Irvington Preparatory Academy English teacher Angie Gibbs traveled to Houston, TX, in November to receive some very special recognition: a Teacher Award for Literacy from Penguin Random House. Per the event announcement – and we couldn’t have said it any better ourselves – “Angie Gibbs is a dedicated, talented teacher who makes a difference in the lives of her students every day, and who works hard to help students become lifelong learners by exposing them to books that reflect their own voices and life experiences.”

Ms. Gibbs received a $5,000 grant from Penguin Random House for her “Teen Book Bag” project. This earned her second place in the national competition, among four teachers recognized throughout the United States. The publisher will also be donating $2,500 worth of books to Ms. Gibbs.

Essentially, her concept is brilliantly simple. Literature students are encouraged to choose a themed bag with three books to take home and read. Then per the classroom project slogan, students Read, Return, Repeat. This emphasizes that reading is a lifelong habit to be cultivated.

For some time, Ms. Gibbs had been mulling over how to ignite a love of reading in students who haven’t passed the ISTEP+ standardized test (currently, this is a 10th grade Indiana high school graduation requirement). One day while at the Irvington Branch Library she noticed book bags that could be checked out by kids, akin to a grab bag, filled with random/surprise books. That was her ah-ha! moment.

So she went ahead and set up book bags with themes in which her students tend to be interested. Examples of the names attached to the bags include “Hoop It” for basketball books and “Be Courageous” for books about teens who have the courage to be themselves and meet both daily and extraordinary challenges. Fiction and nonfiction books are included in the mix, and reading levels are purposely varied to meet students where they are at from a reading comprehension standpoint.

“The goal is to promote literacy for the entire school,” Ms. Gibbs notes. The grant will fund the purchase of personalized bags for the books, the books themselves, a scanner to log the books on her computer (a librarian-like approach), and a hanging storage rack for the book bags.

Having her students develop a love of reading is one of Ms. Gibbs’ greatest rewards as a teacher. (Visitors will be struck by the large classroom library she maintains, which is in a constant state of expansion.) “I believe the best way to reach them is to give them books they can see themselves in: teens who have struggled through the same issues, or fantasies to help them escape their difficult lives.”

IPA Principal Jana Goebel says, “We are very excited to celebrate the announcement of this grant award with Ms. Gibbs! She is passionate about increasing students’ literacy through books that are meaningful and relevant to them. And, she understands the importance of students being able to identify with the books they read. We can’t wait to see how this grant supports her vision and helps her grow student literacy skills.”