Share the story of your name

When I started this activity in my hybrid, freshman communication course I had already been doing a lot of activities to build community. Yet, I felt like the initial icebreaker just brushed the surface and left my students (and me!) with wanting to go a little deeper to get to know one another… Hence, the ‘birth’ of Share the Story of Your Name came to be.


My course is hybrid—about 40% is online and 60% is face-to-face. I have taken several semesters to hone a connected experience in this modality, but let’s be honest, a course is always a work in progress right? Particularly as we shift and change to best support the students that we serve.

Teaching a first-time freshman course that is required to graduate from the California State University can be tough, particularly because it is a course focused on public speaking… When I ask my students on the first day of class why the enrolled in the course, no one ever says “because I love to speak in public”, or “I want to learn how to speak in public”. This is the result every semester, year after year. Rather, in my early Getting to Know You Survey, about 95% of students confide that they have some level of fear speaking in public and are nervous/anxious/fearful of taking the course. So, in thinking about this context, my hope as an instructor is to create a brave space for students to practice their skills and make connections with their peers. I have found that these early connections not only help students engage with the course, but with one another that often continues beyond this one class. I have seen this happen many times where my previous students come back and visit and tell me that they made lifelong friends (or minimally, college lifelong friends) having met someone in my comm class.

The Activity

So, let’s get back to the Share the Story of Your Name activity…which by the way I conducted a formal study on this instructional strategy with positive results in terms of student belonging 🙂 On the first day of class (face-to-face), we spend about half of the 50-minute session with part one of our icebreaker that asks students to form a circle (we do this outdoors!) and go around the circle each sharing our name and something that we like that rhymes with or starts with same letter as our name, e.g., my name is Kim and I like kale. The next person then introduces the person before them and their ‘something’ and then introduces themself and the circle goes on. The last person in the circle may have a challenge remembering every person before them, but what is great is we help each other out.

Share the Story of Your Name is part two of the icebreaker that extends the in-class community building exercise to the online environment. Using VoiceThread to empower students’ voices, this activity is aimed at offering reflective time and opportunity to express one’s culture. I make a post about where my name came from and invite students to think about their own name, where it came from, what does it mean, how do they feel about it, and what aspect(s) would they like to share with their peers and instructor. They can choose any way to share, e.g., a personal story about their name, what they like about their name, where a nickname came from, etc. Each story is unique and helps students to connect to one another by listening to these stories.

What has followed is student speeches that will often reference either their own names or the name of a peer, but also speech topics that are deeply meaningful to each student. As we move into semester-long teams to support their learning and the social construction of knowledge, this starter icebreaker has clearly become a pivotal part of the students’ experience in terms of their sense of belonging.

In my study, findings indicated that 89% strongly agreed/agreed sense of belonging helped them learn:

  • Students felt a strong sense of belonging in this class 
  • Some shifts in grade distribution data compared to historical 
  • Student voice was powerful

One of the significant learning outcomes for me is that I feel more connected to my students, understand them more deeply, their lived experiences, and who they are. Every semester I am so fortunate to hear their voices and their stories through their speeches on topics that they are passionate about, particularly in their desire to change the world around them.

VoiceThread slide: “What’s in a Name By Any Other Name”

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