Telling Stories

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, speaks eloquently in a TED Talk about the dangers of the “single story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By single story, she means reducing a person or a group of people to a one dimensional description or assumption, which we in turn carry with us for years. We cling to these insufficient bios of each other for many reasons – often it goes back to our own experiences and stories. The danger of the single story is that it produces an incomplete picture of those around us.

During the course of a school year, many of us find ourselves carrying a single story about someone. Our students may have a single story about a few of their teachers. We may hear them say, “This teacher is fun and approachable.” “That teacher is hard and does not seem to care about my success.” “She is old.” Adults can carry single stories with them too. “She is so smart, she can do anything.” “She is always late to everything.” “That student is never engaged in my class.”

When reducing others to a single story, we miss all of the rich details and experiences that comprise a person’s full character. The narratives of our lives are more complex than a sentence or two based on someone else’s assumptions about us. Let’s admit, however, that it is human nature to infer, assume, and condense a person’s story into something pocket-sized. We need these stories to be flat, small and portable because we need to make room in our minds for everything else.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes Peter Senge’s theory of a “ladder of inference”.  “The first five rungs of the ladder are: 1) observing a person’s behavior; 2) selecting data from what we observe;  3) interpreting that data through the lens of previous experience;  4) making assumptions; and 5) drawing conclusions about that person.” Our problem when operating within the context of our busy lives is that we climb that ladder far too quickly. We draw conclusions based on insufficient data. Taking the necessary time to talk to each other is the magic that builds our narrative and gives us the scaffolding to understand the complexities of each other’s worlds. Listening to each other’s fuller stories is probably the most important way we spend time in our community.

Every adult on our campus knows that our students need to be heard and understood. We also know that students “do not care what we know until they know that we care.” We have to build authentic relationships with our students before they want to learn about chemistry or British lit. Out of these relationships, a simple label given to another person is now a paragraph of description. From a single story grows a data center of connections and inferences.

Thankfully we are part of a small school and small community, which allows us to form meaningful narratives about each other. Most of our students and teachers have been together for years now and have had time to form intricate and complex stories of each other. We carry volumes of stories about the members of our community and are always called to create more stories in each class in each new school year.


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