Exploring Counter-Narratives: Adjusting the Lens Through Which You View Your Students

AdobeStock_211240720Have you ever wondered why you can recall the lyrics from jingles you sang along to as a child? For instance, most 80s babies will remember, “My buddy, my buddy. Wherever I go he goes.” This is not happenstance, in fact, it’s intentional. According to the Forbes Ad Council, on any given day we are bombarded with between 6,000-10,000 advertisements. We are exposed to more advertisements than there are minutes in a day! This inundation undoubtedly influences our thoughts, decisions, and preferences. Likewise, students spend roughly six and a half hours per day in school for most of the year. The nursery rhymes, stories, histories and narratives that are shared in learning environments throughout a learner’s K-12 experience, shape their preferences and beliefs about themselves and others.

Both the media and education industries contribute to how we show up in the world and in our classrooms. Think back on your own educational experience. How many Black or Indigenous scientists did you learn about? Had you learned about the Tulsa Massacre before HBO taught you over this past year? Was the “High on the Hog” Netflix series the first time you learned about Thomas Downing’s oyster cellars and how African American cuisine played a large role in transforming America? This too, like media messages, is an intentional legacy of White-centered education in America that leaves both students and teachers robbed from learning about the wealth of contributions by Black and Brown people to this country. Instead of learning this rich and diverse history, we often were presented with false or incomplete histories and deficit beliefs about students of color. 

Muslim girl and another student interactSo how do we create the robust, multifaceted learning environments our students deserve? We do this by introducing counter-narratives. According to Dr. Arnetha Ball of Stanford University, counter-narratives are strategies for bringing the stories and life experiences of those who are often on the outskirts of society into our classrooms with the purpose of critiquing traditionally accepted narratives. Why is this critique so important? Counter-narratives are an important tool in disrupting the programming around historically marginalized students, and a strategy to counter the dominant narrative in the classroom by learning from and with our students. I suggest you check out Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk to hear her experience firsthand. 

Counter-narratives can be a powerful solution to the pervasive concern of low student engagement. Here are a few questions to ponder:

  1. How might students show up in school if they were encouraged to share their stories?
  2. What if classroom learning shifted from being unilateral to omni-directional? 
  3. What if we assumed that our students were collaborators in creating rich, engaging learning experiences where everyone, including the teacher, could grow? 

Truthfully, some students have low or no participation in our classrooms because they sense that their lived experience is excluded from the curriculum, resources, and pedagogy. 

smiling Black girl in her classroomAs you begin to explore the concept of counter-narratives and the role it plays in educational equity, here are some simple ways to begin shifting your practice: 

  1. Accept that you are biased. We all have biases--  bias simply means a lack of neutrality, leaning towards one side or another. Take time to reflect on those biases and ask where those ideas originated and challenge them with the truth. 
  2. Expose yourself to stories and narratives that are written by Black and Brown authors that center historically marginalized students. As the African proverb goes, “Until the Lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the Hunter.”
  3. Create space for students to share their lived experiences. Our students bring a wealth of untapped knowledge into the classroom. How can their lived experiences be leveraged to teach the content?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways you’ve begun to shift your practice, or even strategies you’ve brought into your classroom. You can email me at or find me on Twitter @Siby_Rohiatou. Be sure to check back here for some great upcoming blogs and resources from more of our LINC coaches. 

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