One day in the Bronx, a first-grade teacher sat down in a barbershop for a trim and one of his students walked in, sat down, and started looking antsy.
He thought to himself that it was a perfect opportunity to practice reading, a thought that changed Alvin Irby’s life, and in five years’ time, he’s filling dozens of barbershops around the country with free books to trim back childhood illiteracy.
His non-profit, Barbershop Books, has delivered 50,000 free books to more than 200 barbershops in predominantly black neighborhoods in 24 states, leveraging the fact that in Black American communities, barbershops are like community centers where people congregate naturally.
“Barbershop Books inspires Black boys and other vulnerable children to read for fun,” Irby told CNN, which recently honored the man as a CNN Hero. “We install a child-friendly reading space in the barbershop.”
Key to the reading spaces are bookshelves that display the covers of the books rather than the spines, helping kids who may be interested in reading seize the opportunity for themselves, whether they’re in the barber’s chair or they’re waiting on their dad or friend.
Irby teaches the barbers in all the shops how to help encourage kids to read, such as by asking if they like to read, or what they think about one of the books in the shop. The barbers are key for another reason as well.
“We are putting books in a male-centered space,” Irby told CNN. “Less than 2% of teachers are Black males and many Black boys are raised by single moms. Black boys don’t see Black men reading.”
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At heart, the idea is not just about enriching a child’s mind but improving their proficiency in school, where Irby who teaches kindergarten and first grade says is pretty much the only place kids see reading happening. He says that if the only time a kid practices piano is at the piano lesson, his progress is going to be really, really slow.
At the moment, he’s developing a school curriculum addition to help students identify their own reading preferences. Keeping the theme within Black culture, the program is called “Reading So Lit.”
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Helping pre-K to 5 students explore, understand, and articulate their reading preferences increases self-awareness and social awareness, and Reading So Lit uses self-assessments and AI to generate actionable, strengths-based data about the reading content and conditions that students find personally meaningful and engaging. It’s already been successfully trialed in schools.
As sophisticated as the program is, Irby’s passion is still derived from interactions like the one which started it all—the kind that take place in the barbershop.
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