Teaching Toward Genius: An Equity Model for Pedagogy in Action

Cultivating Genius

By Ivelisse Ramos-Brannon & Gholdy Muhammad

Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by those doing it. — James Baldwin

For decades, critical scholars and educators have come together to ask the question, how can we interrupt systems and teaching practices that have not served all youth well? In much of the same way, Ivelisse and I came together to envision what can be done. Specifically, we wanted to know what we could do in the spaces we occupy as a professor (Gholdy) and teacher (Ivelisse).

Given the limitations of state standards and mandates, we have collaborated to move education forward in classrooms, especially for underserved students across the nation. And, in the spirit of James Baldwin, we specifically wanted to interrupt pedagogy that only taught skills and not other standards that students need.

Ivelisse and I met over a year ago in a teacher professional development I conducted on my book, Cultivating Genius. In the book, I outline four major standards of learning that were derived through my study of historical archives in the 19th century, which include teaching and learning to advance students’ identity development, skills, intellectualism and criticality.

I name this the HILL model because it responds to students’ histories, identities, literacies and liberation. Teaching these four standards collectively fosters the genius of who our students are. They Teach the whole child and not just skills.  We will dive deeper into this equity model to specifically address the question: What does equity- centered education look like during times of remote teaching and learning?

Having been pushed into the waters of remote learning, many teachers might be asking themselves if they should prioritize identity, criticality, and intellect and if it is even possible without face to face interaction. And if it is possible, then how?  We know it is rather easy to hand out packets or create activities that focus purely on skills. In many ways, we cannot judge these teachers, most of which were unprepared to abruptly move instruction online.

In this essay, we explicate the four learning standards of the HILL model and discuss its practical applications and challenges in the classroom and in remote learning. Teaching in equitable ways, and across genius, is more urgent than ever given the inequities we see each day.

What is the HILL Model?

The HILL model is an equity framework for teaching and learning across all disciplines. Honoring traditions and theories of culturally responsive learning, this model is historically responsive and grounded in Black education and Black excellence.  Members of 19th century African American literary societies had four collective goals toward advancing their education:

  1. Identity is made up of who we say we are, who others say we are, and the people we desire to be. Students are constantly making sense of who they are, and classroom instruction needs to be responsive to their identities. Because we are complex beings, we have racial, cultural, gender, environmental, and community identities, to name a few. Not only is it important to teach youths who they are, but educators should also teach students about the identities and cultures of others different from them. As learning takes place, one asks, “How am I learning about who I am and about the lives of others?”
  2. Skills are the requite proficiencies and competencies for every content area.  As learning takes place, one asks, “What disciplinary skills am I advancing?”
  3. Intellectualism is knowledge of people, places, things and concepts and the ability to put this knowledge into action. As learning takes place, one asks, “What am I becoming smarter about?”
  4. Criticality is the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression. In Cultivating Genius, I (Gholdy) define oppression simply as any wrongdoing, hurt, or harm, including racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or any other oppression. Unlike lower case “c” critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking, Critical with a capital “c” is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression. As learning takes place, one asks, “How am I developing an understanding of power, equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression?”

The last goal of criticality helps students to become “woke” and socio-politically conscious beings so that they aren’t merely passive consumers or producers of information. When studying the Common Core State Standards and state mandated standards, the central focus is skills and, at times, intellect. There is a glaring absence of s identity and criticality.

This is problematic for all youth who need to know themselves, know others (especially those different than them), and understand how to navigate a society and nation that is founded upon oppression. It is especially problematic, however, for Black and Brown youth, such as African American or Latinx youth, whose people have been negatively depicted and misrepresented in the public eye and ear.

In the following section, we engage in critical conversation about the use of the HILL model and specifically Ivelisse’s experiences with implementing the model and her students’ responses to the learning. We hope that this exchange will shed light on a new way of teaching toward genius. 

In Conversation

Gholdy: What have been your experiences teaching with the HILL Model, and what was planning like?

Ivelisse: I had to deeply reflect on biases within my curriculum and admit that it was incomplete. In the past, I envisioned new units starting with texts; I would think about the skills I could teach through the texts and make certain I hit enough of the Common Core State Standards. Admittedly, identity, criticality, and intellect were ancillary.  In contrast, when I planned units around the HILL Model, I no longer privileged skills in my instruction; skills became a smaller piece of a larger puzzle and purpose. Paradoxically, they also carried greater value because they were a means to move my students towards deeper personal and sociopolitical consciousness, empathy, and intellectualism.

Doing this work also presented an exciting intellectual challenge for me: If I wanted my students to be smarter about something, I had to be smarter about it first. It also answered a question I didn’t even know needed answering: “Why am I teaching this?” For me the answer had always been, “To support students’ skill development so they can be successful in college and careers.” I see now that my job is so much bigger than that; there is a new urgency in everything that I teach.

Gholdy: Can you offer an example of something you have taught using the HILL model?

Ivelisse: I recently started a unit anchored in text The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. My colleagues and I have been committed to diversifying authorship in our ELA curriculum, and this text is grounded in the experience of a middle-class white man; so we chose it reluctantly and as a matter of practicality. I teach in NYC; when COVID-19 hit and school buildings were preparing to close, we had to consider accessibility. There were several hundred copies of this book in our closet—enough to distribute to every student who wanted one; and audio files and a pdf of the text are also accessible for free online.

While I had taught with this text before, I knew I had to redesign the entire unit, both to frame it in the HILL Model and to plan for challenges that my students and I would inevitably face. In planning, I began with the unit objectives for each goal, and then I crafted essential questions around the objectives. In starting with Identity, students researched Vietnam’s political history as well as its people’s dynamic religious and cultural identities and values. In addition, students also reflected and wrote about the ways in which their own histories and cultures impact what they value. These activities yielded manifold outcomes. Students learned about the richness and beauty of Vietnam and its people; and they thought critically about how the tangible and intangible things they carry are connected to their personal and cultural identities. Finally, I learned a great deal about the students in reading their reflections; and I don’t think there’s ever been a time when knowing them has been more critical.

In hindsight, I see the HILL Model was the antidote to some of the challenges I anticipated, particularly around engagement. This unique, albeit catastrophic, moment in history presented entry points for rich sociopolitical discussion and learning that I had not seen in previous years of teaching the novel. The criticality piece was a major component of this unit, so we spent time learning about the history of American dissent and the 1960s Counterculture movement as well as the challenges and contributions of people of color over the course of American military history. We’re living in a time when inequities created by racial injustice are impacting marginalized communities in ways that cannot and should not be covered or avoided; so those conversations held real weight and value for my students.

Gholdy: How did your students respond?

Ivelisse: As part of action research on the impact of the HILL model, and in an effort to assess my students’ needs and interests during remote learning, I periodically administer surveys. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. One of the comments read, “What we learn is much more connected to our everyday lives.” Another said, “I like how we relate everything to what is going on right now in the world.” Quite a few commented on the parallels they easily drew between the divided nation of the 1960s and our current state of social and political polarization on race, socioeconomics, and even the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of them also communicated excitement about work that required them to consider their own perspectives. “Much better than just a yes or no answer,” one wrote.

Part 4: Conclusion

In a recent interaction with another teacher using the HILL Model, we heard a response: “This approach to teaching alleviates the question I often hear from my students: ‘Why are we learning this?’” If you have ever taught, you may have heard students question the purpose of learning, as they should. We have found through research and practice, that translating equity and purposeful teaching into action is possible. Through the example in this essay, which uses the HILL Model, we are reminded that we can still teach students about their lives, the lives of others, and inequities in the world.

To start interrupting the norms of teaching, we must first interrupt accepted standards, theories, and approaches to teaching that do not serve the needs of all students. Educators must go beyond these and teach more of what our young people need.  This first calls for interrupting our thinking and rethinking genius.

Genius must not be reserved for a selected few; it must be the ways we think of ourselves and of our youth.

Ivelisse Ramos-Brannon


Ivelisse Ramos-Brannon teaches ELA and AP Language and Composition at Central Park East High School in New York City. She is also an AP for All Teacher Leader and founding Member of the Drew University Digital Literacies Collaborative.


Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy at Georgia State University and author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. She also co-authored the book, Black girls’ literacies: An Edited Volume, published by Routledge. She works with teachers, leaders, parents, and youth across the United States and South Africa in best practices in culturally and historically responsive and equitable instruction. Her Historically Responsive Literacy/Culturally & Historically Responsive Education Model has been adopted across U.S. school districts. In 2022 and 2023 she was named with the top 1% Edu-Scholar Public Influencers which recognizes the 200 university-based scholars who had the biggest influence on educational practice and policy.

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