When I was in the 6th grade, I quietly pulled open the door of my math class and stepped inside. I was late. The sound of the door creeping open caused the group inside to turn in my direction. Together, they expressed one collective disappointing exhale. The group of students and the teacher were together, huddled in one corner of the classroom. I couldn’t see what they were doing or learning or saying. At that moment, it didn’t matter. The flush of heat from the blood rushing into my face caused me to pull close the books I held in my arms. Holding the books against my heart seemed to create some feeling of protection. The teacher said nothing. And in her silence, I gathered that I did not belong. I turned away from the group, forced the necessary steps out of my legs, and slipped into the wooden desk that stood in the furthest row. Class continued.
Thinking back on that moment, now carved deep into my memory, almost seems imagined. But it was not imagined, nor was it an unusual experience in my middle school years. Neither was my response. I chose to disconnect myself from the class. I did not want any possible connection to that space, the subject, or the learning. I was a number in that classroom. Nothing else. I’d come from a violent home, and before that day, school was a place of possibility―a safe place. That experience caused much of my study of mathematics to stall and, for a period of time, school became just another place void of trust and hope.
No one in that class knew where I’d come from or who I was. It is hard to remember if anyone knew the most basic information about me: my name.
If I would have believed what I thought that teacher or those students believed about me, my life would have been dangerously different. That experience is one of many that have made me who I am. It is a part of my identity and it helps me to remember, with laser focus, to nurture my students with dignity, kindness, and the challenges to become more than they expect. Each year, it helps launch me into deliberate practice. As I inch closer to understanding the complexities of teaching, I discover ways to honor students, their identities, and their learning processes.
Learning a student’s name is the first priority.
What’s in a name?
Our name is a symbol of who we are and all that we have the possibility to become. It is an important part of our identity and it matters greatly.
In our classroom, it is tradition to begin our first day of school with the name tent. It is a simple piece of white paper folded twice, into a horizontal standing position―a two sided paper canvas. Students design their name tents with large letters on each side and creatively illustrate a background of their own design.
Name tents helped me to remember student names. Knowing their names and exactly how to say them made sense. It was also a small way for students to reflect on who they are. The name tent had a clear purpose, I thought. It took years for me to realize the possibility and potential in having students reflect on their names. We were only scratching the surface of our identities.
Recognizing the names of my students was the first of many steps towards cultivating the classroom culture I desired―a thriving classroom community, where students grew a love for learning through authentic and meaningful experiences.
The Invitation to Write
The name tent is common practice in my classroom, but the invitation to write about names was a lesson I experienced for the first time a few weeks ago. I invited a small group of students to join me on a Zoom session to write. Some students used a notebook, some used sheets of paper, and others decided to write in a Word document.
The mentor text for our writing was the picture book, Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o. Lupita is a multilingual English, Swahili, and Spanish speaker. For students in a dual language program, it is important to offer books that reflect the positive impact of multilingualism. In the book, the character, Sulwe, comes to use the special meaning of her name to find a place of beauty within. Sharing a page from the book launched us into thinking about our own names―those we are given and those we identify with. We divided our work into two parts.
1. The book, Suwe, helped us think deeper about all of our names and their meanings. We considered the questions below to help us reflect and collect. (6-7 minutes)
- What is your name?
- What names do you use?
- What do the people who love you call you?
- Do you have nicknames?
- Do you have a list of “wrong names” that others use for us?
2. Together, we collected all our names-the names and nicknames we are given, the names we are called, and the names we go by. (5-6 minutes)
3. We shared our names and how they came to be. After a couple minutes of sharing, we took purposeful time to think about one that called on us to write. (1-2 minutes)
4. Together, we selected one of our names and wrote. (15-20 minutes)
5. We shared how it all went. (4-5 minutes)
Reading how students use writing to process their thinking about their names is beautiful and valuable identity work. That process allowed us to learn more about ourselves and much more about each other. When we are invited to willingly participate in this sort of collective writing work, we begin the practice of vulnerability and cultivate trust. Writers learn to listen to each other, find words together, respond to one another with empathy, and come to know each other more. Building trust through the lens of empathy is a key to building community.
The nurturing I so believe in creating with the heart’s electromagnetic fields were retrofitted into something different―a Zoom session. We compensated and adjusted to what we had at our disposal―our voices, our faces, and our writing. According to researcher Bessel van der Kolk, “Caring, disapproval, and indifference are all primarily conveyed by facial expression, tone of voice, and physical movements.” All of which we were able to accomplish online.
It is immeasurable to physically come together in a meeting area. Nothing is better than being together in person, but I have learned that valuable connections are also possible online.
Student Identity and the Classroom Community
When students are given opportunities to learn about themselves, including the value of their cultural and linguistic contributions to the classroom community, every person benefits. Communities where all students are valued for the diversity they bring to the classroom can cultivate thriving environments.
Our identities are not fixed and our students are greatly influenced by their experiences, especially those in the school environment. Developing a positive identity is critical.
We teach who we are and what we believe about ourselves and our students guide our decisions in the classroom, from the subtle to the visceral, we impact student lives. Cultivating thriving classroom communities begins with nurturing the identities of our students.
Books about the importance of names:
There is importance in a name. Our names are entry ways into our identities and they can have great impact in cultivating classroom communities where students can thrive and grow. The identities of our students are not fixed. We can be active participants in helping to shape a positive path for students, or we can become complicit participants in the many negative, even traumatic experiences.
Inviting our students into name study is one way to help them discover who they are and who they have the potential to become.
- Walking the Equity Talk: A Guide for Culturally Courageous Leadership in School Communities by John Robert Browne II
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
- This giveaway is for a copy of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students by Carla España, Luz Yadira Herrera. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. Please note: You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of this book.
- For a chance to win this copy of En Comunidad, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 10th.
- Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SEEN, VALUED, HEARD. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.