I listened to “The danger of a single story” and my brain was taken in a million different directions. Past experiences, recent situations, self-reflection.
I began reflecting on the past week at ISPP and some opportunities I had to sit and watch an adult outside of the education community interact with our students. I listened as she tried to describe a character from a book and made comparisons to Santa, as they were both “jolly”. As she questioned our students as to why Santa was jolly and what jolly would look like, the kids stared back with little response. Many of the children she was speaking to had never celebrated Christmas. She was trying to get them engaged and excited by bringing a very Christian, Western character into the lives of a mixed culture, mixed faith student body. She was relying on a single story of what “jolly” meant and represented. The low energy response to her questions about a fictional character that, while known by the students, was not the only or most interesting character in their cultural experiences was amusing to me at first, but a bit concerning as well. This adult seemed well travelled, open-minded, and creative. Yet, she had no register of her audience and how culturally diverse their own stories were at the age of 9. I thought, “Do I do this? When might I have posed a similar question or conversation in the art room that just wasn’t culturally appropriate for my audience? When do I make assumptions based on a single story?”
I thought about my experience the first time a Chilean friend called himself “American” to me and I nearly corrected him before realizing…he was right. I always had this perception that “American” meant the U.S.A. and the rest of North and South America must’ve been called something else. It’s still a moment of awareness that I remember clearly as a time when my world view was opened from a simple conversation. It started with recognizing that label and then expanded to a load of other misperceptions I had.
But back to this most recent experience:
Later, she questioned another set of students about the meaning of a character if it was pink. When a student replied maybe it meant the character was “silly”, her immediate response was “Nooooo, come on guys…pink! What does pink mean? (no response)…Girly. If a character is pink, they’re girly! It’s a girl color.”
It completely ripped into the foundation that I’d set for many classes in art about exploring their own “personal color meanings” recently. This was a very cultural definition of a color being imposed on students whose school tells them to consider many perspectives of a topic before coming to an understanding of it. It was a single story of what pink should be in the mind of a creator.
But then again, it is important to understand, on a societal level, the stereotypical meanings of colors. If you travel to various ends of this Earth, it helps to know that the red signs on the road, no matter the shape or text inside, likely mean “stop”. That in many cartoons, white is innocent/good and black is evil. So where is the balance of understanding these meanings but not necessarily accepting them as the only truth? At what point do we “flip the script”?
Could this person have said to our students, “Yeah, some people might interpret pink as silly, others might say it’s girly…but color ALONE cannot be the only factor which you interpret the traits of a character. You need to look at the actions and behaviours, the context, setting, and time period. There are A LOT of factors that go into building a character, just like there are A LOT of factors that go into building YOU. Just because you have long hair or baggy clothes, or glasses should actually mean very little about who you are to someone on the outside looking in. So choose any color you want, but develop your character beyond their looks to show who they really are.” Isn’t this the type of culturally-responsive answer that we as humans should be instilling in our youth all over the world?
Haha, maybe that’s a little too in-depth of an answer, but isn’t that the message we’re getting at? As a PYP school, relying on single stories is the opposite of what we teach…which is also much of why, I suppose, we have very little use for text books.
So…How should I have reacted? Should I have interrupted and given my two cents? Should I bring it up with those students next time I see them or has the moment passed? Should I just focus on ways these messages can be conveyed in my art lessons and be sure to reinforce culturally sensitive open-mindedness via art? What are creative strategies I can use with my students to make sure they are not relying on single stories in their art pieces?
By no means do I think this person was aware of the disconnect between themselves and our students/PYP philosophies. She was well-intentioned and knowledgeable in many facets of what she did professionally. If anything, this experience helped me to reflect on the possible disconnect between our intentions as educators and the intentions of parents or society as a whole. This could very well have been a series of conversations held between a student and their mom/dad at home.