You’re Mohammed, Right? Or Sean? Learning Student Names without Going Crazy

You’re Mohammed, Right? Or Sean? Learning Student Names without Going Crazy

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 17,773 views

A couple of years ago, I had a student in a reading class, a very nice young man who traced his heritage to Saudi Arabia, whose name listed on my roll sheet was “Mohammed Al-Saad.”

However, he told me on the first day of class he’d like to be called “Sean.” I thought that was odd because, while ESL students often take on Westernized names or Western versions of their names, I’d never had a student called Mohammed change his name. And “Sean” seemed a particularly odd choice for someone of Middle Eastern heritage. I did, however, obligingly call him “Sean” in class—although it often took two or three times for him to look up. And he continued to write “Mohammed” on his papers. Finally, I approached him privately and asked if this was what he really wanted, to go by this name—“Mohammed” being, of course, a perfectly fine name. He then told me that this choice mostly stemmed from the “flying while brown” issue, of his family being subject to invasive searches by airport personnel each time they traveled because of their Arabic names and Mid Eastern appearance—even when meeting his cousin’s flight when he was dressed in his U.S. military uniform at the time. And even that unfortunate situation aside, however, this issue of names highlights a particular concern in the ESL class. After all, the class roster should be routine, shouldn’t it? Not course content in itself? However, the rosters and names students are called or call themselves do become a major part of the course, posing a bevy of problems for the teacher in knowing what to call students in the first place, then memorizing those names, and in the process opening a number of historic and cultural concerns.

Challenges of ESL Student Names

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    Sheer unfamiliarity contributes to the problem of learning ESL student names, such as remembering with Asian names, the family name is usually first--unless the student has already chosen to adopt the Western custom of family name last. Students from Latin countries might have multiple given and family names--e.g., Jose Guadalupe Lopez y Martinez—usually to recognize multiple family members and sides of families. The teacher then must remember who prefers to be addressed by Jose and who by Lupe (the shortened form of “Guadalupe). With European names, names ending in “a” are usually feminine, “o” masculine, but this isn’t always the case outside of the West.

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    Multiple Versions of Names:

    Pet versions of names in other countries can be confusing: “Sasha” is the pet form of “Alexandra” and “Alexander,” and this may be further shortened to “Sashenka” or “Sashenko”; “Mami” and “Mamiko” may be the same person in Japanese culture, the “-iko” ending being the diminutive. I’ve even had Starbucks personnel look at my suspiciously when I’ve given my name as “Stacy” when my credit card reads “Stacia.” So what seems rather obviously to us the same name—of course “Bob” is short for “Robert”—is not necessarily so in another culture.

Methods to Address the Difficulties in Student Names

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    Name Cards

    Have students make up name cards the first day of class by folding a piece of heavy construction paper in half and writing the name they wish to be addressed by on the card and then setting them on their desks. I emphasize the point several times that it should be the name they wish to be called by, so this is the first step in class in making students feel recognized and respected for their individuality. I also make up my own card, writing on it “Stacia” rather than “Dr. Levy,” my preferred mode of address. (You’d be surprised how many students forget or never learn their teachers’ names.) I have students bring their cards the first couple of weeks until all names are thoroughly memorized.

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    I haven’t tried this, but I’ve seen a colleague have students pose holding their name cards in front of them while she took pictures with her smart phone—so she had a record of individual student photos along with the student’s name for each student to help her connect names to faces.

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    Discuss with Students Their Names

    I don’t know many people who don’t like to talk about their own names. And names are a fascinating window into culture and language. My name, for example, as anyone’s, reveals a lot of my personal history: my heritage is Russian; I am at least one generation removed from this culture because there was an attempt to Americanize it from “Anastasia” to “Stacia Ann,” and then at various times I’ve further Americanized this to “Stacy,” and so forth. The name also reveals something about history and culture: “Anastasia’s” origin is actually Greek and the name found its way to Russia via the Russian/Greek Orthodox Church. The name fell out of favor for a time in the former Soviet Union after the Revolution because of the government’s anti-church policy, so it’s seen as an old-fashioned name in Russia. And the name also spread to other cultures via the Church, so there are Latin people named “Anastasia,” and the masculine form is “Anastasio,” which explains why some men may be called by the seemingly girlish “Stacy” (like actor Stacy Keach). Almost any name will reveal a lot about personal and cultural history.

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    Associate Name to Face

    Look for the memorable: look at students’ eyes and hair color, the jacket always worn, the ring or backpack, and or anything else memorable, at the same time you look at the card, and you will begin to connect the name to the person.

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    Make it Personal

    Find out one thing per student the first week of class—where they are from, their hobbies, number of siblings, etc. During conversations with students, address them by name frequently in order to remember the name. This personal attention will also make the student feel recognized.

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    Circulate. Talk to All Students.

    It’s very easy to forget, especially in a large class, the quiet students hanging out in the back, but if you get back there at least once a session and address the students hiding behind their books by name, you will remember the names.

Learning a class full of ESL students’ names is a major instructional task in itself.

By accepting and recognizing this, the teacher can treat learning names as an actual part of the curriculum, rather than a tedious administrative task, and at the same time recognizing individual students and learning and teaching about their cultures and histories.

What are some of the barriers you see to learning student names? How do you address them?

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