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“Hey, Kid!” 7 steps to learning names

Do your students know each other’s names?

I always see a lot floating around the internet this time of year about how important it is for teachers to learn students’ names. And I definitely agree! Names are really important, and it's crucial for us to do the work to learn names and pronounce them correctly. But I don’t see a lot about the importance of students learning each other’s names.

In my many years of working in outdoor education, I have often been surprised when I worked with students who've been together all year and still didn’t know everyone’s names. It’s astonishing to me that in May, or even June, there can still be the student in the class who is referred to as “that kid” or “the quiet kid” or “we don’t know, we call him Bob” or just “her.”

Having students call each other by name is an important step in building trust and a supportive learning environment. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve all been in that uncomfortable doctor’s visit where the doctor calls us by the wrong name, tries to call us a nickname we detest, or talks about us to their medical students or nurses, instead of directly to us. It immediately puts a chill in the room and our trust in that doctor drops by miles. We definitely aren’t going to share our most embarrassing details. We just do the bare minimum and get out of there! In the same way, students don’t want to share what they’re thinking or feeling with their fellow students who can't pronounce their name, who just point and say “him” or who insist on calling them something that isn’t what they want to be called.

If you have a community circle, morning meeting, advisory group time or homeroom, that can be a great time to learn names, but it’s important to take the time to allow students to learn names in every class, especially if you do any group work. Even in high school and college, you can boost student engagement with this simple step, which means learning gets a boost too.

Here are some steps you can take to help your students learn each other’s names.

Step 1: Establish boundaries

Make your classroom a space that’s ok for sharing by establishing routines and behavior expectations. Include social routines (how to speak to each other and interact respectfully) along with how to line up at the door and how to access classroom supplies. In high school, the school routines are often established already. It’s up to you to establish expectations and set the tone of respect and collaboration.

Step 2: Pair up

Allow and encourage students to talk with each other one on one before having to share with the whole class. This gets them more comfortable with talking to each other and gives the

introverts time to talk. A simple think, pair share reflection can be a great way to start. I like to start with games that don’t even require a lot of talking or sharing, like rock, paper scissors. If you keep the time short and encourage students to pair with many different people, the commitment is low and students are more likely to buy in and expand their social circle a bit.

Step 3: Establish commonalities

Help students see things they have in common with

each other. A simple think, pair share about something unique they have in common or a fun task like designing a superhero can bring out things they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Sharing something about yourself is a lot easier if you know you have something in common.

Step 4: Choose a good time

Plan carefully when students will share their names out loud with the class. It should be when there has already been a climate of trust established, and it might not be on the first day of class.

Why not right away? If you think about it, your name is a private thing. If you’re not sure of how another person will treat you, you may be reluctant to share your name, or may even give a false one! I know I sometimes avoid giving my name to a telemarketer. I know they only want to know my name to take advantage of me or try to sell me something. Similarly, in the classroom, students may be afraid that people will laugh at them or think their name is strange, or that they’ll earn a nickname they don’t like, but will never live down. Delaying having them share their name with the class out loud until some trust is established in the classroom allows them to share more of what’s important to them.

Step 5: Learn names correctly and completely

Learn names along with your students. It’s OK for them to see you practicing a name a few times or checking with the person to make sure you’ve got it right. Not only do you show respect for your students by showing how important their names are, but you set the tone for a growth mindset in your classroom.

Step 6: Play a game

Find a name game that’s age appropriate and that you and your students will enjoy. I find a game allows me to take some time to practice names and to model how to ask someone’s name, even right after they’ve told me. This is really helpful for other students who have trouble learning names, particularly autistic students and students who are unfamiliar with international names.

Name games are pretty common, and there are A LOT of them out there. I avoid the ones that begin “go around the circle and tell us your name and ___, now repeat the ones that came before you.” If there are more than 10 students in the group, it gets long and students disengage before we get through the whole group. I prefer ones that are more fast paced, allow more choice around how to engage and offer some challenge too.

Here are two of my favorites:

Note: For my favorite name games, and many many more activities, follow me on Kikori. It’s free to sign up.

Step 7: Establish Accountability

Use students’ names frequently, and hold your students accountable to using each other’s. Encourage students to talk directly to each other, using the correct pronunciations and nicknames. I tend to ask questions like: “Who are you talking to/about? What’s her name?” “Who did you say did a really good job with that? What’s their name?” “Do you remember how to ask what his name is?”

Learning names correctly and completely can be a daunting task, for students as well as teachers. Encouraging and holding students accountable for each others’ names is an important part of establishing a collaborative classroom. How will you help your students know each other’s names?


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