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Still Can't Remember All Their Names?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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I have been teaching for 15 years, and as of this post, have taught upwards of 3,500 students ranging from third grade to twelfth grade. But that does not make me a veteran teacher.

What makes me an official, badge-wearing member of the Veteran Teacher Club is the fact my memory is going. The computer that is my brain is beginning to empty the trash, one student name at a time. In fact, it doesn't even wait until the year is over to forget names. Some of them just don't "stick" to begin with. What was once an ability that I could rely on, that of name memorization, has become a cobwebbed unreliable, sputtering jalopy of a skill.

It's November, and while I've know these students since mid-August, I still get those two girls mixed up in period two and those same three girls confuddled in fourth period. Those three boys in period seven who share the same haircut and the same first letter of their name? Don't count on it.

But you can't work on developing community and not remember the names of those within your community. So I've developed some skills of my own to hide my newly idled brain.

I have tried rhyming their names. I've tried seating charts. I've tried comparing their features to those of celebrities, past students, even vegetables. I've tried repeating facial features in my head: thin face, thin face, thin face, big mole, big mole, big mole. But the fact is that some strategies work more consistently than others.

You know, I hear that those who suffer from synesthesia actually have deeper memory banks. The theory is that while they are constantly mixing up modalities, it is the actual blending of the senses that help embed facts and information. So I leverage that same philosophy to help me during these times of embarrassing memory loss. Multi-modal activities are my version of mental Depends.

Learning Names and Common Core Connection

But here's the real secret: These strategies can also become activities that the students do in class as a means for them to also learn content. It's a fallible system, but I've found a few ways to help myself solve this problem before graduation day:

1. Have them develop name cards: I figure you've got two weeks at the beginning of the year before students start getting offended. During this time, have them make name cards that include visuals or symbols of some kind that represent them. You'll find that you start to attach the visual to the student. If you're in the middle of the year, have the students do this as an activity to help a guest speaker or substitute. You'll benefit from the assignment as much as they will. (And check it out: there's a Common Core Connection to the assignment: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.4.)

2. Give them opportunities to speak and present right from the beginning and all through the year: It's as much up to the teacher to bring out a student as it is for a student to do their best for the teacher to see them for who they are. Get the kids speaking in front of the class and in front of you as soon as possible. Seeing them in isolation helps. Hearing their voice and making connections between their face, name, and vocal tones will help you remember them more quickly. (Common Core Connection: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.4 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.6.)

3. Keep their faces associated with their names for as many assignments as possible: When I have students develop their digital portfolios, I always have them put a picture of themselves on their home pages. This always turns out to be the wackiest selfie ever -- a fact that gives me even more insight into that student and his or her personality, but it also helps me quicken the memorization process. No matter what assignment I'm busy scoring on my weekend, if I click on the website to view the product, I see their name and their face beside their work. Otherwise it would just be a stack of essays with every other name being Dylan or a version of Cristal. (Common Core Connection: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.5.)

Multi-Modalities Learning

A takeaway here is that using multi-modalities helps students embed information more efficiently. Consider the following:

  1. Have students create a glossary of academic vocabulary for any subject. The glossary could include illuminated letters that incorporate symbols that represent the word's meaning. Imagine what would come from seeing a student create an illuminated letter "A" filled in with symbols to represent analysis or an "H" for hypothesis.
  2. Give points for having willingness to speak up in class. Oral presentation doesn't always have to be a formal presentation. Give points for those who try, more for those who use evidence when they speak, and even more when they cite their sources.
  3. Play music in the background that captures the drama of a science experiment's outcome. It would be a score that captured the moment of learning, the eureka of discovery.
  4. Teach visual note taking, allowing students to develop pictures to illustrate the facts about a historic event, the biography about a scientist, or the justification of a math problem.
  5. Pair text with facial expressions or use sound effects to embed the rhythm of proper punctuation.

Memories of Former Students

The fact is, that while I may not remember every name, I still remember every student. I still remember that girl, the one whose name started with V, the one who wore the weird belts, who took third place and made all the judges (and her coach) cry. I remember D-something, a wanna-be skateboarder who wrote one line in his journal, hidden among those about being frustrated with cracks in the pavement, about wanting to be a chef because he was good at feeding his family.

I remember them all, and I would be extremely blessed to have a fraction of them remember me with as much fondness as I have had for them.

What tricks and tips do you have for remembering students' names? What lessons do you use that blend modalities? Please share in the comments section below.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I try and use students names from the start. When I address a single student I put in their name I get my students to write name tags which they can either wear or have on card on their desks. Again, always use the name when talking to that student.

JulesLars's picture

Thank you for all the strategies for remembering students' names. As a substitute, I find most of the discipline issues I have are mainly because I do not remember everyone's name. I always feel if I know the students' names better, I not only build a rapport with them, but I can also talk to disruptive students more effectively, rather than simply say, "you need to stop." Even when I was in the classroom as a full time teacher, I found some students' names difficult to remember. I felt awful about not remembering even some of the sweetest students. I would eventually remember everyone's name, but that took a good month or so to do. Worse, though, is when I run into former students, who approach me with a smile and a greeting, remembering MY name, yet I do not recall their name (but I do remember the face). There are always going to be students I will remember forever, like my 4th grade student in my first teaching assignment nearly 20 years ago. She is the one who invited me home for dinner, where her family spoke only Spanish and I only spoke English. That dinner was so memorable and special, I will never forget her first or her last name!

Sheryl Shepherd's picture

I love the ideas. I always try to use their names. I'm also glad to know I'm not the only one who forgets!

Can you explain multi-modalities in greater depth?

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