The Danger of a Single Story and How Common Core Can Help

by Joshua Parker

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s seminal TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, she argues against using one anecdote to come to any general conclusion about the human condition.

“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,” Adichie says. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”

This notion of a single perspective as an enemy of deep critical thought is why the Common Core State Standards should be embraced. They should be embraced as a means to encourage students to plumb into texts in profound ways.

Before the Common Core, language arts was subject to the single story:

  • Find the main idea and supporting details.
  • Decipher the difference between tone and mood and write a five-paragraph essay.
  • One introductory paragraph with a thesis.
  • Three paragraphs that explore the supporting details, which comprise the body.
  • And one conclusive paragraph that states the information in a different way than the introduction.

That has been the single story of language arts. The trouble is that the poetry of language and composition is squeezed out.

What if a student’s perspective can be beautifully written in one long well-developed paragraph, or (gasp) six? The previous standards as constructed and interpreted, led teachers to graduate too many students who lacked the capacity to comprehend an above grade-level text or coherently write an essay of any length.

This is where multiple ways of acquiring information and displaying knowledge are key to expanding the story of language arts.

The standards themselves could have been implemented in a better way. However, our children could not and should not have to wait another moment for better standards and higher expectations. The standards, which were created by teachers and for teachers, emphasize critical thinking as it relates to reading comprehension and writing. This focus on depth can enable students to interact with texts in profound and powerful ways.

I recently co-taught a lesson with a teacher (I am an instructional coach within the District of Columbia Public Schools system). As I was reading a scene from “The Bluest Eye,” a searing novel by Toni Morrison, I continued to press the students towards using the evidence from the text to support their comprehension and interpretation.

There is a scene in the novel where hot berry cobbler was spilled across a pretty white floor and onto the main character’s legs. By focusing on having students base their opinions from what was explicitly written, students were able to see with fresh eyes the many layers of meaning within the scene. This explication of the text brought an emotion to the reading in a way that simply asking for their opinions could not duplicate. It hurts to have hot berry cobbler sting your skin.

What could be worse than having to write a five-paragraph essay on the main idea of the scene?

When I am able to use a Common Core Standard like Reading Literature 9.2 (Determine a theme and how it develops over the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details), students get a chance to wrestle with the text. When we focused on the theme of color and used it within that scene, there were light-bulb moments happening all over the faces of the children. I could see it. I could hear it (“Ahhhh!”). I could feel it.

I think the end goal of Common Core for English is that students can understand prose and poetry as well as produce it with elan, verve and wit. Once students experience the richness and craft of language arts, there is a better chance they can use it to tell their own stories.

Joshua Parker is the 2012 Maryland State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Watch a 3:30-minute video of Josh Parker in action teaching the Common Core State Standards.

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