Stereotypes and “Single Stories” Lesson | Facing History & Ourselves
Photograph by James Luna.

Stereotypes and “Single Stories”

Students create working definitions of stereotype as they examine the human behavior of applying categories to people and things.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students began the first stage of the Facing History scope and sequence, “The Individual and Society,” by considering the complexity of answering the question “Who am I?” In this lesson, students will continue to explore the relationship between individual and society by examining how we so often believe “single stories” and stereotypes about groups of people. The activities that follow ask students to reflect on the basic human behavior of applying categories to the people and things we meet and to think about the circumstances in which “single stories” about others can be harmful or even dangerous.

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

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

  • Students will recognize that it is a natural and common human behavior 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.
  • Students will construct a “working definition” of stereotype and recognize how stereotypes can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

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

  • 8 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 1 reading, available in English and Spanish
  • 1 handout, available in English and Spanish
  • 1 video, available in English and Spanish subtitles
  • 1 image
  • 1 assessment 
  • 1 extension

We know that every person is different from any other in countless ways, yet when we encounter others, we often rely on generalizations to describe them. “It's a natural tendency,” says psychologist Deborah Tannen.

We must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn’t be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn’t predict a lot about them and feel that we know who and what they are. But this natural and useful ability to see patterns of similarity has unfortunate consequences. It is offensive to reduce an individual to a category, and it is also misleading. 1

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses the phrase “single stories” to describe the overly simplistic and sometimes false perceptions we form about individuals, groups, or countries. Her novels and short stories complicate the single stories many people believe about Nigeria, the country where she is from.

In a speech excerpted in this lesson, Adichie recounts her experiences as the subject of the “single stories” others have created about groups to which she belongs, as well as times when she herself has created single stories about others. She says:

I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar...

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. 2

Adichie’s speech provides a framework for discussing 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. 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 reflect on the relationship explored in this lesson between the ways that we think about others and the ways that we treat others. Investigating the connections between stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination will provide an important framework for exploring in future lessons the ways that people create “in” groups and “out” groups, both in our everyday lives and throughout history.

  • 1Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (New York: Morrow, 1990), 16.
  • 2Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TED video (filmed July 2009, posted October 2009), 18:49, accessed March 28, 2016.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Before introducing the reading 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 “durable” class concept map for stereotype on chart paper, which can be saved and posted in the classroom for reference in later lessons.

Students will use their concept maps to help them construct a “working definition,” which is a less formal way of explaining what a word means. Unlike dictionary definitions, working definitions are often multi-layered, using less formal language and examples.

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

  • Assumption
  • Prejudice
  • Discrimination

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

Discussions can happen in many formats, ranging from whole-class to small-group conversations. When beginning a unit, or when prompts involve personal reflection, we recommend 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 the Concentric Circles teaching strategy to debrief the content of The Danger of a Single Story.

This lesson introduces the Exit Ticket teaching strategy. This formative assessment allows teachers to capture each student’s understanding at the end of a lesson and provides valuable feedback about content and skills that might need to be revisited in future lessons. Teachers can also redistribute completed exit cards later in the unit and ask students to discuss or write about how their thinking on the topic has been changed, challenged, or confirmed over time.

Because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” is so compelling, we recommend that you show the entire 19-minute video to the class to explore the relationship between stories and stereotypes. If you prefer a reading over a video for your class, The Danger of a Single Story provides an excerpt of Adichie’s talk.

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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 question: Has someone else 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?

Tell students that the assumptions we make about each other are sometimes based on stereotypes. Most middle- and high-school students 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. Later in the lesson, they will use their concept maps as a launching point to help them explore the relationship between stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

Lead students through the steps of the Concept Map teaching strategy, first brainstorming words, phrases, and ideas that they associate with stereotypes and then organizing these around the word stereotype on a page of their journals. Have students share their concept maps using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Invite them to revise their maps by adding new information they learned from their conversations 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, and modify over the course of the unit as their thinking about stereotyping develops.

Using the information on their concept maps and from their discussions, ask students to write a “working definition” of stereotype underneath their concept map. They will have the opportunity to share these working definitions with the class. Explain that a working definition is a less formal way of explaining what a word means—a definition that can change over time and might use less formal language. Tell students that they might expand, focus, or revise their working definitions as they learn more about the topic over the course of the unit.

After students have drafted their own working definitions, ask volunteers to share their ideas to create a class working definition of stereotype, which you can then add to the class concept map. Explain the relationship between stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination, and ask students to 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 these to other concepts on their maps.

  • Project or pass out Garry 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, analyze the cartoon more deeply by having students discuss the following questions:
    • Do you think the situation depicted here is realistic? Do people use “lists” like these to make judgments 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 that 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 and debrief:

    • Where do stereotypes come from?
    • What stereotypes do the two men in the cartoon have about the groups the other one belongs to?
    • When, if ever, can stereotypes be harmless or even helpful? When do stereotypes become harmful?
    • What does the cartoon 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?

Day 2 Activities

  • If it was not part of the Day 1 discussion, introduce students to 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 concept maps and journal responses in preparation for today’s lesson.
  • Tell students that today they will be exploring the relationship between storytelling and stereotyping, as well as 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. Then show the video of Adichie’s TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story (18:43) or pass out and read aloud the reading The Danger of a Single Story. While viewing or reading, students should record their thoughts about the three questions posed on the guide.
  • Ask students to work with a partner to create an identity chart for Adichie. If your class watched the the video, you might consider passing out the reading version for students to reference during this activity. Students can refer to the identity charts they created in the previous lesson and the three viewing/reading questions to guide their thinking.

To debrief Adichie’s TED Talk, have students stand in two concentric circles, facing a partner in the opposite circle, and use the prompts below to begin the discussion. Rotate to a new partner for each new prompt.

  • 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?
    • After the concentric circle discussion, use the quotation below or one or more of the subsequent questions as a prompt to allow for individual student reflections in their journals. Encourage students to use their resources, such as their concept maps, working definitions, notes from today’s lesson, and identity charts, to help them 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.” (Adichie)
      • 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? Lead the class in a discussion that allows students to share their ideas about the concentric circle questions and journal responses with the whole group.

If time allows, tell the class that they will be sharing a concluding idea in a Wraparound activity. As you go around the room, students can share a memorable word or short phrase from the lesson. It could be something they wrote or something they heard from a classmate (or from The Danger of a Single Story).


  • Evaluate students’ concept maps for stereotype to gauge their understanding of the concept.
  • Instruct students to make Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, and Text-to-World connections with The Danger of a Single Story. Use or adapt the handout that accompanies the Facing History description of this teaching strategy to help guide their work.

Extension Activities

The reading Little Things Are Big provides students with the opportunity to examine how the stereotypes we believe about each other can affect our choices. The author of this piece describes a dilemma he faced over whether or not to help a woman late at night on the New York City subway. The dilemma he describes, and his own evaluation of the choice he made, can provide the basis for a meaningful and engaging class discussion. Consider sharing the reading with students and using the connection questions that follow for discussion and reflection.

Materials and Downloads

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