Standard Lesson

Investigating Names to Explore Personal History and Cultural Traditions

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
  • Preview
  • |
  • Standards
  • |
  • Resources & Preparation
  • |
  • Instructional Plan
  • |
  • Related Resources
  • |
  • Comments


"What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."
"A good name is better than riches."

There are lots of sayings about names, and most of them are at best only partially true. In this lesson, students investigate the meanings and origins of their names in order to establish their own personal histories and to explore cultural significance of naming traditions. Students begin by writing down everything they know about their own names, then the teacher shares details about his or her own name story. Next, students use an online tool to research their own or someone else's name and share their findings with the class. Finally, students write about their own names, using a passage from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street as a model.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In "Exploring Heritage: Finding Windows into Our Lives," Jessica Matthews-Burell explains, "By investigating the etymology and significance of our names, we realize that name-giving practices vary from one culture to another" (33). When Diana Mitchell asked students to explore naming, they were "fascinated to hear how different racial and ethnic groups had different naming traditions" (65). Mitchell observed:

Many of the Latino students had been named after someone special, usually a relative who had a close relationship with the family. Many of the African American students found that their parents had created a name especially for them. The Caucasian students were often named just because their parents liked the name. In some families a close friend had been allowed to choose their name as a sign of their importance to the family. (65)

Using the copy-change imitation process explained in Getting the Knack (90-94), students can explore all these many aspects of their own names, gaining insight on their own personal history and understanding how naming is part of larger cultural traditions by comparing their own examples to those of other writers.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).




  • Make copies or transparencies of the Name Story Assignment, excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, and Sample Student Copy Change Passages.

  • Create overhead transparencies of the Copy Change Demonstration Sheets.

  • Schedule this lesson so that students will have time to interview or gather details about the names they’re exploring. If you complete the first session on the last day of a week, for instance, students will have the weekend to interview someone for the activity.

  • Gather Baby Name Books from your library, being sure to obtain books that cover a range of cultural names. Try to find books that provide some details on name origins, frequency of use, historical figures with similar names, and so forth. In addition to the books included on the general list, there are numerous books that explore specific naming traditions.

  • Pay attention to the specific situations of your students as they research names in this activity and adapt the activities as necessary.

    Students may not have access to family members who can provide background on where their names came from. Additionally, if a student’s name points to a source of contention within that student’s family or elsewhere, provide alternative options for this activity. Ideally, simply explain during the first session that students can research someone else in their family or community, and provide examples of other possible choices (e.g., the school principal’s name, the town mayor’s name). Students might also research the names of heroes, celebrities, or historical figures. Work the alternatives into the activity naturally so that students with special situations do not feel singled out.

  • Test the What’s in a Name? interactive on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore naming conventions.

  • analyze the underlying connotations of names.

  • analyze the ways that name-giving practices vary from one culture to another.

  • compose personal statements on their own names, based on a model.

Session One

  1. Explain that during this unit students will focus on personal names.

  2. Ask students to spend a few minutes writing down whatever they know about their own names-or if the situation requires, the name of another person-in their journals. Write along with the class about your own name. If students need guidance, share questions such as the following to help them get started:

    • How did you come to be named?

    • Who made the decision about your official names?

    • What nicknames do you have?

    • What names do you like or dislike and why?

    • If you could pick out your own names, what would you select?
  3. After students have had enough time to record their thoughts, gather the class and share some details about your own name story, explaining how you came to be named, how you chose a nickname, or another story about your name.

  4. Demonstrate how to use the What's in a Name? interactive to research information about your name (or if you prefer choose the name of a student or the name of a literary character). Students can read the excerpt from Baby Names for Dummies, which is linked in the interactive independently, or you can read the piece aloud as a group.

  5. Before students begin their research, explain that they will share their findings with others in the class. Emphasize that students should be careful to gather information that they are willing to (and won't be embarrassed to) to share with others.

  6. Allow students time to use the interactive to research the names.

  7. Once students have had time to research names, or when about five minutes remain in the class, invite students to share any interesting details that they found in their research.

  8. Pass out copies of the Name Story Assignment, and ask students to complete the activity for homework. Be sure to allow enough time between this session and the next for students to gather the information and complete the writing. Emphasize that students are only gathering ideas, and explain that students will share their research during the next session.

Session Two

  1. Arrange students in small groups, and ask them to share the details that they found out about their own or someone else's name.

  2. Ask each group to choose one story to share with the whole class.

  3. Gather students, and ask each group to share the story that they have chosen.

  4. Ask students to discuss what they've discovered from the name stories as a class. The following questions can guide the discussion:

    • What do names tell us about people?

    • How are names part of a person's history?

    • How were the names that weren't chosen part of the stories?

    • How do name-giving practices vary from one culture to another?
  5. With basic information about naming established, share the Excerpt from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, in which Esperanza, the book's protagonist, thinks about the meaning and significance of her name.

  6. As a class, analyze the passage, using questions such as the following to guide the discussion:

    • What does Esperanza's name mean literally in English and Spanish? What is the denotation of her name?

    • What connotations does she associate with her name? Why does her name mean sadness or waiting?

    • What images does Cisneros use to make the connotations clear? Why are they effective?

    • What personal details does the passage include? What cultural information is included?
  7. Share the Sample Student Copy Change Passages, reading through all of the examples with the class.

  8. Divide students into at least three groups. Ask each group to compare one of the student samples to the original by Cisneros. If class size requires more than three groups, more than one group can work on each passage.

  9. If desired, use the Comparison Prompts to guide group discussion. Students can also use the Venn Diagram student interactive to gather and organize their thoughts.

  10. After groups have had ample time to compare their two passages, gather the class and ask groups to share their observations.

  11. Draw out comments that touch on the relationship between images and text structure in the different passages.

  12. If students do not volunteer the connection, explain that the student samples are modeled on the passage by Cisneros.

  13. Explain that during the next class session, the class will follow a similar process to create passages about their own names.

  14. For homework, ask students to create a connotation versus denotation list on their own names. Share the Name Meanings Chart format with the class to structure their homework.

Session Three

  1. Explain the copy-change process: In copy-change, you borrow the structure and ideas of the original passage, but add your own images and ideas.

  2. To demonstrate the process, display "Original Sentence I," from the Copy Change Demonstration Sheets, using an overhead projector. Cover the lower half of the overhead.

  3. Read the passage aloud for the class.

  4. Ask students to identify things about the "Original Sentence I" that they would need to pay attention to if they were creating their own passages modeled on it. Note their comments on the board or on a piece of chart paper.

  5. If students bring up the issue of the sentence structure, encourage them to talk about how they would divide the sentence into its structure. Again, note their comments on the board or on a piece of chart paper.

  6. Reveal "Structure of Original Sentence I" from the Copy Change Demonstration Sheets, talking through the way that the sentence has been constructed.

  7. In their notebooks, ask students to compose a sentence of their own, providing them with these guidelines:

    1. Use as few or as many words from the original as you wish.

    2. Stay close to the structure of the original.

    3. Use approximately the same number of words as the original.

  8. After students have written their copy-change sentences, ask volunteers to share their work with the class.

  9. Once several students have shared their work, ask students to comment on how the new versions compared to the original sentence.

  10. Encourage students to make observations about the ways that the structure of the original is mirrored in the structure of their own versions.

  11. Ask students to make any observations about the words that they borrowed from the original passage. It's likely that most students borrowed the word once from the original. Allow students to hypothesize why so many borrowed the same word. Note: The words that people "borrow" are often little structure-setting words like "once"-"since," "before," "first," "then," "only," and "because"-"function" words that shape the sentence's meaning.

  12. Share "Original Sentence II" from the Copy Change Demonstration Sheets, reading the sentence aloud to the class. Cover the lower portion of the sheet.

  13. Ask students to identify the structure of "Original Sentence II" and to predict which words would be borrowed and which would probably be replaced with substitutes.

  14. Reveal the "Copy-Change of Sentence II" from the Copy Change Demonstration Sheets, reading the sentence aloud to the class.

  15. Have students compare the two versions, noting how the new version compares to their predictions.

  16. In their notebooks, ask students to compose their own copy-change sentences based on "Original Sentence II," following the same guidelines they used for "Original Sentence I."

  17. Again, after students have written their copy-change sentences, ask volunteers to share their work with the class.

  18. Answer any questions that students have about the process, and continue to encourage comparisons to the original and to the class predictions.

  19. Turn attention to the naming project that students are completing. Read the Excerpt from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street through once, emphasizing the rhythm of the passage.

  20. As the class did with the copy-change demonstrations, ask students to explore the sentence structure Cisneros uses in the passage.

  21. Ask students to identify the way that the passage uses fragments and simple and complex sentences as well as the structure-setting words that are used in the passage.

  22. Once you're certain that students have a basic understanding of the structure of Cisneros' passage, ask students to return to the Sample Student Copy Change Passages.

  23. Based on their new exploration of the copy-change process, ask students how the samples compare to the original and to identify the ways that their understanding of the structure of the original and its use of structure-setting words is reflected in the samples.

  24. Thinking about their work on these three different original passages and the related copy-change versions, ask students to brainstorm a list of characteristics of a good copy-change response. Note their responses on the board or on chart paper. Alternatively, students can work in small groups and then share their responses with the class.

  25. With feedback and suggestions from the class, work together to shape the list of characteristics into a rubric for copy-change writing. Focus on maintaining students' phrasing and understanding of the copy-change process as you create the class criteria for the naming writing project.

  26. With the criteria established, explain the homework project that students will complete: create a copy-change version of the Excerpt from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street that focuses on your own name or the name that you investigated during the previous session.

  27. To begin the process, students should return to their notes from previous sessions, including their homework from the previous session (the connotation versus denotation lists). The information on their names should provide the research for their copy-change writing.

  28. Answer any questions that students have about the assignment, and allow them to begin work on the project in any remaining time during the session.

  29. Remind students that they will share their copy-change passages with classmates at the beginning of the next session.

  30. If possible, type the rubric students have created and make copies to use during the next session.

Session Four

  1. Begin the session by reviewing the rubric for copy-change writing that was created during the previous session.

  2. Ask students to share any observations or questions that resulted from their work on their copy-change passages.

  3. Arrange students in small groups of three or four each.

  4. In their groups, ask students to read and respond to the copy-change passages by the others in their group. Encourage students to compare the passages to the original by Sandra Cisneros as well as to the passages by other group members.

  5. Additionally, using the class-created rubric, ask students to provide feedback for one another on how well the passages meet the criteria. Encourage students to make suggestions for improvement as appropriate.

  6. If available, pass out copies of the rubric for students to refer to as they work.

  7. As students work, circulate through the class, providing help and feedback as needed.

  8. Once students have provided one another feedback, allow them to begin the process of revising and editing their passages.

  9. With five to ten minutes remaining in the session, ask student volunteers to share their current drafts with the entire class.

  10. Before the session ends, ask students to complete their revisions for homework. Announce that the final draft will be collected at the beginning of the next session.


  • Use the ReadWriteThink lesson Avalanche, Aztek, or Bravada? A Connotation Minilesson to explore naming and connotation in more detail.

  • If desired, you can use the Interactive Venn Diagram at any point in this lesson to compare two versions of the passage. Ask students to list characteristics of the original in the left circle, characteristics of the copy-change version in the right circle, and features that the two versions share in the overlapping middle section.

  • Extend the copy-change exploration by sharing some of the works by Cisneros and asking students to apply the same strategies to create poems of their own, modeled on Cisneros’ work.

  • Have students do an author study of Sandra Cisneros. The Sandra Cisneros Websites from Thompson-Gale Resources and the WebEnglish Teacher feature biographical information and other classroom resources you can use.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Use the rubric that the class creates in Session Three to assess students’ copy-change passages. Be sure that your feedback separates any criticism of the features of the passage (e.g., departs from the sentence structure of the original) from the feelings and emotions that students reveal in relationship to their names. Names are very personal, and students may reveal raw emotions as they talk about who they are and how they were named. Work to ensure that students do not feel you are grading them on their emotions.

If desired, ask students to reflect on the unit in their journals. You can ask students to respond to one of the following prompts:

  • What have you learned about yourself or about naming as a result of your research and writing?

  • What surprised you the most and why?

  • What were the most interesting naming traditions you discovered in hearing the research and findings of those in the class or in relationship to the name you researched yourself? What made the traditions compelling?

  • How were your feelings about your own name influenced by this project? Did they change or stay the same? Did hearing about others’ naming stories change your own feelings?

  • Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” in Romeo and Juliet. Based on the naming stories and your work on this project, would you agree or disagree? Explain your response.

  • Almost everyone has heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Now that you have spent some time thinking about names and naming traditions, do you agree or disagree with the saying? Explain your response.

Add new comment