Somebody Knows Their Names
Cinco de mayo 2020, Battle of Puebla (1862), Puebla de Zaragoza, México (observed)
They had not had an English language arts teacher of record for most of Fall 2019, so the job position remained unfilled.
I applied for and got the teaching job in December.
A total of 196 students awaited me.
I met my students in early January across two days with our block schedule.
I wanted to know their names. I needed to know my students’ stories and what they knew independent of school. As I planned for our first meeting in early January, I needed to learn their names quickly.
Yes, a social contract would be helpful as well as classroom procedures, but I had to become the person and teacher who knew and valued their names.
On the first day of the Spring 2020 semester, I folded over some plain, unruled index cards and in time for first period. Across the six class periods, I invited the eleventh graders to write their names on one side and in their own handwriting. (This was their first writing assignment with me!) The instructional coach had given them a letter writing assignment before Winter Break on what they wished their new teacher knew about them and what they expected from him. I was learning a lot about them.
The students wrote their names willingly on the cards and wanted to know more about me. Several tests of their own design awaited me and to determine my qualifications.
Later that evening at home I wrote their names enlarged on the other side of the cards for our next class meeting.
Soon thereafter their name tent cards stood upright and at attention in class. I had memorized where they had chosen to sit, so I had placed their name tent cards at their tables. I was getting to know their names and preferred pronunciations. (“Hey, you!” seemed dismissive, inhumane, and, well, less than.)
“Mister, mister!” some students would call out to get my attention. I did not want to be anonymous to them either, so I spoke up.
In a clever twist, I’d command like the Destiny’s Child band does: “Say my name! Say my name!” They laughed and said I was odd or otherwise.
Indeed, I was aged by the lyrics and video from the 2009 title album song delivered by Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson. I thought I was speaking their language. To them, I was drawing up ancient history—an ELEVEN-year-old song!
“Real funny, Mr. Road-ree-guess. Really funny,” they said, and I heard as a chorus.
Face in Oneself
Over time I got to associate their faces and voices with their names and stories. One by one. Each student gave me a glance, glimpse, or full dive into their adolescence, families, and schooling, which together comprised of their lives and ways of knowing the world and how it works.
Some students shared more about themselves via the journal notebooks than in person. I valued their thoughts and as we practiced close, slow reading. Also, I annotated the margins as I read about aloneness, belonging, betrayal, body image, family, friends, happiness, humor, misunderstandings, pride, romance, and silence.
Our exchanges were essential and necessary as I prepared to invite them to write and practice their rhetorical knowledge and acumen. In each dialogue, we enacted our abilities, empathies, and literacies.
In the volume of essays Nobody Knows My Name (1961), James Baldwin noted, “The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion” (pp. xiii-xiv). I reminded myself that Baldwin understood the world of teaching, teachers, and students and the struggles as a witness.
Even today Baldwin’s words are a balm when some teaching days seem tougher than others in the academic calendar. Though fleeting, the days that illuminate our world are many and include our students.
In the push to engage students, however, sometimes the curriculum and instruction can be at war with one another even as we hear a lot about student-centered curricula. For instance, a bookroom at a school can be an oxymoron. Why keep books locked up in a room or closet from the rest of the reading world? Why not place them in the hands of adolescent readers who seek books to read as their own? Yes, some may flat-out decide not to read a book, and this is understandable if we listened more.
What students seek to read and may also decide NOT to read are done with good reason I have learned. Student experiences with reading and books reveal how they perceive and practice their literacies. Some students have not experienced the invitation to write and much less read from their teachers. Moreover, some have not experienced a teacher writing or reading with them—together and in cooperation—free of comprehension questions, reading levels, and competency scoring.
When I got access to the bookroom in late January, I found a class set of the middle-grade novel Accidental Love (2008) by Gary Soto. The novel became our selected book for the month of February. I was seeking a book that would be engaging and also dramatic with adolescent angst, humor, and romance. The novel opens, “At fourteen Marisa welcomed any excuse to miss school. But today she had a good reason for cutting class. Alicia, her best friend, lay in the hospital with a broken leg and a broken heart, all because her boyfriend had crashed his parents’ car when a tire blew” (p. 1).
The students were drawn to the tough-talking Marisa and her geeky boyfriend-by-complete-surprise René. Some grew frustrated with a few of the novel’s characters who kept on making mistakes or not seeing their classmates as who they were: not in their best interests or for their well-being. They were hooked.
The struggles of communication, friendships, popularity, relationships, and stereotypes came alive for the adolescent readers in my classroom. They recognized some commonalities with the youth whose lives resembled their own experiences and questions—even if they were from the Central Valley of California where the novel takes place.
“These kids don’t read! They aren’t going to read even if you put a book right in front of them. They’re just not going to be readers,” a teacher said during a meeting. After hearing this, I realized why sometimes adolescents refuse to listen to adults: they’ve good reasons and examples in their everyday life.
Reading together and writing about the novel permitted more learning to unfold as we made connections to adolescent life and also completed what was outlined in my lesson plans and our state standards: career and college readiness, creative and expository writing, journal notebooks, multimodal literacies, persuasive appeals, and research.
In addition to these responsibilities, attendance was taken regularly, and we administered the SAT on campus. Overall, so much howled and hummed as we read and wrote together across the six class periods.
I was so moved by their reading interests that I brought most of my books from home to build a classroom library for us: children’s books, middle-grade novels, young adult literature, and contemporary classics.
“You won’t see those books ever again,” a teacher from another subject told me upon stopping by and for a peek from the doorway.
“What do you mean?” I asked in a probing way. I was proud of myself for no longer getting defensive by such remarks over the years.
“They prefer texting or TikTok over learning,” the teacher explained.
Next, a science teacher offered, “This looks great! You really believe in reading like I do. I’m gonna borrow what you’re doing in here with some nonfiction books I have at home.” I made sure to memorize the teacher’s name.
No book went missing. In fact, several students dropped by on Fridays to borrow a favorite book over the weekend. I caught several students reading books as if in hiding from me.
Adrian, for example, read in three class periods the book Speak: The Graphic Novel, which is written by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) and illustrated by Emily Carroll (2019).
Artemis was drawn to the novel Light It Up by Kekla Magoon (2019). Another student named Arianna would reluctantly stop reading I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (2017) during my direct instruction. She would channel all her energy to complete the assignment, and then return to the engrossing novel that held her homemade bookmark.
Jay became a revived reader through the book Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim (2016) and illustrated by E. B. Lewis. The boyhood of U.S. Congressman Lewis comes alive as well as the civil rights movements of the past and those that persist today. Six short weeks in, and I knew their names, their fears, their stories, and their tastes. Each was as distinct as could be.
14+ Students and Teachers
While writing the article “Somebody Knows Their Names” and the poem “They Know Us by Our Names” for #31DaysIBPOC 2020, I read an article titled “14 Black Students in a Class” by Mark T. Sneed that left me baffled and hurt. It appears in the May 2020 issue of the California English journal and is filled with caricatures about student behaviors.
The article reads like an opinion editorial essay, or even a Swift-styled satire about any student, but it is not listed as such. In a retrospective of his teaching career, Sneed depicts his African American students as possessing behaviors that led him to label them as leaders, followers, manipulators, rule-obsessed students, nerds, jocks, skeptics, jokesters, young adults, advocates, fighters, saboteurs, or rabble rousers. Some of the descriptions create caricatures and forms of segregation with mixed expectations by a teacher.
How could the editor and peer reviewers have overlooked the research and narratives on culturally relevant, subtractive versus additive, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies by Ladson-Billings (1994, 2009), Valenzuela (1999), Gay (2000, 2018), and Paris (2012), respectively? The decision to print the article—as research and not as an editorial or satire—was a mistake.
As a caring educator and critical researcher, I wrote a letter to the editor to explain that views against students in a stereotypical manner are counterproductive, hurtful, and unethical. I wondered how a teacher could harbor such feelings, but then I was reminded of what many adolescents endure daily from some adults. At the same time, what if students were asked to write about the personalities of 14 teachers of one particular race or ethnicity? What would be revealed to us? Bias? Indifference?
Like the situations presented in Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose (1955), I considered the reasonable doubts that I held after reading Sneed’s article. So much was missing about the lives of adolescents and their challenges, environments, and future.
There must be conflict, outrage, and action from teachers when we read that students endure hurt in the presence of adults. We are to protect them and their names, and they believe in us to do so.
Friday the 13th of March
Dawn came with a splendor of sun that seemed to summon us from our fist of sleep. Hence, there was no reason for me to be superstitious or to consider the fictional character Jason Voorhees of the horror series. Nothing like that seemed to take over our Friday at all.
Instead, Friday was a lighter day for all of us and before our Spring Break. Attendance was lower than usual, but I had a lesson planned that I wanted to present. Friday, like other school days, began with a Quick Write.
The students laughed when they saw the photo of the artist Raúl the Third, holding a homemade flour tortilla as a Halloween mask in the daily slide presentation.
How come he’s just the third? What’s his last name exactly? They wanted to know more and more about Raúl the Third.
This was just the beginning of the changes to come: gloves, masks, to-go meals, quarantine, learning packets, remote learning, physical and social distancing, and stay-at-home orders.
Through the waiting and online instruction, I gathered my ideas into a narrative poem. I sought to present an adolescent speaker’s reflections of learning and living in a new world dominated by epidemics and pandemonia.
They Know Us by Our Names
School was like home, in a way—
yes, far from home, but still home.
But now so much has changed.
We got this new kind of school.
I miss what we had all the time:
a nod, smile, hand, high five.
Cheers, books, sports, coaching,
and friends; these matter to us, too.
We have these, but not next to us
like in a room or hall or gym.
The laughs, riddles, sounds I miss.
Now we chat or a vid appears.
Same with friends who call or text.
Brave we got to be no matter what.
And our teachers reach us, too.
They reach out, and we see them.
They reach in to know us more.
They care after school, too.
We are let in and see them at home,
in their homes, in our own homes,
and it feels like their families
and lives are close to our own.
They know us by our names.
They call us by our names.
They believe in our goals.
They know our dreams.
They know who we can be and be. (Rodríguez, 2020)
With pride and acknowledgement, I know their names. I know my students’ names when I reach out to them at home or via Google Suite (Classroom, Hangout, Voice).
Friday the 13th is a distant memory, and their senior year seems closer than ever. As the Class of 2021, my students yearn for a senior year that lets them come back to a time that held more friendships, protection, sanity, and security.
Our Students’ Names
Each year teachers learn students’ names—over and over again—as if from the very beginning of the school year and as new students enroll in our classes. In literary works, we read often the stories of students whose names are abbreviated, mispronounced, revised, or altogether altered to extremes by their teachers.
For instance, in the poem “Names” from the novel-in-verse The Poet X (2018) by Elizabeth Acevedo, the protagonist Xiomara Batista explains:
[. . .] I even tried to come into the world
in a fighting stance: feet first.
Had to be cut out of Mami
after she’d given birth
to my twin brother, Xavier, just fine.
And my name labors out of some people’s mouths
in that same awkward and painful way.
Until I have to slowly say:
I’ve learned not to flinch the first day of school
as teachers get stuck stupid trying to figure it out. (pp. 7-8)
Similarly, in the poem “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance” (2018) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, the speaker notes:
[. . .] Your teacher means well,
even if he butchers your name like
he has a bloody sausage casing stuck
between his teeth, handprints
on his white, sloppy apron. And when
everyone turns around to check out
your face, no need to flush red and warm. (p. 11)
Sometimes I say my students’ names in my sleep. My spouse says I repeat them like a litany or prayer. I send their names to the sky and wind, hoping they are safe, sound, and sane in our new world. Their faces I recall often.
A New World Together
Even nature seems alive with new tunes as less vehicles pollute the air and a quieter earth appears. A few days ago, I saw a noiseless, unhurried spider at rest in our living room that made me think of Whitman’s (1868) poem.
Nature appears outdoors: more birds sing symphonies as if in unison throughout the day and night. Even the bird from Dickinson’s (1891) poem comes down the sidewalk with less caution and more grace than ever. We are listening to nature and others who surround us with their sounds and words.
At a faculty meeting earlier this year, a fellow teacher raised her hand and said aloud, “We were our students. Think about that! We were our students once.” She reminded us that in our generation, or one before our own, we were working-class and with limited means in various forms while we were coming of age.
We are our students. Her words mean more today as we reach for our students and remember to reach them.
Sometime soon I may get to re-enter my classroom at our school campus. I look forward to entering the building and my classroom. I will gather my students’ journal notebooks, re-read their words, and the comments I offered them before our school building closed.
I know students’ names. I am getting to know more of their stories as they unfold before our eyes. We face a new world together.
Acevedo, E. (2018). The poet X. New York, NY: Harper Teen, HarperCollins Publishers.
Anderson, L. H. (1999). Speak. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Anderson, L. H., & Carroll, E. (2019). Speak: The graphic novel. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.
Asim, J., & Lewis, E. B. (2016). Preaching to the chickens: The story of young John Lewis. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House.
Baldwin, J. (1993). Nobody knows my name. New York, NY: Vintage International. (Original work published 1961)
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 2000)
Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Wiley. (Original work published 1994)
Magoon, K. (2019). Light it up. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Miller, C. (Ed.). (2016). Emily Dickinson’s poems: As she preserved them. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press.
Nezhukumatathil, A. (2018). Oceanic. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.
practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.
Raúl the Third. (2020, April 30). Raúl the Third: Author and illustrator. https://www.raulthethird.com
Reynolds, D. S. (Ed.). (2005). Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, 150th anniversary edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rodríguez, R. J. (2020). They know us by our names. Unpublished poem.
Rose, R. (2016). Twelve angry men. New York, NY: Penguin Books, Penguin Group, Inc. (Original work published 1955)
Sánchez, E. L. (2017). I am not your perfect Mexican daughter. New York, NY: Ember, Penguin Random House.
Sneed, M. T. (2020, May). 14 Black students in a class. California English, 25(4), 10-13.
Soto, G. (2008). Accidental love. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.
Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.–Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Long ago, the younger R. Joseph Rodríguez taught imaginary students in the utility room or family garage right after school while a kindergartener and up to third grade. His models were his parents and public school teachers. Today, he is the language arts teacher of 196 students who are eleventh graders, soon-to-be seniors.
In the past two months, Joseph has been greeting his students via Google Classroom and Voice where they remain just as talented and a little extra cantankerous and inventive. They say in jest, “We hope you’re enjoying your quarantine, Mr. Rodríguez.”
Joseph’s articles, chapters, poetry, and research have appeared in several books and periodicals. His most recent book project is titled This Is Our Summons Now, a poetry collection. He is coeditor of English Journal. Joseph lives and teaches in Austin, Texas. Follow him @escribescribe.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Liza Talusan (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).