Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Learning with My Students: The Danger of a Single Story

For the past two weeks my students and I have been learning about the danger of a single story. We began this inquiry with Chimamanda Nogzi Adichie’s Ted Talk on the topic. I’ve watched this Ted Talk over fifteen times over the last seven years. Each time I walk away with a new understanding from Adichie. Some of my favorite quotes include: 

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” 

“The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different rather than how we are similar.”

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”

With Adichie’s words laying the groundwork, my students and I began to delve into stereotypes. Who is it that we simplify into a single story? Why do we do that? How can we begin to see them as more complex? 

Over the last ten school days we’ve explored race and religion, gender, disability, athletes, and more. Sometimes these conversations can be hard because I have no idea where we’re going, I just want to give my students a safe space to explore this concept. We’ve watched the videos, written down our thoughts, and talked. We’ve also looked at the novel we’re studying together, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and compared the work we’ve done during our quick writes to the story that’s unfolding. The Socs and the Greasers absolutely fall into stereotypical categories. As the book unfolds, Ponyboy pushes past those first beliefs. We talk about how that can happen to all of us, how we can make assumptions, but in reality people are far more complex than that.

Today we delved into the notion that a single story can be also used to attempt to define a place. We watched the first six minutes or so of these two videos from YouTuber Louis Cole (video one and two). After each video, I had the kids write for a few minutes what they were thinking about Kenya. Then I shared THIS video and my students realized they began to create a single story in their heads about Kenya after the first video without even realizing it. 

Adichie said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” How easy is it for us to fall into these simplistic beliefs about people, places, based on one story. We know we are all more complex than that. 

After talking about Kenya I told my students that this happens all of the time. I simply need to glance at my Facebook feed on any given day and can see “single stories” in regards to a wide range of topics. Tonight it was our state, Illinois. People cannot wait to leave it - taxes, corrupt government, weather. And, as Adichie stated, those stories may be true. But, I would argue, there is more. Just as there is with any group of people, any place, there is good and bad. Taxes, I’d argue, are critical to anyone who cares about schools, roads, libraries, or a host of other services. Even setting that aside, I love where I live. I’m surrounded by beauty.

I love living in a small town. Monticello truly exemplifies the “it takes a village” mentality. This can be seen in our remodeling project at the high school. The site superintendent and his crew have welcomed both high school and elementary students to the site and taught them about what is going on. You can read about that HERE or see a tweet from a high school teacher below.

My state is more than the single story about high taxes. It is more than the amount of our governors that have spent time in jail. It is also a place of beauty, a place of community, a place where we look out for each other. Years ago we lost a young farmer in our community. An article was shared online then about how the farming community came as a tribute for this young man gone too soon. I bookmarked this article then and return to it when I want to be reminded of the good that can happen, in the midst of hard times. 

After the last two weeks I have been reminded once again that the single story is dangerous. When we base our opinion of a group of people, of a place, based off of little information, we are in danger of losing the complexity of who we are. 

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” 
- Adichie