Alvin Irby

How To Inspire Every Child To Became A Lifetime Reader

He is a former kindergarten teacher turned social entrepreneur. He is the founder and chief reading inspiration of Barbershop Books, a nonprofit that creates child-friendly reading spaces and provides early literacy education to barbers. Her work connecting reading to male-centered spaces and involving men in men’s early reading experiences earned her the National Book Foundation’s 2017 Innovations in Reading Award.

As a cultural competence specialist, Irby trains educators and administrators to transform learning objectives into relevant and engaging communications and experiences for children or adults. Irby’s nationally recognized keynotes and workshops reveal his eclectic professional and personal life to better understand and address one of the greatest challenges in American education – developing children’s intrinsic motivation for reading.

Irby’s first children’s book, Gross Greg , combines early literacy and a passion for comedy; a laugh-out-loud tale that captures the ridiculously rude behavior of children everywhere. His clever social commentary and clever observations shine through on his 2012 comedy album, They Know Too Much. One of the highlights of Irby’s comedy career was his selection as a 2015 StandUp NBC national finalist and performing at the legendary Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles, CA. Irby holds an MA in Childhood Education from the Bank Street Institute of Education, an MA in Public Administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, and a BA in Sociology from Grinnell College. 

As a primary school teacher, my mother did her best to make sure I had good reading skills.

This usually meant doing reading lessons at our kitchen table at the weekend while my friends were playing outside. My reading ability improved, but these forced lessons did not fully instill a love of reading. Everything changed in high school. In 10th grade, we used to read short stories and do spelling tests in English class. Out of sheer boredom, I requested to move to another class. The next semester, I attended the Advanced English course.

At that time, we read two novels and wrote two book reviews. The sudden and sharp change between these two classes made me angry and asked, “Where did these white people come from?” It raised questions like this in my mind.

More than 70% of my high school was black and Latino, but the Advanced English class was all white students. My personal encounter with this legitimized racism completely changed my relationship with reading. I’ve learned that I can’t rely on a school, a teacher, or a curriculum to teach me what I need to know. I decided not to let other people tell me what to read and when, in order to rebel rather than be intellectual. Unknowingly, I had actually stumbled upon a tip that would help children read. “Identity.”

Rather than concentrating on skills and dragging students from one reading level to another, or focusing on making readers with reading difficulties memorize different words, we should ask ourselves: “How do we encourage children to label themselves as readers?”

DeSean, a terrific elementary student I taught in the Bronx, helped me understand how identity influences learning. One day in math class, I said to DeSean: “DeSean, you’re a great mathematician.” He looked at me and said, “I’m not a mathematician, I’m a math genius!” said.

All right, DeSean, if you say so. to read? It’s a different story. “Mr. Irby, I can’t read. I will never learn to read.” he would say. I taught him to read. But apart from that, there were countless black boys who were illiterate. According to the United States Department of Education, more than 85% of black boys in fourth grade are not proficient in reading. 85 percent! The more challenging it is for children to read, the more interculturally competent educators need to be. As someone who has come to the fore as a stand-up comedian over the past eight years, I understand the importance of intercultural competence. I define intercultural competence as the ability to translate what we think others should know and be able to do into communication and necessary experiences. I evaluate my audience before I go on stage. Are they white or Latino? Young, old, professional or conservative? Accordingly, I generally edit and change my jokes to make them laugh. I could tell bar jokes while performing at a church, but that probably wouldn’t have resulted in laughter.

As a community, we provide children with the reading experience equivalent to playing bar jokes at church. And then we wonder why so many kids don’t read. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire believes that teaching and learning should go both ways. Students should be seen as creators of knowledge, not as empty tins to be filled with various elements.

Stereotypical curricula; School rules that require students to sit still like statues or to work in absolute silence… In these environments, children’s individual learning needs, interests and expertise are often ignored. Especially black men.

Most children’s books for black men cover serious topics such as slavery, civil rights, and biographies. Less than 2% of teachers in America are black men, and most black men are raised only by their mothers. There are young black men who have never seen a black man read a book in their lifetime, or who have never known a black man to encourage them to read. What cultural factors and social cues are there to lead a young black man to see reading as something to do?

That’s why I created Barbershop Books. This is a nonprofit literacy project that creates a reading space suitable for children. The goal is simple: to help young black men call themselves readers. Most black boys go to the barbershop once or twice a month. Some see their barbers longer than their fathers. Barbershop Books takes reading into an androcentric realm, covering the first reading experiences of black men and young children. This identity-based reading program is an organized list of children’s books recommended by black boys. These are the books they really want to read.

Scholastic’s Child and Family Report 2016 shows that the first thing children look for when choosing a book is to make them laugh. So, if we really want black boys and other children to read even when they don’t need to, we need to incorporate male reading patterns into their early reading periods. Like children’s books like “Gross Greg,” which is funny, silly, or even obnoxious that some adults love so much.

“You call them snot, but to Greg, they’re delicious little candies.”

This laughter, this positive reaction, or that reaction that shows some of you disgust.

Black boys deserve this more and they need it badly. To eliminate the stark inequalities that plague the American education system, we must create a new educational experience that encourages children to say these three words: “I am a reader.”


Source: TED

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