For three decades, I started the school year by skimming class rosters. Oh, good, I’d think, another Anderson, and I’d try not to sigh when I saw another Turner. And toward the end of my career, I’d wonder if I had it in me to learn another hundred names. But I did, because students’ names matter to them.
What they are doing, almost every minute of the school day, is making a name for themselves. What does it mean to be Kaitlin? To be Aja? These are the questions students explore as they jostle each other down the hall and decide where to sit in the cafeteria and how to interact with teachers.
So what can you do to help students build the meanings of their names?
Pronounce names correctly. Practice reading your rosters aloud. If you find yourself stumbling over names, research them–ask last year’s teachers, go to online pronunciation sites like NameShouts or ask students themselves. I gave myself a chance to do this by assigning seats for the first day of class. Using a different color card for each class period, I taped name cards to their desks. While students wrote a letter to me introducing themselves, I visited their desks.
“Pronounce your name for me,” I’d say as I pulled a stool up to the desk with a challenging name. “I want to get it right from the start.” Then I’d write the name phonetically on my seating chart. Working hard so your tongue can handle names from languages and cultures new to you shows respect to your students.
Use names students choose for themselves. Some students use middle names. “Please don’t ever say my first name in class,” a student wrote to me. “No one knows my first name is Iris. That was my grandma’s name. Having the name of a flower is not cool anymore.”
Some students go only by their initials. “I’m K. J.,” a sixth grader told me. “Please call me only by my initials.”
Students sometimes change names as a way to cope with trauma. When Jenny’s dad abused her and was court-ordered to leave their home, Jenny wrote in red on top of her essay: I will now answer only to the name of Jennifer.
Sometimes mess with their names. After you know students, you can help them build their images by emphasizing their strengths. The high scorer on the basketball team liked when I called him Hoop Man. I noticed Jason signing his name Jason Conley III, so I called him by his full name every time. He especially waited to hear “the Third.”
Infuse their names with strengths. “You know, that was a Kendra-like thing to do,” I said once to Kendra. She had noticed a new kid sitting alone at a table and then left her friends to join the new kid.
When I collected the first assignments in the first class I taught at the prison, I was dumbfounded to find no names on their papers, only their prison six-digit identification numbers.
“No numbers, please,” I told my students. “Only names.”
From a name we could start to rebuild.