Enunciated syllables, slow speech and spelling — these are the adjustments some students find themselves making as they introduce themselves to their teachers each school year. For these students, whose names might be misspelled in emails or autocorrected in text messages, this annual ritual carries significance. It often determines what they will be called for the entire school year. “This is a matter children feel strongly about, yet adults aren’t always as attentive to,” said elementary school teacher Jennifer Orr. According to a 2011 study, daily mispronunciations of names are microaggressions that can significantly affect students’ self-perception and sense of belonging.
Names are one of the topics covered in We’re Gonna Keep on Talking, which Orr co-authored with Philadelphia educator Matthew R. Kay. The book guides educators through how to foster meaningful conversations about race with elementary school students. The names unit, which Orr has done about five times over the last 15 years, uses books to initiate discussions within the classroom. The authors recommend how to structure partner and class dialogues and how to create a supportive environment for students to share their experiences related to names. The unit also encourages students to delve deeper into their own identities by gathering information about their names from their families.
While Kay’s previous work, Not Light, But Fire, explored how to facilitate discussions about race with high schoolers, this sequel tailors the approach to the needs of younger learners. “You don’t get [elementary school] kids’ attention for 45 minutes, even in the upper grades. That’s a long period of time for a child to stay focused,” said Orr. “These discussions have to happen over months instead of class periods.” Regardless of grade level, Kay and Orr agreed that these are conversations children are eager to have.
Exploring names through engaging books
Orr said it’s important to create a supportive and inclusive classroom community before getting into discussions about names. “I don’t want kids to end up feeling raw or vulnerable because we haven’t built the space for that kind of a conversation,” she said. It’s crucial to establish foundations of trust and effective communication even with students one may have taught in previous years. According to Kay, a strong teacher-student rapport should never be taken for granted. As he put it, “You can’t spend last year’s currency.”
Orr’s approach includes practicing active listening and respectful engagement with her students. She often does interactive read-alouds, pausing at planned points while reading picture books to encourage and hone students’ discussion and listening skills. Orr uses books to open the door to the conversation. “There are children’s books coming out all the time on names in a way that is so exciting,” she said.
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.”
As a high school teacher, Kay is excited by the prospect of not being the first one to have conversations about identity and culture with students. “I can see the inquiry seeds,” he said. Orr and Kay envision a future where elementary school teachers continue to introduce these conversations, paving the way for students to advocate for the pronunciation of their names as well as for the respect and recognition of others’ identities.