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.

15 thoughts on “Single Stories and Flipping the Script”

  1. Wow….what an insightful and thought provoking blog post. It has raised many questions in my mind too and made me reflect on personal experiences. I remember being told by a colleague that I was “culturally white” when I described myself as identifying as both Asian and European. I also wonder how to address examples of single stories in education – not just culturally but also related to gender – stereotypes and language that often pigeonholes children and adults (am I the only one who cringes every time I’m referred to as a girl or lady?) As a parent I have experience of working with somebody from a community organisation who dismissed autism as not a condition she believed in – again a dangerous single story. I wholeheartedly agree that their is a disconnect between the open-minded approach we instil in our students and the wider community; however, I see students as agents of change who are educating their parents. Recently a parent told me that his daughter “made him think about the world and education in a different way as she is always questioning everything.” His pride in her and her open communication made me hopeful. Thanks again such a reflective post Dana.

    1. Thanks Anita. There are a lot of amazing contemporary artists who also incorporate ideas of “social norms” and flipping stereotypes that I want to bring into the art room this year, as they stir a lot of meaningful questions. Have you seen the work of Kehinde Wiley, Barbara Kruger, Mary Ellen Croteau or Erwin Wurm? They all question the status quo in new and creative ways. Check them out!

      1. Thanks Dana. I will certainly be checking these artists out and finding you for an in person chat. Challenging “social norms” is certainly something I would like to bring into our classroom discussions and the work of these artists would be a meaningful way of doing so.

  2. Dana ~ I have just tweeted this message out to the universe too – this is literally one of the best posts I have read about international mindedness. For me, this has doubled the value of our whole school goal and using SPELTAC to communicate our learning. One of the objectives of using this social platform to share our learning was to raise awareness that we are all teachers of language; and building on Dr. Gini Rojas’ work with us, the strategies we use are not just for ELL but ALL learners. Your post resonated with me on so many levels. Like you, I have a myriad more questions about what as a teacher I should do about this, and just where my responsibilities fall.

    Had I been there for the Santa or pink moments, would I have interrupted? Should you have interrupted? I am conflicted. On the one hand, our author-in-residence, Ellen, gave our students an experience none of us could have replicated because we’re not published authors or illustrators. Ellen herself is a TCK; did we make assumptions based on how she looked plus how she spoke, about what her perspectives might be? Ellen’s perspectives after all, are 100% valid – we teach our students that everyone is entitled to their own perspective and indeed we “encourage students ……[to] understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right” (IB mission).

    Through SPELTAC, our role as stewards of our students’ education reveals yet another complex and challenging dynamic related to international mindedness and what and how we employ language. I know Dana that you are always “culturally sensitive [and] open-minded” in your art lessons, and that you would never rely on your students hearing a single story. I am also interested to know how our students interpreted Ellen’s perspectives.

    1. The funny thing is that I had written a whole other post at first and this topic was only a sentence or two of it. Then as I was rereading before publishing it, I realized that I had a lot more to say about the topic that was leaps and bounds more interesting than the original post! Haha, a great reminder of the creative process for me 🙂 I guess it’s the conversation that matters in the end. We can only begin to understand even the tip of someone else’s perspective if there is a dialogue. So looking back, I wish I would’ve taken the time to talk to Ellen about it one-on-one…to say, “Hey I noticed this happening as you were talking to the kids…did you?” or “You know, maybe the reason the kids aren’t coming up with the answers you’re expecting is because of our focus on inquiry, and being open-minded to different perspectives.” I think that would have helped me to have started a conversation and understood where her line of questioning was coming from.

  3. Interestingly, a 100-150 red/pink was the colour of boys (life and blood) and blue girls (The virgin Mary’s colour), at least in the west.
    Purple/green was the colour of Christmas and, in particular, the colour of Father Christmas/Santa and then Coke hijacked it and made it red as an advertising campaign and the rest is history. So, these colour meanings are not fixed even within one culture.

    1. I’m interested to know more about what the first statistic you quoted is about.

      I definitely agree that color meanings are cultural. I always learn something from my KG students in our color unit, as they explain their color choices in artworks and their meanings. They draw on such a wide range of experiences with their families, at school, from their travels, and the tech/media/consumer culture they encounter daily.

  4. What a great blog post. I really enjoyed listening to the “Danger of a single story”. Agree whole heartedly how we stereotype people based on what we have read from stories, books and even movies. We even perceive countries to be dangerous based on movies we watch that show violent drug cartels running around. Thank you for your great blog post and making us think about preconceptions.

  5. Dana…awesome post! A great Monday holiday read and I have been in SO many situations where I questioned whether or not I should step in…whether or not it was my place to do so or how others would interpret it. At the end of the day, I try to remind myself, that “the best way for evil to perpetrate, is for good people to do nothing.”
    So, I try and evaluate the situation based on how much this could or could not hurt somebody. And I also keep in mind that hindsight is 20/20!
    If I were you, I don’t think I would have done anything at that moment…and if I had time to reflect on it, I think I would want to approach her and just talk about how diverse-minded our students are – it would have likely been a topic she wanted to talk about to. Within that conversation, I’d hope I’d be building up enough trust to say to her your stance on “colours”. Pink is not and should not be a girl colour. I’d also definitely check in with that class of kids about colours. I think that yes, it is “just colours” but it’s one of many “dangerous stories”.

    Paula’s comment about Ellen being a TCK is something I totally forgot about when reading your post too. I think we definitely make assumptions about people and the way they look and what they wear without even knowing it…and sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong…but I think we just have to “flip the script” to have an open-mind. I know you certainly do, Dana! 🙂

  6. Hi Dana,
    I really enjoyed this blog post!
    The “pink means girly” section of the article resonated with me a lot. I find it so interesting that every year I teach, I have to confront this misconception with my students. The thing that shocks me each year, is that so many kindergarteners hold this belief, regardless of their cultural background. I’ve always wondered where this stereotype comes from, if children from all over the world have encountered it – does it emerge within the classroom? Is it something they heard a peer say once and they are parroting it? Or is it something that stems from the media and consumerism – students seeing ads on TV or characters in movies that promote these ideas?
    You mentioned being conflicted about whether you should have interrupted Ellen and changed the course of the dialogue. However, no matter what we do, students are going to experience conversations that challenge the culturally sensitive, open-minded discourse we have at school, and I think that our job is to give them the tools they need to think critically and the confidence to speak up for what they believe. We won’t always be around when conversations like this occur, and so we can’t always step in to say our two cents – but we can hope that the conversations that we’ve had in the classroom have resonated with our students and allow them to confront these stereotypes with an open mind and a critical eye.

    1. Thanks Sarah. I like the thought that the ways we’re preparing students with tools to think critically will help them to process, speak up and consider multiple perspectives. So much of what we teach can at times seem implicit, but I see students repeating and modelling themselves after the adults in their lives constantly. While we are pretty explicit with PYP attitudes, International Mindedness, and the Learner Profile, even the ways we self-talk, behave with colleagues, and engage with students can greatly influence their ideas about social and cultural norms.

  7. Thank you Dana – I loved this blog post. ‘The danger of the single story’ is one of my favourite TED talks, and something that I think we should start each year off reminding ourselves of…..and to regularly check ourselves on whether we are placing a single story on our students and parents. Despite being rather quiet on the blogging front I have been doing a lot of reading within my inquiry group and my focus is very much on connecting with the parents as much as with the children. One of the books suggested by Marcelle, (Rothstein-Fisch, C & Trumbull, E (2008) Managing Diverse Classrooms – How to Build on Students’ Cultural Strengths) included a lot of research on the cross-cultural understanding between schools and families – and the challenges this can bring. What was overwhelming in research findings was that that when schools sought cultural information from families, and when classrooms reflected both dominant culture and home culture, relationships with parents flourished. I think this is certainly something I need to do more of!

    1. I’ll have to check that book out, Liz. I’d definitely like to investigate more meaningful connections between students’ home cultures and the art they are making and think that Spotlight on the Arts nights at ISPP could be a gateway into that relationship building.

  8. Great post Dana. I too enjoyed this TED talk as I made connections to some of my misconceptions about certain countries extra when I was younger. I think we can all reflect on times when we have realised we have been operating from a ‘Single Story’. Many factors impact on who we are and how we see the world. Like our students and their learning, people’s journeys are just as diverse. I think that is way it is important to remind ourselves to be open to someone else’s perspective even if we don’t necessarily agree – show respect, patience and compassion. Thanks for your insight, very thought provoking.

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