Teaching Students to Push Beyond the Single Story Often Told

We have just completed our MASSIVE first reading/writing unit, an inquiry into story.  This unit took us from the start of the school year until nearly the end of October.  The unit had us studying the stories of others as readers and sharing our own stories with the world as writers.  I have written about the work we have done as readers throughout the first parts of our unit in THIS POST and THIS POST and THIS POST. The final part of our work with this unit was all focused on teaching students to push beyond the single story often told.

We began this part of our work by reading Josh Funk’s book Dear DragonThis was an idea given by the brilliant Pernille Ripp and it worked perfectly as a way to launch our discussion. We began by thinking about what this book had to do with the discussions we had been having on race and assumptions. The kids quickly realized that the boy and the dragon in this picture book both carried assumptions about each other. In the book, they get to know each other through letters first, without knowing that the boy is a boy and the dragon is a dragon. Getting to know each other first, allowed them to hear each other’s stories without their own assumptions getting in the way.  We talked about how we each carry around images of other people and the images we carry in our heads impact how we interact with people. One of the best ways to combat these, often stereotypical images, is to listen to each others stories.

This conversation launched us into our study of the single stories we often carry of others. We began our work by watching the absolutely brilliant TED TALK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Because my students are fifth graders and their attention span can be limited, we watched selections of this brilliant talk.  Whenever we watch a TED talk, I always provide the kids with a printed transcript of the talk so that they can follow along and refer back to the speaker’s words when we are doing further work. Here is the transcript of the parts of the video that I showed my students.  (I cut and pasted together only the parts that we watched): modified-single-story-transcript

After viewing this powerful talk, I asked my students what they thought Chimamanda meant by a single story and how these single stories formed in the minds of people.  It was amazing to hear what they took away from the video. I think that sometimes I still underestimate what fifth graders understand about our world. Then, I hear a discussion like the ones my classes about this TED talk and I am reminded by how much they truly do understand and how much they are able to share about that understanding. They constantly amaze me and when I remember to give them the chance, they often restore my hope in this world.

One of the things that I found to be most powerful is how the language of, “the single stories we are told” really allowed my students to be honest and vulnerable about the biases they carry. Just like with adults, it is hard to get students to admit that they have biases.  Many of these kids have grown up hearing, “Skin color doesn’t matter,” and “I don’t see color. I only see people.” So to get them to push beyond that can be challenging. (Here is what I wrote about that previously.)

However, when we frame this discussion as one that attempts to analyze the single stories we have been told, we see ourselves as a part of a system that perpetuates bias instead of as bad people who judge others. This makes a difference. This allows us to speak more openly and honestly. This allows us to do the work of breaking down those stories we have been told as we learn to push beyond them to gain more complete understandings of other people.  This is something my students taught me through this work and not something I understood when we first began.

After watching this TED talk, we moved on to looking at how these single stories form and examples of these single stories that exist in the world. I wanted to model this first before allowing my students to do some exploring on their own.  So I began with a group of people that are most often incredibly misunderstood by my students. Native Americans.

I began by doing a simple Google image search of Native Americans. Here is what came up: GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH FOR NATIVE AMERICANS

Somewhat shocking.

Using THIS DOCUMENT, the results of the Google image search, and their own ideas about Native Americans, my students and I began to document in writing the single story that is often told about Native Americans. This brought up many of the damaging stereotypes that we have been told about Native Americans.  We discussed these and realized how we had all grown up hearing about Native American people in just one way. And so once we realized that, we worked together to craft questions that would help us to push beyond that single story and search for a more complete understanding of Native American people.

We talked about that once we had our questions, we needed to search for multiple resources that would help us to answer some of our questions and give us more than one way to view an entire group of people.  One of the things that many of my students asked about after viewing the Google image search was about how Native Americans in TODAY’S world live since so many of the images that came up showed Native Americans from a long time ago. Students also asked about the relationship today between Native Americans and the United States government.

With these questions in mind, I brought in additional resources, that I thought might help us to push beyond the single story we often carry about Native Americans.  We began by looking at Tweets that I had collected together on TweetDeck from the hashtag that became popular this summer, #NotYourNativeStereotype. This amazing hashtag involved people who are Native American Tweeting pictures of themselves with descriptions of who they are in order to combat the very narrow and damaging stereotypes of Native people.  As a class, we looked at many of these Tweets and wrote about the additional understanding they gave us of who Native American people really are.  We wrote down our observations on the form that we began with the Google image search.

One of the most powerful parts of this discussion was the idea of how differently a story is told when it is told BY the person living the story. This was an example where Native people were telling their own stories instead of having stories told about them.  This gave us an opportunity to reflect on how important it is to seek out stories told by the people living them instead of only relying on stories told ABOUT the lives of others.

After looking at the Tweets, we read an article on the current pipeline protest. Newsela had a great article on the protest.  As we read this article, I had the students practice marking the places in the article where their thinking changed, grew or deepened in some way. In the white spaces on the articles, I had them write down the ways their thinking changed. After reading the article, I had the kids look back at what they had written down in the white spaces and synthesize that into longer writing on their forms that explained what they now understood about people who are Native American living in today’s world.

Finally, we thought about some ways that we could share with others what we had learned in order to help people push beyond the single stories that they held of Native Americans.

After going through all of this work together, as a model, I now wanted students to practice this kind of work on their own. In order to do this, I knew that I needed to provide resources that highlighted the single story often told and then resources that provided a deeper, more complete understanding of a group of people or a place.

So I handed out another blank copy of the form we had worked on together with our look into the lives of people who are Native American.  I then told the kids that they would be working today on looking into another group of people or a place. This time they would be working on their own, doing the same kind of work that we had done all together.

On the first day, I gave them a list of resources that ONLY highlighted the single story often told about a group of people. I gave them time to explore all of the resources and then asked them to look more carefully at one place or group of people that they wanted to think more deeply about.  Here is the first list of resources we used: RESOURCES SHOWING SINGLE STORIES

After looking at the resources, I had them fill out their forms for the one group of people they were going to look more closely at. I had them write about the single story often shown and craft questions to help them think more deeply about the group of people or place they were looking into.

The next day, I provided a second list of resources. These were resources I had been gathering since this summer. While I knew I wanted my students to have choice in the group of people they were studying, I knew that they did not yet know enough about researching to tackle the entire internet in order to learn more about a group of people. So I have been curating resources since this summer. I was actually so excited to finally begin using them with kids.  I made sure to pull a variety of resources and types of resources. I wanted the kids to have things to read in words and also read in images and videos. I think that all of these different types of reading are so important in this work because so many of the images we carry of others come through pictures and videos.

So on the second day, I asked them to go back to the forms they had been filling out. Remember which group of people or place they had been looking at, review the single stories they wrote about and review the questions they had asked. On the second day, they were asked to explore the additional resources provided and write about their growing, changing and deepening understandings.  Here is the list of resources I provided in order to help them push BEYOND the single story often told: RESOURCES TO PUSH BEYOND THE SINGLE STORY OFTEN TOLD.

After two days of exploring these new resources, I had the kids get into groups to share their understandings. As I walked around and listened in, I was amazed to hear the things that the kids were saying. Of course, they did not FULLY understand any group of people. Of course, they still held misconceptions. Of course, they still said things that made me cringe. But the difference was, they were now leaving space for the possibility that the images they had been carrying around were dangerously incomplete. The difference was that they now were saying things that showed me that they understood the need to dig deeper and not settle on simply believing what they had been told when they were little. The difference was that now they shared how looking at multiple resources could enhance their understanding. The difference was that now they understood that they have a responsibility to dig deeper, to ask questions, to not accept one narrative, to seek out people telling their own stories. And that is no small thing.

The next day, I had the kids get into groups and create some simple action plans of how they could continue this work out in the world outside of school. I asked them to create webs that showed ways that they could push beyond the single story often told. Again, what they came up with was amazing.

Here are some of their webs:

After taking a walk around the room and looking at everyone else’s work, I had the kids share with me what they noticed in each of the group’s work. Based on what was shared, we created this chart to hang up in our room to remind us of how we can continue this work outside of the classroom:


This, for me, was one of the most important anchor charts that I have ever crafted with students. In these four concrete steps, lay the power to change the way students read their world and the way they, and I, interacted with other people.

After finishing this chart, I stepped back and honestly thought about what a different world we might live in if more of us, more often, practiced doing exactly what my students had learned how to do. What a different election this might be. What a different state our country might be in. What a different humanity we might be a part of.

At the end of this all. All of this work. We returned to the four questions that guided our inquiry from the very beginning. We looked back on our very first anchor chart:


I wanted to see how we had done, answering the questions that we started with. And so, each child completed THIS REFLECTION. I asked each child to answer our four guiding questions in order to provide evidence of what they had learned to do as readers and as human beings.  Here are just a few of the responses they gave:

Their responses were beautiful. As with everything, not everyone got what I hoped they would get. Not every walked away with the understandings I was hoping from. But reading through their responses, it was clear to me that everyone walked away with something. Everyone walked away with some better understanding of how to read the world around them and how to push beyond the images that we carry with us.  Their responses filled me with hope.

Hope that we do have the power to shift the world we live in. Hope that we have the incredible honor of helping shape the way that our students see the world around them. Hope that we can start to change what our students accept as truth and teach them to question in order to see things in more than one way. And if I have this hope, if I can hold on to that, then I can find the needed strength to wake up each day and face a world that can seem so overwhelmingly cruel and unjust. And that makes me feel really lucky to be a teacher. And to do this work.

And when I look back on all of this work, on the last nine weeks we have spent engaged in all of this, there were of course moments when I felt like we needed to move on. There were skills to be covered, there were strategies to practice, there were complex texts to read. But then, I think about what my students gained. The empathy they have built, the understanding they have gained about their own biases and how to push beyond them, their ability to do better than we have done in the past in terms of questioning the way things are and finding a more complete version of the truth.

And what I realize is that I do not have to sacrifice one for the other. I do not have to give up on our curriculum in order to help my students learn to make the world a better place. In fact, our curriculum is just that, a way to help our students learn to make the world a better place. Or at least it should be.  There is a way to do both. To focus on skills and help students use them in a way that has real meaning and purpose. It isn’t always clear at first, but if we start with what we believe our students need to know in order to change our world and then figure out a way to use the skills we need to teach in order to help them do that work, then we are all going to end up in such a better place.


6 thoughts on “Teaching Students to Push Beyond the Single Story Often Told

  1. Can we teach together please? 🙂

    This post is so timely, Jess – thank you! (You didn’t even know you were helping…) I am leading a book study on Upstanders in the Heinemann PD FB group (http://hein.pub/pd/tlc — join us!) and we are working our way into this very theme, just began with identity webs. (I went on FB live to talk about that last night and of course my preschooler escaped my husband and interrupted..which would have been fine except she was naked. ha!) ANYWAY – I am sharing this TedTalk in the group next week and feel like this message is so eye opening for all ages. I will likely share this post in the group as well as in the PLC Series round up – all content/posts I use this month surround a Social Justice theme. So again, thank you and pop in the group to share from this experience if you want!

  2. Pingback: We Are Only One Tile in the Entire Mosaic of a Child’s Education | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  3. Have you read This Is Me From Now On by Barbara Dee? It’s a very tender and very funny story that’s spot-on the point that you’re making here. Definitely age-appropriate for fifth graders. (She’s the author of Truth or Dare and Star-Crossed.)

  4. Pingback: Stories as Mirrors and Windows: Part 1 — Stories as Mirrors | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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