Heinemann Fellow Anna Osborn on Explorations of Identity

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Legacy. What is a legacy?

It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.

I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will

Sing for me . . .

       —From Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

The gray hangs from the February sky like the roof of a tent heavy with rain. It’s during these wintry days when I feel most vulnerable as a teacher. I’m also sensing winter’s hold on my students, and I begin to wonder if I make even the smallest difference for them.  

As a reader, I am captivated by characters. Major characters who drive plot or who find themselves transformed by conflict, minor characters who flesh out stories and live in the space between interesting and important, or characters who are easily forgotten.

As a middle school teacher, I’m also surrounded by characters. Major characters whose needs or actions or accomplishments garner laughs or gasps or high fives. And minor characters who, until something happens to catapult them into the spotlight, quietly occupy their seats, compliantly doing what I ask, and are often remembered as “one of the good ones,” a part of a larger group but not quite always remembered by name.

“Mrs. Osborn . . .”

I look up from the cookie table at the Minority Scholars banquet and realize I will be combing my memory until I find a name. Felice? Denise? Why do middle school students change so much between eighth and eleventh grade?

I remembered the year I taught her; it was during a time when I contemplated quitting teaching. I was still too new at my job as a reading interventionist and too homesick for the comfort of my old job where I knew the honors and AP kids in my room, knew the curriculum, and even knew myself.

Slowly, I remembered more. We had conferred about Jordan Sonnenblick’s Notes from the Midnight Driver in a year when I was reading as fast as I could to learn current YA literature. In that brief moment, our reading conferences flashed in my mind. She read. We smiled. I asked her to try a strategy. She complied. She was “one of the good ones.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

The knowledge that my students—even my most difficult characters—often do things simply because I ask, troubles me. I understand many of my students come into our class having a strained relationship—or no relationship—with books. After all, I teach reading intervention. But how do I ensure all my students gain an understanding of how reading can impact them, providing a deeper understanding and appreciation of the identities they bring to class and nurturing them past the feeling of being “stuck in reading class” (a phrase students have often said over the years) to the realization that reading empowers them to discover and build future identities? This desire has led to my Heinemann Fellows research question: In what ways does the exploration of personal identity through reading and discourse impact students’ perceptions of themselves as stigmatized readers?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As we stood in front of the red plastic tablecloth covered with cookies and punch—her getting my attention, me grappling to remember her name—I saw the paper award certificate in her hand, shifted my position, and snuck a look at her name. I see: Sharice.

I remembered. It had been a year when I wasn’t yet confident to pull up a chair next to my students to confer—even quiet ones like her. A year when I clung to stiff and inauthentic questions, unable to probe into the young readers’ minds I was trying to understand. Who are the major characters? Who are the minor characters? How do we know?

It was a year when I definitely felt like a minor character to my students, a year when I wore vulnerability like a heavy cloak. How could they ever be impacted by a teacher struggling with whether being a new teacher in this new place was a fit for her?

“Mrs. Osborn,” Sharice continued.

“How are you, Sharice?” She smiled, not realizing my bit of teacher craftiness.

“You know, Mrs. Osborn. Do you remember the award you gave me when I was in your class?”

I smiled and nodded, not recalling her award but recalling the award—simple departmental certificates each teacher is expected to give at the end of each school year. A minor act by a minor character.  

“Well, Mrs. Osborn, I just want you to know that since you gave me that award, I haven’t gotten anything lower than a B. Before that I used to get bad grades. Now I always get good grades. And awards. I had never ever got an award before that. That award changed my life.” And in a flash a shift happens. A minor character moves into the role of major? But was it her? Was it me?  

In that moment, Sharice changed the way I look at all the characters in my life—from the most attention-grabbing to the quietest. She shaped the way I look at myself and my work with students. She taught me a lesson that warms me as the sun peeks through the gray February sky: the only minor characters in our reading workshop are those who live in the pages of our stories. Each action I take as a teacher—even those I might view as minor in a moment of vulnerability—plants the seeds for major changes in the lives of my students. And in my life. That is the true legacy of teaching.


AnnaOsborn_heinemann_fellows_2016_0001Anna Osborn felt the call to education after watching a news report on the need for teachers. More than 15 years later she still wakes up every morning with a passion to make a difference for her students. “Teaching is not for the fainthearted. There are unexpected tragedies and life changes that happen, yet, teachers hold an ethical and personal commitment to our students.” Anna is a Reading Specialist at Jefferson Middle School.

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