Learning Matters: What’s in a name? It can truly matter

"The more an academic subject relates to the lives of students, the better for student learning."

That's my recollection of a key lesson from my three graduate classes in secondary education.


Turns out, the lesson is probably true for all us, at every age. I think that's why my recent experience interviewing individuals about their names and family histories was so rewarding.

It's important to think and talk about the people and events that shaped our paths, and many of us don't give ourselves or others enough opportunities to tell those stories.


I mentioned these interviews as a work in progress in my last column ("Reading expands minds, develops relationships," March 31), a first step by the Glendale Library Foundation in the development of the library's oral history project. Very soon, the 15 short interviews will be available for viewing on the city of Glendale and Library Foundation websites — thanks especially to the work of Davian Engle, a talented young videographer and editor from the crew of Glendale's GTV6.

The videos feature members of the community whose stories are at least partly reflective of the library's recent ReflectSpace exhibits.

The ReflectSpace, if you're not yet familiar with it, is Downtown Central Library's gallery of rotating cultural and historical exhibits. Curated by the dynamic duo of Ara and Anahid Oshagan, the ReflectSpace employs art, technology and interactive media — as well as visits from the artists — to depict the histories of Glendale's diverse communities.

Interview participants answered three questions: "What is your name, and where did it come from?" "When did your family come here (to the United States and to Glendale) and why?" and "Could you share a favorite family tradition?"

Responses to the name question ranged from definitions — "shining flourishingly," "warrior," and "revenge," — to historical references to kings, queens and princesses. Some parents had impressed on their children the importance of the history carried in their names; others let their children discover their names' meanings for themselves. Many parents named children for family members, and some chose names to reflect both the family's native and adopted countries.

Glendale News-Press columnist Katherine Peters Yamada traced the history of her first name and came to realize she was one of a long line of Katherines, "a long line of Mennonites who lived in the Ukraine," she wrote in a written outline of her interview. "They had been invited there by Catherine the Great, [who] promised them free land and freedom of religion. Learning the story behind my name drew me into writing history."

Betty Porto, co-owner of Porto's Bakery, traced her name's history from Cuba back to Galicia in Northern Spain, where it was brought by the Italians who settled there.

Lila Ramirez, whose ancestors in New Mexico predate the Revolutionary War, spent time before the interview looking at the current ReflectSpace exhibit, which features representations of traditional herbs of Armenia. She commented on the similarities to herbs used in the American Southwest and the connection to her last name, Ramirez, which derives from the name Romero and from rosemary. She understands her given name — Audelia, shortened to Lila by her brothers — is related to the Roman name Aurelius.

Longtime area educator Alice Petrossian shared how her mother had chosen the name Alice, thinking it a particularly Armenian and rather unique name, commemorating a river in Armenia. Only when they arrived in the United States did her mother find the name had its own history here.

The themes of family, history and country conveyed in names also permeated the answers to the second and third questions. One after another came the stories of parents making choices for the safety, security and future of their children: families who left Iran just before the fall of the Shah; parents or young adults who came to the United States to pursue educational opportunities; a widow with four children who accepted her sister's invitation to establish a life here.

All of them shared the importance of family in their lives and the ways in which they have maintained and adapted their family traditions.

Burbank Supt. Matt Hill, speaking this week at the invitation of the Community Foundation of the Verdugos, shared key lessons he's learned in the course of writing his dissertation on leadership and social justice. One of them is the importance of sharing our stories… and helping our students share theirs.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at