The following post was written by a college classmate of mine for her blog, Footprints in the Air. She recently finished her first year of teaching ninth grade English in Miami through Teach for America. While we both teach the same subject, she teaches a student used to a diverse, urban ocean community, while my students are overwhelmingly white and live in an extremely rural, quiet community hours from the nearest ocean. Her experience is more closely related to “Freedom Writers,” while my students identify much more with “Friday Night Lights.” Still, the lessons she learned and taught her students are applicable to nearly any school and teacher in the US. If you have some free time, please take some minutes to read some of her posts. Her wisdom is inspiring.
Her post was inspired by a 2009 TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie. In the beginning of the clip, Ms. Adichie describes her childhood love of reading. She grew up in Nigeria but read books by British novelists; as a result, she grew up assuming that all Brits played in the snow, discussed the weather, and drank ginger beer. She attended an American university, and was surprised when her new roommate was shocked that she spoke English so well, and listened to Mariah Carey instead of “tribal music”. She learned that she and her roommate both fell victim to the “single story” – assuming that everyone from one group shared the same narrative. “So that is how to create a single story: show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
A week and a half ago I stood in front of my students and unfolded a story. I narrated to them about the ‘single story’ people have about students in intensive reading classes. I described my introduction during ETO (district) training and how low the stories in our Edge book curriculum were. I told them that there was a choice to be made. I could accept the single story of an IR+ students level and what people thought them capable of, or I could reject it and the curriculum and forge ahead on a new path. I knew that I could not go through a year with the students I had just met and accept that level of work from them. My kids have grown this year and they believe it. I thanked them for taking the journey with me and trusting me to see them safely to the other side.
This story was told at the end of their own oral presentations in which they rejected their own personal single stories through narratives written in detailed vignettes. The idea for this end of year project came from the TEDTalk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story” given by author Chimamanda Adichie of Nigeria. Adichie’s focus is that stories are powerful and when we get into the nuances of who tells them, when they tell them, and how they tell them, you really see how stories have been used to marginalize individuals and groups throughout history. Adichie’s TEDTalk is filled with poignant vignettes and insightful comments, but the one that stuck with myself, and later the class, the most is when she stated, “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.”
I knew the moment I heard that quote that this could be something powerful to do with my students to end the year. It was important for it to be the end of the year because this was a project of vulnerability and trust. I wanted students to dig deep within their lives and reach to the harsh realities of how people viewed them and what single perspectives have plagued their lives. Some students insisted at first that they had no personal single story being told about them, but once they really reflected, they found that everyone, including them, had a single story to share.
I knew the project would be meaningful, and it has truly helped my class be engaging and purposeful as the year comes to an end, but I do not think I even knew the length to which my students would blow me away with their heart, courage, and willingness to be vulnerable in front of their classmates.
The students had to present an oral presentation of their project, and I could not begin to tell you the amounts of time my heart swelled with pride or my eyes filled with tears. For some, there was not a dry eye in the room, such as when one girl shared how people think she is mean and conceited but she keeps that hard exterior because she has so much responsibility at home. She also told about how she has to focus on her dancing because after witnessing her brother get shot five times and killed, she knows it’s what he wanted her to do. Or when one male student shared how his mother and sisters call him ‘retarded’ and started tearing up talking about how he feels on most days that he won’t make it and won’t be anything in life. There’s no better teaching moments than when that happens and the first people to respond and get up with hugs are your other male students. And no better moment than when a student comes out to his classmates and not a single harsh word is said, just a round of thunderous applause. I wish I could recreate the powerpoints of a student declaring that he would not be his father and how he managed to get out of a gang and now has a 3.0 GPA that gets higher each marking period. And student after student saying within their narrative that this is what everyone else might think, but I’m going to make my own reality. The only way to reject a single story is to write your own.
his single story was brought upon himself. (M.C.)
“I showed everyone that I was committed to doing the right things and really letting my past go because living that past life was like on life support about to die.” (A.W.)
“So at that moment I knew that in this world there will always be someone better than you. So I just work harder…” (D.T.)
“…the pain and sorrow I’ve been through I let it come to me that every stranger needs to know you because if not then if they see any little image you share they see you as that.” (M.C.)
“One day I am going to look at myself in the mirror and say, “It’s time to speak up for who you are.” I thought to myself I was going to say, “I’ll live or die on the strength of your judgment, but first let me say who I am.” (A.W.)
“I was a young African American who wanted to be somebody in life, and made awesome grades and passed all my tests…” (A.W.)
“Every day I go to school and I wonder if I haven’t made a mistake of having sex would my life had been better. I don’t know.” (M.H.)
“If there are disadvantages of being a young mother, of course there are advantages also. I can say that I am proud to be a young mother. Motherhood cannot be measured by age. It’s on how much love, patience, and sacrifice you give…I really didn’t care what people said because a baby is a blessing. –There is no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” (T.J.)
“My sister said that I’m slow because I’m in a slow class and that’s making me feel that I can’t do nothing right.” On the outside I’m a bravado, but in the inside, I feel like a knife is stabbing me over and over again.” (D.J.)
“I think all those things are good but me and my dad are two different people. People say somewhere down the line I will mess up. But I won’t and sometime people will see me one day without comparing me to my dad…See me and my dad have many comparings but people have to know we are two different people. This is my life, my dad had fail in his life. I still have a chance, and I am going to make my dream come true.” (F.J.)
“I never played the game of football with great passion ever since. People will always say now I”m not good how I used to…I guess I never played the game fo football the same because of my parents divorce. My dad will always come to my games when my mom and dad was together. Now my mom is my support and I play good but not as good as if my dad was here.” (D.L)
“My whole life and still to this very day, my father hasn’t been in my life. I don’t know how it feels to have a father figure in my life, but I do know it had a big effect on my life. I’ve always been that boy that was different. I loved to stay inside. I played with dolls and cried about undersized things. I’m a mother’s boy. I’ve been around all girls. I even have two sisters, no brothers. So I’ve been exposed to females. The way they walk, talk, act, dres and feel. Basically, I’m transferring to a female. I didn’t know any better. I believed only women existed…I realized I had women ways by 2nd grade. I was like a Barbie out of a box. I was walking like Naomi Campbell and talking like Beyonce. I didn’t know any better. I just knew I was living. By 3rd grade, I transformed into a woman. A woman trapped in a boy’s body. I was mystic…but like I said, I was living…I learned words can hurt me, only if I let them.” (S.T.)
“I’ve learned that people can accept you the way you are and the way you used to be. Not a lot of people laugh when you tell them where have you been and what you have been through. Single stories can effect someone horribly, but if you find the right people then the single story would fade slower and slower. There is nothing that can’t be risen above.” (M.C.)
“I learned that I’m not the only one who was being stereotyped about myself and things I do. My classmates had some problems of their own. I believe everyone of my classmates can make it if they just keep focus on one thing and one thing alone, their future.” (L.H.)
“So, I use school as rejecting all the single stories people have about me.” (A.W.)
“I learned that I have a lot of potential. My vocabulary and my attitude improved. A single story is very good to know because you can talk about your life and what you have been through.” (M.S.
“Because there is going to be people who hate you, and there’s going to be people who love you. Just get rid of the bad things and keep good things.” (D.T.)
“During this project I learned that my class really cares about me and my feelings I also felt like I can tell them anything I wanted. I really trusted my class when I was talking. Nobody laughed at me and when I was finished they all clapped for me. I felt like this class really appreciated me.” (A.W.)
“What I learned from my single story is that people expected me to be nothing in life…It’s either I prove people wrong or I just be the person they expected me to be.” (Y.B.)
“When Ms. Younge told the class her single story about what people were saying about the students of the IR+ class, I felt like those people were judgmental and wrong about us.” (K.C.)
“I learned that a single story is about you and nobody else. I think that everybody have a single story about them they just had to find it…because the things I have learned about my classmates is that they all had problems in their lifetime. And I am not the only one in the class that needs help. Sometime I should just worry about others and not worry so much about myself” (J.T.)
“It’s better to reject them than encounter them. Some things you just have to overcome…because at the end of the day you know the truth about yourself.” (D.B.)
“I learned that single stories can either make you a better person or bring you down. Single stories have also taught me that rejecting a single story helps you to move on.” (J.S.)
“It’s important to reject a single story because you don’t want to live the life that people say you do.” (H.G.)