Peter Miller – The Name Game

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All 25 first-year students in my writing class are there because they have failed their initial proficiency exams in reading and writing when they entered the City University of New York (CUNY). They have chosen to participate in the “Freshman Workshop Program,” to improve their academic skills while also studying themselves as learners. The program was created over ten years ago by Rose Katz Ortiz, who worked with Dr. Gattegno for a number of years in the 1960’s and 70’s. I took part in the initial seminar that helped design the program and have continued to teach in it for 12 years.

Given the diverse cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds of the students, it is essential for us to bring them together as a group as quickly as possible and introduce them to our distinctive ways of working in the program. For many years, the vehicle for this introduction has been what we call the “name game,” an activity originally created by Dr. Gattegno. Although the game has many possible variants, let me describe how we usually play it and then talk about the special purposes it serves.

On the first day of class, students are asked to sit in a circle, listen to each other say his or her first name, and then, taking turns, repeat everyone’s name. When students first begin to say their names, they invariably make two mistakes: they speak too quickly and too quietly. The first mistake allows for comment about the value of going slowly, taking one’s time, and stopping the game, if necessary, to “get it.” The second mistake, speaking too softly, allows for questions about the importance of paying attention and bringing one’s interest to the game. Larger questions about listening and perceiving are raised later.

As students take turns saying their names, they stop and ask each other to slow down and speak louder or more clearly. They repeat the names to themselves, look around and double back. From a generally passive attitude at the beginning of the game, students become more attentive, listening to classmates and to themselves repeating the names. Instead of lounging in the chair: legs outstretched and crossed, hands clasped behind their heads, they understand what is required to play the game: sit up, lean forward, and twist around. At some point, the game is stopped momentarily to ask if anyone has noticed changes in their physical behavior and what that could signify.

After all the names are said, students are called upon to repeat them. What about their saying wrong names or forgetting? Sooner or later, it happens that someone will forget a fellow student’s name. At this point, the student is asked what he or she was doing when that particular name was said. Did they distract themselves? Did they fail to look at the person? Did they hear the name clearly? Did they give themselves time? What was going on when the name was said? Many times, after a brief discussion, the name comes forth. Far less frequently do we need to ask students to repeat their names.

The game proceeds. Some make occasional mistakes, many don’t. Some can say the names quickly; others struggle slowly. But all do it. Students readily forgive each other’s mistakes or moments of inattention, since it is obvious that there is no conscious intention to forget or embarrass others by not remembering. After a while, it becomes apparent that perfection is not demanded at once, that mistakes are both necessary and inevitable, and that we are all in the activity together. This part of the game takes about half an hour.

It is also true that some students have greater difficulty than others in remembering names, primarily because of what they do with themselves as learners while the names are being said. When I ask where the difficulties lie, the answers generally are: “I don’t care about anyone’s name.” “I didn’t come to college to play silly games. I came to learn.” “I can’t do it, anyway. I’m terrible with names.” “I didn’t pay attention. My mind drifted away.” “I really didn’t think you’d call on me.”

In the next part of the game, after everyone has taken a turn and said the names, students are asked to reflect on what they just did and explain what made it possible for them to do it. I stand at the chalkboard and write down what they tell me. The obvious answers come first: “I looked at everyone. I listened carefully. I repeated the names to myself. I said the names out loud. I associated the name with the face.”

I slow down this process and ask what they mean by listening and looking “carefully.” At first, there are some blank stares: “Whadaya mean?” I just listen more carefully. “Yes,” I say, “and how does this take place? What do you do?” After more questioning, we arrive a more expanded list of “awarenesses” that constitutes listening as a complex inner activity: I can appreciate the tone, the volume, the rhythm, the speed and the possible “attitude” of the speaker from the way they say their name; I question and check whether I hear the name right; I bring the name into relation with my past experiences and my prior knowledge; I listen to myself saying the names, perhaps several times; I recognize new combinations of sounds and must slow down to become familiar with and assimilate these new sounds; I recognize that the unique sounds “go with” the unique face, especially when two students have the same name.

By more questioning, we work on the process of seeing and further broaden the list to include some of the inner attributes of perception: I can “see” in various ways, to gather an overall impression or look for minute details. I interpret, weigh, measure, judge, compare and associate the unique facial features and aspects of dress with the name. I create mental pictures and can call them forth at will. I can use my imagination. I use my memory. I must differentiate pictures, especially when two or three people in class have the same name.

After the fundamental importance of listening and perceiving are more clearly understood, we move on to speaking, the need to say the name to oneself and hear oneself saying the name perhaps several times, questioning whether one has it right, particularly for unfamiliar names, because a number of students in the class come from foreign countries or cultures where English may or may not be the native language.

I keep asking for more possibilities and more answers come to light:

I pay attention.
I concentrate.
I focus.
I put distractions aside.
I clear my mind.
I keep an open mind.
I participate willingly.
I want to see how well I can do.
I am patient.
I am persistent.
I enjoy playing the game.
I am curious.
I am interested.
I am comfortable and relaxed.
I become confident.
I notice patterns of sound and rhythm which help me.
I create order for myself by inventing mnemonic devices, such as, using adjectives (Hand- some Harry, Lovely Lillian) or word play (Phillip contains “flip,” “fill,” “lip” and “pill,”), to remember the names.
I take the time it takes.
I say the names out loud as many times as I feel the need.
I repeat the names to myself while others take their turn.
I recognize the mistakes of others.

At the end of an hour, students clearly know each other’s names, but more to the point, they have generated a list of some 40 awarenesses that collectively comprise what they have been doing. Some groups of students are more thoughtful than others in reflecting on the activity and articulating these awarenesses, but there is always surprise and appreciation for the complexity of the task and the relative ease with which most accomplish it. In fact, generating the list of awarenesses is unquestionably more difficult than remembering the names.

In the next phase of the game, students are asked to remove items from the list that they think pertain exclusively to learning names, items which would not generally be used in learning anything new. They go through the list, reading off each item and asking themselves whether they can eliminate it, but none can be removed. Every mental activity that students use to remember each other’s names they also use to learn anything else. They are also asked if they can remove any item from the list that does not pertain to learning how to read or write. They read through the list again and realize that everything they have done for the last hour applies as well to reading and writing.

I go on to ask students if they can separate items on the list into any distinct groups or categories. Looking over the list, it eventually becomes apparent that one group of attributes comprises a frame of mind, an attitude, or way of working as a learner, which yields greater success at playing the game. Students are more “present in the activity,” as Dr. Gattegno has said. Another group of attributes more specifically comprise those mental operations one does to remember names. It is one thing, for example, to be open, clear-headed, patient, persistent, curious, interested, confident, focused, and relaxed to play the game. It is another to look at faces, listen carefully, associate names with faces, repeat names out loud, and use one’s memory, prior knowledge, and past experiences.

So by playing the “simple” game of learning each other’s name for an hour or so on the first day of class, students are introduced both to the distinctive process of self-reflection, which is the cornerstone of the “Freshman Workshop Program,” and to some of the inner resources and behaviors they must call forth whenever they read and write. The process is reinforced by our duplicating the list and distributing it at the next class. The list continues to grow over the semester and informs much of our subsequent work, as students, upon further reflection, find themselves able to explain with increasing specificity their own inner dynamics of reading and writing.

© Peter Miller
College of Staten Island
City University of New York

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 11, Une Education Pour Demain, France, June 1994


For over 40 years, Peter Miller has been a teacher of writing and literature on the graduate and undergraduate level at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island. For 25 years, he worked with Rose Ortiz in her Freshman Workshop Program, helping many non-traditional, first generation college students bring their reading and writing skills up to college level.

In the 1980’s, he was co-editor with Bill Bernhardt of the national academic Journal of Basic Writing. Also, with Bill Bernhardt, he has presented at conferences and led writing workshops inspired by Caleb Gattegno in France, Japan and Brazil. With Bill Bernhardt and Peter Ross he was co-editor, for one issue a year, of the Une Education Pour Demain journal : The Science of Education in Questions /La Science de l’Education en Questions from 1993 to 1997.

For the past 10 years, he has been most active in the Writing Across the Curriculum movement, an attempt to infuse and integrate writing into all college courses at all levels, and with online instruction. With his wife, Gail, he lives in New York City and has 3 grown children and 4 step-children. Between them, they have eleven grandchildren. His entire professional career has been inspired by the pedagogic ideas of Caleb Gattegno.

Email: pmiller510 at

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