Transcending Single Stories | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie poses for a portrait in a red shirt.

Transcending Single Stories

Students reflect on how stereotypes and "single stories" influence our identities, how we view others, and the choices we make.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Culture & Identity
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students grappled with the question “Who am I?” and then created visual representations of their own identities that captured how they view themselves and how others view them. In this two-period lesson, students will continue to explore the relationship between the individual and society by examining how we often believe “single stories” and stereotypes about groups of people. After analysing a Gary Trudeau cartoon. Street Calculus, that depicts the ways we often categorise strangers in the first class period, students will spend the second class period watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thought-provoking TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story. Then, in the activities that follow, students will reflect on the human tendency of applying categories to the people and things we meet.

Trudeau and Adichie provide a framework for discussing the relationship between stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination with your students. A stereotype is a belief about an individual based on the real or imagined characteristics of a group to which that individual belongs. Adichie provides examples from her life that help illustrate how stereotypes can lead us to judge an individual or group negatively. Even stereotypes that seem to portray a group positively reduce individuals to categories and tell an incomplete or inaccurate “single story.” Prejudice occurs when we form an opinion about an individual or a group based on a negative stereotype. When a prejudice leads us to treat an individual or group negatively, discrimination occurs. It is important to provide students with opportunities to reflect on the relationship between the ways that we think about others and the ways that we treat others. Investigating the connections between stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination provides an important framework for exploring, in future lessons, the ways that people create “in” groups and “out” groups and the dangerous consequences these groupings can have when they are rooted in “single stories” rather than a more complete and nuanced narrative.

What is identity? What makes each of us who we are?

In what ways do “single stories” impact our own identities, how we view others, and the choices we make?

Students will recognise that it is a natural and common human behaviour to group the people and things we encounter in the world into categories, but that sometimes these categories become “single stories” that give us incomplete and simplistic understandings of the identities of others.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 7 activities
  • 1 image
  • 1 video
  • 1 reading
  • 1 handout

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Before introducing The Danger of a Single Story, it is important for students to first consider the word stereotype—a word they have likely heard often, but may not have explored in-depth. To do so, students will each create a concept map that will help them define stereotype, as well as establish the relationship between stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. We recommend that you create a class concept map for stereotype on paper, which can be saved and posted in the classroom for reference in future lessons.

In addition to stereotype, the following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Assumption
  • Prejudice
  • Discrimination

Discussions can happen in many formats ranging from the whole class to a small group. When prompts involve personal reflection, we recommend first using smaller, paired conversation strategies, rather than whole group discussions, as they allow for each student to share and be heard and for students to share more openly than when in front of a larger audience. For this reason, in this lesson we suggest using concentric circles to debrief the content of The Danger of a Single Story.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

Begin the lesson by giving students a few minutes to write in their journals in response to the following prompt:

Has someone ever made an assumption about you because of some aspect of your identity? Was it a positive assumption or a negative one? How did you find out about the assumption? How did you respond?

Since some students may not feel comfortable sharing their responses to this question, you may want to skip debriefing and move directly to the next activity.

  • Tell students that the assumptions we make about each other are sometimes based on stereotypes. Most adolescents have heard the word stereotype, but they might struggle to articulate a definition. Tell students that to help them reflect on their understanding of stereotype, they will create a concept map, a visual representation of the word using words, phrases, questions, the space on the page, lines, and arrows.
  • Lead students through the steps of the concept map teaching strategy, first generating a list of words, phrases, and ideas they associate with stereotypes, and then representing the relationship between their ideas on the page using spacing, lines, arrows, colour, and sizing.
  • Next have students share their concept maps in a think, pair, share. Invite them to revise their maps by adding new information they learned from their “pair, shares” that extends or challenges their thinking.
  • You might then facilitate a discussion in which students share ideas from their maps for you to add to a class concept map that you hang in the room, refer back to over the course of this scheme of work, and modify as their thinking about stereotyping develops.
  • Provide students with a dictionary definition of stereotype and ask them to identify similarities and differences between their concept maps and the definition. Then explain the relationship between stereotypeprejudice, and discrimination (see “Overview” section) and have students add these terms to their concept maps. Then ask students to share their ideas about where they placed prejudice and discrimination and how they connected them to other concepts on their maps.
  • Project or hand out Gary Trudeau’s cartoon Street Calculus and discuss students’ first impressions of the image by asking the following questions:

    • What’s happening in this image?
    • What do you notice about what each person is thinking in his thought bubble?
    • How are each of their thoughts similar? How are they different?
  • Next, analyse the cartoon more deeply by having students discuss the following questions in pairs or small groups:

    • Do you think the situation depicted here is realistic? Do people use similar “lists” to make judgements about each other?
    • How aware do you think people are of the lists they make?
    • When someone sees you walking down the street, what lists might they make about you? What lists do you sometimes make about others?
    • How might these lists shape choices people make (beyond greeting each other)? What would it take to change the lists people make about each other?
  • Next, connect the discussion of Street Calculus to stereotyping by asking students to reflect in a class discussion or in their journals on the role stereotypes play in our society and in their own experiences. Depending on time, one or more of the following questions can be used to guide this reflection:

    • Where do stereotypes come from?
    • What stereotypes do the two men in “Street Calculus” have about the group the other one belongs to?
    • When, if ever, can stereotypes be harmless or even helpful? When do stereotypes become harmful?
    • What does “Street Calculus” suggest about how stereotypes might impact the way we see ourselves and the way we see others? How might stereotypes impact the choices we make?
  • Finally, ask students to work in pairs to create their own “Street Calculus” cartoons. Pairs should first identify their setting—their school hallway or canteen or classroom, the bus or tube, a local street—and their two characters. Pairs then generate a list of risk factors and mitigating factors for each character before calculating their results. They might share their cartoons in a gallery walk or present them to the class.

Day 2 Activities

  • Start the lesson by reminding students of the idea that stereotypes are a type of story that we tell about individuals based on our beliefs (erroneous or accurate) about a group to which they belong. You might ask students to review their stereotype concept maps and journal responses, and Street Calculus cartoons in preparation for today’s activities. Then tell students that today they will be exploring the relationship between stories and stereotyping and what it means to have a “single story” of a person or group of people.
  • Pass out the handout The Danger of a Single Story Viewing/Reading Guide and show the video The Danger of a Single Story (18:49). Tell students to record their thoughts about the three questions posed on the viewing guide. You might also hand out the transcript of Adichie’s talk before or after your students have viewed the video. If you think your students would benefit from additional time to process Adichie’s ideas, pause the video two or more times so that students, working independently or in pairs, can record notes on their handouts about Adichie’s identity: how she sees herself and how others see her. Then ask students to work with a partner to create an identity chart for Adichie. Students can refer to the identity charts that they created in the previous lesson, the video’s viewing guide handout, and the transcript to guide their thinking. Time allowing, debrief the activity by creating Adichie’s identity chart on the board.
  • To discuss Adichie’s TED Talk, have students stand in two concentric circles, facing a partner in the opposite circle. Once the students are in their circles, read aloud the first question to begin the discussion. Then have one of the circles rotate so students have new partners for each additional question.
    • Do you think it is a natural behaviour for people to sort and categorise the things and people they encounter in their lives? If so, when might it be useful? When does it become a problem?
    • What does Adichie mean by a “single story”? What examples does she give?
    • How did Adichie learn “single stories” about others? How did these stories impact her understanding of herself and of others? How did these single stories impact the choices she made at home and in her travels?
    • What enabled Adichie to change her “single story”? What are other ways for these types of stories to change?
    • According to Adichie, why can “single stories” be dangerous? What is the relationship between “single stories” and stereotypes?
    • Why is it that people sometimes make the same mistakes that they so easily see others making?
  • If you observed pairs struggling during the concentric circle activity, use this time to address their questions in a class discussion, referring students to the transcript to help them find evidence to support their thinking. Or if you feel that your students grasped Adichie’s main ideas, move to the final reflection activity.

After the concentric circle discussion, allow students to choose one or more of the prompts (below) to explore in a journal response. Encourage students to use their resources, such as their identity charts, concept maps, definitions of stereotype, and notes from this lesson to help make connections between “single stories” and stereotyping.

  • “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” (quoted from Adichie’s TED Talk)
  • What “single stories” have you noticed that others have about you? What dilemmas have you experienced when others view you differently than you view yourself?
  • What “single stories” have you noticed that you hold about others? What dilemmas have you seen arise when we view others differently than they view themselves?
  • What steps can you take, or have you taken, to challenge these “single stories”?

If time allows, ask students to share one short phrase from their journal responses in a Wraparound. It could be something they wrote or something they heard from a classmate during their discussions.

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