Names Do Matter

The start of the school year is an important time to remember that names have meaning—whether they belong to monuments, mountains or to your own students. 


For a classroom teacher, the first day of a new school year is always exciting. At the same time, it can make you nervous—nervous about meeting new students, nervous about meeting their expectations, nervous about being able to see and hear each one of them as individuals. For me, a large part of those nerves was how anxious I would get about pronouncing names correctly. Names matter. Mine is sort of common, yet the spelling, in some circles, isn’t. I always say, “Sara, no H,” when asked my name. Our names tell a unique story about who we are and where we come from, but our names, depending on their origins, can also leave us feeling less important at times.

Anti-bias educators know to be cautious when planning activities that include the history of a name. We know that some students’ families, for example, do not include birth parents so they may not share a last name with others in their home. An assignment that involves investigating their family’s name may marginalize some students. Some of our students don’t have connections to the people who named them, so they can’t answer questions about where their names derive from or describe how they came to be named. We know that some students’ surnames link directly back to years of slavery in the United States when many enslaved people were forced to assume the name of the people who owned them. This can be a sensitive discussion for many of our African-American students. Anti-bias educators know relationships of power and privilege play out in names.

A national dialogue around naming recently resurfaced with debates about the removal of the Confederate flag from state houses and government property in the South. The conversation naturally transitioned to schools, buildings and monuments around the country named for various Confederate figures (e.g., Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest). In fact, there are nearly 200 schools named for Confederate leaders around the United States. Many of us feel conflicted about what the renaming of these schools implies—fighting hate and racism or erasing history. 

Conversations about naming aren’t only about schools and Confederate leaders. The largest mountain in North America is part of the dialogue, too.

In Alaska, Denali—or “the great one”—had been part of the Koyukon Athabascans’ culture for thousands of years. In 1896, a gold prospector showed up, fancied then-presidential candidate William McKinley, spotted the largest peak in North America and upon sight declared Denali Mount McKinley. And the name stuck—for more than 100 years. Just like that. Remember what I said about those with power getting the privilege of naming?

The victor writes the story. The oppressed becomes invisible. Until now.

Last week, a presidential executive order restored the mountain to its original name, Denali, and ended a 40-year battle between Alaska, home to Denali, and Ohio, home to former President McKinley. However, Alaska and Ohio are expressing very different reactions to the executive order.

Some folks in Ohio, who are not Alaska Natives, are really angry about the order to restore the mountain’s original name. They’re upset because they believe it erases a testament to President McKinley (despite the fact that McKinley never even visited Alaska). On the other hand, Alaska Natives are celebrating the executive order as a symbol of honor and respect for Alaska’s Athabascan people—who never stopped referring to “the great one” as Denali—and an end to the cultural imperialism that imposed the name McKinley over 100 years ago.

What’s the big deal? The big deal is that names have meaning. When our society is divided about current events and our national history, it’s safe to assume our kids are, too. Whether it is a student’s name, the name of a school or the name of the largest mountain in North America, our students see how power and privilege seep into language and naming. They care.

What can educators do about it? 

We can equip students with ways to think critically about how national markers are named. Try these discussion questions with students:

  1. Who named [monument]? For what purpose?
  2. What is the relationship between the person who named [monument] and the monument itself?
  3. Who is erased from the history? Who is present?
  4. What other history is this like?
  5. What is the social or cultural context of this history?
  6. How is this history relevant to today?

Then use the following questions for self-reflection: 

  1. How did students’ thinking shift?
  2. How might frequently silenced voices be heard through using these questions in discussions about other historical topics?

For Alaskans, this restoration means being visible. It means being seen and having cultural significance. It means Denali will be on the map, and Alaska’s Native culture will be included in our country’s narrative. To those of us who are not Alaska Natives, it’s an opportunity to remember who has had the privilege of writing our stories. It’s a chance to identify those who count, whose identity is valued and whose identity we have erased. It’s the opportunity to emphasize that names do matter.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

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