Building a Sense of Identity and Cultural Literacy- The What’s In a Name (W.I.N.) Project 2018


Last year, I wrote a post for Nexus Education on one of my Building Outside the Blocks projects called What’s in a Name which is the title of one of my projects (referred to as the W.I.N.). It was my first full year teaching in a public school, even though I had been a teacher for over 20 years at that point. I knew that it was a rich project because of what I had seen from my own students over the years at an independent school, and it’s among the BOBs that I have been sharing for a while now. Seeing how students told their name stories in public school was the affirmation I needed for the leap that I took into public education. I was never going to be the teacher I wanted to be if I did’t have experience doing that. Seeing the spectrum of possibility in their work was the first reward, among many, for this new adventure.

When I was presenting Project Based Learning- Building Outside the Blocks at National Conference on Innovative Teaching Strategies in Atlanta this past June, I was asked an interesting question about this project, in particular. The teacher from Georgia asked about the kids who had names that were given to them that had no history or particular origin. In her community, she said, there is a prevalence of either creating African sounding names or making up totally unique names. This is explored further in an article in Psychology Today. It got me thinking that the search for unique names is something that happens in many different communities, so what happens for those learners engaging in the What’s In a Name project? I wondered if the project created a divide for learners.

My response to that educator, who sat with me after the presentation to talk through this further, was the the mere idea that students had the power to own their name story was the key leveler. One of the aspects of the outline includes a question regarding the degree to which their name suits them. They even get to write which name they’d prefer if not the one given to them. No matter how rich or how random, everyone’s name story needs could be theirs. Through this project, students get to take ownership of an act that, by definition, is something assigned to them by someone external, so this is an empowering approach to seeing your name. It is also a great diagnostic for presentation and research skills, but you can read more about that in the linked post from another time I facilitated the project.

This year, I am teaching Grade 8 part time. My class is a wonderful gift in many ways. Doing this project with them under the unit of inquiry titled This is Me reframed the assignment by making it more explicitly about identity and memoir. I have been using this project since I first created it 8 years ago, yet I never tire of watching the presentations and hearing he impact is has on my students. Although I have recorded reflections from learners each year, the following recent ones really tell the story of the What’s in a Name experience better than I ever could. Here are unedited comments from their reflections on the W.I.N.:

“This project was extremely meaningful to me because I believe that everybody put a great deal of time and effort into their WIN projects and everyone deserves my respect. This project was truly fascinating to work on and be apart of. Learning everybody’s name, their culture, and digging deep into my own culture was incredible because it is unbelievable how many cultures there are in the world. We are all different in our own unique way; once we come together and share our uniqueness as one, that is when we feel special and that is what this project did.” Rayhan R

“I came to the realisation that it doesn’t matter how complex or how good of meaning your name has all names are perfect and beautiful. I also learned that some people are very passionate about their name.” Nathan J

“This project was meaningful to me because I learned more about my identity. After this project, I learned the true meaning of what my name meant to me and that it really suits me. It was meaningful because it was my first project in grade 8. To me it shows where I will begin.” Mark L

“This project was unquestionably meaningful to me and I’m pleased we got to do it. I absolutely loved learning about such an important topic that most people don’t really get that deep into. As I said, your name is a massive part of your identity and I once again adored learning more about myself and the people I see in my everyday life.” Diba M

"...we got to dive deep into our identities and uncover facts that we never would have known. While researching my name for this project, I began to like and embrace my name for the first time. We also learned more about our peers and their identities. In my opinion, this can really boost and enhance our collaborative work because we all have better connections with each other. As the title “This Is Me” implies, this unit was about us and discovering more about our identities and the W.I.N task resembles this message to me." Hirad J

“This project was really meaningful to me because you are born with the name your parents have chosen for you- that name expresses your identity, it shows who you are, knowing this I really wanted to step out of the box and show my classmates who I am and what this name means to me and the background story of my name. I felt like everyone should know it, because no matter what your name is, there’s always a story to define who you are and this project really defines me and shows me you should always be happy with who you are. I hope I made it clear enough to tell my story as me! Pana R

“I think that if we learn more about our names and their origins, we can all learn more about each other, and if we learn more about each other we can become better friends and classmates.” Ryan Z

Although there were other great insights from this year’s class, I have not yet shared the reflection from a former student who was also the Grade 8 valedictorian. He wrote this for the graduation reflection submitted by each student:

“At the beginning of Grade 6, we were given an assignment in our Language and Literature class called, What’s in a Name (WIN). As part of this task, we were required to research our own names, their backgrounds, and the reasons why our parents had chosen them for us. This was one of the most significant assignments in my entire eleven years at [school]. Not only were we able to learn interesting facts about ourselves, but it truly allowed us to address our personal identities, and where we had all come from. From asking family members about their decisions, to searching the internet for different meanings, this project gave us the opportunity to gain a plethora of information about our personal histories, and I am so fortunate that I had the chance to take part in it.” Noah J

I build projects. Everyone of them is just a frame, and what the students bring to them makes each a unique and personal structure. As such, my projects are personalizing as opposed to personalized. Learners can bring to them who and what they are in myriad ways and with a variety of tools. While they all help build skills inside the curriculum, they also help build autonomy, community and connection. The What’s in a Name project also helps students build a sense of identity and cultural literacy. I am grateful that my students always show me why the projects need to evolve but not change. They aren’t anything without the learners. Just like building the frame a house; its the family that makes it a home. These projects are mere outlines, but they invite the whole person to bring themselves into the equation and make them their own. That’s what makes it worth while revisiting this project time and again. As far as the question of what’s in a name, the answer deepens and broadens with every new class.

Rachel Tian was selected to present her W.I.N. at YRDSB's Quest2018's Student Voice Talks. Here is this Grade 8 presenting in front of thousands of enthralled educators:


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