Name stories are individuals’ explanations of the personal or traditional meaning, importance, or origin of their names. Writing their own stories helps kids to see the power of their own names. Listening to others’ name stories unpacks the personal history of people we will spend an entire year with.
Why Examine Names?
Names matter. Central to identity, names influence who we are and how others view us. But even more important, names carry a story – a story of the past, perhaps carried across oceans or passed down through generations. They are attached to something or someone, or created and given to us. In some cases names can have the power to alter us, to give us agency, or, as history teaches – to erase us. Enslaved people were assigned the names of their masters, a process of dehumanization with the aim of obliterating people’s sense of self and identity.
The story of our name is another window into the examination of identity and the connection we can make with others.
Not all names are in our personal repertoire. Names can be cultural, religious, ancestral, or invented. Many people live day to day with the looming dread of someone mispronouncing their name in an initial meeting, mistaking it on the first day of school, or misspelling it on a Starbucks cup. To hear one’s name repeatedly mispronounced or misspelled is often so frustrating that people may alter the spelling or pronunciation to make it easier for others. Anglicizing, Americanizing, or simplifying names is easier for assimilation, but at what cost to the bearer of the name?
If we want kids to have a strong sense of self, we can celebrate names and the stories behind them. We can also teach kids to ask us about and understand the importance of names to others.
When is a Good Time to Celebrate Name Identity?
- When introducing yourself to your students
- When your class list is rich in diverse names
- When working to connect with your students as well as help them connect with others
- When working to build understanding or and empathy for a particular individual or group of people with whom students may have little background knowledge
- When reading a story with names that might be new to your students
- At parent night. Having parents share the story of their child’s name before you ask kids to share those stories in class introduces the context of this work. It would be helpful to prompt parents to share the story with their child if they have not already.
Follow us on Instagram @heinemannpub to stay up to date on the latest books, your favorite authors, and upcoming events!
Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed.