Exploring Names Through Picture Books
A little over two years ago, I sat on the couch and intensely watched Janis: Little Girl Blue, the documentary of Janis Joplin’s life. At the conclusion, I said to my brother, “If I ever have a little girl, I am naming her Joplin.”
Joplin, of course, represented one of the most revered musicians in the world, but she was so much more than that. She moved forward a cultural revolution in the 1960s, leaving behind a community that shunned her for her belief in racial equality. Joplin represented strength, passion, independence, pioneer, and advocate. All of these are traits that I could only hope would one day describe my daughter.
Names carry stories, hopes, dreams, and histories. These are important and should be celebrated in the classroom. As educators, we can encourage children to explore their stories and share them in the learning community. These stories provide us a little more insight into who our children are, the histories they carry with them, the hopes hidden in them, and so much more.
Exploring Our Names Through Picture Books
The Name Jar shares the story of a young girl, Unhei, who has just moved from Korea. The students in her school struggle to correctly pronounce her name, making her adjustment even more difficult. After going as the "no-name" girl for a while, a special friend does an act of kindness that reminds her how special her name really is. Unhei is given a name stamp by her grandmother before leaving Korea, something that ends up bringing her and a classmate closer.
Response: As a follow-up activity, have the students stamp their names vertically down the page. By each letter, write an adjective that starts with each of the letters. Hang the acrostic poems up in the classroom, giving the children time to read them and get to know their classmates.
Figure 1 Adjective Name Acrostic Poem
Isabella tries on the many identities of brave and extraordinary women that she looks up to. In the end, she learns the most important lesson from these women... be yourself!
Response: Have the students write about someone they look up to, someone who has influenced their lives, or why it is important to always be yourself.
Yoon, whose name means "shining wisdom," enjoys speaking and writing in her native language, Korean. She gets frustrated at school and no longer wants to be Yoon, ready to let go of her Korean identity. She feels like an outsider to her American classmates until something changed in her.
Response: After reading the book, research the meaning of your name and discuss whether you think that meaning is a good fit or not.
Moe and Mo share the same name and live in the same community. Their life experiences are both similar and different. This book reminds us that our name is only a part of our identity. But, there are many other facets, and it is not just similarities that allow us to connect with identities.
Response: How do Mo and Moe's story remind us that our cultural, religious, and/or political differences can bring us together rather than divide us?
Sangoel, a refugee from Sudan, has to leave everything he knows behind after his father is killed in war. The one thing he is able to bring with him is his name that has been handed down to him from his father. On top of being in an unfamiliar environment, he struggles with the mispronunciation of his name until he comes up with a creative way to teach his peers how to say it.
Response: After reading My Name is Sangoel, draw a symbol to help others remember the pronunciation of your name. Discuss the importance of correctly pronouncing others' names.
Baraka begins his life perceiving his disability as something negative that holds him and his family back. But as his story plays out, the reader finds it hard not to look past this disability and see all of the blessings that he brings to others' lives.
Response: Consider Baraka's given name, Muthini, which means suffering. Why is Baraka a better name for him?
Bilal and his sister move to new a school, and their Muslim religion is not accepted by their peers. Bilal starts to think that hiding his Muslim identity is better than being bullied like his sister. Another person on campus notices this identity struggle and gives Bilal a book that makes him rethink abandoning his name and religious identity.
Response: Think about what inclusion means. As a class, brainstorm words that are related to inclusion. Using a few of those words, write a short essay on the importance of making people feel included and a part of the school community.
After moving from Taiwan to San Francisco, Na-Li, replaces her Chinese name with Hannah. This book shares the story of Hannah's adjustment while her family waits on their green cards.
Response: How do our names share unique stories about us? If you moved to a new location, would you change your name to match the culture of your new home or keep your name? Explain why.
Hussein, whose name has been passed down to all of the men in his family, is forced to give it up when an army arrives, giving him a new identity card with the name "Henry" on it. Hussein is forced to take on this new name, leaving behind his that carried so much meaning and so many memories.
Response: After reading My Name Was Hussein, write about some of the memories that your name carries with you. How would you respond if someone gave you an identity card with a new name and expected you to begin going by that identity?
Jorge's story is shared as he attempts to balance fitting in in a new country, while holding on to his memories and traditions from his home country. This bilingual, poetry book illustrates the many tensions that children feel when moving to a new place.
Response: Using My Name is Jorge on Both Sides of the River, write a poem about your name and what it means to you.
After being made fun for writing her name in Japanese, Yoko becomes self-conscious and decides she no longer wants to attend school. With the support of her mother, teacher, and a few peers, Yoko learns that cultural differences can't get in the way of strong friendships.
Response: After reading Yoko Writes Her Name discuss how font, like color, spacing, and sizing, all carry meaning. Allow the children to use a computer to type their names in a font that represents them somehow. When the children have finished, have them share their fonts with their peers and explain why they chose the font they chose.
Exploring Names in Math
1. Read a name book to your children and discuss how the main character's name and identity are connected.
2.Minilesson: Place value addition or traditional algorithm
3 Model: Find the value of the main character's name, using the “Value of Words” activity sheet.
4. Together: Find the value of your name with the children.
5. Children: Have the children find the value of their names, using the same template.
•Allow students to use the sticky note letters to create their names.
•Below each letter, have them write the value.
•On the grid paper, have the children add each letter together to find the total value of their names.
6. Students will then find a partner and find the value of their names combined.
7. Repeat this with sets of partners/groups until you have found the value of all the names in the class together.
8. Discussion: What happened to the value when we combined our names? In any community, our value increases when we work together, look out for one another, and appreciate the differences that make up our community. We are better together.
The Autobiography of My Name
Every name has a story. This multi-genre project explores names by writing across the genres. Here is a short summary of this project. A more in-depth explanation will follow in a later blog.
1. Read aloud Alma and How She Got Her Name and share a small story behind your name.
2. Listen to the following Story Corps:
3. Explore how to conduct an interview and explain that children will be interviewing their family on the story behind their names. Go over the Name Interview with the children and give them some time to conduct this interview and dig up the many stories their names carry.
4. As the week goes on, read Book: My Autobiography to the students. As you read, have the children think about what their names' autobiographies would be.
5. When the children bring back their interviews, give them each a few minutes to share some interesting ideas they learned about their names.
6. Using the interview responses, the children will create a Multi-genre, Multi-form Name Book Autobiography:
Your identity is your most valuable possession. Protect it.
Figure 1 Identity X-Rays Adapted from Cultural X-Rays (Short, 2009)
The identities that we carry with us matter more than ever. They decide the spaces we are and are not allowed to enter. They decide which borders we can cross and which we cannot. They are a predictor of college graduation, incarceration, and even health later in life. Identities matter. As educators, we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that our classrooms include, respect, and give voice to the many identities that enter them.
Children bring into classrooms lived experiences, meaning-making and communicative practices, sets of skills, and customs that assist them in making sense of the social world. Unfortunately, our education system perceives these assets children bring in as deficits (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). It is no secret that this neglect of our children’s cultural, social, and emotional assets is no longer holding up in non-White, linguistically-diverse, and low-socioeconomic classrooms. Most upsetting is the detrimental effects the literacy practices being pushed off on children in schools have on the learning and developing identities of the children our system serves (Delpit & Dowdy, 2008; Gay, 2010; Lee, 2000).
When we enter the classroom this new school year, students and educators will bring with them diverse cultural groups, lived experiences, values, languages, dispositions, and social contexts. These may or may not align with those privileged in schools. This is important to consider because we cannot expect children from diverse backgrounds to be motivated to engage in learning from perspectives and lived experiences that do not connect with their own.
As Gay (2002) put it, “When academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful” (p. 106). As a result, children will be interested in and absorb the learning more completely. In other words, when children can connect to the experiences, history, and people presented in the teaching and learning, motivation to engage in them will increase.
If we want to begin connecting with, learning from, and authentically interacting with the children that enter our classrooms, we have to explore the many identities they bring with them. If not, we cannot build on them. We have to set conditions early in the year to get to know our children beyond a surface level and continue that curiosity about them throughout the year, as they grow, change, and expand their perspectives.
Freire (1998) posed the question, “Why not establish an ‘intimate’ connection between knowledge considered basic to any school curriculum and knowledge that is the fruit of the lived experience of these students as individuals?” (p. 36). This “intimate connection” requires a reconsideration of the way we build on the identities in our classrooms and use our children’s assets to inform the teaching and learning. In order to do that, we must get to know these identities beyond a surface level.
So what theoretical ideas ground identity-based curricula? I turn to the work of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Lee, 1997), Cultural Modeling (Lee, 2001), Funds of Knowledge (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005), Funds of Identity (Estaban-Guitart & Moll, 2014; Estaban-Guitart, 2016) and Biography-Driven Instruction (Herrera, 2010). All of which are grounded in the beliefs that:
This past spring, I taught a graduate literacy course, Making the Literacy Connection: Language to Reading, and we explored ways of tapping into our children's Funds of Identity. Using Esteban-Guitart and Moll's (2014) five major types of Funds of Identity, we compiled an Identity Inventory that could be used with students of all ages. The questions position us as educators to get to know our students beyond a surface level and to begin setting conditions in our classrooms so children see their lives reflected in the teaching and learning. Since then, I have edited, added, and thought more deeply about this as a tool. I hope that this inventory can be a starting point for you to think about the types of questions you might ask to get to know students and their families.
Exploring Students' Scripts Through Visual Autobiographies
Each of use carries with us “a database of stored emotional memories that influence the way we think, feel, and behave,” which are known as “scripts” (Jennings, 2015, p. 60). Getting to know the scripts our children bring into the classroom with them is crucial if we want to build a community where they see their lives reflected. The following multimodal literacy and language experience opens a space to explore our many scripts and identities.
Figure 2 Sample of a Visual Autobiography.
Digital resources to create a digital visual autobiography:
Tatum (2000) noted that identity is complex, shaped by historical, social, political, and cultural contexts. She further acknowledged that the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is one that “depends in large part on who the world around me says I am” (p. 9). Some of our identities we choose, some we are born into, and others are given to us without our permission. This experience positions us to think about the many "masks" we wear.
Figure 3 Identity Masks from the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Learning Conference