Black Girls' Literacies: Merging Theory and Practice

Reporting on the “state of the union” for Black girls and women in our society, the author offers suggestions on how educators can support them.

State of the Union for Black Girls

In recent years, influential organizations such as the African American Policy Forum, The National Women’s Law Center, the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, have published reports on the “state of the union” for Black girls and women in our society. The information shared in these reports uncover a “separate and unequal” schooling system for Black girls that funnel them into the School to Prison Pipeline as a consequence of poorly conceived disciplinary and push-out policies.

In these reports we learn that Black girls 1) receive more severe punishments in schools and in the criminal justice system than do girls from other racial/ethnic backgrounds; 2) navigate barriers related to caretaking responsibilities, financial uncertainty, sexual abuse/harassment, and homelessness that impact their ability to remain engaged in the classroom; and 3) disproportionately have to confront racial and gender stereotypes about themselves in the curriculum they are required to learn in school. Given that many schools are struggling to provide Black girls with culturally responsive curricula that leverages their language and literacy practices (Muhammad, 2015; Price-Dennis, 2016), it is important for classroom teachers to lead the charge in both understanding that these inequalities exist, and in developing research-based pedagogies to interrupt it. The purpose of this article is to share a framework that may be helpful in taking that first step.

The Need for Nurturing Black Girls’ Literacies
For centuries, Black women leading thinkers such as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Phillis Wheatley, and Anna Julia Cooper have taught Black women that what counts as being literate has always been tied to social, political, economic, and historical contexts. The same reality is true for Black girls today. However, in educational settings, specifically in literacy, Black girls have been, and continue to be, over-identified as struggling readers and writers, below grade level, or deficient in basic literacy skills. But, what if there was a framework that centered Black girlhood and the intersectionality of their identities and literacies from a capacity orientation? How could this framework disrupt the deficit narrative about Black girls’ literacy development and inform how to engage, cultivate, and center the multiple literacies that Black girls engage in to make sense of their world?

The answer to these questions begin with learning more about the Black girls’ literacies framework developed by Muhammad & Haddix (2016) that examines the need for creating literacy learning spaces for Black girls. In 2016 Muhammad & Haddix reviewed literacy research about supporting the literacy needs of Black girls to better understand how they have defined and enacted literacy development historically and in current times. The authors identified six components that highlight the way that Black girl literacies are:
1. Multiple
2. Tied to identities
3. Historical
4. Collaborative
5. Intellectual
6. Political/Critical  

From their review of research, we learn that Black girls simultaneously engage in multiple literacy practices to make sense of texts (print and digital). We also learn that their literacies are linked to their history, enacted together or collaboratively, grounded in intellectual thought, and tied to power and politics. If these six components are embedded in lesson plans and classroom pedagogy, then literacy instruction has the potential to advance intellectual growth, while also attending to the socio-emotional needs of Black girls.

Merging theory and practice
As you begin to consider the how to incorporate a Black girls’ literacies framework into your classroom or school community, it is important to consider impact of the classroom environment and materials on how Black girls learn in those spaces.

Creating an environment where Black girls’ literacies can thrive
Black girl literacies are multiple and rely on different modes of communication and more flexible concepts about what counts as a text. This typically means that Black girls’ work better in collaborative groups with assignments that leverage multiple modes of showcasing how they are making sense of the content. In practice, this looks like using flexible configurations for grouping students to work together and then providing space for the students to share their thinking and respond to questions from their peers.

However, before flexible grouping and sharing is possible, Black girls’ need to be in classroom spaces where they feel intellectually and physically safe. In this type of environment students are encouraged to share their thinking, explore political and social issues that relate to their community, and use their cultural knowledge and linguistic practices to demonstrate their learning. Both of these ideas are closely aligned with the materials student have available to work with and pedagogical practices they experience each day.

Including materials that support Black girls’ literacies
Providing access to a variety of materials, including digital tools and children’s and young adult literature that feature Black girls as the protagonist across different genres and content areas is one important step in making sure that Black girls see themselves and issues they care about centered in the curriculum.

As we learned from Muhammad & Haddix’s work, Black girls have historically engaged political issues that strengthen their abilities to critically analyze how concepts like racism, equity, gender, and power impact their lives and communities. Selecting materials such as op-ed columns, tweets, memes, blog posts (i.e., “think pieces) from sources like For Harriet or Teen Vogue, hashtags about activism, racism, sexism, classism, or even movies and music from popular culture, and blending these texts into the curriculum can provide opportunities for Black girls to see fuller representations of themselves as well address issues that are important them.

Of course, the classroom environment and materials are just two small pieces in a larger puzzle, but getting it right in those areas creates opportunities for educators to address inequitable school policies or culturally biased pedagogies that limit how Black girls see themselves as literate beings.

We are at a critical juncture in education where our civic and moral responsibility to make sure that schools are meeting the needs of all students requires immediate action. Although the policy reports about Black girls’ experiences in and out of school paint a dismal picture about the conditions they endure to receive an education, I still believe school spaces have the potential to be transformative for them. It is from this place of promise that I continue to engage in this work and hope that I can count on you to join me.

Detra Price-Dennis is an Assistant Professor in Elementary Inclusive Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. As a teacher educator, Price-Dennis focuses her work on transformative literacy pedagogies that seek to create and sustain equitable learning environments for all students

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