The Danger of a Single Story: A Back to School Reflection

Posted by Ariel Vente on September 13, 2015

As the school year gets under way, many of us are thinking about, planning and setting up our classrooms. We are thinking about our new students, and how we are going to plan our school year to meet the needs of all our students.

The beginning of the school year is so vital in not only establishing routines, but also for learning about the children who are in front of us.

Earlier this summer, I had the honour of facilitating a 3-day Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario Summer Academy course for teachers entitled “Rethinking The First Few Weeks of School: Building an Inclusive Classroom”. During the course, we viewed the popular TED Talk by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”. Adichie’s TED talk has me reflecting more deeply about the upcoming school year:

What single stories will I have about the students who will be in my classroom? Will I have a particular bias toward some because of what their previous teacher has said about them? How high will expectations be for students because they are from a so-called “inner-city” community? What single stories do students bring into the classroom about themselves that might affect the way they see themselves and their ability to learn/succeed?

The single stories that we carry can be so harmful; these single stories form the basis for stereotypes we hold and enable us to make often incorrect assumptions about the students we teach. However, the single stories of our students that we inherit or build can be debunked. We can do this by building community within our classrooms and by really getting to know each of our students. Here are several strategies I have used to build community and get to know the students in my classroom:

  • have students complete interest surveys or multiple intelligence quizzes
  • have students keep personal journals
  • start the year with icebreaker activities
  • check-in with students by doing community circles, and gauge the “temperature” of the classroom.
  • take time for simple conversations with students in the hall, at recess or during writing/reading conferences.

When we realize there is more than a single story about each of the students in our class, we are better able to differentiate our instruction, but also engage our students in learning because they know that we want to know about them, and we care about them as people. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize”

Watch Dr. Claude Steele, social psychologist and dean of the Stanford School of Education, talk about the impact of stereotype threat on student self perception and achievement with Facing History.

Read about how to diffuse stereotype threat in Dr. Geoffrey Cohen's research on self-affirmation and social psychological interventions

Topics: Safe Schools, Urban Education, Strategies, Lesson Ideas


This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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