Starting the Year With a Sea of Stories

Photo by Sebastian Voortman on

A quick note from Matt: Today is the first day of the 2022-2023 school year in Ann Arbor, which means that along with this post, this is the first Monday that I will post my weekly Essay of the Week entries. Check them out here, if you are interested!

The title of today’s post is taken from the Salman Rushdie book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, his book that immediately followed the controversy of his book The Satanic Verses. On the surface Haroun seems like a very different kind of book than Rushdie’s previous books, which are very adult in their approach and themes. Outwardly, Haroun is a children’s story, full of silly moments and even some, what my six and three year old would call, “potty talk” (multiple characters are named Butt). In it, a hero named Haroun fights to help his once-famous storyteller father regain his stories, which have been taken by Khattam-Shud, whose name means “completely shut,” but who is also referred to in the book as the Arch-Enemy of all Stories.

A children’s story might seem like an unusual choice for Rushdie at this point in his life, given that he wrote it while hiding and fearing for his life. But like Jonathan Swift or Lewis Carroll before him, Rushdie understood that the trappings of a children’s story can be used to explore deeper and more serious themes—in this case offering a rebuttal to the bannings and threats that he was facing in his own life.

A core theme of the book is that stories are powerful and dangerous, and thus there will always be those looking to silence them. And while it was written in response to a controversy from the 1980s, Haroun also feels like a strong response to other more modern controversies as well (like the fact that teachers in some areas are no longer trusted to select books for their students—despite the fact that no one knows better than teachers how important it is to pick the right stories for our students).

The theme of the power of stories is brought home by the fact that the residents of Haroun’s town Alifbay (which translates to Alphabet) lose the ability to speak when they lose their stories. This connection between stories and speaking is one that stuck with me when I plucked  Haroun off a library shelf many years ago (Haroun is one of the handful of books to which I trace my desire to be an ELA teacher, hence why I remember so much about it), and it is one that is worth remembering for this upcoming year.

In particular, I am thinking about this theme in reverse and how, when we turn our classes into seas of stories, the ability for students to speak almost inevitably follows. This year, I plan to flood the classes with the following stories from the very first minutes:

Student Stories

The students will tell the following stories in the first few weeks:

  • They will tell the story of their name on the very first day. To help them go deeper with these, I often share these name stories by Sandra Cisneros in The House on Mango Street and Elizabeth Acevedo in The Poet X:

“In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing….

…At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name Magdalena–which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least- -can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.”

-Sandra Cisneros in The House on Mango Street

Here is my slide for this:

My opening letter assignment
  • And their first major assignment of the year will be a narrative. I’ve found narrative to be the perfect opening unit because it is an excellent vehicle for early foundational writing lessons and teaching the writing process because they only have to express their own story instead of unpacking someone else’s—and for many that is a much more manageable lift. Early narratives also give them the opportunity to submit the narratives to the New York Times Narrative Contest, a perennial favorite in my class in recent years.

The Stories of Others

Our classes can also be flooded with the stories of others. Some ways I plan to do this include…

  • Using a range of short texts to supplement the required texts. Even if one’s required texts are less modern and diverse than you’d like, leaning as hard into supplemental texts as you cover the required ones can invite more stories into the classroom. In my narrative unit alone (which happily has The House on Mango Street as a central mentor text), I plan to use stories from Ted Chiang, Kiese Laymon, Cristina Henríquez, David Sedaris, Ken Lui, Kate Chopin, the Moth, and the New York Times Narrative Winners, among others.

Classroom Stories

I have written about this a lot recently, but I want students to also listen closely to the stories that their fellow classmates tell. This year I am starting with a series of lessons designed to teach students how to better hear the stories of those who surround them–-a skill that feels both lost in this current moment and critical for the success of both the students and the society as a whole.

These early lessons are designed to get students to see the value of listening to each other and to build the skills to do so. Here are a few I’m excited about:

Speed Listening

The theme of my second day will be the importance of hearing each other, and I plan to begin with this exercise. What makes this different from other getting-to-know-you speed-dating exercises is the emphasis on listening followed by the “quiz” afterwards where I will ask things like: “Who remembers the most names?” or “Who found the most similarities to themselves?”


Early on, I plan to try out the Minefield exercise, which Matt Kay explains in Answers to Your Biggest Questions about Teaching Middle and High School ELA this way:

On day one of the school year, Matt Kay often takes a bunch of printer paper and spreads it on the floor. He then asks for two volunteers. One closes their eyes, and the other one has to guide them through the “minefield” (the papers can also represent puddles or whatever hazards you find appropriate), using only their voice. When the blindfolded student steps on a paper, everyone in the class says “Bang!” or “Splash!” Matt volunteers to go last as a student guides him through. The kids have a lot of fun. After finishing, the class recaps. “If this activity is a metaphor for how you’ll need to communicate with each other this year, what do you think the lesson would be?” (The guide role teaches us to explain ourselves clearly, knowing that our colleagues can’t always see what we see. The walker role teaches how important it is to communicate when we don’t understand an instruction and so on.) This activity cuts through the noise on a day of “be-good” rules and syllabi reading, and it hints that this will be an ELA class that will get students on their feet a bit.

The fact that Rushdie, an author whose books are undoubtedly taught in the classes of many who subscribe to this newsletter, is currently in a hospital room recovering from an attack two weeks ago is yet another example of why the world can feel pretty scary right now. But Rushdie also offers us a powerful answer for how to move the world and our classes towards a better place: a sea of stories. And I can’t wait to dive in today.

Yours in teaching,


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