One 50-minute class period

Becoming American: Exploring Names and Identities

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the links between one's name and their identity
  • Create a class identity chart



This lesson is an icebreaker that provides an opportunity for students to reflect on and share how names reflect identity. By creating a class identity chart, they will explore both what is diverse and what is shared in their classroom community.



Complete these activities after watching the first 10 minutes of Becoming American: The Chinese Experience (Part 1), from Bill Moyers' introduction through a discussion of family names in China. Stop before the section on Gold near Sutter Mills.

  1. Free-Write Activity

    Names are a part of our identities. Through names, people make connections to one another's identity. But what's in a name? Invite students to respond to and discuss the following quotation by Ralph Ellison:

    "Through our names we place ourselves in the world."
    Ask students to take five minutes to write freely about their names (first name, last names, nickname, entire name). What immediately comes to mind when you think about your name? What does your name mean to you? How do people in other communities respond to your name?

    Have students share their free write with one other person. Then invite a few students to share their writing with the entire class. If time allows, share other students' writing later in the day or the next day in order to reconnect and continue to build community.

  2. Creating a Class Identity Chart

    As each student shares their free writing, start a class identity chart. Like an individual identity chart, it contains the words or phrases the class attaches to itself as well as the labels that society gives it. What do members of the class have in common? What similarities did students notice in their pair and large group discussions? To what communities do students in the class belong? How do their names connect them to those communities? (For example in the Irish community, the first son is often named after his father or grandfather. Mothers often give their daughters their maiden name as a second name to keep the name alive. Those who come from a religious Irish family probably have someone in the family named for a saint. Gaelic/Celtic names are also popular.) Continue the class identity chart by highlighting family connections/relationships, family legacy, history, etc. Invite students to add information about their class to the chart (10th grade, basketball players, diverse, etc.).

  3.  "Orientation Day" 

    Read and Discuss the essay "Orientation Day" in the reading Names and Identity. What does each add to our understanding of the link between our name and our identity? After the discussion, give students an opportunity to edit, add to, or make changes in their responses to the free-write activity or their classroom identity chart.

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