I am not good with names. Really not good. At one session a week, among hundreds of students, I consider myself successful if I know all the students’ names by the November conferences. (As I’ve calculated it, by that time, I’ve seen each class for the equivalent of less than three days.)
So as a new year approaches, I’m going over my bag of tricks for learning names. Maybe some of these strategies will be helpful to you too.
Long, long ago, my first cooperating teacher advised that I take a photo of each class and write the names underneath. Then I could take the photos home and study them. This worked for me pretty well, actually, and this was my go-to for a long time. But once I had children of my own, I was less willing to use my evenings for this kind of thing, and I had to find some new tricks. (That noted, online student management systems have made this easier because I can print out a class list that has names and photos.)
In the first week of school, some class teachers have their students wear name tags so they can get to know each other in the classroom. For teachers who have this system, I ask them to send the kids to Music with their name tags, and usually much longer than they are using them in their classrooms. I’ve considered making name tags myself for all my classes, but I haven’t actually done it yet.
Name games! With little ones, I use “Hickety Tickety Bumblebee” or “Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar”. With older ones, I like “Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder” or some kind of improvisation circle.
In the first term of school, I sing the register at the beginning of class fairly regularly. I normally sing a simple S-M-L / M-R-D pattern, but sometimes I sing “Where is ___?” to which the student sings back “Here I am.” I do this at the beginning and end of each term as a quick singing assessment as well. When you try this, be sure to look at each student, making eye contact as you sing their names.
I teach students from fifty different countries. Needless to say, I regularly come across names that are unfamiliar to me. If I don’t read a name right the first time, I assume that I won’t when I see it again in a week. So I ask the students how to say their names, listen carefully, and I write them in IPA on my class list. I’ll try it out there to confirm I’ve really gotten it, and practice it until it rolls off my tongue.
“Charlie Over the Ocean” is another one I use that doubles as a singing assessment. We’ll use “Charlie” a few times to get the feel for the song, and then I’ll just go down my list and substitute the children’s names. I present it as a challenge and a privilege to sing solo, i.e. “You’re *only* allowed to sing if I sing *your* name…” This usually helps them to forget that they will be singing solo.
I’m honest with the students. They know that I’m not great at learning names (yet!), and if I can’t remember a name, I ask. They are normally more than happy to tell me, or at least give me a hint of what letter it starts with.
I call on students at “random” (choosing someone from my class list that I don’t recognize so well). That way, I can call out “Arianna” and then look to see who answers. This is my strategy of choice once I’m down to a few students in the class whose names I still mix up.
I use their names as much as possible. I use their names when I call on them, when I give them feedback, when they greet me at the door… I also try to use their names when I see them on the playground. This is an extra challenge because once they aren’t in their class groups, I get really confused! They know this now, and they try to catch me on it (which also helps me!). The students are generally very helpful and understanding, and I learn their names even faster.
I know a lot of teachers use seating charts, but that’s not my thing. I want the students to sit where it suits them on any given day in my room.
One final note: I’ve heard people say things like, “I teach 800 students. I’ll never learn all their names, so I don’t even bother anymore.” I can’t express how much this upsets me. Learning our students’ names–or trying our best to–is a very basic first step in developing a relationship that is conducive to learning. If I had a teacher who wouldn’t bother to learn my name, I know that I would struggle to learn anything in that class.
Our students are worthy of our best efforts, and whether we successfully learn every name or not, it is fundamental to our vocation to show our each and every one of our students that we respect and value them as learners in our classroom. A student’s name is an important part of his identity, and using it shows the student that he is important and cared for.
Do you have any great strategies that you would add to this list?