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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Name Game

The Name Game

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Every child who comes to school each year should be known by name -- on the first day.  

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? 

Yet, if we were truly honest with ourselves, how many children are arriving at our buildings, not really “known”?

I made a promise to myself many years ago as a school leader that each and every student, especially those new to our school, would be known by name, by me, on the first day of school … by lunchtime.  And I made good on that promise.

Here’s one thing that helped:  I played The Name Game. 

It was a game of self-challenge for the most part, with covert assistance from my faculty and staff – all disguised under a much larger activity of greater import to the overall school year’s launch.  One of HOPE.

The Name Game involved, first of all, deciding that the first day of school would not be about academics.  It would be about relationships.  We would begin by spending some time introducing our children to each other … to us … and to our school … NOT by reading the handbook to them in a school assembly, but by taking time to enjoy delightfully different activities.

This is best accomplished in groupings arranged by grade level or any other designation that would result in groups of approximately 50 to 75 students (larger schools can stagger the starts, with careful planning, which I realize is challenging).

Here’s how it worked: 

When students would arrive for school on the first day, we would ask them to fill-out nametags, affixing them to their shirts.  We would also ask them to fill-out five or six extra nametags for themselves, dropping them into a big box.  This took a bit of time, but with music playing, snacks available, and staff members circulating to offer kind words and high-five’s, it was time well spent.

Chairs would be arranged in a circle – one large circle for the entire group.

Since there is always a touchy-feely person on staff who likes to facilitate teambuilding, I would ask that person to emcee the morning’s events on the microphone, standing in the middle of the large circle of students and staff to get things going for the day.  Staff would spread themselves out, in the circle aside students.

The initial presentation would take approximately ½ hour, with content presented in a lighthearted and often humorous tone.  The content can vary, really, as long as it is about relationships … NOT rules or tasks.  The emcee would ask the school leadership team to be involved, in which we would take the microphone in the middle of the large circle and have a bit of fun with our own flavor of community building. 

Near the end of the presentation, our emcee launched a “greeting” activity, where we would pass that large box with nametags around the circle.  Each student would randomly pull five or six nametags from the box and hold on to them.

Then, we would ask all students to rise (all 50 to 75 of them), and with music playing, challenge them to find the persons whose names were in their hands, AND after discovery … to stick the owners’ nametags on their backs, arms, and shoulders (we would find some on foreheads and many other places, as you can imagine).

Staff played along as well.  As the school leader, however, I not participate directly, as I was circulating “friendly,” yet with a purpose.  The purpose was my beginning The Name Game.

Once everyone was “found,” students and staff would again be seated.  The larger circle would then be broken into smaller circles of eight or ten persons, with one faculty or staff member serving as the facilitator in each smaller group.  Each circle would have an easel and flip chart for some activities, again facilitated by the emcee with a microphone. We often used to do a “Best Outcomes; Worst Fears” activity or “Goal-Setting” for the year.

Here’s where The Name Game began in earnest. 

While the small circle activities were taking place, I would float among and around the circles, walking outside each group, making small talk and offering encouragement.  YET, what I was really doing was learning names.  Nametags were all over the place; once looking at someone’s nametag on his or her back, I could simply stroll around the circle and repeatedly put names with faces, over and over and over again.

In a 45-minute session, I was amazed at how many names I could learn, with no one knowing how much studying was actually taking place. It was invaluable to my school leadership, and I still believe to this day, how students and families perceived the inclusiveness of the school.

[Upping the ante]

For those of you who really want to have some fun …

Our emcee used to say at the end of the small group activities, “Mr. Donlan … Give me your wallet!”  He would then take my wallet from me in full view of everyone and ask that all stand and rejoin one large circle. 

He would then say to students “At our school, it is so important that we value each other, that the staff expects our school leader to know each student’s name by lunchtime on the first day.”  He continued, “And if Mr. Donlan does not, I’ll open his wallet and will pull whatever bill I can find inside at random, giving it to anyone whose name Mr. Donlan does not know.”

Our emcee would then ask everyone to rise, take off all nametags, and then he would hand the microphone to me.  I would conclude the morning by going person-by-person around the circle, shaking everyone’s hand and welcoming all by name, on the microphone so that others could hear (and secretly sweating bullets).

Did this two times each year for around ten years. 

The looks on students’ faces and the HOPE that it offered were “right up there” on the long list of my many joys in K-12 school leadership.   As I truly believed -- Every child who comes to school each year should be known by name. 

Food for thought and an idea or two as you begin anew.

Best wishes in 2013-2014!

Dr. Ryan Donlan sweated bullets for many years playing The Name Game, especially the time the emcee veered from protocol and told the students during breakfast that the school leader would know all of their names by lunchtime.  The year approximately 125 students were involved also created a bit of angst.  Will you consider launching school this fall by putting academics aside?  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at at any time if you have your own ideas that you would like shared on the ISU Ed. Leadershop.

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