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What’s In A Name?

Today as I think about what’s in a name, I’m recalling a scene from the Hallmark movie Crown For Christmas starring Danica McKellar. When McKellar’s character is accused of stealing something from the estate where she’s serving as a governess, Princess Theodora, the young girl under her care, comes to her aid with this truth: “She doesn’t steal; she’s an Evans.” Isn’t that such a great way to be known as an honest Evans?

Names are such an important part of our history, our ethnicity, and our identity; one of the first questions that newly-expecting parents get asked is, “What are you going to name them?” As a young mom, I was often asked how we landed on our child’s name, which prompted me to ask my students for the story behind their names. If you’ve not done that yet, I’d highly recommend it. Students come alive when they get to share what they know about their namesake and/or how they got their name. If it was a name I’d not heard before, I also made sure to ask them to pronounce it for me. If it was one I wasn’t familiar with, I’d invite them to write it down phonetically on an index card so that I could practice saying it correctly. That’s critical because our names help to identify us and distinguish us from other people. It’s how people will address us and get our attention. It becomes an integral part of who we are. For an engaging resource on names, check out Your Name Is A Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and let the kids sing each other’s names.

Back in 2009, a headline from a study out of the UK caught my eye: Giving a cow a name boosts her milk production. If cows with names produce up to 5% more milk, I wondered, what might we predict about the importance of calling our students by name? Fast forward to 2018: According to the research of Dr. Clayton Cook out of the University of Minnesota, educators can significantly increase academic engagement and reduce disruptive behaviors by simply greeting students at the door and calling them by name. Simply powerful.

So what are some of the ways in which we can connect with students’ names in the classroom?

Ask about their preferred name. It was my first year of teaching and I was calling roll from a class roster when I arrived at the name Norman. As I called out, “Norman,” I heard a curt scream from the back of the room: It’s Braaaaaaad. It was at that moment that I realized how important a preferred name is and started asking students for their names rather than reading from a roster. When we’d discuss names and nicknames. I’d share with them that my given name is Barbara and that’s what I prefer among friends, but that sometimes people shorten it to Barb, which I don’t really like. We’d talk about respectful ways to address that issue, then I’d usually add that my brothers call me Bird, which endears me to them. That would typically lead to a fun discussion about how families call one another adorable and sometimes silly things like Peanut, T-Man, Boo Bear, Buddy, or Bigs.

Practice saying their names aloud. Use an activity like the Name Chain game. Gather up into a circle; invite the student to your left to say her name: Esperanza. Then the student to her left, Emilia, repeats Esperanza's name and adds her name: Esperanza, Emilia. The student to their left adds his name to the chain by saying Esperanza, Emilia, Diego. And so on. Everyone's eagerly engaged because it'll soon be their turn to list the names in the chain in order. If someone gets stuck, the person whose name they’re stuck on can repeat it. When it comes back around to you, say all of the names, then add yours. Because we know that repetition is the key to fluency, swing back around the circle to the right and do it again. Adding last names or descriptive adjectives is a good variation in the Name Chain game. To add movement, stay in that same circle, but stand up. Instead of going in order around the circle, toss a Koosh ball or stuffed animal (as safety protocols allow) to a random person, who has to say your name, then theirs before tossing it to someone else.

Make names visible through Word Art. I’ve seen so many creative ways to help students learn one another’s names. Showcase your students’ names by letting them make colorfully crafted banners, write them into acrostic poems, and/or script them as mirror images. Get some Scrabble tiles and invite students to make their names from the tiles; attach the magnetic adhesive to hang them on a metal surface. Once you’ve got the names displayed, add some meaningful movement by doing a jumping jack for each syllable in each of the names.

Research the Family Crest. A family crest, or Coat of Arms, is essentially a visual motto that represents who a family is and what they believe in. Encourage students to research whether or not their family name has a Coat of Arms. If their family doesn’t have one yet, get them a shield template and set aside some time to create one. What symbols would they use to represent their family’s name and why?

Choose a family word. What would your students say is one word that is non-negotiable in their family? A core value that they live by? A trait that they are (or would like to be) known for? In my example from the movie Crown For Christmas, the Evans family is known for their honesty. To set up Princess Theodora’s response, McKellar’s character says, “I may be a lot of things, but I am not a thief.” I’d like to think that my children would choose to call us the grateful Grueners. Or the generous Grueners. Design a bumper sticker or a calling card that includes the word that best describes what your family stands for.

In our upcoming picture book, Mr. Quigley’s Keys, the name Quigley becomes synonymous with the school’s keys to connection: empathy, work ethic, perseverance, creativity, goodness, gentleness, peace, joy, self-control, gratitude, and love.

Because of how Mr. Quigley lives his life, the keys his calling card, what he’s known for, who he is. What’s in a name? More than we might ever know. What do you suppose people think about when they hear your name?

Barbara Gruener is a beloved school counselor, speaker, mentor, and coach who works passionately to influence school culture and climate change while helping to foster healthy habits and nurture caring connections among school families and their stakeholders. She positively thrives on stretching empathy. In addition to spending time connecting with family and friends, Barbara loves inspiring people to savor being in the moment as they unwrap the present with gratitude and hope. She and her husband John live in Friendswood, TX.

Connect with her on Twitter: @BarbaraGruener

Read her reflections at her blog: Corner On Character

Bookmark her new author page:

Check out Mr. Quigley’s Keys, now available for presale at Amazon.

Adapted from the real-life story of an unsung hero, Mr. Quigley’s Keys invites you to walk in the work shoes of a beloved handyman as he quietly jingles through the hallways, listening for ways to serve and connecting by heart. Bask in the admiration and pride that the students feel for their Navy veteran, whose war injury left him deaf, and watch as his every move models the school’s keys to connection: love, perseverance, work ethic, empathy, goodness, and peace. Spend a birthday in the cafeteria and experience the joy of receiving a Quigley creation, then savor the sweetness as the can-doer classmates turn the tables to thank their faithful fix-it friend. Turn the final page for a key twist that’ll wrap you up in a huge hug of gratitude and love.

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