What's in a Name?

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. This lesson allows students to make decisions on sources they want to use in the research of their family name. It will encourage them to look for credibility, reliability, consistency, strengths , and limitations of resources. They can even provide evidence to help them determine if their source was a primary or seconday source.

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
GLE 0601.4.3
Make distinctions about the credibility, reliability, consistency, strengths, and limitations of resources, including information gathered from websites.
Alignment of this item to academic standards is based on recommendations from content creators, resource curators, and visitors to this website. It is the responsibility of each educator to verify that the materials are appropriate for your content area, aligned to current academic standards, and will be beneficial to your specific students.
Learning objectives: 

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.

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 


  • 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.

Helpful Hints


  • 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.