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“Barbershop Books” Cuts Through Children’s Literacy Gap

May 3, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

Chances are, we wouldn’t consider a child staring quietly out of a Barbershop window to be cause for concern.

But for first grade teacher Alvin Irby, 31, who recognized the boy as one of his students, an intuitive thought arose—one that was laced with concern.

“I know what his reading level is, and he should really be practicing his reading right now,” he thought. “I just wish I had a book to give him to read while he was waiting.”

Across New York City, he says, there are thousands of boys of color who will never see a male who looks like them engaging in reading during their first few years of school…or encouraging them to read at all.

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That’s why he founded Barbershop Books, a nonprofits aimed at getting young boys excited about reading, and providing them with the resources to do so.

The community-based literacy program creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops, working from a list of carefully curated titles perfect for boys ages four to eight years old.

The program, which literally puts books in front of children and their parents, is designed to encourage parents—primarily, fathers—to read to their kids.

Citing a recent Harvard study that suggests children get “something different” from a “father and son” read-aloud (as opposed to reading with their mother) Alvin believes that by connecting books and reading to a male-centered space, he can and connect black men to the early reading experiences of black boys in a positive and culturally meaningful way.

“We believe that having men serve as relevant reading models is absolutely essential in encouraging boys to read and emphasizing that reading is important,” he said.” Ultimately, we want to get them to read for fun.”

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As a result of the program, parent Jabbar Richardson and his fiancée read to his six-year-old son Jamere every night before he goes to sleep, taking the time to read along together when they’re at the local Barbershop where they first discovered Barbershop Books late last year.

These days, Jamere runs to the table with the books every time he walks in for a haircut, and has been “stepping up the amount he reads on his own” since January, according to his father.

“He loves books about sports, and looks for anything about LeBron James to read,” he said.

Recently, even more new books have been added to the program, thanks to a grant from the Good People Fund, which will make their way into the 11 New York City barbershops that have these special reading spaces, reaching more than 440 boys annually.

Plans are also currently underway to begin conducting “barber workshops” prior to installing reading spaces, teaching the barbers themselves specific reading strategies to help promote reading as a fun activity.

“Alvin is such a passionate educator, guided by his determination to make positive change in his community. He is really committed to the vision he has set forth,” said Naomi Eisenberger, Founder and Executive Director of the Good People Fund. “He is a great example that one person can make a significant difference.”

Click here to learn more about the Good People Fund
Additional Reporting by Terry Turner

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