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What’s your name?

It’s a question we are asked and ask many times in our lives. But how often do we consider all the layers of story and identity connected with the answer?

Some strangers may not even bother to learn your name but size you up by the way you look. You may be identified by your first and last name on paperwork and be judged on that basis. Colleagues might know your name but not your nicknames. Friends might know your nickname but not the story behind them. Family might know the history behind the name but maybe not your feelings.

Each and every name carries a world of stories, feelings, histories, associations, cultures and identities. Here are five ways to mine the richness in a name so that individuals can be seen and known for a tiny, yet monumental, part of who they are and how they feel they belong or don’t.

  1. Ask Questions. What does your name mean? Who were you named after? Why? How do you feel about you name? Has your feelings towards your name changed?
  2. Use These Poems or Story Excerpts as Writing Prompts: 
    • House on Mango Street’s “My Name” chapter By Sandra Cisneros
    • Z is for Zuri in Damitra Brown Class Clown by Nickki Grimes 
    • The Name I wanted by Richard Blanco 
    • Ismi by Suheir Hammad in Born Palestinian, Born Black 
    • His Long Tapered Fingers by Fan Chiang
  3. Have the students or group create a visual representation of their names and their feelings about it and make a name quilt
  4. Investigate historical or contemporary situations where groups or individuals have had to change names to “belong”
    • Ellis Island or Angel Island and current immigration to the U.S
    • Native American “assimilation process”
    • job, loan, and other forms of paper work discrimination based on perceived ethnicity of name
  5. Role play and examine the negative impact of name calling and brainstorm creative ways to be an upstander in those moments

And in case you want one more. Here’s a bonus activity! 

Read any of the books from this “what’s in a name” bookshelf and start a discussion with whomever you are with. ( click the image for book summary.)

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And by the way: my name Samantha means listener in Aramaic. I was named after the Bing Crosby Song “I am a one gal guy” from the musical High Society. When I was a reporter I used the byline Sam because I liked the gender ambivalence. And when I hear my full name, it’s usually because I am in trouble with my mother.

Feel free to add your own name stories to the comments below or share other name activities.

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If you want to be blown away, keep your radar trained on what  Kate Messner, author of Eye of the Storm has to offer the world. If you can invite her for an author visit. If you aren’t in a school setting, follow her blog. Either way, you’re in for a treat.

After I read Eye of the Storm, I secretly wanted to be Kate when I grew up. Who wouldn’t want to tell such a compelling story while raising the reader’s awareness of sustainability and community issues. (See my previous post if you want to know why I admire the book so much). So I started following her blog and was in awe of her mentorship there. I shared Eye of the Storm with other teachers and suggested we bring her in for a visit. They were equally passionate about her work and so she came to work with the seventh and eighth graders.

Wow what a wonderful whirlwind of wisdom and world building! Students and teachers alike raved about the day. Here are some of their comments so you can judge for yourself.Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 11.06.33 PM

My own daughter, who’s love of story is of the musical or dramatic kind and not necessarily of  the reading or writing format, said, “Can you ask Ms. Messner for her presentation? I found it so helpful. I want to use it.” Another student said, ” I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but it was actually really good.  Her suggestions for revision are things I would actually do.”

May we all inspire deep thinkers who are eager to share their stories!

a middle grade dystopian novel where science meets social studies meets terrifying what ifs

If a book stuffed to the seams with big ideas, makes your soul leap, then Eye of the Storm is the book for you.

I can’t think of a better page-turner to help future decision makers grapple with ethical problems than Kate Messner’s novel.

In the near future when massive tornadoes are a daily event and meteorological engineering is possible, Jaden Meggs spends her summer in a community-wide storm shelter created by her father. She also learns that her father is steering storms away from her exclusive neighborhood and toward the organic farms, the competitors of his bio-engineered food company. Jaden has to decide what her obligations are and to whom.

Kate Messner takes the modern day issue of global warming, creates a worst case scenario of daily tornadoes and leaves the reader wrestling with deep questions.

Who has the right to decide how to solve weather problems? The government? The scientists? The individual? Communities with access to power? Everyone?

Who has access to safety? Who doesn’t? Why? Why does it matter who has access? Are there similar situations today? In history? What other issues of access does society have?

What kind of foods do people want to eat? Does everyone have choice to eat the food they want to eat? Should they? How does that impact other people in the community?

These questions are some of what future leaders have to face. So why not use Eye of the Storm as a springboard for discussion. Some of you may dismiss this book because it doesn’t neatly fit into a multiple choice test curricula. But would you rather have a president who’s adept at filling out a standardized test or a president who uses his or her critical thinking skills and ethical compassion to solve problems?

I have so fallen in love with this book that I have convinced my seventh grade Science, Humanities and English teachers to work with me to create a research project. As we design this curriculum, we are looking at the STEM standards and environmental issues. We are focusing on, how individuals can take a stand within the context of society or a government and what skills they need to create change. We are also studying the dystopian genre and examining what the format can teach us about the world and about crafting a story.

All of our work has been inspired by Kate’ Messenr’s skillful dystopian novel. Thank you Kate Messner.