What’s In a Name? Activity | Facing History & Ourselves
A pile of "Hello my name is" nametags and sharpie markers sit on top of a desk.

What’s In a Name?

Students explore the relationship between our names, identities, and the societies in which we live.


  • Advisory
  • Civics & Citizenship
  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US




About This Activity

According to American author Ralph Ellison, “It is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.” Indeed, when we meet someone new, our name is usually the first piece of information about ourselves that we share. This activity invites students to reflect on the power of names and to consider the steps they can take that will help to ensure that names are always empowering and never limiting in this class.

Preparing to Teach

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Lesson Plans

Steps for Implementation

Before the lesson, copy the following quotations on separate pieces of chart paper and display them around the classroom.

  • “If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.” —Kendrick Lamar, Vulture
  • “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” —Lucy Stone, nineteenth-century abolitionist and suffragist
  • “Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names.” —Japanese proverb
  • “I’d be stupid not to take into consideration that there are certain things people will not consider me for because my name is Lopez. And I know I can do any kind of role. I don’t want anybody to say, Oh, she can’t pull this off. So those are barriers that you have to overcome.” —Jennifer Lopez
  • “It is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.” —Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison
  • Invite students to circulate around the room silently and read the name quotations. Let them know that they will have a chance to discuss the quotations in a few moments.
  • Then give each student a marker and have students choose two quotations that resonate with them. Invite them to reflect on each one by writing their ideas next to the quotation. If they need a writing prompt to get started, have them consider one or more of the following questions, which you can project or share on a separate sheet of chart paper or the write on the board:
    • Why did you choose this quotation?
    • What do you think it means?
    • What idea about names do you think the speaker/writer wants us to consider? 
    • What questions does it raise for you?
  • Give students some time to read everyone’s reflections. Have them choose two of their peers’ ideas to respond to by expanding on the idea, posing a question, or providing an example.
  • Move students into small groups and have each group assign the following roles: facilitator, note-taker, and summarizer.. 
  • Then give each group The Power of Names Group Work handout and ask them  to discuss the questions. 
  • Debrief the activity as a class. You might not have all of the summarizers report out for every question, but make sure each group contributes to the discussion at least once. 
  • End by asking your students the following question: What is one step you are committed to taking that will help to ensure that names are always empowering and never limiting in this class?

Extension Activities

Assign students the task of coming up with their own original quotation about names. To help them get started, have them imagine that they are responding to a social media post from an influencer they admire who is writing about the significance of names. The influencer is crowdsourcing and has posed the series of questions to followers with the hope of getting some original quotes: What is the significance of names? What is the purpose of names? How can names be limiting? How can names be liberating? How does your name impact your life? What is the relationship between identity and names? 

Encourage them to create a visual representation that captures the main idea of their quotation. For example, their submission can include their name, a photo of themselves from any time in their life, and their original quotation. Or they could incorporate words or phrases from their quotation in a sketch. Challenge them to use color, symbols, and images to express their ideas, but remind them this is a sketch, not a masterpiece. In an upcoming class period, have students start to get to know one another by sharing their submissions with the group.

Materials and Downloads

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