Tuesday, August 20, 2013

the Name Game . . .

I suspect there are not many 7 or 8-year old birthday parties these days that feature the memory game. It was a staple when I did that circuit, over half a century ago. Ten or twelve little girls, dressed in pastel cotton if they were lucky, itchy 60s polyester if they weren't, most sporting a fabric belt that pulled from the side seams of their waists into a big poufy bow at the back. The most stylish wore that bow symmetrically. Mine was probably awry, but that would have been the perfect match for my tangle of ringlets. We all had white socks, our various shades of same testifying to how much Chlorox our mothers soaked them in, and for how long. And then shoes -- black if we had to make do with our school shoes. White if we also had a Sunday/dress-up pair and the party was in May through the end of August, black patent otherwise. Mom would have had to daub Kiwi liquid white shoe polish on mine to hide the scuffs, a chore she would have fit in after the last little one was tucked in bed. Or if she forgot, she'd have to dab it on at the last minute, sending me off with still-damp shoes, kicking little donations of white onto whatever my feet touched.

So we'd all arrived at the party, knocked on the door, greeted the birthday girl's mother politely as we'd been taught and then reminded and rehearsed pre-party. We'd handed over our gifts and cards, either secretly congratulating ourselves on our perfect offering or secretly worrying that ours would be the gift the rest might snicker at. Then depending on our individual social skills, we'd either scoot happily into the room and catch up on what might have happened since we saw each other in Mrs. Thomas' class yesterday or hover either shyly or anxiously just at the edge of the gaggle.

And inevitably, there would be a moment when the birthday girl's Mom would recognize that more direction was needed, and she'd clap her hands or ring a little bell, and she'd ask us all to sit. We'd look around at the chairs arranged in an unlikely circle in the livingroom, kitchen chairs next to Laz-y-boy, piano bench snugged up beside the chesterfield (or sofa or couch -- I could never remember which family used which term and regularly committed embarrassing faux pas). There was always a quick, almost-polite scuffle so that Beverley could sit next to Kathy B., so that Deirdre could avoid Suzanne, and we'd get a wee taste of Musical Chairs long before that hilarity was on the agenda.

There were games that involved donkeys and tails and clothespins and unwrapping an overwrapped gift box. One required us to whisper a secret phrase from one girl to another and giggle hysterically at its transformation by the end of the circle. But my favourite from these years was the game which presented us with a collection of objects on a tray. For thirty seconds, we stared intently at the motley assortment: bottle cap, pen, red crayon, feather, nutcracker, soap bar, writing pad, brillo pad, bobby pin, clothespin. Then the tray would be whisked out of sight, and we would be passed a pencil and paper and instructed to list as many objects as we could remember correctly. Or, in a meaner variation, we would play another game, and only after that intervening period would we be asked to list.

May I boast a little? You knew I was going to, right? Yes, it's true. I had a crackerjack memory (to borrow a noun-adjective that seems apropos for the period discussed). I would rarely miss an object on the list, so I could generally count on leaving the party with one of the little prizes the Party Mom would have assembled at Woolworth's or Kresge's the week before.

I've been thinking of that party game lately as I prepare for the start of Fall Term two weeks from today. My classes will each have about 28 students, and I teach 4 classes. I've tried to imagine the class size at which I'd no longer attempt to learn each student's name -- I suspect 50 might be the threshhold. At 28, especially because I will be working to establish a classroom environment conducive to lively discussion, it's possible and thus somehow imperative that I memorize each name . . . and that I attach it correctly to the corresponding face.

This is so much more difficult a task than memorizing objects on a tray. Despite claims we so often make about the way someone's name matches their face or their personality, when 28 new faces decorate rows of seats ranged in front of you, everything about the link between name and person seems arbitrary. Especially, in these days of ESL/International students supposedly easing our institutional budgets, when the name has a cultural significance I am not yet privy to, when I worry I'm mis-pronouncing it, perhaps even turning it into a nasty epithet by mangling vowels or consonants.

These last few years, I've cheated a bit, as our Registration department has begun to provide a class list with photos attached. But while this helps as back-up, I can hardly spend time combing the list for a photo that matches the face in front of me. . . and if hair has been shorn, moustaches grown, glasses removed or donned, the picture is more hindrance than help.

So I soldier on, kicking it old-school, as they say, jotting down my cryptic little notes besides each name (Marina -- red curls; Joe -- tall, shaved head; Jatinder -- sharp dresser). And, so far, I always know all my students' names, all 28x4, by the third week of classes.

But there are always complications. Again this term, I will be teaching two classes each in two classrooms: Tuesday/Thursday mornings and then again in the afternoon in one classroom; same drill on Mondays and Wednesdays in the other. Inevitably, I will look at the fourth row, right-hand section, of my Monday/Wednesday afternoon class and find a redhead sitting there, just as, by some statistical improbability, a redhead sat that morning. I stumble. Fatima or Lesley? Or, as a few years ago, Tuesday afternoon's Sonia sat very close to where Sofie had been that morning. The first few times I got her name wrong, Sonia was tolerantly bemused; by the end of term, when it happened, I suspect she might have been disappointed. I'd always catch and correct myself, but still . . .

And imagine my colleague's predicament the term she had a Barry, Sherry, Mary, and the homonym team of Carrie and Kerry, all in one class! At least three times so far, I've had identical twins in the same section: I still haven't decided if it's better that they sit together or apart, but I've had the opportunity to compare those situations.

Of course, my students, most of them 18 or 19, right out of high school, have little idea of the effort required to learn their names, taking my imagined prowess for granted as they do with so much, bless their solipsistic little hearts. Perhaps I should start the term by presenting them with a serious memory challenge to put them in my shoes. Perhaps I could find a big tray to pass around, fill it with photos instead of objects, get them to learn the names attached to the photos, then identify each photo by name for a test. . . . .Hmmmm . . . .

For now, though, I'll be looking at the lists of their names, making sure I can pronounce them all, envisioning their expectant faces ranged in rows in front of me. And trying to remember how sharp my memory once was. . . .

So tell me, did you ever play the Object Memory game? When's the last time you saw it played? (I can't imagine that level of entertainment at today's jazzed-up birthday parties, although I do sometimes wonder if the novelty of the simple might have a certain appeal for today's 7-year olds.)  Do you ever have to memorize a large number of names quickly? And how do you manage it?

23 comments:

  1. Loved the birthday party reminiscing! That exact scenario was also happening in Arkansas! As for learning students' names, the classes I teach are all discussion-based, so I expect all the students to learn everyone's name, too, so I use name tents that students pick up as they enter the classroom each day with their first names in LARGE letters. Usually by the beginning of the third week I give a quiz to see how many names we've learned, and after most have learned them, we ditch the name tents.

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    1. Thanks for the idea -- I might try this and buy myself a bit of time. . . and it benefits the students as well, helping them learn each other's names. Great!

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  2. Your words have me remembering birthday parties of long ago. The clothes, the formalities, the games. Yes.

    High school is different than university and I used the commentator's suggestion above for learning new names of students. Now that I'm a TOC, I struggle desperately to learn names. Four to five classes of students each day does a number on my brain. It really helps if the teacher has a seating plan to which I can refer.

    Of course, the two boys who think it hilarious to exchange names further confuses the issue until the nice girl in the front row takes pity on me and tells me who's who.

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    1. Weren't they simple, in retrospect, those birthday parties?

      I can imagine how tough it must be to confront a new set of classes . . . glad I'm not dealing with an age group that thinks it's hilarious to confuse the teacher!

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  3. You sound as though you went to the same kind of parties as I did. That game was also called Kim's Game at Brownies. When I taught Adult ESL, I had the students pair off and interview each other. The partners introduced one another to the class and I made brief notes for myself. Second class, you do the "Find someone who....." people search game based on a questionnaire that you construct from your notes. Since you are teaching a literature class, you could have partners interview each other about the most important book that they had read so far. To take it further, if you wanted to, individuals could do a brief book talk about their favourite book. As a person who has taught adults and children, I would probably make a chart of student photos with the favourite title as a way of remembering and presenting some new titles to class members..

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    1. I do something like your introductions in the first week, but I like the idea of "Finding someone who . . . " Thanks!

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  4. You have captured the essence of birthday parties of our generation. (I continued the white shoe polish trick into my teens, using it on my cheerleading sneakers). It has always taken me two weeks to learn the names, but the ice-breaker I did on the second day always helped. Students were asked to come up with 3 statements about themselves--one was true and two were somehow exaggerated or false. Their classmates were allowed to question them to see if they could determine the true statement. Often we ended up with bizarre life stories that persisted throughout the semester. And often I could recall a student's name several semesters after because of the story.

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    1. That would be fun, the guessing game -- I might try that! Thanks!

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  5. Some years ago when I was a cub scout den leader I played the memory game with my den. They loved it and begged me to play it again and again. It is amazing how such a simple game can bring so much fun and excitement.
    I teach too and have the same trouble remembering my students' names and attaching the names to the faces. I do the same as you do: write little notes on my class roster ("looks like Hermione Granger", "petite with long black hair") so it vaguely looks like I remember some names. I always feel bad for the kids whose name I have a hard time remembering. They must think they have nothing special, noticeable, or cool. And yet at the end of the semester they are so much more than just names and faces, they are ideas, ways of talking... well, people.
    Thanks for this great post. I hope this semester will be a fun one for you.
    Dominique

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    1. I think sometimes we forget that even today's kids might be entertained with something this simple. The drive to memorize is surely deeply coded.
      It's true, isn't it, the way the relationship evolves through the term -- such a quick transition, really, over the 13 weeks.

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  6. Your party memories are so similar to mine!
    I loved the memory game...we also played a game where we were given strings that were strung throughout the house and garden and at the end there was a small gift. The strings were often tangled up with other strings so it ws a challenge to untangle them.

    I found my last school was the most difficult for remembering names because there were over 500 students attending and when we were supervising we did not alwys know who was who!

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    1. I'd never try to learn 500 names! 100 each term is plenty for me!

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  7. I am positively awful at remembering names, but can still remember all the phone numbers of friends and family from 40 years ago. Recently, I admired from afar a swim coach who could identify by name all the dozens of children under her tutelage, while they all were wearing matching suits, goggles, and swim caps! I still don't know how she did it. I have to see a name written to link a person with a name in my brain, and unfortunately, name tags aren't always provided.

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    1. That's an interesting insight -- depending on our learning style, the written name (either on a tent card or on a name tag) might make the difference for some being able to memorize.
      And I think it's interesting that some can remember names while others are better at numbers (I'm also stuck with phone numbers from long ago -- from people I no longer see, some of whom are long dead!)

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  8. I remember that game and I was terrible at it. I was always more interested in what everyone else was doing than what was on the tray.

    I am so envious of 28 students. My smallest undergrad class is 45 and the largest 70. I really want to learn their names and try very hard, but if the room is long and skinny and they are packed tightly in rows it is tough. I don't remember if my professors tried to learn our names, but I want discussion in my classes so I think it is important to try.
    Lynn

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    1. With numbers that large, how many classes do you teach? Do you have teaching or marking assistants? I can't imagine marking assignments for more than my 4x28 students (my upper-level classes are larger, but capped at 34, and I never have more than 2 of those in a year). You have my sincere sympathy. Take care.

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  9. I remember that object memory game, but don't remember being particularly good at it. Usually I was too distracted by the excitement of being at a party. Or maybe it was that itchy crinoline. ;-) Names, I'm the *worst.* Even though I do those tricks (repeating when introduced, making up a mental association) I can call someone newly met by their name one or two times, and forget it by evening's end. Phone numbers and birthdays? Locker combinations? Those, I remember.

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    1. So interesting -- you and paisley apron (above) both find names tricky to remember but numbers stick with you. . .

      I used to be quite good with all names. Now I find I can still manage with my students, since I apply concentration and effort. Socially, unless I'm really engaged, I seem to have lost some of my superpower (;-) . . .

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  10. We must have attended the same birthday parties :). I don't recall playing the memory game but it sounds like fun. The thought of trying to remember 28 x 4 student names gives me butter flies!

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  11. I am still good with names but I work at it - I do casual teaching at my local primary school, and when I take a class I haven't had before I make a bet with the kids that I will have their names memorised by the end of the class. Yesterday I had a class with TWO sets of twins (one identical; one fraternal), two Kalens (different spellings :)) and one Kaden, two Scarletts and a James and a Jamie.

    I think I could name every child in the school this year (pop 280) but every year it gets bigger so I may be reaching my limit soon!

    And I remember those type of games too! And the dressing up - my favourite party dress when I was about 4 or 5 was purple with big orange flowers and I can still remember my mother's scathing comment about how purple looked awful on me ...

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    1. Well, of course your memory's still good -- you're so much younger than I am! ;-) but seriously, it's impressive that you can learn a classroom full of names in one class. And ouch! that grouping of names and twins makes me wince. . .

      I love purple and orange together!! Where did you get that dress, and why, if your mother thought it was awful on you, would she a)keep it for you to enjoy wearing, but then b) make you feel awful for wearing it. Too sad, and I'm impressed that you retained a solid sense of style and an apparently resilient sense of self. And you're doing such a marvelously better job with your two. . .

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  12. Good luck with your new term and students. Several years ago, I was cooking at a camp and learned to identify twin campers correctly. I'll never forget the look on Jan's face as she responded to her name each time I used it. As someone with a name that is often pronounced as a question - I know how much it means to hear it spoken confidently.

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    1. I'm impressed, Ilona! I really have a tough time with identical twins in the classroom, and you're right that it must mean so much for a twin to be addressed by the correct name . . .

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