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Name Writing and Diversity

By Tiffany Flowers
 | Sep 11, 2019

NameWriting_680wQuick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

—Uzo Aduba

After teaching in the early grades years ago, I came to the conclusion that diversity issues exist and persist almost every day. I used to see these issues manifest during the first several weeks of school. There were colleagues and administrators who would ask me “what to do” with children who had long or unusual foreign names. I understood this to mean they were fearful or uncertain of what to do with the children who did not have mainstream, familiar names they could easily pronounce.

I had always taught in communities of color. Therefore, I thought the question was strange. I still share those anecdotes with my current students and tell them the same thing: It does not matter whether children have five names, long names, or names with apostrophes—one of your responsibilities as a teacher is to teach children to spell their name. You must also normalize their names. You should post your students’ names daily and use them during math problems, spelling lessons, music, and more.

Each year in my diversity and literacy workshops, I focus on teaching different strategies for normalizing students’ names. I believe this is often the first step in reflecting diversity and an important one. Once you learn the student’s name, teaching acceptance, understanding, and community flows easily. In classroom practice, rather than asking students to sit and write their names multiple times, I developed ways to engage students by making learning more developmentally appropriate in the early grades.

Fun and engaging strategies for learning students’ names follow:

  • Identify all students’ names during circle time games. I use name cards, songs, and games.
  • Have students use various materials to trace their names. I prefer paint, sand, flour, sugar, and salt.
  • Use markers and pens of various sizes with students to allow them to practice writing their names. I tend to avoid using pencils for practice because they are often hard to grip and do not flow.
  • Use colored markers to highlight hyphens and apostrophes. This reminds students (and their peers) to add the punctuation.

Tiffany Flowers, a native of Chicago, IL, is a children’s author, literacy advocate, and professor. Currently, she is an assistant professor of education in the Department of Cultural and Behavioral Sciences at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Flowers’s research agenda is divided into four distinct and interrelated areas of research: African American literacy development, children’s literature, diversity issues in education, and emergent literacy.


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