Creating the Community College > classroom committee > the e-classroom > teaching and learning

Ruth Lambach
  what's in a name?          
      What is your first name?
Do you have a middle name?
What is your family name?
What nationality is your name?
Do you keep your mother's family name?
What does your name mean?
Who gave you this name? Why?
Did people give you a nickname?
Do you like your name? Why? Why not?
Can you write your name in another script?
Did you ever want a different name?




Break the ice, establish rapport and engage people with each other easily by focusing on their names. This exercise is designed to create a sense of community in the classroom or among any varied group of people gathered for a common purpose.


Blackboard, whiteboard or large paper

  Depends on number of people--about 3-4 minutes apiece.  
Procedure: 1 The facilitator goes to the board first and demonstrates. (The climate established in this demo is the key to the success of the exercise.) Those who follow will take their cue from the self-revelations of the facilitator.

I go to the board and write out my name, Ruth Baer Lambach. I usually begin by saying: "When I was about four years old, I wanted to change my name because the other children could not pronounce it well. "Ruth" came out sounding like "Fooss" which in German means " foot". One morning while my mother was braiding my hair, I told her I wanted to change my name. She told me that would be expensive. I asked "How much?" she told me $500. I knew there wasn't that much in my piggy bank so I was stuck with my name.

I continue telling stories about my maiden name baer and how it was that none of my thirteen siblins nor I had a middle name... Sometimes I repeat other Biblical names and sometimes I don't. My story varies depending on the length of time, number of people, time of time, and how expansive I feel.
  2 My name is left on the board and I give the chalk to an alert-looking student or ask for a volunteer who then goes up and does the same.
  3 No names are erased. Each person gets to be identified on the board. This exercise never fails to work. People find ti easy to talk about a topic about which they are the expert. this gives them confidence. The speaker, by focusing on the name which is written on the obard, is relieved of a certain self-conscous anxiety.  


This exercise can go on for an hour without visble signs of boredom. In the process, the facilitator develops a better grasp of the nature of his or her audience and by offering responses and encouraging interactions can establish an atmosphere of spontaneity within a structured class setting. Participants, no matter how different their backgrounds, all share in having a family which named them. this common feature helps to establish a sense of community.

At a recent presentation with a group of high school teachers, one of them, as soon as I sat down, commented, "You want us to follow that act?" Later, after everyone had identified themselves, I confronted her in fromt of the whole group about why she thought it was a contest. We were able to discuss this questions with a greater degree of honesty than we would have otherwise had we not spent 45 minutes sharing something quite personal with each other. It is at once perosnal and public, since everyone has a personal name one uses to present oneself in public.
This exercise can be even more interesting if some of your participants come from countries with different orthographic systems such as Arabic, Russian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Sometimes shy by cultural inclination or because of what they believe to be inadequate English, they can be drawn naturally in to the group process by giving them the chance to amaze their fellow participants with their mastery of an "arcane" writing system.

The exercise can be varied to accommodate the audience. I have used it with beginning language learners and with a group of managers at one of chicago's largest corporations. In language classes, simply getting student sup to the board and speaking up clearly enough for others to hear them is an accomplishment. With adults or in the corporate setting it is an invariably effective icebreaker. Whenever and wherever I use it, I am struck by how the dynamics in hte room change once each of the participants has been identified in thes way. while the amount of self-exposure is samll, there is a risk when they got to the board. This combination seems to help people move beyond being strangers and quickly open productive channels of communication.

If you are adept at memorization, facing the group after everyone's name is on the board and rpidly rattling off their names brings the exercise to an enjoyable conclusion. Often a participant is willing and able to do this.