A Library for Every Learner: Meet Excellence in Education Award Winner Heather LaBarbara

This blog series features five educators who will be honored by The NEA Foundation with the prestigious 2016 Horace Mann Awards for Teaching Excellence, $10,000 and recognition as one of the nation’s top educators. They will be celebrated at the NEA Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Awards Gala on February 12, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Even when school isn’t in session, Heather LaBarbara makes sure all of her students have plenty of books to read. Six years ago, she started a summer reading program at her school to promote educational equity by counteracting the decline in reading skills that occurs while students are on summer break. “Studies have shown that children living in poverty are more likely to lose reading skills over the summer than children whose families are more affluent,” says LaBarbara, who teaches English at West Jessamine Middle School, a Title I school in Nicholasville, Kentucky. “It’s difficult for a child that has experienced summer reading loss to catch up to grade level if they were already behind because summer reading loss is cumulative.” 

LaBarbara also works with the public library to make books available to students during the summer. “We hope to continue to grow the program so that the love of lifelong reading continues, and families within our community continue to value and attend our public and school libraries.”  

The most important part of LaBarbara’s classroom is, not surprisingly, the library. “No matter what subject area you teach, I think it is extremely important to have books available to students,” she says. “Many genres and reading levels should be included to help accommodate students looking to check out a book to take home.”

LaBarbara sees bridging the achievement gap and providing those learning opportunities as one of the most important roles an educator plays. “We want to provide learning opportunities for those students and, in turn, create a chain reaction to ignite a student’s zest for learning,” she says. 

LaBarbara’s favorite unit to teach focuses on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II through writing and scrapbooking, based on an educational trip she took to Hiroshima, Japan. “For many students, this is the first time they have learned about these subjects along with the idea that Japanese-Americans were interred after Pearl Harbor, even though many of them were born in America,” she says. “The fact that these people were Americans and their civil rights and liberties were taken from them because of the unfounded threat of their being spies educates students about how important those rights are to them today and how those rights must not be taken for granted.” 

Her class also reads “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” by Rod Sterling, which conveys that words and beliefs can be more dangerous weapons than any others people could create. “It helps to make students more aware of the power of their words,” LaBarbara says. She hopes it make them conscious of prejudices they encounter in their lives. Both lessons tap into the power of experiential learning, while connecting with this year’s theme in LaBarbara’s class of civil rights and personal liberties. Ones she hopes her students also do not take for granted. 

Does your passion for teaching take you on new adventures in the classroom? You may just qualify for a NEA Foundation Learning and Leadership Grant. Learn more about NEA grants for educators, today. 



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