12 Questions to Ask When Designing Culturally and Historically Responsive Curriculum

12 Questions to Ask

Let’s engage students with learning pursuits, rather than standards

Culturally and historically responsive education is both a theory and model to respond to students’ histories, identities, literacies and liberation in pedagogy. In addition, this approach is a collaborative model where youth voices are at the center and caregivers and community members are our partners in education. CHRE is derived from the educational practices of Black people from the 19th century, onward where we had five central goals for learning (Muhammad, 2020). Our Black ancestors were very intentional about calling learning goals pursuits rather than standards. A learning standard indicates a ceiling or a stopping point. Yet, a pursuit does not have a ceiling; rather, it is ever evolving and one that helps students attain the larger goals of self-reliance, self-determination and self-liberation. These pursuits are a beautiful gift our ancestors left behind to help with solutions for educational practices. These pursuits included:

  • Identity – teaching students to know themselves and others;
  • Skills – teaching students the proficiencies needed across content areas;
  • Intellectualism – teaching students new knowledge;
  • Criticality – teaching students to understand and disrupt oppression; and
  • Joy – teaching students about the beauty and truth in humanity.

Collectively these five pursuits teach the whole child and give children academic and personal success for their lives.

Often times, teachers ask me where to begin when they are either planning to develop lessons or unit plans for their students around the five pursuits, especially if they are required to teach a school’s mandated curriculum. To this end, I have developed 12 questions teachers could answer for such planning:

Question #1:  Out of all the things in the world, why are you teaching this?
This question links to purpose and authenticity in curriculum and instruction. Before teaching, educators must know why they are teaching the topic, the standard or the texts they are planning for. If the answer is simply, because it is in schools’ sanction curriculum, that is not enough. That is a basic answer, and it is important that educators always strive toward excellence. This question is really asking, Why do students need this learning and why now? And it is important that teachers are confident with in responding to this question and defending their pedagogy.

Question #2 How will your instruction help students to learn something about themselves (including their racial and cultural identities) or others?
Question two centers students’ identities and histories. This includes (but is not limited to) their racial, gender, religious, and other identities. To answer this question, it is first important that teachers know who their students are. They must know cultural knowledge about students’ diverse identities. Identity is multi-layered and complex and with every lesson or unit that we teach, we should help students to make sense of who they are. We should also help them resist, negotiate and mediate others’ imposed identities. And we must help students understand their future selves and who they have the potential to be.

Question #3:  How will your instruction help students to learn new skills?
Question three centers the need to teach Common Core State Standards or other standards that are adopted by each state. Because the state standards are typically incomplete, we know the other pursuits are necessary. Teaching skills helps to focus the proficiencies that are needed by each grade level and by each content area. Oftentimes educators begin and end their curriculum and instruction with skills. But skills need to be contextualized and authentically embedded within students’ lives and the real world around them. Skills must move to real action where students are learning to connect the academic success that they will experience with skills to real social change that help to make a better humanity for all.

Question #4 How will your instruction help students to learn something new?
This question centers the need to teach new knowledge that will be put into some form of application action or practice. This question helps to answer, how are my students learning about new people, places, things, concepts, histories or ideals? It is important that we don’t only teach skills but connect the skills to the problems and issues in the world. Intellectualism prepares students to stand in the room with anyone and be able to experience conversation, debate and joy. Intellectualism is the goal that gives fulfillment to education and sparks purpose.

Question #5 How will your instruction help students to learn anti-oppression and anti-racism?
Question five responds to the pursuit of criticality. Criticality helps students to name, question, interrogate, understand and disrupt hurt, pain and harm within the world. When answered through pedagogy, this question helps students to understand and make sense of anti-oppressions such as racism, sexism and other forms of hurt with the purpose that students don’t contribute to or become silent on oppression. This question builds pedagogy to cultivate the more humane human where students develop into empathetic and sociopolitical, conscious beings.

Question #6 What texts will you layer to support the learning?
Text selection is the heart and soul of lesson and unit plans. The text selected could really make or break student engagement and student learning. Texts matter. The right types of texts can invigorate students and engage youth in ways toward possibility. Texts must be multimodal in nature so that students can engage in print and non-print such as image, sound, performance, and video.

Question #7 Are you energized about the teaching and learning?
Question seven is quite simple and it requires a yes or no answer. Am I energized about the learning and the teaching that I am about to embark upon? Energy matters when it comes to pedagogy in schools and classrooms particularly as we are attempting to impart the same energy that we desire for students. When I plan for pedagogy, I try to study my body and my energy levels. If I am not enthusiastic in the planning process, it is rare that I am enthusiastic when I teach the lesson. And when I am not energized during the instruction, quite often my energy reflects my students.

Question #8 How will you make it impossible for students to fail?
Our special educators teach and remind us of the importance of accommodation and differentiation to make it impossible for students to fail. This question came from my academic advisor (Alfred Tatum) in graduate school. He would pose this question to me so that I will always strive and to ensure that students had nothing but success. This question means that we must go above and beyond when we create and design so that students can be successful. Although there is some greatness and learning in failure, we do not want our students to fail within our schools and classrooms.

Question #9 How will you change as a result of the teaching?
My mother would teach me that education is about changing the lives of others but also being changed within myself. If we think that we are only here to change the thinking and academic success of others, then we may believe in hierarchies in learning. Rather, call for a reciprocal relationship in teaching and learning. Education and the pedagogy in the lessons and units that teachers create should make them better. It should elevate teachers’ minds and help them to ascend to a higher place than where they were from the beginning.

Question #10 How will your instruction spread and amplify joy? Do you include joy about people of color?
Question number 10 is one of joy. How will my instruction spread, amplify and elevate beauty within humanity? Joy is something that is key because it is often neglected as we prepare teachers and sustain their hearts for this work. Teachers deserve joy in many ways so that they can give joy to their students. It is very difficult, and one may argue impossible, to give something that you do not have. It is especially important to include joy when teaching about Black, Indigenous, and people of color as the world has not centered and started with narratives of genius and joy within these groups of people. Typically, when teachers teach about BIPOC, it can fall within narratives steeped in pain, struggle or oppression and that has the potential to become the single story which can strip children of their self-worth. Joy is needed to balance criticality and to help cultivate the child who is happy and feels empowered in the classroom and in life.

Question #11 How will your instruction engage parents, families and caregivers?
Our parents, families and caregivers are our partners in education. What teachers teach in the classroom should be supported and amplified in the home. Often times, as I am teaching youth, I am creating questions for discussion or experiences that the child can do with their family in homes and communities. This helps to extend the classroom learning and reinforce the knowledge being taught.

Question #12 How will your instruction incite social action for to improve communities, society and the state of humanity?
CHRE is an approach that is grounded in education that has the power of doing. We want students to be doers of the learning. In other words, students should be prepared to take the education of the pursuits and apply the learning in ways to improve and advance local and wider communities for positive social change. This is the ultimate goal of the collective pursuits: To create a better humanity for all.

When these questions drive our work, we will see a new type of pedagogy emerge where teachers become (re)invigorated for the profession and students are engaged. These questions become a useful starting place for purposeful learning when teaching with the five pursuits toward culturally and historically responsive education. We know that a strong plan for pedagogy doesn’t ensure strong instruction, but it is a great starting place. Culturally and historically responsive education is a solution to many of the inequities in schools and classrooms, where all students have potential for success. The model helps to teach the whole child, helping youth to not only be successful in academics but in their lives. The goal is not to merely pass a state exam or to graduate but the goal is also to live complete, full and fulfilling lives. This is what we want for our own children and this is what we want for other people’s children too.

Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy at Georgia State University. She also serves as the director of the GSU Urban Literacy Clinic. Dr. Muhammad’s scholarship has appeared in leading educational journals and books. Some of her recognitions include the 2014 recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English, Promising New Researcher Award, the 2016 NCTE Janet Emig Award, the 2017 GSU Urban Education Research Award and the 2018 UIC College of Education Researcher of the Year. She is the author of the best-selling book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

Catch Gholdy at #AMLE21, November 4-6 in Louisville, KY. Registration is now open.

Muhammad, G.E. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity model for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic: New York.


  1. Hello,
    I am really glad that this article exists. I recently taught a lesson on the Chicano movement and how Mexican American students were critical in its success. I also compared it to some of the more modern issues that are occurring today with Mexican American students. As a Latina, this meant a lot to me and students participated in some great discussions. Reading this article has helped me find areas of improvement in this lesson and reiterated the importance of doing so!

  2. Inquiry based education and culturally and historically responsive curriculum seem to go hand-in-hand. Which is excellent considering the current transitions towards more inquiry based learning. I find the most powerful question asked is actually the first one, discussing the “why” of what we teach is always an important question for the educator and the student. Having purpose in education and understanding the importance of the curriculum can provide motivation to engage in it. That being said, I am curious to know any ideas surrounding grappling with a standard assigned that the educators tasked to teach it cannot find value in teaching. I personally have not had this issue yet, though I am sure plenty of teachers question the “point” of what they are teaching right along with their students. So, I admit I am somewhat flummoxed by the question as to if it is saying we need to find the purpose in the standard or attribute our own purpose to the standard?

  3. I believe that this should be somewhat of a hot topic when it comes to particular schools. Especially while I was in middle school, many of my educators were focused on teaching us what we had to know to meet state standards and to get that proficient or distinguished score at the end of the year instead of simply teaching. You also make a great point about the equity within the classroom by asking if the lessons support anti-racism. It is important for all of our students to feel connected to the topics, and therefore be actively engaged with the material as connection and motivation go hand-in-hand.

  4. Depending on where you go, you can see a good deal of standard chasers. And I understand the appeal entirely, if we’re being rated on how well students perform on a variety of standards, logic dictates that we should rigorously teach the standards. I love the idea of moving away from such a ridged structures into a more holistic approach to lesson design. Theoretically no topic can be without merit if they follow the 5 learning pursuits. My only concern would be how to continue to teach these lessons while still engaging with all the standards we have to cover over a year’s time.