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The First Lesson: You Are More Than a Single Story

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ve seen the WVCTE community sharing some ways we prepare for heading back into our classrooms.  I gave you my “get pumped” play-list.  Jeni Gearheart shared a letter to her future students that punched us all right in the teacher-feels.  And Karla Hilliard gave us a real-time first day of school reflection.

I know I’m not alone in saying that with all that inspiration, I floated through most of that first week of school fueled by gallons of coffee and a certainty that I’m right where I need to be, making the world a better place.

But now it’s week two.  The honeymoon is over, and it’s time to really get to know the 130 young people I’m going to be spending the next 9 months with.  Because that’s the key to building a good writing and reading community in an English class: building relationships and trust.  Writing can be a difficult and often personal activity, and for many students, also a terrifying task. So if I’m going ask kids to do something that is for many of them scary and uncomfortable, I need them to trust me and each other.

But this early in the year, we still don’t know each other.  Kids are scoping each other out, sneaking peeks at each other out of the corner of their eyes.  And I can see them making those snap judgements:  jock, nerd, band geek, skater, redneck… And they’re looking at me.  And I can see them taking my measure–forming already the idea of who they think I am in their heads.

This is a critical time. I want to set an academic tone for the year, but also I want them get comfortable, feel safe.  And learn to trust me and each other.

So for my “real” lesson, I do both.

Introducing… the theme of my English 1 1 class:  The Danger of a Single Story.

The seed for this is an extraordinary TED talk by Nigerian writer, Chiamanda Adichie.

I first use this activity as an re-introduction to “close-reading” and analysis of non-fiction text.  Before showing the lecture, I give a brief overview of the rhetorical situation.  Occasionally, I will pass out a handout with a few guiding analysis questions like the one here.

Then I show the TED Talk.

If you have never seen this lecture, Adichie discusses the danger of only having a “single story” of someone.  This can to lead to stereotypes and misconceptions.  She makes her point through a series of anecdotes, and I also use this as an opportunity to introduce some rhetorical effects. I have students identify a few anecdotes in the speech and discuss their effect on her thesis/purpose.

.Additionally, I use this as a chance to bring up the “Hillbilly” single story that most of the world has of our region.  Our kids in Appalachia will immediately understand this stereotype.  If you need help with this, show them this clip from HeeHaw.

After the Hee-Haw clip, I let students talk socratically for about 20 minutes about single stories they have encountered, and how this has affected them.  I encourage them to think about their physical characteristics, extra-curricular involvements, socio-economic status, and how others have interpreted these characteristics and qualities.

After the discussion, I pass out Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” I use this piece as a different way into the idea of the “single story”.   In an earlier blog post, I also used this particular story to demonstrate how I address vocabulary as a part of literary analysis.  Check out that post HERE.

This usually takes about 3 days to read, analyze, discuss, and pull out vocab from the Marquez piece.  While we read and analyze this story, I make sure to refer to the villager’s creation of Esteban’s identity as their (the villagers) “single story” of Esteban.  There is a lot in this story, and you can do a lot of different things with it.  It also was originally written in Spanish, so if you have ESL students, you can give them the Spanish language version to make them feel more comfortable as they start  a new (and seemingly daunting) English class.

Once we have finished working with the short story, I then give students their first “real” writing assignment of the year.

The Prompt:
Have you ever encountered a single story? Tell me about a time someone had a single story of you, or tell me about a time you had a single story of someone else, only to discover that you were wrong.  Using Adichie’s TED Talk as a mentor text, provide at least 1 anecdote that illustrates your encounter with the single story, and why having that single story was dangerous.

I like to have them write this in the class period, so that it’s a pretty controlled environment.  I want them to think about Adichie’s structure and form, and how she uses anecdote to support her claims regarding the single story.

This writing works as a first assignment for a number of reasons. 

  1. Students feel very comfortable and more confident when asked to write narratively as opposed to analytically.  So this is good warm-up and confidence builder.
  2. All students can identify with stereotypes, and so the task is not overly daunting, especially after 4-5 days of discussing why stereotypes and single stories are problematic.
  3.  It allows me to read something about my students that will help me understand who they are, who others think they are, and how they WANT to be viewed.


And there are many riffs on this task–you can do a visual collage instead of a essay, a multi-modal assignment using PowerPoint or sway. There are many possibilities.

After this, I segue into William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” which is in most English 11 anthologies.  Our WV curriculum in English 11 is aligned with the development of American literature, so  The Danger of the Single Story becomes the theme of the course very organically.

Over the course of the year, we return to the single story again and again as Bradford’s Puritans encounter the Native Americans, as Walt Whitman hears America Singing, as Martin Luther King Jr. recites his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and as Zora Neale Hurston tells us how it feels “to be Colored Me.”

What I hope my students take away from this as young people and as West Virginians is that nobody is ever just “one thing.”  Many people in the rest of the country have a “single story” of West Virginia, but we know and our students know that we are so much more that the stereotype to which we are so often reduced.  And as Adichie says…

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I hope you all manage to regain paradise this month in your classrooms.  Happy September, everyone!  Keep changing the world.

WVCTE is wondering…
How do you see yourself incorporating this lesson into your own curriculums?  Do you have a great intro lesson into your course?  Share it with us!  Leave us your questions or comments here, or find us on Facebook or on Twitter (@WVCTE).

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Dear English Teachers of West Virginia,

We are a group of passionate teachers who are committed to providing our students with the highest quality instruction and most valuable learning experience we can offer. We believe English teachers throughout our state have a story to tell, expertise to share, and the ability to change and shape the lives of our students. 

We believe when teachers are connected, have a voice, and are plugged in, students benefit. WVCTE provides teachers a professional experience that inspires greatness, so they can reach their students in ways that result in learning that matters and endures.   

Please join us in uniting West Virginia educators. 

Let’s inspire greatness together. 

WVCTE Executive Committee