Dangerous Stories in Best Teen Writing

Apr 28, 2013
Posted by: Abdel
Chimamnda Adichie

Chimamnda Adichie

Students at my school bring more than just a backpack full of books and pencils to class. Chicago may be deeply segregated by race and economics, but no matter whether they come from an area of high poverty, or
affluence, or anything in between, my students all have something in common: a
learned cultural context that colors the way they see themselves and the world
around them.
If I’m going to support the kind of critical thinking they’ll need
in college and life, I have to help students identify and question the preconceived
notions that they carry through the door.

I’ve found a lot of success using Chimamnda Adichie’s TED talk about “The Danger of a Single Story” to frame the year and begin this work.
Adichie, a Nigerian writer, defines “single stories” as narratives that capture
the totality of a human experience in a neat, digestible package.
A young Black
man with a hoodie is attached to a narrative of criminality. A woman with a
short skirt is attached to a narrative of immorality.  A muslim is attached to a narrative of violence and extremism. And so on.

Adichie says that these narratives are dangerous not
because they are wrong, but because they are incomplete.
They don’t allow us to
recognize a person’s whole humanity. She talks about how stories her mother told
her about “poor Africans” caused her to develop a single story about a young
boy who worked for their family in Nigeria. Later, ironically, her college
roommate used a similar narrative when she asked Adichie to play the music she
grew up on. Instead of the “tribal music” the roommate expected, she played Mariah

Many of my students identify right away with the concept
of single story. High school is full of them and for freshman it can be quite a
shock to learn all of the new narratives that peers (and adults) use to judge
their thought and behavior.
For those who struggle with the concept, it’s
helpful to have examples beyond Adichie because although her single story has
to do with race and ethnicity, her larger point is about all single stories. Best
Teen Writing is excellent because it provides a multitude of pieces where
writers are encountering and questioning single stories in a lot of different

In class I have students both read and watch the speech
and we talk about the concept of single stories and how present they are in our
lives. I’ll then set up stations around the room with printed copies of pieces
from the book. Maybe feature five or six pieces. Some possible titles:

  • Erika Jobson’s I
    Need to Practice My Farsi
  • Kamry Goodwin’s America’s
    Favorite Cookie
  • Christina Hirata’s Miss
    Hiroshima Nagasaki Says Her Piece
  • Caroline Kelly’s Mixed
  • Michelle Farina’s Women
  • Kelly Yeo’s Annenberg
  • Shruthi Deivasigamani’s Fun-Sized, Pocket Pal and Other Euphemisms for the Better Height
  • Julia Marino’s Let’s
    Cancel CSI

At each of these stations I would have students read the
piece and answer a few questions on a piece of chart paper to better understand
the Single Story being enforced.

  • What is the Single Story the author of the piece is
  • How do they encounter that Single Story?
  • Who is reinforcing the Single Story?
  • How does the Single Story affect the way people see them?
  • Where do you think people learned that Single Story?

After they’re finished, we’d report out the results and
try to find some commonalities between the stories. That would hopefully open
up our discussion of single stories and how they affect all of our lives.

Following the activity, I give students a narrative
writing project that asks them to recount a moment in their own lives when they
experienced (as a bystander, perpetrator, or victim) a Single Story. The
narrative needs to use descriptive detail to set a scene and should explain the
questions that they had to answer about the pieces. 



African American Lit

Submitted by Shaun on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:02.

I really love this Abdel. I had never heard of a Single Story before and when I teach my unit on stereotypes in 2 weeks I plan to bring that terminology into my class. I also plan on adapting your lesson for my African American Literature class when we discuss the implications of stereotypes in the media. Too often is the media quick to offer a single story without looking at the whole picture; and knowing our students are natural-born media junkies it begs the question: how do our students see other cultures through the media? Clearly, it is an incomplete picture.

Not Just Bystanders

Submitted by Matt on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:10.

Abdel, I too like the TED talk on single stories.  It is an important reminder to us as teachers as we teach literature to our students.  In CA we have a writing opportunity through the California Writing Project called "Upstanders, Not Bystanders."  This post reminds me that through reading these texts in Best Teen Writing, students could take the opportunity to share how they stood up rather than stood by, helping those around them to fight against the "single story"--the stereotypes--that are around them all the time.