Addressing the Single Story

In this TED Talk, novelist Chimanda Adichie explains the idea of a single story, or what happens when we don’t have a balanced, diverse understanding of a people. Adichie’s own experience, growing up in Nigeria, but only reading stories that were written by British authors, showed her how “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” As she grew up, Adichie saw how she became the representation of others’ single stories (for example, about Africa) and how she saw others as single stories (as in a trip to Mexico).

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Single stories, says Adichie, are created when one representation of a people is told again and again, until this becomes a reality. “Single stories,” Adichie says in her talk, “create stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Diverse literature is part of the antidote. Diverse literature opens up single stories and makes them more complex. They raise questions about the nuances of a group while broadening and widening our understanding of a group. They take away the power that a single story has to shape our feelings towards a group.

Reflecting on this talk, I can see how single stories could be perpetuated (unknowingly) in classrooms. One character is presented or one story becomes the narrative for how a people “is.” Or, stereotypes are challenged in a basic way, with the dismissal of the stereotype, rather than a thorough building out of knowledge through stories, questioning, and research. Time moves fast and few teachers feel they have time to linger in literature. That said, avoiding the single story is important, both for children’s development, their intellect, and their understanding of the world.

In a recent The Reading Teacher article, scholars Fenice Boyd, Lauren Causey and Lee Galda outlined three ways to bring more diverse literature into classrooms:

I would add to that list: make yourself aware of the single stories that your students have. What do they think they know about a group? And why? Then, consider how you can bring in stories—literature, video, media—to help them confront and reshape those single stories, one at a time.