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What’s in a Name? A Back-to-School Literacy Unit

By Alycia Zimmerman on August 3, 2011
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

During the first few weeks of school, I always find it challenging to come up with a meaningful unit of study so that my students can feel as though they are accomplishing something beyond learning a bunch of routines. There’s the obvious imperative to build our classroom community. On top of that, the empty bulletin boards in the classroom are glaring at us, demanding student work so our classroom can begin to look “lived in.”

Last year, I had wonderful results using a name unit as our first shared literacy experience. Read on to find out what my students did. (This post includes a list of read-alouds and graphic organizers to support the unit.)

Our names are an important part of our identity, and during the first few days of school, we are naturally focused on matching the names with the faces in our class. A name unit, then, is a natural extension of this focus. It emphasizes each student’s uniqueness, and helps to reinforce our classroom values of acceptance and individuality.


Beginning With Thematic Read-Alouds

Several thematically linked read-alouds sparked discussions among my students about the importance of names, cultural diversity, tolerance, and self-acceptance. Below is a short list of some of my favorite picture books on the subject. I've also included a longer annotated list on my class Web site.

Picture Books About Names:

I also set out a basket with a variety of baby name books borrowed from the public library.


You would never believe how much excitement baby name books generated among my students! This was a new microgenre for most of my students, and they eagerly pored over the books with their partners. This was hardly a quiet reading period. The classroom was full of exclamations such as: “Lauren, your name was the thirtieth most popular name!” “Mia’s name was the fourteenth most popular in 2008!” “I can’t find Keo’s name in any of these books!” We charted their discoveries, touching on several features of nonfiction books in the process.



Let's Research!

To set the stage for their personal name research, I read the students the second chapter of Lois Lowry’s book Gooney Bird Greene. In this chapter, Gooney Bird regales her new class with “The Story of How Gooney Bird Got Her Name.” This is a perfect springboard for the students to begin researching the stories behind their own names.

My students researched their names in three different ways: by referring to the baby name books, by using online names databases, and by conducting a family interview. I wanted to structure a very controlled experience for this first class foray onto the Web, so I directed the students to a prescreened list of resources on my classroom Web site.

Here’s the research organizer my students used in class and the interview form they brought home to work on with their families:  

Research Organizer Thumbnail
Download a PDF of my name research organizer.


Interview Form Thumbnail
Download my name research interview form.

The Writing Process

This early in the school year, I wanted to provide a structure to help all of my students feel successful in their writing. I turned to Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book. First published in 1949, this classic book discusses the most important things about an apple, snow, a shoe, a spoon, grass, etc. I read parts of this deceptively simple book to my students, and we discussed how Margaret Wise Brown organized her observations. 

“How can we use The Important Book to help us with our writing about our names?” I asked the class. Several of my students immediately made the connection and explained that they can use the pattern from the book to organize their writing. They would begin by writing, “The most important thing about my name is . . . ” Then they would add other ideas and information about their names. Finally, they would end following Margaret Wise Brown’s cyclical pattern, “But the important thing about my name is . . . ” With a firm grasp of this structure, my students were off and writing.

It’s Time to Publish! (With a Side of Tech Art)

Lara's Writing
After my students worked through an abridged writing process, they wrote the final piece on 6" x 9" lined paper. I provided two paper format choices for my students. Just print out the paper onto regular computer paper and trim the margins. Then mount their writing onto construction paper.

Next, my students created name collages to decorate their writing. The collage process let me informally assess my students’ basic computer skills. I taught the following sequence of skills:  

  • Open a new word processing document.

  • Type your name and capitalize the first letter.

  • Copy and paste the name at least twenty times.

  • Change the fonts, colors, and sizes of the names (the students loved this part!).

  • Print the document.

We covered a lot of the basic word processing skills my students will need throughout the year with this one simple project. After my students printed their name document, they cut out their names and arranged them as a border for their writing.

Here are their finished projects: (click for larger images)



Do you have any questions or comments? I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, or to hear your wonderful ideas for back-to-school literacy activities!

Comments (48)

Hello Alicia,

I like this idea and am modifying it for older students. I'm wondering if you would share the assessment rubric?

Thanks so much for your time.


Thank you for this ideas. My 5th graders really enjoyed learning the "story" behind their names...

Thanks Alycia. My middle schoolers love the baby name books too. I usually read them Sandra Cisneros' short piece My Name. I have a questionnaire and a family interview as well. We also do the meaning of their name and its origin. I like the idea of the popularity of certain names in different years. Great connection to math. We also type out and it helps assess skills for the future and then I print them and they decorate with a pic that represents the meaning. We will do acrostic poems from their names during our descriptive. I ask them to find an adjective our character trait that goes with each letter.

THANK YOU!! I Was looking for something like this to work on in the first week. Something meaningful to complete while doing all the beginning-of-year stuff. Cannot wait to try it out. Thank you for the thorough plans.

I am so excited to find this and can't wait to try it with my class! Thank you!

Do you think this would work with pre-k class.

Chrysanthemum is a great book to use with young children. You can keep the assignment very simple with parent cooperation.

What do you do if most of the student's names can't be found in name books??

Love this idea-just discovered it via Pinterest. I usually do a name writing activity borrowed from Amie Buckner, but you have truly taken it to a new level by adding in the text features and computer skills. LOVE IT!! Thanks so much for sharing. A little tip: look for those baby name books at Goodwill and thrift stores. I have bought several for .50 and my kids love looking at them.

Brenda, thanks for your comment! Let me know how the lessons work out for your class. My students love using Wordle, but they like Tagxedo even more. (www.tagxedo.com) It is a bit more customizable than Wordle.

As to your previous question about my class website, I use a service called Weebly to design and host my website. It is incredibly easy to use with a simple drag and drop interface, and they have a free version you can try out with a reasonable amount of features. (There is also a paid version to unlock all of the features.) If you need more info about how I built my class website, just let me know - I'm happy to help!

Warm regards - Alycia

Terri, I'm so excited to hear that the unit worked for your class! What a great idea to have your students research their sign names - hearing impairment is an area of diversity that I really don't address enough in my classroom. Thanks for sharing how you differentiated for your students. I just checked out Comic Life and it looks like so much fun. I am going to try using it with my students this year - they will love it! I'll let you know how it goes.

All the best, Alycia

Alycia, I enjoy your blog. I've done a name unit for years, but I look forward to adding the books you listed. I've had my third graders read Crow Boy because it addresses differences, ways names can hurt and help, as well as bullying. Chrysanthemum is a lighter look at the same thing. I've used The Important Book as a mentor text for other pieces, but I look forward to using this book with the names assignment. Thanks!

Love the thorough lesson plan explaining each step. I can not wait to try this out. I typically read Chrysanthamum but I love adding Gooney to the mix as well. I am planning to use Wordle to creat their name collage. Looking forward to hearing more ideas. THANKS for sharing!

I tried this unit with my students this year and they loved it. My students are deaf and communicate using sign language, so I included a section where they addressed the background of their sign names, too. For publishing, we used a computer program called Comic Life instead of writing paragraphs. My students loved finding out how popular their names are and adding personal stories -- like when they were named after someone special. Thanks for sharing this activity!

Hi CJ, it's great to hear from you! As far as baby name books go, I use different ones every year based on what I can get my hands on. I tend to pick the thickest volumes I can find - some of those books resemble phone books - because I figure they must have more names or information. If you search a used book reseller online like Better World Books, you'll find a lot of used baby name books for $4 or $5. I also try to include a quirky book or two like Cool Names for Babies or Bring Back Beatrice!: 1,108 Baby Names with Meaning, Character, and a Little Bit of Attitude. My students enjoy reading the commentary in these less standard name books.

CJ, if you do end up borrowing name books from the public library, make sure to mark them so that they don't go on an accidental vacation outside of your classroom. I tape neon post-its to the covers of library books, writing in thick marker, "NYPL Library Book - Do Not Remove!" I've managed to keep my library fines in check this way.

Best of luck heading back to school! Alycia

I appreciate your creativity and how many skills (using/recognizing how reference books are organized, writing, problem solving, and technology, etc.)are embedded in this meaningful unit! Looking forward to giving this a try when school starts for me in a few weeks. I went to my local library and found that the baby name book selection was sparse. Can you share which baby name books you used that provided the most information and/or names, so I can see if other libraries in my area carry them. If not, I may consider purchasing a few. Thank you, and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

This is an awesome unit to start the year off with! I'm really excited to try it with my class!

I added a page to extend the activity for students who need to be enriched. They can look up their last name and add that to the final paragraph. Students can even find their family crests too. I always had the early finishers and thought this would be a helpful extension.

Alycia, are these your actual lesson plans, the link did not work. I was wondering if you could send them to me directly. Maybe I just can't find them

Great idea!! Can't wait to use it in my 5th grade classroom!! :)

Andra, thanks for the lovely compliment! At the beginning of the year, I obviously need to assess my students' technology skills, in addition to everything else I am assessing. Activities like these let me assess my students by observing them engaging in a wide range of technology skills. I quickly learned who knew how to browse websites on the internet, who knew basic word processing skills, who knew how to type with the correct fingering, and who knew how to use their flash drives. Interestingly, while watching my students cut out their names for the collage, I realized that many of my students had better typing skills than cutting skills!

Regards - Alycia

Mary, it's great to hear from you! I was such a fan of your blog last year! What a wonderful idea to study how people change their names (or have them changed) due to immigration and assimilation. I'm going to post about our immigration unit later on during the school year, and I look forward to hearing more about what you do with your unit.

Cheers! Alycia

Alfi, you make a very good point - not all of my students' names were in the baby name books or databases. I waited until the students discovered this on their own, at which point we had a discussion about what to do. (I like to let my students "problem solve" these sorts of issues together through discussion; it gives them ownership over the process.) They realized that some names had variant spellings or a derivative form in the books. I used my name as an example; Alycia with a "y" wasn't in any of the books, so I demonstrated how I researched Alicia and Elisha. Other names did not have any form in the books, so these students did other forms of research. They relied more heavily on their family interviews, and often they chose to make up their own meaning of their names based on their research. This challenge cemented one of the themes of the unit: we, like our names, are unique, and we celebrate this originality. I hope this helps, Alfi, and thank you for your comment!

All the best - Alycia

I LOVE this idea! I have been looking for something new to try and the research and technology tie-in is great!

I am a huge fan of thematic units. Thank you for sharing this. I teach middle school; however, I think I can use this as a part of an immigration unit where student research name changes because immigrants tried to Americanize in order to assimilate into the American culture. This happened to my grandmother.

This is a fantastic idea. How do you deal with names that are so unusual they are not in the baby name books or on baby name websites?

Hi Dawn, it's great to hear from you! I don't think any of the fourth or fifth grade classes have tried this unit as written, although I know the fifth grade classes do an art project about their names. I imagine that it would work with older students, because they're still going to be curious about the origins of their names. I would probably use the fourth chapter from The House on Mango Street instead of Gooney Bird Greene, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, and obviously the research would go faster with an older bunch. By sixth grade, I imagine you could go much deeper into the etymology of names, and the students can create linguistic maps or diagrams to accompany the etymology. I'd love to hear if you end up using this unit with your students, and how you modify it to fit your class.

Warm regards, Alycia

Hi Ashleigh, thanks for your wonderful comments! You are so right about using a name study as a springboard into other units of study. In fact, in my class last year, we went straight from this unit into our immigration and heritage study. It was a natural extension for my students to go from researching where their names come from, to researching where their families come from. (I'm going to blog about our immigration unit at some point later on this year.) All the best - Alycia

Hi Alycia!

I love your blog and I'm so glad that you're a part of the Scholastic Teacher Advisor Team this year!

This unit sounds awesome and I'm thinking about using it in my 6th grade classroom. Have any of your colleagues tried it with older students? I'd love to hear any feedback!

Thanks! Looking forward to a great year ahead! Best, Dawn

What a great idea! I love the books you've chosen for this idea. I think Gooney Bird is an excellent springboard to many great lessons. This could also be a great lead in to different social studies units or even a math data unit.

Hi Alycia What a fantastic unit! The graphic organizer is perfect. What is more personal than a name? This sounds like a wonderful unit to get students excited about school. The "take it home" aspect of interviewing a family member is a great idea. I look forward to reading more great ideas from your happy and engaged classroom.

Hi Dawne, thanks for your comments! I wish I had a better system to keep track of all of my read-aloud books so I could always put my hands on the book I needed at that instant. As it is, I have a giant bookshelf for all of my read-alouds, and I've divided it up by subject, genre, etc. However, after I read a book to the class it goes into my read-aloud basket in the classroom library (those are often my students' favorite books to borrow,) and the books don't always make it back alive, so to speak. Good luck unearthing The Important Book, and have fun with your students!

All the best - Alycia

Hi Alayna, (post #5), I love how you say that this will be an adventure. That describes teaching so well - at risk of sounding corny, it really is always an adventure! Glad to hear from another intrepid adventurer. :)

Best - Alycia

Joan, thank you for sharing your phenomenal idea about making a class book and sending it home each night! I am definitely going to use that idea this year. About half of my students are new to the school this year, so it will be a great way to help all of the families learn about the other children in the class.

Patricia and Erin, this is so cool that you are preschool and middle school teachers respectively, and you both write about ways to adapt this idea for your classes. That says something pretty powerful about multiple points of entry when it comes to teaching. I immediately starting thinking about differentiation. If a single concept can be scaled for such a wide grade range, it makes me think about how I can try other ways to differentiate the experiences in my classroom to fit a wide range of learning styles, interests, background knowledge, etc.

I think I often fall prey to thinking about academic matters along grade lines ("That's an upper grade concept,") and it's wonderful to realize that we're all really in the same boat together. Thanks, Patricia and Erin!

Karolina, it is so great to hear from a "beginning teacher". I have to tell you, I still feel like a beginning teacher most days, and that is part of what makes teaching so thrilling for me. Even if I recycle the same lesson or unit, it always feels so different with a different group of students. My students constantly challenge me to redefine, recreate, and see the world differently, and that gift of constantly seeing the world with "new eyes" keeps me going. I also have to tell you -the second year is so much smoother than the first. I look forward to hearing more from you, Karolina. Best of luck with the unit!

Thank you for sharing your idea! I would love to try this with my third graders. I will have to start finding those books. Years ago we use The Important Book for a different idea. I hope I can find it. Thanks again for a wonderful way to get right to work and to have fun, all at the same time!

What a great idea! This is my 17th year teaching 6th or 7th grade and this will go perfectly with the "I Am" poems I also do at the start of the year. Thanks for the great idea!

This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing such a creative idea. I may use it as the week one activity before we have to get deep into all our units. With such unique names, it will be an adventure where, pardon the borrowed line, "everybody knows your name" instead of "that kid".

I am a preschool (Head Start) teacher, and while much of your "name unit" is well beyond the level of my kids, I did get a jolt of recognition when I first saw the title "What's in a Name?" One of the first themes I do at the beginning of each new school year is one I call "Everything has a Name," beginning with discovering how many different words can "name" who you are. Many of my little folk arrive not even knowing their last names, and some have been called a "pet name" or nickname their whole lives and are surprised to find out once they're in school that their teachers are calling them something completely different! So the first thing we establish is their actual names, first and last (and for some, a middle name as well), and what other names their families call them. And then we discuss/list the other words that "name" them: sister/brother, daughter/son, granddaughter/son, nephew/niece, boy/girl. We begin the process of learning to print their name. And we bring in the technology as well -- they do love to pick out the letters of their names on a keyboard! After we have established the words that name PEOPLE, we move on to the words that label/name other things: colors, shapes, numbers, letters, body parts, and everyday objects. We learn these names in English, Spanish, and sometimes another language that may be represented within the classroom population. It's a good way to link language, early literacy, and concept development right from the get-go, as well as a way to welcome them into the classroom community. I believe that I would like to add some components of your unit to mine -- especially the Name Research form, as a way to bring some parent/family involvement in (very important in Head Start!). Thanks for sharing this!

I make a class book that goes along well with this theme. We each created a self-portrait. We used paint one time, pastels another time. We drew just our faces. On the facing page, we wrote about our names (meanings, why our parents chose our names, why we like our name... I also added a small photo in the lower corner of the portait. Once finished, it went home each night for one night with each child. The parents got to know the children this way.

What a wonderful idea! I love how this incorporates the excitement of the new school year with the basics of using technology. I am a beginning teacher (last year was my first year teaching) and am looking for a solid first year project. This one seems perfect! Thank you for sharing. I look forward to reading your blogs in the future.


I did this last year when teaching grade 2 (in a much more modified way!) and I love this mini-unit idea. They would have loved it! I'm now teaching Kindergarten so it's a bit much for them right now :) Great idea!

I am using this!! How fun and what a great way to start the year!!

Thanks for the support, Pamela! I'll be blogging every Wednesday about what's going on in my classroom. It's so exciting to get this opportunity to connect with other teachers.

Hi Rorey, thanks for your comment! There are a lot of ways you can 'customize' this unit to make it work for your team. If you google "name art projects for kids" there are tons of ideas for an art component to go along with this unit. (For example, one art teacher has a creative project for turning a cursive name into an alien picture - see www.artprojectsforkids.org/2008/07/name.html.)

If you're looking to step things up a bit for an older group, I'd suggest looking at the fourth chapter of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros instead of Gooney Bird Greene. The fourth chapter, "My Name," is about the character Esperanza's feelings about her name. It covers some more mature themes in regards to culture and identity.

Good luck with your planning!

Thank you for posting this blog! It has a lot of creative ideas to start the year! I will bookmark this as one of my favorites.

Thanks, Victoria! This began as a single homework assignment for me too, but I found that my students would really get into the research. Over the years, I built it out, until we finally did this as a mini-unit last year.

I was surprised that many of my students told me that their favorite part of the study was reading the baby name books. They particularly loved reading the creative chapters about the impressions names make, "what's hot and what's not," and celebrity names. It also got them thinking about word origins, which then naturally extended into our word study/spelling work.

This is a great idea. As I plan for my first week with my team tomorrow, I am going to bring it to them and see what they think. I appreciate you sharing it with your blog fans! Cheers!

Alycia, this is extremely creative and different! I really like it. I may try it this year. I normally give a "What's in a Name?" homework assignment the first week of school, but I never turn it into a mini-unit. Glad to be supporting you as you embark on the Scholastic journey this year! - Victoria

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