August 29, 2017

What’s in a Name? Five Ways to Affirm Students’ Identities

By Matt Batesky

As teachers head back to school, and move from learning who students are on paper to who they are as people, we must make the effort to truly value them—and this starts with something as seemingly simple as learning how to correctly pronounce their names. From Michael to Chloe, Sukriti to Rahim, every student’s name is important. Yet teachers from white-dominant culture often get names we may find “different” wrong, or refuse to learn how to properly pronounce them altogether. If we want to signal to our students that we see and value who they are, we must start by respecting and learning their names.

Here are five ways to help teachers do this:

1. Commit to learning the name each student wishes to be called, and be real with students as you do.

Students need to see you struggle. They may even try to let you off the hook with nickname or initial. Don’t take the bait—my parents did not choose my name to be shortened to M because a teacher was too lazy to learn how to properly say it. Struggle in front of them, and show them you are committed to getting it right. They will laugh at your expense, but by committing and not relenting, you will show that you care enough to learn about who they really are as a person. Additionally, you will model what you expect students to do when they encounter challenging new material in class.

2. Remember: Pronunciation counts!

In the book, The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisnero’s character peers out a window and ponders the meaning of her name. The character, Esperanza, describes the challenges of having a name that is culturally different than her teachers: “At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver.” If you don’t think it’s a big deal, take your own name and emphasize a different syllable. My name, Matthew, when mispronounced this way sounds like you sneezed, rather than who I am. Take on the accent, roll the tongue, respectfully imitate the speaker, and most of all do it with fidelity even if you struggle at first.

3. Use mnemonics.

This is the oldest teaching trick in the book, yet so many of us fail to apply it to our own work. For the character Esperanza, as an example, I would remember S (the letter), pear (the fruit), on (the light switch), sa (s for soft). I hope that will make my pronunciation more like silver and less like tin.

4. Practice like conferences are coming tomorrow.

Parents want to know you care about their child. Correctly addressing each student by their given name is the very least we can do to show that we can be trusted with their child’s education and that we value value their identity.

5. Tell the story of your name, and ask students to share their story with you.

A name is perhaps the most personal trait a person carries with them in their life. Create an assignment or activity where students dig a little deeper into the different aspects of their names. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Is there more to the name than meets the eye? Tell your students your story and listen to theirs. This activity will help you see the more personal history of students and put meaning to their name, and more importantly, help them see value in their own names and stories, and those of their classmates.

Of course, there is so much more educators must do to make our students feel—and be—valued in our schools. Learning, honoring, and celebrating their names is just the first step. But it’s a step that too often gets overlooked, and one we therefore need to explicitly name.

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