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What's In a Name?

In this post Noa Daniel explains the power of investigating ones name, the importance of an individuals name to each child and sharing the findings of investigating their own names with the class.

I have a student named Radhesh. He says that he doesn’t care that the students call him Radish, but I do. Names are important. Your name is a gateway to your identity. Whether you love it or hate, your name has a story, and educators can give students the opportunity to not just investigate that story but to share it with their classes and take their place and their name in the class community.

Names can be difficult to pronounce, but kids deserve to feel like they matter enough to hear their names as they are supposed to sound. I have heard teachers mispronounce a students’ name every day for an entire school year. Can you imagine going an entire school day without anyone saying your name correctly or, worse, at all? What message does that send?
Names are the first introduction to a person, and they deserve a bit of time for exploration and clarity. The What’s in a Name project has students investigating the etymology of their names, the reason why it was chosen for them, it’s meaning to them and, if they chose, any alternative name the student would select.  As with all of the BOBs, students don’t just fill out the answers to questions. They use the questions outlines in the graphic organizers to guide and personalize their projects and make them into presentations. The W.I.N. is a powerful project to use at the beginning of a school year. Besides being a unique way to introduce the class to each other over the first months of  school, it does a lot to build the community from the name up.

I just returned from Atlanta where I presented on Building Outside the Blocks ( at the Innovative Teaching Strategies Conferences under the umbrella of the Innovative Strategies Summit. I used a variety of One-Off and Tri-BOBs ( ) to explain the Building Outside the Blocks approach and why the projects are such powerful PBL’s for students to build skill, autonomy, connection and community.  Many of the projects excited the audience and generated head nods and follow up discussions, but it was the W.I.N. that garnered the most post-presentation conversation, and I stayed afterward with a few educators to work through a challenge they presented.

The teachers explained that in their community, names are sometimes random. Using examples like Tonisha or Precious, they continued saying that there is often no story behind a name. My friend and former colleague added the ladder question to the outline in order to give a critical thinking component to the name project  and allow students an out if they felt that their names didn’t suit them or they didn’t want those names to be the focus of their work. This addition helpful to those teachers with whom I had been speaking feeling that some of their students would choose that option. Students can exercise autonomy when given the chance to choose a name of their preference but they can also find comfort and connection by researching for people that share their name. Students, as well, can use this project to marinate on their names and, through that consideration,  joyfully own them. Exploring one’s name is a viable project in any community, and also a conduit for individual learners to begin a new school year with a sense of pride in that aspect of their identity.

Students in my classroom, and in classrooms where teachers have also used this project, have had a lot of positive responses to the W.I.N. They enjoy the stories about how and why their names were selected, which many had never heard before. A lot of the students learned about the relatives they were named after whose names and legacies now became theirs. They learned hilarious anecdotes about why they had their name or even the other names they may have had if their other parent had their way. One student had a different name for their first month of life until their parents decided that it didn’t suit him and changed it. Some parents have even written to thank me for the opportunity to partake in the interview process for this assignment because they had never thought to discuss their child’s name with them as a narrative or because they had a particularly bonding experience with their child through the assignment. Students lives and interests are meaningful avenues for skills building, as well.  Most people care about their lives, and projects like these help them care more about school. The overwhelming reflections have allowed me to conclude that students find this project informative and engaging. Here are some of the reflections from the Grade 5 students with whom I last did the W.I.N. most recently:

I was so happy to learn about my name. It was so fun to do all of that researching. I really learned a lot about what my name is and means. It felt pretty good speaking to the class. Now I know that my classmates know me better. I got to know lots more people, and really like that some people brought in props. It was a very well-done project. – Joey

Now we all know each other a lot more. We are a different version of ourselves because people know more about what we’re about and where we come from. I was very engaged. I feel like anew version of myself because I go to tell everyone the backstory of my name. I loved learning that everyone’s name has a different meaning. Everyone is different and comes from backgrounds of different religions from different places, but we all have a lot in common and I’m glad we got to share. -Ethan

I was really surprised when I found out the facts about my middle and last name. I’ve always known what my first name meant and why parents gave it to me. I never knew anything about my middle and last name until now. – Mazal

At the beginning, everybody was shy to do it. It brought out good things from everybody and everyone did a really good job. – Jonah

I interviewed my parents and found out that my name was related to the god we believe in. My name comes up in the songs we sing to show gratitude in the Hindu faith. Now that I know more about my name, I wouldn’t want to change it. It makes me feel proud to be me and introduce myself. – Riddhi

What I found interesting is that I could relate to a few people. I found out that a few people shared the experience of having their last names changed at the border. We all “won” by learning about your names- we were learning about ourselves, prepared to present and showed what we could do. – Jordyn

I was really into the WIN. I like how it’s called W.I.N. and it stand for What’s in a Name. It’s like you’re winning by learning what your name is. You’re experiencing your classmates in new ways by understanding what their names really mean. -Sadie

The What’s in a Name project is a high yielding one, as are most BOBs. I use it as a diagnostic for research and presentation skills. It is a way to breed cultural awareness and literacy, as well as a sense of global and intergenerational connection. It’s a way to honour the past while also being something that helps create presence. The W.I.N. introduces the individual to the class using their name while also contributing to building their sense of identity. At the same time, the W.I.N. is an invitation to each student to be part of a community that is being co-constructed, one name at a time.

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The author

Noa Daniel, M.Ed., is an innovator and thought leader who has been building ways for students to feel visible and valuable in and outside of the classroom for over 20 years. She is a teacher, consultant, coach, and Chief Building Officer at BOB. Noa created the Building Outside the Blocks (BOB) Approach which uses personalised projects to help students build skill, autonomy and community in minimal class time. She is also a podcaster, celebrating educators through her Personal Playlist Podcast (P3). Educators share a nostalgic song, one that reflects their identity and one that is motivational or inspirational. You can read more about Noa and her work at Noa blogs about her projects and her guests on the P3 at You can reach out to her through @noasbobs or by email

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