Why Does the Name of a Place Matter?


Why Does the Name of a Place Matter?


Names, Geographical.
Indians of North America -- Colonization.


Callie Birklid


Washington State Library, Office of the Secretary of State




[Grades 6 - 8]

In this focused inquiry, students investigate the question Why does the name of a place matter?

Students will engage in deep reading, develop summaries of information, do independent research, and participate in small and large group discussion. Students will write an argument with a well-formed claim, clear evidence, and reason. Students will also be asked to potentially request name changes for places in Washington.

Lesson Objectives

  • Students will be able to use analytical reading skills to develop a summary of the history of place names.
  • Students will develop a claim with evidence and reasoning to answer the compelling question.
  • Students will use their understanding of the history of place names to brainstorm positive and negative consequences of changing names of places in Washington.


Washington State Social Studies Standards:
  • SSS4.6-8.1. Analyze multiple factors, make generalizations, and interpret sources to formulate a thesis in a paper or presentation, while observing rules related to plagiarism and copyright.
  • SSS4.6-8.2. Use appropriate format to cite sources within an essay, presentation, and reference page.
  • G1.6-8.3. Analyze maps and charts from a specific time period to understand an issue or event.
  • G1.6-8.4. Explain how human spatial patterns have emerged from natural processes and human activities.


Focused Inquiry

Staging the Question

Compelling Question: Why does the name of a place matter?

Ask students where they think the name of their school, city, or community came from. Have students work in pairs or small groups to come up with their best guess. When student groups have come up with their answer, have them share with the class.

Teacher note: teachers may want to research the answer to this question to share with students or have a member of the administration of the school or a community member come in as a guest speaker to share the story of how it got its name.

Formative Performance Task

Supporting Question: What is the history of the names of places in Washington?

Individually or in pairs, have students read excerpts from Three Cities of Washington: Origin of their names by Edmond S. Meany, 1917. Have students annotate and engage with this reading using a strategy that works best for you and your student population. When students have read each of the excerpts, have them complete the focused note taker on the history of the names of Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane.

When students have completed their notes, have them individually or in pairs choose 2-4 places in the state of Washington whose name history they are interested in researching. For this research, students may want to look at local government websites, chamber of commerce websites, state government websites, and/or Edmond S. Meany’s 1923 publication Origin of Washington Geographic Place Names. Teacher Note: Because this book was published in 1923 some place names will not be included. Teachers may also choose to have students use more than one source to practice corroboration. Have students complete the focused note taker on the history of the names of student’s choice locations to record their research.

Teachers can choose to have students display their information and do a gallery walk of the history of the different place names.

Taking Informed Action

Argument: When students have completed both of the focused note takers, have students individually answer the compelling question, why does the name of a place matter, using evidence from their focused note takers. Student responses should include a clear claim, specific evidence, and a well-thought-out reason.

As students research their different place names, if they feel that the name should be changed, have them share the current name and reason they feel it should be changed with their class. As a class, have students brainstorm an information campaign to get the name changed. This may include letters to local papers, speaking with local and/or state officials, posters, etc. Students could also petition the U.S. Department of the Interior Geographic Survey by completing and submitting the following form, https://geonames.usgs.gov/docs/pubs/DGNR_form.pdf. However students choose to take action, have them have a clear understanding of the positive and negative consequences of a name change.

Why Does the Name of a Place Matter? Lesson Plan with Activity Sheets (form fillable pdf)
Why Does the Name of a Place Matter? Text Set (pdf)
Why Does the Name of a Place Matter? Focused Note Taker Activity Sheets (form fillable pdf)