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How Did You Get Your Name? November 8, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I could have been named Susan or Barbara, but the relatives in California nabbed those first. So, I was named Janet. When I got married my husband started calling me Jan. I was fine with that. Because I was such a happy child, my nickname was “Jan-ny Gay.” But that was back before…oh, you know.

When I was in LAUSD’s District Intern Program, (but that was back when there was one), one Saturday morning, our class was asked to stand in a circle and tell how we got our name. It was fascinating exercise, as it was a diverse group.

There were two people whose parents had taken their names from rock ‘n roll songs. Several others had been named after a character in a book or movie. There were the usual biblical names, the juniors, and family names. One man had been named after his father’s best friend who had died.

Several Asians had decided their names were too hard to pronounce, so they chose an “American” name. I’m afraid my Susan, Barbara, Janet story seemed pretty lame in comparison. Why couldn’t my parents have been more creative? Years later when I was a sub in San Gabriel, I smiled whenever I met Elvis Wong (and there were FOUR of them). It reminded me of the book The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. The main character’s American name is Shirley Temple Wong.

Any teacher can recite an exotic list of names of the students they’ve taught over the years. There were twin boys, D’wayne and D’won, and twin girls, Eunique and Especial. Klinsmann.  Toshiba. Cinnamon Jade. I could go on and on. Maybe it’s an urban legend, but teachers always swear they’ve heard of a girl named Chlamydia.

Several teacher friends are hoping to get pregnant. They want to do so before every name carries with it the image of a child they’ve already taught.

Recently, I did an art lesson on lines for my third graders using their names. This must be something that third graders have done since the dawn of time, because I remember doing it when I was in third grade. The pharmacist had typed my name as “Janette” on a prescription label. (That was back when the pharmacist typed.) I thought “Janette” was was way cooler than “Janet,” so that’s how I wrote my name. My teacher was surprised. My mother was not happy. And me?  I reminded that I was just Janet.

For the “Names” art lesson, students first draw a border the width of their ruler on 8×10 paper. Next, they write their names and color them in with black marker. They use a variety of lines to fill in the background. Diagonal. Wavy. Zigzag. Organic. Have them fill in the lines with colored pencils, as using markers is overkill and you don’t get all of those cool details and colors.

This year, I decided to take the project a step further. We’d just finished reading Angel Child, Dragon Child about a little girl who comes to the U.S. from Vietnam. It was hard, at first, for the students to pronounce the Vietnamese names in the story, but they got better. I always tell children that it’s a sign of respect when you call someone by their given name.

My students’ homework was to find out how they got their name. I wasn’t concerned about the origin of their name. I just wanted students to talk to their parent/s about why they chose that name for their child. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, ” Your parents spent a lot of time choosing your name, so you can at least write it on your paper!”)

The form I sent home is below. I was surprised that every child actually talked to a parent (this year every child is living with a parent) and returned the form the next day. Okay, one girl told me her name meant “African princess with chocolate colored skin.” She was so busted!  But by the time I called home the next day, she was in the midst of a conversation with her mother about how she really did get her name. It’s a fun project. If only I had that girl Chlamydia in my class this year!

How I Got My Name

Last week we read “Angel Child, Dragon Child.” The main character was a girl named Ut, who was from Vietnam. We learned that “Ut” was her “at home name,” or nickname. We also learned that in Vietnam, people say their surname, or last name, first.

How did you get your first name? You need to talk to a parent and find out why they chose this special name for you. They had thousands of names to choose from!

1. Were you named after someone in your family?

2.  Were you named after someone famous?

3.  Does your name mean something special?

4. Or, did your parents just like the sound of your name?

Find out how you got your name and write about it below. Do you an “American” name or a nickname? Use the back if you need to.

Photo Credit:  Mark Shaver for The Times

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