Using picture books and classroom dialogue to honor and respect students’ names

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal is one of Orr’s go-to books for kicking off the unit. In this book, Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela wants to know why she has so many names. Her father explains how she got each one. After the character Alma is introduced, Orr asks students to share their thoughts about her name. “Does it seem too long?” Students will often use this opportunity to relate in with comments like “I’m named after my grandma too!” She also stops for discussion halfway through Alma and How She Got Her Name so students have the opportunity to discuss with a partner. “What do you think of Alma’s name now?” Orr asks. 

Another book that Orr uses is Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. The book follows a young girl who is upset that no one is pronouncing her name correctly. The main character’s mom teaches her about the musicality of names from other cultures. The story resonates with students, bridging the common experience of name mispronunciation. Through these books, students begin to grasp that names can carry rich histories, Orr said. In all, each read-aloud and discussion takes about 25 minutes, so that her young students don’t get bored or restless.

Extending conversations beyond the classroom

Books also serve as a catalyst for taking the conversation beyond the classroom walls. Recognizing the importance of collaboration between school and home in nurturing a child’s sense of identity, she suggests that students go home and initiate discussions with their families about the significance and stories behind their names. This part of the unit can lead to self exploration for students and open up a window to their parents’ decisions, according to Kay. Orr proactively reaches out to families to inform them about the discussions taking place in class, so they won’t be blindsided by their child’s questions. She emphasizes that participation in these conversations at home is optional, as is sharing in class. “They can make it fit their comfort level,” Orr said.

In class, Orr and Kay recommend starting the next conversation with “Who wants to share what they’ve learned about their name from their family?” This dialogue allows students to share their newfound understanding and feelings about their names. Orr is often surprised by the unique stories and experiences that students bring forward. Some Latino students have told her that other teachers Americanized their names. For example, instead of “David,” where the “i” is pronounced with a long “e” sound, a teacher might use the flat “i” like the sound in zip. She also remembered a fifth grader one year who was a recent immigrant from China. “I swear she spent a week trying to get me to say her name properly,” she admitted. 

Orr noted that elementary school students will often just accept the way their name is pronounced until they have this conversation in class. She said that name discussions may not always result in kids being able to advocate for themselves but they become more likely to advocate for other students. “That power between adults and kids is still so strong. And yet, on behalf of someone else, they’ll stand up to that power and they’ll make it clear that actually, no, that’s not how you say it.”

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