One thing doesn't change: we start the year by getting to know our students.
We start with their names.
"It is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own." - ralph Ellison | from Hidden Name and Complex Fate
In chapter three, Muhammad discusses a lesson about "Telling Our Name Stories" & several books come to mind as great reads for the start of the school year. In my previous school, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes was a perennial favorite. I love Henkes, truly... But let's be intentional to use stories that represent the human bodies in your community (as far as I know, we aren't teaching mice). Often, animal protagonists in children's books are a filler for 'all' and is a default for white. This is harmful to the BIYOC who don't have as many opportunities to see themselves in classroom and library book offerings.
Instead, find a picture book like Alma And How She Got Her Name, or The Name Jar, or My Name is Sangoel (see below). Thank you Laura & Angie for also pointing me towards Your Name is a Song and Kat for the pronunciation video, provided below. Picture books aren't just for elementary school, y'all!
If you're looking for something with middle grade or teen characters, show a few pages from New Kid, where Jordan and a classmate experience the microaggression of being called the name of another Black student. Take the excerpt of The Hate U Give where Starr learns the intentionality behind her name and pair it with this interview of actress Amandla Stenberg, who talks about the meaning of her name. Or an excerpt from The Namesake, one of my favorites, which teaches readers the naming traditions of Benagli children: one from an elder, and one they use in public.
So what is your name story?
I was named after The Unsinkable Molly Brown of Titanic fame! How cool is that? My mom had an Aunt Molly, and she gave me part of her maiden name for my middle name (Branden). I was born with critical health issues, so my parents prayed for the fighting and unsinkable will of Molly Brown to carry me through. I try to harness her courage and helper spirit as part of my own identity. While I'm not a Molly Brown fangirl, it was a neat experience to visit the Titanic museum in Belfast and snap a selfie with her part of the exhibit!
Our names mean something to us & we can learn so much about a person by asking them to share their name story. It's fun to learn what it means - Mollee means 'Star of the Sea,' but Molly means 'Bitter' hah! - and discuss whether that's an accurate representation of your identity. My friend and colleague, Stacy Lovdahl, said, "this connects the student to story, a better way to know them than we get in a survey or worksheet." And that's it: the first step in building a relationship with your student.
Go beyond the roll call. Ask your students,
- What does your name mean (either do a search, or explain in your own words)
- What do you want to be called
- What is your name's history
And perhaps most importantly,
- Teach me how to pronounce your name
Let's normalize providing pronunciation opportunities for our students, like we are normalizing pronouns. As a child with a differently spelled, but mainstream, name, I don't have many issues with my name being mispronounced. By having ALL students provide that pronunciation clip, students with names that teachers don't often get right have less of a 'spotlight' on them to provide that support to their teacher.
Side note on this: I was a librarian with up to 700 kids a year. It was very challenging to put the correct name to the correct face, nevermind correctly pronounce them, 100% of the time. Yes, part of that is laziness. And I never thought to have kids record themselves on Flipgrid so I could study them! But I DID emphasize that if I ever got their name wrong, they should correct me. One of the things I learned is that some students take that as a burden to have to correct their teacher. So, I evolved and told all students they could call me out if I got someone wrong - one kindergarten class was especially great at this when I put an emphasis on the wrong syllable of a beautiful girl's name! I'll never forget how to pronounce it for as long as I live, after having a chorus of 25 precious voices singing it out correctly!
In the vein of pronunciation, honor what your students request to be called. If you aren't familiar with the term of 'Dead Names' in the Transgender community, I urge you to Read more about Dead Names on Popsugar. This applies to all students: if they go by a middle name, abbreviations, or anything else. Honor them.
It breaks my heart to think of the stories of kids who submit silently to whatever their teacher chooses to call them, rather than the teacher taking time to understand what the student prefers to be called.
Alright y'all - I'm not here just to stand on my soapbox. I wouldn't just state what I believe you should do, without supporting you with some kind of content that you can take and make your own.
After posting this activity online, I received some thoughtful & important feedback from educators - I encourage you toread through the thread to review more in-depth, but I wanted to stress here that like turning their cameras on, students need a sense of safety before sharing. You're likely just getting to know these kids, which means they haven't built trust in you yet -- don't expect them to open up completely. I'm very grateful for those who shared feedback on Twitter to help me make sure this is clear!
- Filling out these personal stories may be uncomfortable or impossible for some students - make them optional
- For example, children in foster care, those who have been adopted, or don't live with a parent, may not know their name stories - instead, they could share "what I like about my name" or a different prompt
- You may also have students that live with other children or family members of different last or family names - this can be a sensitive topic for them, and again, they should choose whether or not to share that story
- While it's helpful to build a community where students are safe to share their pronouns, not all non-binary or transgender students are ready to do this. Again, making that prompt optional is imperative
Before you grab the template, another reminder that I invite you to customize this to fit the class community you're looking to co-create with your students. I left it with little decoration as possible, so you can add your own color scheme, icons, and prompts -- hopefully what you choose to use will be helpful to you and your students!
You can grab this slide template in a forced copy by clicking here.
This template is licensed under creative commons - that means it's available to you to share, use and remix to make it work for your students. I just ask that you don't publish it on any place that monetizes it.
This is just the start... how else do you plan to get to know your students, and help them develop more in their identities?
Please reach out and share if you use this and where it leads to - I'd love to know!