must teach beyond the programs we are relegated to teach. We must be prepared to evaluate and interrogate the curriculum as we expect our students to do the same with resources provided to them. We must question and bring attention to publishers that there are lacking diverse and critical content in the products they produce. A lot of this work can occur during staff meetings, PLCs (professional learning communities), or grade level meetings. The ideas discussed will greatly impact what and how we teach. Therefore, much time and consideration need to be devoted to analyzing the current system. Groups need to be ready to ask and answer some tough questions.


There are many directions in which to move the conversation after going through the reflection process as described previously. 

  • One approach may be to create a book club using texts that focus on the idea of transformation in the school communities. These clubs could be organized by grade levels or cadres. As mentioned previously, Dr. Muhammad wrote a book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. There are many other texts out there that address transformative practices. 

  • Another may be to deconstruct the social justice standards. First looking and reflecting on the anchor standards and domains as a whole group. Then, diving deeply as a grade level into their respective standards. Moving into having vertical articulation to begin thinking about what the standards may look like school wide, especially due to the standards being grouped by bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). FInally, coming together to look at the organization’s vision and to plan future follow-up sessions to discuss effectiveness and to make adjustments.

  • In addition, organizations may look to chunking the process by looking at parts of the curriculum in cadres. Similar to what many schools may be doing already with a cadre for each particular content area. Within the cadres, staff can begin looking at their respective piece of the school-wide curriculum and begin having the conversations of how the social justice standards and the four learning standards for the  Historically Responsive Literacy Framework are already being implemented. Discuss successes, hints for success, and considerations for future implementation. Then consider how standards not being addressed could be integrated. There also has to be time provided in which there is dialogue between cadres. As we expect students to collaborate with others and see relevance across content areas, we must also begin to think about how to integrate different content areas to address these standards.

These are just a few ways in which we can begin the conversation and move towards transforming our organizations and our teaching practices.


In closing, all of this work allows us as educators to begin the transformative process in creating culturally responsive organizations that begin to address “deep culture” as illustrated in Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model (1976) and Maynard’s Culture Tree explained by Zaretta Hammond. Both identify deep culture as the part that is “out-of-awareness” and requires individuals to intentionally take time to get to know others. As Hammond further describes, the tree is part of a bigger system that shapes and impacts growth and development. What is viewable by others, the surface and shallow parts, are not static and change or shift over time as social groups move and ethnic groups intermarry. Educators need to recognize that deep culture is the roots of the tree that grounds our students and is where their concept of self, group identity, decision making, and approach to problem solving is found. As a result, academic organizations have a responsibility to provide an environment that positively impacts students and provides opportunities for meaningful interactions in order for students to make sense of their world in a safe space. Acknowledging that we as educators cannot control everything that impacts our students, but we can provide them with a safe space in which they are encouraged to take risks, make connections, and to learn more about themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

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