In this week’s One Thing You Might Try . . . blog post, third-grade teacher Janaki Nagarajan writes about her class’s mini-unit of study on names—and why doing this kind of identity work is more important now than ever.
“[A name] is one of the greatest gifts that a family can give you—it is the first gift that a child, usually, when they enter the Earth, receives from their family. It is usually informed by tradition and love, and the hope and aspiration the family has for that child. It is something precious, and sacred, and it is a part of their identity. And when I see people fighting for the right for that to be respected and treated in a dignified way, I applaud and salute that.” —Kamala Harris
What are your names? What do you like to be called? What stories do your names tell?
Having conversations with students about their names can be incredibly powerful. Our names give us a sense of pride and connection, but can also be a source of discrimination, bullying or shame. Our names reflect our cultures, our families, and ourselves. They are intertwined with our racial and linguistic identities. Our names tell our stories.
Empowering students to talk about their names is essential, even and especially in online and hybrid environments that make coming together as a community challenging. Since the pandemic began, many students are spending more time at home with family members, which gives a unique opportunity for school and home collaboration.
Over the course of a week, my third-grade class read picture books, held class discussions and used art, storytelling and poetry to explore different aspects of their names.
The goals of this mini-unit were to:
- Begin to build an empathetic and anti-racist classroom community.
- Celebrate our identities and uniqueness.
- Learn about our histories and the ways our names connect us to our families and our communities.
Picture books are a great way to start conversations around names with students. These are the books we read, but there are many more amazing books about names as well.
- Your Name Is A Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
- Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
- Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth
- My Name is Jorge on Both Sides of the River by Jane Medina
LET’S TALK ABOUT NAMES
Your Name Is A Song, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, is a perfect introduction to talking about names with kids. This book celebrates the beauty of all names (and in particular, lifts up African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx and Middle Eastern names) through the story of a girl whose new teacher and classmates are unsure of how to pronounce her name. As a result, she feels frustrated and disheartened. Her mom helps her see the unique beauty of her name and all names by teaching her that each name is a song.
To introduce this book, I shared my own story of having a name that was frequently mispronounced or deemed “too hard” to say.
After reading the book, we thought about these questions together:
- Have people ever said your name wrong? How did that make you feel?
- Have you ever seen a name you don’t know how to say? What did you do?
- What can we do if we hear someone pronouncing a friend or classmate’s name wrong?
Building our names with objects around us
To follow up our discussion, students created their names out of objects around them at home. I chose this activity because:
- It’s fun and creative, and students get to choose how they want to build and present their name.
- At home, students have objects around them that reflect their lives. Using these objects to build their names reinforces the idea that names are a part of our identity.
- It gets kids interacting with their name in a new way—not just writing or typing it. Names are more than just ink on a page!
Students took pictures on Seesaw of their names and told about what materials they used to make the letters. Kids using hair scrunchies, books, markers and food from their home gave a glimpse into the unique lives of each student.
WHAT DO OUR NAMES MEAN?
Most of us have more than one name. We may have middle names, last names, nicknames, or names in different languages. We have given names and chosen names.
To launch our second activity, we read the book, Alma and How She Got Her Name, by Juana Martinez-Neal. This book follows a young girl with a lot of names—too many, if you ask her! She asks her dad what all her names mean, and he tells her the stories of the ancestors she was named for (as well as the name her parents picked out, just for her).
Telling our own name stories
Here are prompts we used to tell our name stories:
- Think about all your names (nicknames, last names, etc.)
- Ask someone in your family to tell you the stories of your names. Where did they come from? Why were they picked for you?
- Do you have different names in languages besides English? Do you write your names in different languages?
- Draw, write or make a video to tell your name stories.
Students were encouraged to write or think about their names in languages other than English, when applicable. When students didn’t have access to family who might be able to share their name story with them, they were asked to tell their own name story. What are their names? How do their names make them feel?
After talking about our names and what they mean, we revisited our discussion and read Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth. In it, a young girl experiences bullying because of her South Asian name. After hearing the story of her name from her mom, she reclaims it with pride.
RECLAIMING OUR NAMES THROUGH POEMS
Our voices, as individuals and as a collective, are powerful. One of the ways we can exercise that power is through poetry. Poetry can be more flexible than other forms of writing and can give kids a less intimidating entry point to write about their names.
To give students an example of a name poem, we read the first poem in the book My Name is Jorge on Both Sides of the River, by Jane Medina. Jorge has recently moved to America and is writing poems in English and Spanish about his experiences. He laments that in English, people are pronouncing his name as “Chorg” (George)—“I don’t want to turn into a sneeze!”, he writes.
Written in two languages, the poem highlights the duality that many multilingual children feel as they navigate between different spaces in their lives. After looking at Jorge’s poems, students were tasked with writing their own name poems.
When writing name poems, I encouraged students to:
- Use sentence starters to help them think about how they can reclaim their names, such as “I like to be called . . .”, “I wish people called me . . .”, “I am not . . .”
- Write in all languages they know.
- Add drawings to highlight the themes in their poem.
During this pandemic, students, teachers and families have the opportunity to collaborate like never before. By discussing and engaging in activities around their names, students can celebrate their identities, and learn more about their unique histories and the ways their names connect them to their families. In doing this work as teachers, we begin to build more empathetic and anti-racist classroom communities.
About the author
Janaki Nagarajan is an early career elementary teacher in Seattle, WA. She loves learning about how children make meaning and aspires to center her teaching around student voice and choice. Janaki tweets @janaki_aleena and blogs at www.thinkingwithchildren.com
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