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Using Picture Books and Classroom Dialogue to Honor and Respect Students' Names

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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 and Luisa Uribe. 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.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the name of the illustrator of Your Name Is a Song.

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Nimah Gobir: Welcome to MindShift, the podcast about the future of learning and how we raise our kids. I’m Nimah Gobir.

Nimah Gobir:  Matthew R. Kay is a high school English teacher in Philadelphia. He’s also the author behind the book Not Light, But Fire. And he knows how to spark meaningful conversations with high schoolers. In the book, he shares a lesson that’s an absolute hit with his students. And it’s all about their names

Matthew R. Kay:  I think every teacher has that one lesson where like, if you’re going to observe me, I’m going to look like a rock star. Like the principal walks through, you’re like, “Say less. I got this”

Nimah Gobir: This is your knock it out of the park lesson?  

Matthew R. Kay: Oh, easy, easy. This is the one where the kids are lined up afterwards to say they didn’t get a chance to share. This is the one where I have to apologize to my colleagues. I’m like, “What can I do? I’m sorry.” It’s so juicy and it feels so good.  

Nimah Gobir: Matt teamed up with elementary school teacher Jennifer Orr for their new book, We’re Gonna Keep on Talking. They’ve taken lessons from his high school teaching experience and tailored them for younger students. Today’s episode features a conversation about how Matt’s lesson about names looks in Jen’s elementary school classroom. We’ll get into that conversation after the break

Nimah Gobir: Matt, you wrote Not Light But Fire about  your experience teaching in high school classrooms a few years ago. Can you tell me about your decision to add We’re Gonna Keep On Talking to the canon?

Matthew R. Kay: One of the biggest thing that was asked of me, teachers would come up to me and they would say, When are you going to come up with the elementary books? And that was something that I normally kind of brushed aside. Like I respected it, but I was kind of like, well, you know, never because I’m not an elementary teacher.  But I feel like what separated Not Light was my storytelling . And I feel like that’s the part that’s hardest for someone who doesn’t teach high school — the actual visualization of what does this conversation look like? That’s why I decided to see if I could find an elementary teacher who could who could help with that. 

Nimah Gobir: Jen, this book is all about your experience in the classroom with elementary school students. There’s a part where you talk about a lesson on students’ names, and it’s different from the lesson that Matt uses with his students. Can you tell me how you scaffold this conversation for younger kids?

Jennifer Orr:  Sure. I’ve taught in several different schools in my school district and in almost all of them. There have been kids who have really struggled with their with name, pronunciation, children whose who they or their families had emigrated to this country. And their names do not fit our kind of Americanized way of saying things.

Jennifer Orr: And as many things are in my elementary classroom and in many, it’s tied into a lot of literature. So there’s several different books that we read throughout the course of the unit and really talk through things through the lens of the books as a way to kind of open the door to the conversation and then make it much more personal.

Jennifer Orr:  It was always designed around discussing kids first names. Where does your name come from? What does your name mean? Knowing that some families may not want to have that conversation. Keeping it open ended for kids they could choose to share or not share.  The conversation then grew into last names as well as kids started to notice things about each other’s last names,  noticing kind of beginning to really build an understanding of why people are names and what those what weight is carried in names and where that can carry history as well as for your own self.  

Nimah Gobir:  Talking about names can get vulnerable because it can bring up stuff about race and identity. What are some strategies that can teachers use to ensure students feel valued in conversations like these and respected by not only you as the teacher, but also the other kids in the room.

Jennifer Orr: That’s a huge question because none of this works if we don’t start from that point. At the start of each school year. It’s not only important that we build that community within our classroom, which is huge and crucial, and we talk about some different ways to do that in the book, but also to build that community with our colleagues and with the families of our students because we’re all going to be involved in this.  

Jennifer Orr: Even the conversation around names, in my classroom, it doesn’t happen in the first week of school because we haven’t had a chance yet to build that community. I don’t want kids to end up feeling raw or vulnerable because we haven’t built that space for that kind of a conversation before we have it. So we have to be careful that we’re not jumping into it too soon. That may or may not be true for Matt…

Matthew R. Kay: To be honest, it’s the same in in secondary. In one of my PD sessions to talk about myths about safe spaces and one of them is that it’s permanent. Our metaphors that we use for safe spaces like building and stuff like that probably need a little bit of work because it like leads to the assumption that you build it and then it’s built right. But it’s really it’s more about building and maintaining and maintaining and maintaining.

Matthew R. Kay: You can you can’t spend last year’s currency like the kids I’m about to meet in a month, it’s best for me to assume that they don’t know me from a can of paint , even if I work with them last year. Because who knows what happened this summer. They could be a different kid. 

Nimah Gobir: So what I’m hearing is that it takes intentional time and you actually keep spending that time. You don’t get to just bank it.

Jennifer Orr: I think that’s true of almost anything in a classroom. You spend the start of the school year setting all of these things up and making sure they’re established but that doesn’t mean you’re done with it.

Nimah Gobir: Jen, you mentioned that this unit takes a lot more time at the elementary school level because you’re working with little ones who – let’s be honest, can have a really short attention span. I love the idea of using books to initiate that broad conversation and then slowly getting more and more focused. Can you tell me some of the picture books that you read during this unit?

Jennifer Orr:  My Name Is a Song, which is a beautiful one of a young girl who is complaining about how no one pronounces her name correctly.  And her mom really sort of reassuring her about the way that that names are songs and how beautiful that is. And by the end of the book, I’m not sure if she’s fully convinced of the beauty of it and the fact that she knows her name is still going to be mispronounced, but she definitely has some reassurance

Jennifer Orr: Another one is Juana Martinez Neal’s book, Alma and How She Got Her Name. And Alma has I can’t remember it now, you know, maybe six or seven names in her name. And the book is her father explaining to her where each of those names came from, which is our great introduction into then talking about where did your name come from and inviting children and their families into that conversation through that book.

Nimah Gobir: Something I’ve heard you say is that nothing happens at the elementary school level without getting families involved. How do you involve parents and caregivers in this unit?

Jennifer Orr: At the end of that first day of digging into the book, I will reach out to families and say, We read this book. We had this conversation. Kids may be asking you where their name came from and if you’re willing to share with them and if they want to share with the class we’ll be talking about that in the coming weeks.

Jennifer Orr: There’s a lot going on with names. There are all these situations that I don’t want kids to feel uncomfortable with. And then sometimes it’s a single parent and it may also come down to this child is living with someone who is not their parent who may not even know their name story. A bit part of it is to make sure that families that this is an option and we’re really interested and that we’re not trying to put anyone on the spot and that kids have that same sense.

Nimah Gobir: What is really cool about this unit is that it gives students the opportunity to learn more about their teachers because it sounds like you two also talk about your names with your students.

Matthew R. Kay: I just really love the self-exploration and the showing kids the power and also like opening up a window to their parents decisions, I think, which is something that’s really cool.  

Matthew R. Kay:  I get to open up about myself, you know, like I’m Matt is boring. Oh, there’s no meaning behind it, all that kind of stuff. But that’s because my parents both had unique names and they didn’t like everybody always jacking their name up.

Matthew R. Kay: Matt could be a white dude and I until you meet me. So they didn’t want me to have any kind of disadvantages on resumes and stuff. So they were really intentional about Matt. And then I went and turned around, gave my daughters two very unique names that they will always have to correct people. And so it’s just weird about it how that cycle keeps going.  

Nimah Gobir: Unique names are very character building. I’m saying that as some one with a unique name.

Matthew R. Kay: You always have to spell it out

Nimah Gobir: Yeah, yeah my name has an ‘H’ at the end, so I had to learn how to correct people as they were spelling it. How about you, Jen?

Jennifer Orr: I was one of those kids I probably wouldn’t have wanted had this conversation because I have no story behind my name. Something I still hold against my parents.  And like Matt I, my children have names that have stories behind them because I always hated that my parents were like “I don’t know. It was pretty.”

Nimah Gobir: In this name activity were there any surprising moments or stories that emerged during this name unit that stood out to you that were meaningful or impactful.

Matthew R. Kay: There’s a lot of good stories in that chapter.  Jelly was one of them. Some early teacher couldn’t pronounce her name, and so she they gave her the nickname and then she went with it. We recognize a teacher probably overstepped their bounds. We recognize all those things. I didn’t force her to not go by this nickname. Unfortunately, a lot of well-intentioned teachers can push so hard, and the kid’s like, really fine with the nickname. We just examined what happened.  I’m not moralizing. My job is to help you understand things, right? 

Jennifer Orr: Every year there are things that come as a surprise to me. Even when I have spent weeks with these kids or have had conversations with families. The piece that really stands out to me is that I had a couple of students over the years, several students, but with LatinX names who who had regularly had teachers Americanize them. So instead of David, who was David. These young ones just accept that their name is being mispronounced until we have this conversation often. And then they will say “But that’s not how we say my name at home. That’s not my name.” 

Jennifer Orr: But even when they realize this isn’t okay, they often would not at first grade or kindergarten advocate for themselves, but they advocate for each other. And so I would notice, you know, they would be a substitute teacher who hadn’t yet gotten this, who’s going through the role in P.E. or something, and says David David would just be like, “Yeah,” but others are like “It’s David.” 

Jennifer Orr: It was really interesting to see that they felt strongly about their names but that power between adults and kids is still so strong and yet on behalf of someone else they’ll stand up to that power

Nimah Gobir: And I feel like this unit tells students Oh no, you can advocate for how it is pronounced and what other people call you. And that’s an important lesson, I think at a young age, at the elementary school.

Matthew R. Kay: It’s similar at the high school level too. Often it’ll be someone else who tells me something about a name or pronoun. It’ll be a classmate. If they’re speaking up to me, that means that teachers before them have made it okay to speak to them in a critical way. In ninth grade, I’m like a gateway teacher to high school. It’s kind of like, hey, look, you’re going to have to if you don’t advocate for yourself, that’s going to be a problem. Like, it’s going to be a problem in a way that it might not have been a problem before. It’s going to definitely be a problem now because like things are coming at you a little fast. Things are like you got to be able to say, I need more time, I need an extension, I need this, I need that. I need you to call me by his name, like those things. And so I love it when that work has been done early so that they come in and that’s one less kid you have that initial conversation with.

Nimah Gobir: Matthew R. Kay is going into his 18th year teaching in Philadelphia. His other book is called Not Light But Fire. Jennifer Orr has been teaching elementary school for 25 years. The book she wrote with Matthew is called We’re Gonna Keep on Talking.

Nimah Gobir: MindShift will have more minisodes coming down the pipeline to bring you ideas and innovations from experts in education and beyond. Don’t forget to hit follow on your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss a thing.


Nimah Gobir: The MindShift team includes me, Nimah Gobir, Ki Sung, , Kara Newhouse, and Marlena Jackson-Retondo. Our editor is Chris Hambrick. Seth Samuel is our sound designer. We receive additional support from Jen Chien , Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña and Holly Kernan. MindShift is supported, in part, by the generosity of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and members of KQED.

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