Stories as Mirrors and Windows: Part 3 — Pushing Beyond the Single Story Told

Before I even start this post, let me just stop and give thanks to the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” provided a pivotal turning point for me as an educator and as a human and continues to act as such for my students each year.  All of the work that is described here was inspired by her work and her words and her wisdom. I know that as of late, there have been problematic comments made by Adichie towards the transgender community. I struggle with those comments. I disagree with them and I am still wrestling with how to make peace with that (as a side note, I found THIS ARTICLE really helpful in coming to terms with it all).

For now, I continue to be inspired by her words and remain in awe of the affect they have on my fifth grade students.

As I wrote in my LAST BLOG POST, we have been studying at how we can learn from the stories that other people tell. We have been learning how to listen to the stories of other and use those stories to spark questions that we can seek answers to in order to gain a better and deeper understanding about the world around us. We first did this work with the picture book Stepping Stones which led us into a three week guided inquiry on Syrian refugees.

Since we had grown a much deeper understanding of Syrian refugees, I wanted to build on that work and show my students that understanding one refugee, from one country, still only gives us an extremely limited and narrow glimpse into the lives of refugees overall.

So I brought back out the story Stepping Stones and then also brought out the picture book Two White RabbitsTwo White Rabbits tells the story of a father and daughter who are leaving, what we are lead to believe, Mexico or a country in Central America and are traveling north towards the United States. The author’s note gives additional information on refugees from this area.

After reading this book to my students, I introduced them to the phrase, “The danger of a single story.” I told them that these words were not mine, but words that we would work to understand over the next few days. I asked them to think about what those words might mean and how our knowledge of Syrian refugees might actually be problematic as we attempt to understand refugees from another part of the world.  Here are the charts that we made that tracked the brilliant thinking that my students shared:

The next day, we watched parts of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story.” Whenever we watch TED talks in class, I always print out the transcript so that we can go back into the text later as we discuss the speech. HERE IS THE MODIFIED transcript that I handed to my students. It only includes the sections that we watched.

After watching the TED talk, which my students absolutely loved and were fascinated by, we went back to our charts and talked further about what we understood the danger of a single story to be and mean.  Again, their comments were inspiring and hopeful and showed a real growth in their thinking.

After talking about the idea of single stories, it was time to take a look at some actual examples.  So we began by taking a closer look at the single story often told about Native American people. I wanted to first give students a visual to represent the single story that is often told about an entire group of people. So we began with a Google image search. Several years ago, I was introduced to the idea of using Google image searches in order to reveal misconceptions and biases that are often associated with terms that we search. In many ways, these image searches can reveal to us the single stories that our society holds of a variety of people and places. So I typed Native Americans into our Google image search and displayed the results for my students to look at.

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As they viewed the results, I asked them to use THIS FORM in order to write down what they noticed as they looked at this representation of the single story often told about Native people.  I then asked them to share their observations. Some of the observations that my students made were that almost every image looked like it was from a long time ago, the clothing they saw looked very different from the clothing that they see around them today, they noticed the presence of feathers and headdresses in almost every image, they noticed that all of the images included people who looked sad or serious and they also noticed that many of the images included weapons.

After talking a bit about how these images revealed a single story, I shared that we could use questions in order to push ourselves to think more deeply about what we are seeing and, more importantly, what we might NOT be seeing. We have been working on asking better questions and understanding the different purposes of questions, so this idea fit in with the work we had been doing as readers. We looked at how questions can help us to uncover stories we might not see or hear otherwise. We then looked at the kinds of questions that might help us to push beyond the single stories we are presented with:

After thinking about these ideas, I asked my students to go back to their notes and think of some questions we could ask that might help us to push beyond this single story. Again, we took time to share their questions. This was one of those moments, when I had to stop myself from visibly cringing. Because some of their questions, they revealed what a terrible job our school system has done teaching these kids about the people they share this world with. But these questions, they were also a sign of how brave and willing these kids were to learn more and realize how much they did not know. Some of their questions were hard to hear. Questions such as, “Do Native American people still exist today?” and “Did Native American people live anywhere else other than in teepees?” and “How has our country treated Native American people in the past?” Again, the questions are hard to hear. And NOT because there is anything at all that these incredible kids were doing wrong, but rather because they reveal our own failures as adults and as a society.

So I listened to their questions and I thanked them so much for asking them and I told them that in the next few days, we would look at additional resources in order to try to help us to answer some of these questions and grow our understanding.

The next day, we came together again and I asked my students to pull back out the notes they took yesterday and to look them over once again. We thought back to the single image that we saw reflected in the images we saw yesterday and then we began to think about who was telling the story in those images. I suggested that many of those images were images that were telling the story of Native Americans by people who were outside of that group of people. The images told a story ABOUT Native Americans and not necessarily BY Native Americans.

I asked my students to think about how kids were describe themselves and how a group of adults might describe kids. I asked them to think about which might be more accurate, which might be more positive and which might carry more of a single story. My students quickly identified that the adults (especially those who did not know them and love them) would tell a much different, much less accurate, story about who fifth graders were.

In this same way, I suggested, when stories are told ABOUT groups of people, especially groups of people who have traditionally been denied power in our society, those stories tend to be overly simplistic, inaccurate and often negative.

One of the easiest ways that we can push beyond the single story is to seek out stories told BY people who are part of the group of people that you are trying to learn about. I brought up the Own Voices movement and the push to find writers who can write about their own lives and experiences instead of relying on white authors to do that work.

And then, I wanted to help my students to see this idea in real life. So, I shared a collection of Tweets that I had gathered, that used the #NotYourNativeStereotype hashtag in order to share stories and images of Native Americans telling their own stories in order to prove that they were not a stereotype. I scrolled through the collection I had created and again, I asked my students to use the second page of THIS FORM in order to write down what they were seeing.

As they started to share what they noticed, I realized how quickly they were forming new understandings of Native American people simply by looking at images shared from Native American people themselves. As they spoke of what they noticed, I could almost hear the “us” and “them” beginning to fade away. Instead, we began to speak about humans. Humans with a culture. Humans with a presence in today’s world. Humans with something to teach my students.

After looking at those Tweets, we added in another resource. We then watched THIS short video from Teen Vogue that has Native American girls sharing the truth about common misconceptions about Native Americans. Again, after watching, I asked the students to capture, in writing, what they were now able to see that they had missed before.

Again, we shared our thinking and, again, I was in awe of how thoughtful my students were being as we did this work.

After walking through this whole process as we thought about a group of people, I wanted to walk through the process again, but this time using a place.

Several weeks ago, I saw a post about a book called A Beautiful Ghetto. The book was a collection of photographs taken by Devin Allen, a photographer who became well-known for the pictures he took during the protests in Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray.  As soon as I was able to glimpse the images, I knew this was a book that I needed to share with my students. When the book arrived, I sat in awe of the images and spent a full hour by myself looking at the pictures. Not all of the pictures were ones that my students would be ready to discuss, but I knew that these photographs and the story of the man who took them would push our thinking around the idea of the danger of a single story.

I began by sharing a bit of the story of Devin Allen. I shared that he grew up in Baltimore and that when the city was protesting the death of Freddie Gray, he realized that the city he knew and loved was being shown in a way that did not match what he, himself, knew about Baltimore. So he started taking pictures. He wanted to show that there was more to the protests than what was being shown in the media and he also wanted to show that there was more to Baltimore than what most people understood. So, his book, A Beautiful Ghetto was his way of telling his own story and the story of the place he called home.

I began by sharing the page where Devin Allen explains his own understanding of the term “ghetto” and “uprising.”

Then, I gathered my students close and shared with them some photographs of Baltimore than might reinforce or match the single story that many of us carry of areas that are considered to be the ghetto. For my students, we also talked about the south side of Chicago and the single story many of us in the northwest suburbs of Chicago carry of the south side.

As I showed these images to my students, we again returned to THIS FORM, in order to write down what we noticed and thought about the single story often told about Baltimore. Here are some of the images we looked at:

I asked the students to share what the noticed and we talked about how we often think about “bad” areas of a city and we don’t usually think about the people, but rather the things that are run down and abandoned. We carry these single stories with us because those are the stories that we have been told. And, those are the ONLY stories that we have been told. I made sure to point out that Devin Allen did choose to include these images because they are INDEED a part of Baltimore and he wanted his readers to know that. But they are not the ONLY parts of Baltimore.

So after this discussion, we looked at a few more of Devin Allen’s photographs and we wrote down what else we noticed and what new understandings we reached. Here are some of the photographs that we looked at:

And as we began our discussion, I was amazed at the understandings that we were reaching. We started to talk about how THESE images exist in the SAME SPACE as the images that we first looked at. These images are not somewhere else, not in a different area, they both exist together. The difference comes in what Devin Allen chose to photograph. Where we choose to point the camera, when we choose to take the picture, what lens we are looking through, all of that matters in how others view a story.

We started to talk about how those we entered into a place like Baltimore, just to take pictures for others to see, they might choose to take pictures of the most shocking and disturbing images because that is what they saw and thought others would be drawn to look at. But when a photographer is truly FROM a place, when the place being photographed is his home, then he understands that there is more to reveal to the audience. Then he knows the joy of a place, then he knows the places and the people that make that place a home for others and then he can choose to take pictures of that other side of a place.

These decisions, they matter. They affect how we, the audience, comes to know and understand a place, or even a group of people. Again, we came back to the importance of own voices and the importance of seeking our the kinds of resources that can push us beyond the single story we are often told.

This conversation was probably one of our most powerful. I was in awe of my students and I was left so hopeful for this world. It was one of those moments when I felt so lucky to be a teacher, when I felt so lucky to be able to do this work.

After walking through this whole process twice, of pushing beyond the single story told to us, first of an entire group of people and second of a place, I knew it was time to release this work to my students. Their work would be what I would collect as evidence of how they were able to notice single stories, ask questions to move us beyond those single stories and use additional resources in order to understand multiple perspectives on a group of people or a place.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, our inquiry at this point in the year, remains guided. I am teaching them the process through which to walk when looking into something more closely. At this point, I am still providing them with resources. As we move through the year, we will work to learn how to gather resources ourselves, but at this point, I want to keep our work moving along by focusing on learning well FROM those resources.

So I asked my students to use THIS DOCUMENT WITH GATHERED RESOURCES in order to think about the single story of a group of people or a place. They were asked to look at each of the resources and then select one group of people or place that they would like to think more about. The first resources were those that I thought might reinforce or point out the single story that is often told about groups of people or places. On the first day, I asked them to use THIS FORM again in order to write down what they noticed and what they thought about the single story told about this group of people. They were then asked to write down questions that might help them move beyond these single stories.

The next day, I shared THIS DOCUMENT WITH ADDITIONAL RESOURCES and asked students to return to the group of people or place that they thought about yesterday. Today, they would be looking at resources that I believed would push them to think beyond the single stories they saw yesterday. Again, this would be evidence of how they were able to deepen their thinking and understanding as they looked at a variety of resources.

As the students worked, I was able to go around and confer and also celebrate how our thinking had deepened. It is not that we are in a perfect place of understanding, but we have come so far from where we started. These are skills that we will continue to build on, but this work has done such wonders for my heart and for my sense of hope.

I remain amazed at what is possible when you help children to look at the world in a different way. Several times throughout this work, my students asked me why I was considering this work part of our reading work. My response was simple. Reading is how we take in information and when we take in information without thinking carefully and critically about it, we end up understanding the world in a less accurate way. To be better readers of this world, we need to think about the information we are taking in, through words, through images, through the media that surrounds us. When we are more aware of the messages we are receiving, then we have more power over them. And that is THE most important kind of reading work that I can think of.

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