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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 (52)

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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