That’s not his name no more

Opening the door to a culturally-relevant approach

By Larry Elwell and Cynthia Lopez Elwell | January | February 2020
Before school one day, I was greeted by a few of my former TK students who have moved on to be in the same kindergarten classroom. They told me about a project they were working on, at which point I asked about another former student in their class: “What is Julian doing?” I was answered with a chorus of giggles and clenched hands covering mouths. “Dr. Lopez,” they corrected, “His name isn’t ‘WHO-lee ahn’ no more.” “What?” I shot back. “That’s not his name no more!” they repeated not understanding how I could be perplexed by such a simple concept. “Well, what is his name then?” I asked, wondering whether Julian had a new nickname. “His name is Joo-lee-ann,” they echoed in an effort to educate me. “What are you talking about? His name is WHO-lee-ahn,” I stated “No, it’s not!” they protested. “Our teacher said his name is Joo-lee-ann.” It was then that I saw Julian running by. I stopped him and asked, “Julian, what is your name?” His face displayed the oddity of the question. I asked again, “What is your name?” “Julian,” he replied sheepishly. “Does your teacher call you something else?” He looked down and could only nod his reply. “Does she call you Joo-lee-ann?” He nodded again, still looking at the ground. “What did you say when she called you Joo-lee-ann?” I queried. “I tell her my name WHO-lee-ahn and she say my name is Joo-lee-ann. I’m going to call you Joo-lee-ann,” he uncomfortably reported. “Well, I know your name is Julian, okay,” I affirmed. “Did you hear him? He says his name is Julian. He’s still Julian,” I said as I turned to his friends.  This encounter, and countless others over our combined years as educators, have helped us to understand the profound impact our decisions have on the lives of the students in our care. There is a lively debate in policy circles and among educational practitioners about the importance of cultural awareness, language sensitivity, microaggressions, institutional racism, race, privilege, and white supremacy. These are tenuous waters for educators. No one wants to end up on the six o’clock news or worse — go viral.  However, schools are not immune to the consequences that impact students from these issues simply because we choose not to engage. Educators who endeavor to conduct their practice in a manner that centers on a culturally-relevant approach to teaching are open to the notion that a student’s name and identity can be foundational enterprises for success for all students. A culturally-relevant approach maintains a focus on student learning while creating a space for developing cultural competence alongside a critical consciousness and sociopolitical agency.  The issue of how to pronounce a student’s name is a powerful fulcrum for harnessing student engagement and motivation in a classroom. Students and teachers encounter each other over their names on the first day of school. It tips the scales to what and who is valued in that setting. It sets the tone for what will be accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘right’ in a collective culture. The action of properly pronouncing a student’s name embraces a student’s home culture and language as an integral part of the classroom and school ecosystem. Conversely, when a leader or teacher gives him/herself the power to name someone — or as happens so often — to erase the name of someone and replace it with another, we have taken an action of profound consequence in a person’s life.  Anyone with a “hard to pronounce” name knows how it feels to hear someone simplify it, shorten it or refuse to try to say it altogether. The tenor of that feeling is almost universal. When it happens to a child, the impression is long-lasting. The author N’Jameh Camara explains, “I feel the weight of others passing their inability to learn my name onto me like a heavy stone...The choice made by many not to learn my name renders me invisible. It seeds my disappointment and erodes my normally jovial spirit.” (Camara, 2019) However, our immigrant history has led to a romanticized narrative that the changing of someone’s name to something “easier” is a harmless by-product of a by-gone form of assimilation. It is part of the quintessential American experience, a badge of Ellis Island honor. While this process of renaming immigrants was indeed a real one in our nation’s history, humans, even the ones we call students, exist in multiple spheres and identify themselves in multiple ways. No one should lose their identity and their name as the price of being assimilated.  Our phonological fluency has roots in the development of our primary language. The range of sounds we have heard in learning to talk or in subsequently learning to speak new languages can create a pathway for making it easier or more difficult to speak the myriad names that our students bring into our classroom each year. In this current moment in history, California is an integral part of the larger global community. California schools host approximately 2.5 million students who speak a language other than English at home. This includes 1.2 million English Learners. According to the California Department of Education, 67 languages are spoken in California schools. Language, in its beauty and complexity, is at the crux of a person’s identity. When we risk our tongue learning to pronounce a new name, we add to our students’ cultural competence and confidence. Those who did intake at Ellis Island and couldn’t pronounce or figure out how to spell Saoirse or Vincenzo or Kostyusha didn’t have the resources or the knowledge that we do now. Researchers in psychology and education have provided us with an abundance of research that demonstrates the long-term harm that assimilation can cause to the social-emotional health of immigrants and students from ethnic minority populations. Teaching in a community that is different from our own experiences — economically, linguistically, and/or culturally — can be like walking a minefield. There are mistakes that we can make daily. It is incumbent upon us as educators to improve our cultural competence. Simply learning to pronounce the names of our students should be de rigueur. It should not be a sociopolitical statement. Sadly, if this seems like much ado about nothing, then it probably is. The work of the school leader often rests on a multitude of daily decisions that eventually add up to create the desired environment for teaching and learning success. School leaders endeavor to create conditions to address the educational debt students of color, bilingual, multilingual, and emergent bilingual students struggle to overcome within the school environment. Part of that decision-making is inevitably linked to the processes in place in schools today. Multiple Tiered Systems of Support, as seen in PBIS, go a long way to articulate responses and a mindset in helping all students reach efficacy. However, the difference between a good MTSS framework and a great one is the quality of the relationships school leaders foster, both with the adults implementing decisions within that framework and the students for whom the framework is designed. Educational researchers and professional development providers define a culturally relevant/responsive approach in a variety of ways. There are some points of convergence among them. The school leader seeking to create an efficacious environment on his/her campus can utilize the important issue of respecting and honoring students’ names with these strategies in mind. As instructional leaders, the words we choose can set the tone for an asset-based mindset about what students bring to school instead of a stringent approach to the “deficits” that we are constantly trying to “correct.” Certainly, we have a responsibility to address areas of needed improvement and gaps in learning that make achievement a challenge for students. Our students are more than their shortcomings and our responsibility in a culturally relevant community to build competence and confidence in students based on the value of their inherent qualities, including but not limited to their unique names, cultural knowledge, coping skills in challenging home situations, and cultural practices. Beginning with how we talk about names that we are struggling to pronounce, we can plant the seeds of an asset-based mindset and culturally-relevant approach. The author Camara suggests using the phrase “unpracticed” in place of “hard” or “difficult.” Saying that a name is unpracticed tells others that you are taking responsibility for committing to learning something new. Whether you refer to student names as unpracticed, new to me, or unfamiliar to me signals to students and staff that the community they have entered values them and the uniqueness they add to the community’s funds of knowledge. Be explicit about the why Help teachers to see learning from the perspective of a learner with agency. This is the perspective we want our students to have about themselves as learners. We want them to believe that what they are learning has a purpose and that they can use it to create change in their own lives and their communities. Answering why often means answering unanticipated questions about what you have so carefully planned. Standing in the discomfort of being interrogated about what is transpiring and what you are asking others to trust you about doing is not easy for leaders or teachers, but it is the basis of an honest and transparent exchange of ideas and the foundation for seeing learning as an ongoing process, an investigation, rather than a set of unrelated tasks. Model a spirit of inquiry When teachers develop a unit or theme from a concept rather than a set of discrete skills, it allows the learning to branch out and broaden naturally and demonstrates a spirit of inquiry for learning that doesn’t end when the lesson does. Unanswered questions can still be answered and investigated by students on their own. Students can pursue learning independently and have their independent investigations valued and honored by the learning community to which they belong.  Schools operate on macro and micro levels and the school leader has the responsibility to address them both. In a collegial manner, share with teachers your inquiries and pursuits. Encourage staff to reciprocate and take an interest in them. Model a trickle down to students that demonstrates how learning never ends. Sometimes learning is deliberate, like taking cooking lessons or going back to school for a new certificate or degree, and sometimes it is serendipitous, like the gift of a new name to learn and a student to get to know. A spirit of inquiry is infectious and teachers can catch it from you, students can catch it from teachers — it can go viral.  Learning new names and creating a space for risk and excitement about names, how students got them, and what they enjoy about being who they are will enrich your learning community. The process can open the floodgates for engaging new languages, new vocabulary, and new comfort with code switching — all welcome practices on campus focused on learning. Self-motivation and engagement When students know why they are engaged in a learning endeavor and believe that they can contribute to the treasure of learning on campus, they will tap into their intrinsic desire to learn. Tapping into a student’s intrinsic motivation increases engagement and reduces behavior issues. It will increase their desire to learn more, be curious about what you are presenting and feel permitted to ask questions that in turn drive them to keep learning and seek more knowledge. As the leader of a learning community, what provocations do you provide to teachers to reach down into their intrinsic curiosity? How is their intrinsic curiosity facilitated to add to and to improve their practice? What support is provided that allows them to chase their answers about ideas they believe can improve their practice and relationships with students and families? 

Create a space for collaboration and choice Learning how to pronounce a student’s name can be an opportunity to practice collaboration and choice. Asking students for help with pronunciation gives them informal opportunities to practice the language they will use in a collaborative academic setting: language to ask for clarification, soliciting a response, paraphrasing, offering a suggestion, and drawing conclusions.

Learning how to pronounce a student’s name can be an opportunity to practice collaboration and choice.
Additionally, the sharing of stories in a community setting, such as stories about how a student was named, provides additional opportunities for language development, writing, research, and the building of cultural competence. Literature and mentor texts that focus on how a student received his/her name or books that detail the significance of a character’s name in the story also provide students with an opportunity for collaboration and choice in pursuing learning topics of personal interest. Value perseverance Openly adopting the position that names you can’t currently pronounce can be learned and practicing those names in front of students models the attribute of perseverance, otherwise known as grit or stamina. Building stamina is a process whereby we engage in an activity to get better at it even when it is hard. Not giving up demonstrates grit, but it also sends a message of value to students. It tells them that they are worth the effort.  Build a repository of formative and feed-forward tools Turn feedback into feed-forward for students by seeking the kind of coaching that helps you improve how you pronounce your students’ names. The key to effective reflection and formative assessment is that it provides the kind of information and tools to students that they need to improve future performance and not just to know what they did wrong. Utilize models with staff that are quick and effective and ask that they reflect on how the process that they engaged in can transfer back into the classroom. Learning how to pronounce students’ names by seeking coaching, using available technology resources, and demonstrating a spirit of inquiry as to the learning proceeds models the kind of learning cycle of that we want students to internalize and implement in their learning with confidence, independence, and agency.  School leaders are accustomed to doing more with less. In this tradition, making this one small pledge-that every child’s name will be honored-has the potential to set in motion the possibility for a big impact in a school community. Every program on your campus has started from a seed planted in the hopes that it will bear fruit in the form of higher test scores, better reading and math performance and improved school climate. Utilizing the practices and strategies encompassed by a culturally relevant approach is a way to get from here to there in our efforts to meet the needs of all students in an era when the phrase “all students” can and should mean “all students.” Resources N’Jameh Camara. Jul 9, 2019 11:50A. M. E. D. T. (n.d.). N’Jameh Camara Bio, latest news and articles. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/contributor/njameh-camara. Fay, L. (2019, August 7). 74 Interview: Researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings on Culturally Relevant Teaching, the Role of Teachers in Trump’s America & Lessons From Her Two Decades in Education Research. Retrieved from https://www.the74million.org/article/74-interview-researcher-gloria-ladson-billings-on-culturally-relevant-teaching-the-role-of-teachers-in-trumps-america-lessons-from-her-two-decades-in-education-research/.

Larry Elwell is the principal at Voorhis Elementary School in the Mountain View School District. Cynthia Lopez Elwell is an International Baccalaureate PYP teacher in Ontario and consultant for the Inland Area Writing Project (IAWP). 

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Association of California School Administrators