View of people on a city street.
Lesson

Telling Our Histories

Students connect themes from the film to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's concept of “single stories," and then consider what it would take to tell more equitable and accurate narratives.

Published:

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

7–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Resistance

Overview

About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students watched the documentary Who Will Write Our History and explored the profound courage and resistance of a group of people facing certain death who seized control of their own narrative. While the story of Oyneg Shabes is singular, the question they posed (“Who will write our history?”) and the actions they took can inspire us to think about how we might tell the stories of our own communities in a more just and equitable way. In this lesson, students continue to explore themes from the film and to connect them to the concept of a “single story,” which the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines as the overly simplistic and sometimes false perceptions we form about individuals, groups, or countries. Students will then reflect on the “single stories” of the communities to which they belong and consider what it would take to write more equitable and accurate narratives of their communities.

Why does it matter who tells your story?

How can telling one’s own story be an act of empowerment and participation?

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 2 activities
  • 1 handout
  • 2 extension activities

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.

The handout “Countering the Single Story” in this lesson asks students to create an identity chart for a community to which they belong. If necessary, visit the teaching strategy page on the Facing History website to familiarize yourself with this approach and how to introduce identity charts to your students.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

Tell students that in class today, they will be exploring a concept called a “single story” to better understand the significance of the work of the Oyneg Shabes and apply it to their own lives and communities. Before sharing the paragraph below, explain to students that the 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 that many people believe about Nigeria, the country where she is from.
Then project the following excerpt from a talk Adichie gave about the dangers of “single stories.” (The full-length TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story (18:46), is worth watching with students if you have time.)

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.

Ask students to reflect on the following questions, first in a Think, Pair, Share format and then as a class: 

  • According to Adichie, why can “single stories” be dangerous? 
  • Roberta Grossman, the filmmaker for Who Will Write Our History, notes that Emanuel Ringelblum went to “great lengths” to include the perspectives of Jews “of all political stripes—religious, non-religious, young, old, rich, poor . . . ” 1
    • For Oyneg Shabes, what was the value of preserving such a wide range of Jewish voices and perspectives? What is the value for people learning about this history today?  
    • How did the dire circumstances of the Warsaw ghetto lend special urgency to Oyneg Shabes’s task of representing the diversity of voices of the Jews trapped there?
    • How does the work of the Oyneg Shabes connect to Adichie’s concept of a “single story?"
  • Explain to students that, given the deprivation, violence, and terror of life in the Warsaw ghetto, the work of Oyneg Shabes to tell their community’s story in all its complexity was a unique and profound act of bravery and resistance. Yet the experience of being reduced to a single story is one faced by individuals and groups everywhere. Ask students to reflect privately in their journals on the following questions: 
    • Have you or a community you belong to ever been the subject of a “single story”? Was it a positive story or a negative one? 
    • How did this “single story” impact you or your community? 
  • Tell students that while the story of Oyneg Shabes is singular, the question they posed (“Who will write our history?”) and the actions they took can inspire us to think about how we might tell the stories of our own communities in a more just and equitable way.  
  • Pass out the Countering the Single Story handout. Read the instructions as a whole group and answer any clarifying questions. Then give students the rest of class to write their paragraphs. 
  • Optionally, you might have students complete the assignment in pairs or small groups. Also, consider providing additional class time, if possible, or assigning the project for homework so that students have sufficient time to complete it as thoughtfully as possible.

Extension Activities

In the final activity of this lesson, students reflect on how to transcend the overly simplistic and sometimes false “single stories” about their communities. You may want to extend the assignment by asking students to turn their initial plans into a product (e.g., an archive, an art piece, or an oral history project) that tells a more equitable and accurate story of their community. If you choose this option, you will need to consider the size and scope of the communities students choose for this project. For example, authentically representing the diversity of perspectives and stories that represent a city is a much larger project than doing the same for a school community, neighborhood, or club.

In an interview with NPR, Who Will Write Our History director Roberta Grossman provides many insights that deepen our understanding of Oyneg Shabes and the archive. We recommend listening to the interview and discussing the following questions with students: 

  • According to Roberta Grossman, how did Oyneg Shabes conceive of culture as a form of resistance?
  • What reasons does Grossman provide for why the story of Oyneg Shabes remained unknown for so many years? 
  • What insight does Grossman offer about why Oyneg Shabes collected such a diversity of voices? Why was it so urgent and important for them to transcend a single story about the Jewish people?

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Materials and Downloads

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This is the handout that students use throughout the Telling Our Histories lesson plan.

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

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