Table of Contents

    Cover Story
  • Free Why We Should Teach Reconstruction

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools

    Unfortunately, the transformative history of Reconstruction has been buried. First by a racist tale masquerading as history and now under a top-down narrative focused on white elites. It’s long overdue we unearth the groundswell of activity that brought down the slavers of the South and set a new standard for freedom we are still struggling to achieve today.

  • Features
  • Free 40 Acres and a Mule

    Role-playing what Reconstruction could have been

    By Adam Sanchez

    A high school teacher uses a role play so students can imagine life during Reconstruction, the possibilities of the post-Civil War era, and the difficult decisions that Black communities had to wrestle with.

  • Free The School Formerly Known as LeConte

    A debate in Berkeley about the power of a name

    By Lauren Markham

    Across the United States, we are toppling monuments and former heroes. Past icons are rightfully crashing — in esteem and in our public and private spaces — as we begin the overdue process of reckoning with history. Contemporary heroes are being lowered, too. This vogue of name controversies might be seen as a petty preoccupation by detractors, but what could be a more powerful symbol than what we choose to name a school?

  • Free How Should We Sing Happy Birthday?

    Reconsidering classroom birthday celebrations

    By Kerry Elson

    A kindergarten teacher looks at birthday celebrations in her classroom and whether all of her students’ home languages and rituals are being uplifted.

  • Free Women of the Day

    By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

    A high school teacher looks at how a daily activity focusing on the representation of women helped transform her classroom.

  • Free When Showing Up Isn't Showing Up

    By Julia Kirkpatrick

    A language arts teacher describes a school board debate in which she merely showed up, instead of showing up and fighting for communities of color.

  • Special Section: The third edition of The New Teacher book is out now
  • Free Introducing the New, New Teacher Book

    By Linda Christensen, Stan Karp, Bob Peterson, Moé Yonamine

    We need teachers who want to work in a place where human connections matter more than profit. We also wrote this book because we have had days — many days — where our teaching aspirations did not meet the reality of the chaos we encountered. We have experienced those late afternoons crying-alone-in-the-classroom kind of days when a lesson failed or we felt like our students hosted a party in the room and we were the uninvited guests. We wrote this book hoping it might offer solace and comfort on those long days when young teachers wonder if they are cut out to be a teacher at all.

  • Free Honor Their Names

    By Linda Christensen

    Students’ names are the first thing teachers know about the young people who enter our classrooms; they can signal country of origin, gender, language. Students’ names provide the first moment when a teacher can demonstrate their warmth and humanity, their commitment to seeing and welcoming students’ languages and cultures into the classroom.

  • Departments Free
    Commentary
  • Our House Is on Fire — Time to Teach Climate Justice

    Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms

    By Bill Bigelow
  • Education Action
  • 'Billionaires Can't Teach Our Kids'

    Why the Los Angeles teachers' strike was historic

    By Eric Blanc
  • Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action

    An uprising for racial justice in education

    By Jesse Hagopian
  • Children Deserve Classrooms, Not Cages

    A “Teach-In for Freedom” is organized by Teachers Against Child Detention.

    By Kurt Ostrow
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

Honor Their Names

Honor Their Names

Simone Shin

At a sports bar in British Columbia, a gracious and gregarious young woman seated us. As we slid across the bench in the booth, I asked her name. “Carol,” she said.

“Carol,” I repeated. “My name is Linda. We have names from a different generation.”

She laughed. “Oh, my real name is Chichima. Carol is my white name. My family is from Nigeria, so when we immigrated, I changed my name at school. It’s easier for the teachers. We all have white names.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Some of the teachers don’t like to say our long names. So on the first day of school, they say, ‘What’s your white name?’ All of my friends have white names.”

Of course, this doesn’t just happen in British Columbia. It happens in Portland, Oregon, where I live. It happens wherever multiple cultures and languages, one dominant and the others marginalized, bump up against each other. But it’s a problem whether it happens in Bozeman, Montana; Reno, Nevada; or Montclair, New Jersey.

Students’ names are the first thing teachers know about the young people who enter our classrooms; they can signal country of origin, gender, language. Students’ names provide the first moment when a teacher can demonstrate their warmth and humanity, their commitment to seeing and welcoming students’ languages and cultures into the classroom. The poet Alejandro Jimenez wrote about this moment in his poem “Mexican Education”:

When my mother registered me for the 3rd grade
In January of ’96
My ESL teacher
Had trouble with the multiple syllables in my name
She said — “Alejandro is too long, let’s call him Alex.”

My mother looked at the floor and said, “OK.”

To give students nicknames or to refuse to pronounce student names is to reject them from their families, languages, and cultures. To devalue something as intimate and personal as the names their parents bestowed at birth, to whitewash them, to rub out their faces, skins, and vocal cords is akin to saying, “You don’t belong” on the first day of school. So we say their names.

In her fiery poem “Name,” Hiwot Adilow talks back to people who attempt to abbreviate her name or give her a nickname:

i’m tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them,
they want me to bury it in the english so they can understand.
i will not accommodate the word for mouth,
i will not break my name so your lazy english can sleep its tongue on top,
fix your lips around it.
no, you can’t give me a stupid nickname to replace this gift of five letters
. . . . .
my name is a poem,
my father wrote it over and over again.

it is the lullaby that sends his homesickness to bed

Although I love the study of linguistics, my tongue is a fat slug that tortures every language equally. I took years of French without learning pronunciation; now, in my 60s I struggle through Spanish lessons, still torturing vowels and consonants. So when I take roll on the first day of class, I create a phonemic translation above each student’s name to remind myself how to pronounce it. As Adilow wrote:

take two syllables of your time to pronounce this song of mine,
it means life,
you shouldn’t treat a breath as carelessly as this.
cradle my name between your lips as delicately as it deserves

Every year on the first day of school, I have the opportunity to affirm my students as members of our classroom by cradling their names between lips and trying to sing the songs of their homes.

Resource
Christensen, Linda. 2017. “Name Poem: To Say the Name Is to Begin the Story.” Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word (2nd Edition). Rethinking Schools.

Linda Christensen (Contact Me) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and a Rethinking Schools editor. She is co-editor of The New Teacher Book (3rd edition) and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word (2nd edition).

Illustrator Simone Shin’s work can be found at simoneshin.com.

***

Name
By Hiwot Adilow

i’m tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them,
they want me to bury it in the english so they can understand.
i will not accommodate the word for mouth,
i will not break my name so your lazy english can sleep its tongue on top,
fix your lips around it.
no, you can’t give me a stupid nickname to replace this gift of five letters.
try to pronounce it before you write me off as
lil one,
afro,
the ethiopian jawn,
or any other poor excuse of a name you’ve baptized me with in your weakness.
my name is insulted that you won’t speak it.
my name is a jealous god
i kneel my english down every day and offer my begging and broken amharic
to be accepted by this lord from my parents’ country.
this is my religion.
you are tainting it.
every time you call me something else you break it and kick it
you think you’re being clever by turning my name into a cackle?
hewhat? hewhy? he when how he what who?
he did whaaaat?

my name is not a joke.
this is more than wind and the clack of a consonant.
my father handed me this heavy burden of five letters decades before i was born.
with letters, he tried to snatch his ethiopia back from the middle of a red terror.
he tried to overthrow a fascist.
he was thrown into prison,
ran out of his home
my name is a frantic attempt to save a country.
it is a preserved connection,
the only line i have leading me to a place i’ve never been.
it is a boat,
a plane,
a vessel carrying me to earth i’ve never felt.
i speak myself closer and closer to ethiopia by wrapping myself in this name.
this is my country in ink.
my name is the signature at the end of the last letter before the army comes,
it is the only music left in the midst of torture and fear,
it is the air that filled my father’s lungs when he was released from prison,
the inhale that ushers in beginning.
my name is a poem,
my father wrote it over and over again.
it is the lullaby that sends his homesickness to bed
i refuse to break myself into dust for people too weak to carry my name in their mouths.
take two syllables of your time to pronounce this song of mine,
it means life,
you shouldn’t treat a breath as carelessly as this.
cradle my name between your lips as delicately as it deserves
it’s Hiwot,
say it right.

Hiwot Adilow is an Ethiopian American poet from Philadelphia. She was one of the 2018 recipients of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and author of the chapbook In the House of My Father (Two Sylvias Press).

***

Mexican Education
By Alejandro Jimenez

My first image of the United States
Came on November 11, 1995
I was waiting in a parking lot
Underneath the lights of a magical place

My uncle said, “Here you find anything”
With his help I pronounced my first real words in English
“gu — al — mart . . . walmar . . . Walmart!”
My aunt walked out of this place
With a green blanket
She wrapped it around my shivering body
I had illegally crossed the border less than two hours before
And now I was warm.

With a big smile on my face —
I thought, I made it.

When my mother registered me for the 3rd grade
In January of ’96
My ESL teacher
Had trouble with the multiple syllables in my name
She said — “Alejandro is too long, let’s call him Alex”

My mother looked at the floor and said, “OK”

It wasn’t until a couple years later
When I knew enough English (and assimilation)
That I realized what had happened

Now, most of my family members do not call me by my birth
name.

That same year I met Mrs. Parrot
She would not allow me to go to the bathroom
Until I pronounced my request correctly

Most of the time I would piss myself.

At that time,
I didn’t know enough English
To cuss her out
So instead I waited until high school
And I would run by her house and spit on her nice lawn

I also used to poop in her fruit tree orchard.

In 4th grade, an ESL assistant would kick my shins under the table
Every time I would mispronounce any of the words
she was holding on a flash card

Until this day I do not find high heels to be attractive.

In 6th grade,
While in the back of the bus with three white kids
Malia Hadley
Whom I had a crush on
Asked me, “Alex, is it true that they call Mexicans beaners?”

(I should have known from her smile that she did not actually want
to broaden her knowledge)

I remembered having beans
The night before
That I did not think about
The implications of her question

“Yes,” I said

Everybody laughed.

. . .

In 7th grade,
My science teacher compared Mexico to trash
He is the reason why I dislike science.

I also used to run by his house and spit on his lawn.

In 8th grade,
My friends and I jumped each other
And started our own “gang.”

We were afraid of what the following school year would hold
After all, that was the furthest any of our parents had gone to
school
I guess punching each other was how we showed support and
guidance

Later, some would drop out
Some would actually join gangs
Some joined the military
And we would not recognize them after their tour
Some would graduate
Very few would go on to college.

In high school,
I was one of four brown faces in AP classes
In a school that was 40 percent Mexican

I always felt weird
When my teachers praised me,
“for not being like the rest of them”

What is this rest of that I am not?

I left my guidance counselor jaw-dropped
When I told her I wanted to go to college.

Instead of guiding me through the application process
She asked me to talk to incoming students and their families
About my success story
Of “how you came from nothing to something.”

My grandmother’s house in Mexico
May not have had running water,
Electricity,
Flushing toilets,
Steak dinners,
Wood floors,
A picket fence,
But
It was
Something.

. . .

I am a green card holder now
I still I have trouble pronouncing some English words
Sometimes my tongue wrestles with itself
It does not know which colonizer’s language it prefers.

I ask my intuition for good judgment in navigating this country
but sometimes it feels like I ask for too much.

I am learning how to thrive in a world
Where I am not wanted if my name is Alejandro

If my skin is too dark
If my accent is too heavy
If my hands are not rough enough.
If my hands are too rough

When my aunt wrapped me in the warmth of the green blanket,
I thought I had made it.

Mexican education in this country:

They will shorten your name to fit their mouths more easily
Sometimes you will think it is easier too
They will be surprised when you want to be successful
Sometimes you will be surprised too
They will tell you that you are better than the rest
Sometimes you will believe them
They will try to turn you against people that look like you
Sometimes they will win

But now I see that a green Walmart blanket
Cannot protect you from everything and everyone
Set up for you to fail.

Read more at www.alejandropoetry.com

Alejandro Jimenez is an immigrant from Colima, Mexico, TEDx speaker, two-time National Poetry Slam semifinalist, Emmy-nominated performance poet and writer whose work centers around cultural identity, immigration narratives, masculinity, memory, and the intersection of them all. He lives in Denver, where he works with youth as a restorative justice coordinator at a public high school, and tries to laugh with his students as much as possible.