Single Stories and Flipping the Script

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.


This week, I worked with the Grade 4 team to introduce sketchnoting to our students as a way to visually record their thoughts and connections during field trips and visits from guest artists in the coming weeks.  As we prepared a basic outline of the first lesson, I was excited to see how students might use their linguistic backgrounds and visual thinking strategies to show understandings of a topic.

As we moved through a series of activities, I noticed…

  • The majority of students used English in their sketchnotes, even though we encouraged them to write in any language or way that made the most sense to them.  I wondered why.  Were they challenging themselves by writing in English or was this their true comfort level with the language?  Were they embarassed to be the only one to use their MT?  Are they just used to using English when writing “academically” at school?  Is it a “good” or “bad” thing that they all wrote in English?
  • Some students had a difficult time processing and choosing the most important information to include in their notes, so they ended up writing or drawing a lot rather than choosing key words along with simple pictures.  This is obviously something to work on: pulling out key words and concepts that can stand alone to represent and remind students of the overall message of a speaker or presenter.  This would be an easier approach to encourage use of MT as well.  What if the students worked in groups after a presentation to come up with a “word bank” of important concepts, then translated into their MT, then used only those words with pictures to sketchnote?  This seemed like a better solution and a way to encourage MT in the art room in a more structured, supportive way.
  • The most challenging part after choosing what information to sketchnote was deciding on a way to organize the flow of information.  This made me think about the different ways we all organize our thoughts in our minds and how that might change depending on the language we’re thinking in.  I found some simple flow charts for sketchnoting that I gave the 2nd and 3rd classes we taught.  This simple visual of ways to format your thoughts was useful to students who think in a variety of ways.
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After speaking with Anita Mathur about sketchnoting, I found that she is also teaching her Grade 2 classes to sketchnote as a way to show their understandings in class.  I’m seeing sketchnoting as a more and more valuable tool for students to express their thinking visually in a very fluid, flexible format, using multiple languages, icons, and connections.  The more I use it, the more students will find ways to break down language into visual representations of their understandings.

Apart from teaching my students, I’m finding sketchnoting to be a valuable tool as a TEACHER.  I attended a weekend workshop about Creative Arts Therapy this weekend and used the technique to document some of my learning:

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I find that sketchnoting, like art, works in cycles.  You listen, think, record, go back, add more, and so on.  It’s a great tool that I’m happy many parts of the elementary school are using as a way for students to develop their thinking creatively and in whatever way makes the most sense to THEM.

Spotlight on Family Interactions

The PYP art and music programs hold monthly “Spotlight on the Arts” events each month.  This is a time for families to come to school and learn about what their child is doing in music and art class.  The evening is always: student centered with student guided activities, connected to the current unit of inquiry, allows for families to participate in and give feedback to their child about their learning and growth.


Our first Spotlight on the Arts this school year was focused on Grade 3 families.  Their task was to interview each other (using prepared questions), draw family members based on their interview answers, and then share/reflect on commonalities and differences using an Exit Ticket.  As I observed families interacting in this portrait game together, I saw parents asking students to translate the written instructions and interviews on the table, as well as families speaking multiple languages within one conversation to understand the activity.  I recognized that many parents were at a BICS level of communication in English, but I hadn’t realized it because this I had typically only communicated with them in a more casual, social, and verbal setting.  When it came to more technical steps in writing, specific art terms to describe procedures, and routines that were not familiar to them, parents needed assistance from their child to better understand the activities.  It was wonderful to see how confident students were in explaining the activities (in multiple languages) and to allow them to be the teachers for an evening.

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I realized that while I had practiced the activity and procedures with my Grade 3 students to ensure confidence for the evening, many of the parents exhibited signs of nervousness and lack of confidence communicating verbally and visually at first.  However, with the encouragement of their children leading them, everyone completed the activities, using a range of multi-lingual strategies and seemed to have fun as well!  These interactions are always a point of learning for me, but perhaps I should be paying them more attention in future Spotlight evenings.  How am I using these events as a way to better understand students’ language profiles and backgrounds?  How can I fine tune my observations on these evenings to consider language learning in the art room?  These family interactions are moments of children communicating socially and academically, as a student and as a teacher.  There are so many levels of learning going on and I hope to use this as a new way of gleaning information about students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds throughout the year.

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