"What's in a Name?" Investigating Whom to Memorialize

Article excerpt

Peter Jennings Way, Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts have a common denominator: each of these places was named after a person whose work was important to society. But what makes a person worthy of having a street, park, building, stadium, or other memorial named after him or her? This inquiry question is relevant for fifth grade students who are assigned to classroom interdisciplinary teams named "Cortes," "De Soto," and "Vespucci." Traditionally, at the beginning of the school year, the fifth grade teachers in my (A.G.'S) school divide the classes into three teams. Teams names are used on a daily basis during various classroom activities, resulting in students' strong identification with the explorers. The accomplishments of these men are summarized in the chapters of our fifth grade textbook. But were these explorers worthy of having teams named for them? My fifth graders were about to grapple with this question for themselves.

Day One: A Current Issue

Scrutiny of a modern dilemma can be an excellent entrance to historical inquiry. Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, and the most famous son of Graz, Austria, was faced with the decision of whether to grant clemency to Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a death row inmate. Williams, a former gang leader in Los Angeles, was convicted of murder in 1981, yet claimed innocence and became a spokesperson against gang culture, even writing a children's book that gleaned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature. (1) Capital punishment is banned in Austria today, and Graz city officials, who held strong opinions against the death penalty, threatened to remove Schwarzenegger's name from the "Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium" in Graz if he did not commute William's death sentence. The fifth graders considered this dilemma as they began their inquiry into the importance of honoring someone by name.

I created a PowerPoint presentation about the Schwarzenegger-Williams controversy to kick off this unit of study on "Whom Do We Memorialize?" My students were familiar with Arnold Schwarzenegger because of his film career and were immediately interested in the specifics of this current issue. The controversy itself was not difficult to understand, and it was a new and intriguing problem for them to explore.

Students were eager to share their viewpoints about the controversy. One student pointed out that Schwarzenegger had never been in Williams' situation, growing up on the roughest streets of Los Angeles, so the governor wouldn't understand Williams' actions, why he became a criminal, or whether his per sonal reform was sincere. (Williams was eventually executed on December 13, 2005, and Schwarzenegger's name was indeed removed from the title of the stadium.)

This discussion was instrumental in developing critical thinking skills that would be needed as our inquiry progressed. Students held opinions both for and against dropping Arnold's name, but their reaction to the pressure applied by the Graz City Council was particularly interesting. Many students considered this to be a separate issue--it seemed wrong for the legislators in Graz to try to manipulate Governor Schwarzenegger in this way. One student exclaimed, "It's California ruled by Austria!" We discussed the fact that naming (or removing the name from) something to memorializing a person could have all sorts of interesting implications for individuals, groups, communities, and nations.

As students left the room at the end of the period, I gave each of them an "exit slip" with tomorrow's key question written on it.

"What qualities or achievements should a person have in order for a public place, (street, park, etc.), structure (building, bridge, etc.), or team (sports team or classroom group) to be named after him or her?"

Day 2: Who Is Worthy?

On the second day, students gathered into their three groups (of three students each) to begin working on an answer to the key question. …