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.

Extending the Discussion: Can We Continue the Conversation about Ferguson?

It’s been more than a month since the shooting in Ferguson, and schools across the country are now in session. This conversation is still relevant: more news from Ferguson, MO made the paper today, PBS organized a recent town hall meeting, and #FergusonSyllabus has sparked discussion on Twitter.

I wonder what kinds of conversations are happening in classrooms. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s recent blog post Justice on the Lesson Plan, encourages teachers to engage students in a dialogue about power, race, and justice (and includes some wonderful resources). But, I admit I’m not optimistic.

First, I wonder how much time teachers are able to devote to these complex discussions. In order to effectively explore this topic students have to understand the issue, work with and through empathy, analyze and evaluate complex ideas, and be willing to participate in uncomfortable conversations. Facilitating these kinds of discussions is no easy task. I’d argue that they are some of the most challenging conversations that teachers will lead all year. I wonder how many teachers have been adequately prepared to lead students into conversations that are uncomfortable for most adults as well—my suspicion is not many. In order for schools to be a true vehicle for change we have to train teachers how to lead effective discussions about issues like Ferguson, and give them time to work with these topics everyday.

It also occurs to me that these discussions are best had in heterogeneous classrooms where a myriad of experiences and perspectives are represented. Unfortunately, those classrooms are few and far between. (Not to say that students don’t benefit from conversation, they do, but it is much easier to build empathy when students can have experiences with peers who represent opposing perspectives.)

This reminds me of my experience teaching special education in a school in Washington, DC where 99% of the students were African American and all but two teachers (me and another teacher) were African American. One of my fourth grade students approached me one day, holding the picture of her brother. He had been shot by a white police officer. “I hate white people,” she said.

“But,” I said, “I’m white.”

“No you’re not,” she responded, “I like you.”

Ultimately, for the larger conversation about Ferguson, and other issues around race and power to change, the smallest conversations, like the one, have to change first.

To start the discussion with your students, here’s an article from PBS about How to Talk to Students about Ferguson. Also, a book list of texts that can be used to teach that, as Rhuday-Perkovich puts it, Black Youth Matter can be found at her blog post. Personally, I recommend reading Rita Garcia-Williams and Jacqueline Woodson.