Pronouncing children’s names correctly is important. Here’s how to do it right.

For some students, returning to school with new teachers and classmates can be especially difficult. “As a black kid, I had this experience of people mispronouncing my name,” says author and educator Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. She has everything from Jamal to Jamalia to Janelle. A teacher called him Jamil. “I always remember going, ‘Oh. Just add a ah.’ Meanwhile, she thought, “My name is literally three syllables.

When she became a high school teacher, Thompkins-Bigelow watched as other teachers, especially white educators, “dismissed the importance of” naming names well. A student at her school had an unusual “musical” name. “You could tell it was very carefully crafted,” she says. But few educators took the time to learn the student’s name, or they tried once and gave up, using a nickname instead.

Thompkins-Bigelow recalled how “Jamil” felt. “I knew it had to be fixed,” she says, noting that her brother’s name was also “terribly butchered” when he was young.

His book your name is a song was born. In this tale, Thompkins-Bigelow’s protagonist, Kora-Jalimuso, describes how her teacher mispronounces her name. “It got stuck in his mouth,” she told her mother.

your name is a song is one of many children’s picture books and chapters that celebrate and affirm names. And during the start of the school year, it is especially important that educators learn to name all children correctly.

While mispronouncing a student’s name may seem minor to some adults, it can have a significant impact, says Christine Yeh, a professor at the University of San Francisco’s School of Education.

“It sends the message that they are ‘different’ or don’t belong in this society,” Yeh says. Later feelings of invisibility, anxiety, resentment, shame and humiliation can lead to social and educational disengagement, she adds.

There is a better message to send. Adults who work with children can make them feel like “valued members of the community” by getting the right names, Yeh says. They can sign the My Name, My Identity pledge and learn tips for remembering and pronouncing student names.

For example, adults may say, “I really want to be able to pronounce your name the way you want to hear it” or “I’d like to say your name the way your family says it.” Can you help me learn to say it?

And they can go further, using name books to create an atmosphere where everyone’s name is valued. Yeh says all types of educators, at all levels, are in a unique position to send children the message that they matter “and that their stories matter.”

An unjust burden

In his book My name is an addressEkuwah Mends Moses, the child of an African American mother and an immigrant father from Ghana, explores his name and family history along the way.

“Did you know that a name includes history, geography and migration? ” she writes. “Language, culture and heritage are also linked to a person’s name.” The Bottom Line: Every name tells a story, and everyone’s story is worth telling, even though children often get a different message.

Sheetal Sheth has been an actor since the 1990s, “before brown was cool,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many people have suggested or strongly recommended that I change my name.” Sheth, who is Native American, has seen this happen to other aspiring actors of color and Jews as well. Sheth kept her name and thinks she lost roles as a result.

When she went to a bookstore to start building her first baby’s bookcase, she realized, “Oh my god. These are the same books I had when I was growing up. The handful of new ones that offered more representation “felt very symbolic,” she says. “It ends up being like, I have the Diwali book, I have the Eid book, I have the Lunar New Year book.”

It prompted her to write Always Anjali, the story of a seven-year-old girl who plays instruments and plays sports, has dinner with her parents and goes to school. Protagonist Anjali can’t spot her name in the middle of a souvenir license plate, and when a classmate sings a mocking song about her name, she considers changing it.

Editing has changed a bit since Sheth was shopping Always Anjalireleased in 2018. But some of the notes she got from editors on her pitch”[were] either whitewashing the story or they’d be like, “Well, that doesn’t sound Indian enough.”

Sheth says she wanted to produce a slice-of-life story where “the culture is not the narrative”. She wondered, “Why can’t you do a story about the children, when the family is just Indian? The dominant white culture manages to do that.

Ekuwah mends Moses

Now when she reads Always Anjali in schools, Sheth asks students to raise their hands if they’ve ever had someone mispronounce their name, misspell their name, or give them a nickname they don’t like.

Almost all hands go up. “It’s universal,” she says.

At the same time, the kids who take the time to approach her afterwards and share that their teachers and friends mispronounce their name are often kids of color. “It shouldn’t be up to them” to correct and guide teachers, Sheth says. But at the same time, they must be equipped to face the world in which they live. [feel like you] I can’t fix it anymore,” Sheth says, but she encourages the kids not to give up. She will tell them: “You absolutely can. Let’s do it now.

Sheth walks a familiar line to those who think deeply about this question: how to help children stand up for their names without placing the burden on them of addressing the bias behind others’ reluctance to try to master certain names.

Educators can relieve students of this burden. Thompkins-Bigelow says, “When that name gets stuck in your mouth as a teacher, you just have to say it—’I don’t quite understand your name’—and not in a joking way, like, ‘That’s funny, I can’t do it.” She recommends saying, “Could you repeat that or break up?” and includes an important addition: the word sorry. Otherwise, Thompkins-Bigelow says, you’re asking kids to do all the emotional work, to take the discomfort on themselves.

In your name is a songthe teacher ends up showing initiative by asking, “Can we hear your [name] song again? Then she chants Kora-Jalimuso’s name.

“It’s important to tell kids, ‘You may have to stand up for yourself, but at the same time, that’s not fair,'” Thompkins-Bigelow says. She advises educators to say, “I’m sorry to make this difficult for you, but I want to do the extra work so that the rest of the year you don’t always feel bored or belittled. one way or another. “Because that’s what she saw in the teenagers she taught whose names were mispronounced: irritation on one side, and a defeated acceptance on the other.

When a fictional character like Kora-Jalimuso engages in the process of insisting on respecting their name, it helps young people feel more comfortable clarifying their own pronunciation, sometimes multiple times.

Juana Martinez-Neal wrote Alma and how she got her name to tell the story of his relatives and how they passed on their names. But she also wrote it thinking of her childhood in Peru with “a harsh, old-fashioned name” that others have perpetually replaced with nicknames.

“Everyone thought it was too big and too loud for this tiny little thing,” she says. When her class graduated from high school, the students received a necklace bearing their name. She remembers filling in the boxes on the form with Juana, full stop. A well-meaning volunteer parent changed it to “Juanita”.

Sheet sheath

Now a parent in Connecticut, Martinez-Neal found a way to make it right with her daughter’s teachers. “Every year we send out a recording of how to pronounce his name, because we’re ahead of the game.”

Martinez-Neal repeats and states her own name so often in the United States that when she traveled to Peru, “They asked for my name and I said in Spanish, ‘Juana, Juana.’ And the girl looked at me like, ‘Why are you telling me that?'”

Possibility of empowerment

Yangsook Choi points to this phenomenon as a key experience of early immigration for many people: names that seem ordinary in one place stand out in another. In his book The name jar, Protagonist Unhei realizes, “Oh, I have a strange-sounding name.” Choi recalls her own arrival in the United States as an international student at age 24: “English is the biggest monster I have ever encountered,” she says. “Even to this day, it makes me sweat, shake and freeze at times.” She remembers places with different smells, foods that taste different. There are so many different things for a young newcomer, she says, that it can be tempting not to want your name to be an additional difference.

This is partly why Choi wrote The name jar, although his childhood also informed him. In Korean, “‘Yang’ is sweet, and ‘sook’ is pure or clean in spirit,” she says. But in practice, his name also sounds a bit like the word bucket. “People were literally calling me, ‘Hey, bucket, the ceiling is leaking. “”She knew they were joking, but it still felt like a downgrade from something special to just an object.

In The name Jar, protagonist Unhei has allies, including a classmate and her grandmother, who support her in choosing to call herself by her own name again. This type of plot offers a unique opportunity to discuss “both helpful and hurtful responses to a name that is unfamiliar to most members of a school community,” says Judy Viertel, school librarian at the Marshall San Francisco Elementary School. “Teachers and librarians can use this book to promote meaningful conversations about respectful responses,” she says. For example, fourth-grade readers can consider what the adult characters in some of these books could have done to ensure that less of a burden fell on the protagonist. And they can explain why incidental diversity in literature is so important.

Chicago-based literacy scholar Nawal Qarooni recounts the experiences of the characters in many of these books.

“As an Iranian and Arab-American who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a predominantly white school with a single name, I felt my whole life as if I was extremely different,” says Qarooni. The name books are important so “kids can see each other,” she says, and even just “to show that not all names are Annie and Sara.”

She calls having naming books and accompanying activities like asking children to ask their caregivers about their own naming stories, “essential and empowering.” A PTA or school library would do well to purchase name books as part of a larger equity initiative, she says, “regardless of teacher training or school population.”

Qarooni adds that she sees her son Ehsan’s opportunity to learn the history of her name as “a superpower”. With the right approach, she adds, “teachers can design their classrooms and communities to support that power.”


Gail Cornwall is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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