New York City’s ‘Barbershop Books’ Helping African-American Boys Identify as Readers

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Many young black males struggle with reading due mainly in part to the simple fact that they just don’t see reading as part of their identity, one NYC educator believes. Haircut by haircut, he’s trying to fix that.

Written by LAURA BLISS

There’s a classic marketing theory that when you put two words or ideas together enough, consumers will form an implicit association—and even act. I say “peanut butter,” you think, “jelly.” I play French music in my grocery store, you buy a bottle of Burgundy. One is a trigger for the other.

Improbable, perhaps, that a chestnut from advertising would form the basis of an elegant and innovative literacy initiative. But when Alvin Irby was teaching kindergarten and first grade in Harlem and the Bronx, he saw that many of his students—especially African American boys—needed new associations around books. Statistically, those boys are the most reluctant when it comes to reading—and lag most in test scores.

“I’m developing this theory that a lot of young black males simply don’t associate books with their identity,” says Irby. “Fathers are missing from a lot of black children’s early reading experiences. There aren’t many black male teachers, either.”

That’s how Barbershop Books was born. Irby, now just a few weeks away from a master’s degree in public administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, had a simple idea: Go to neighborhood barbershops that African American families visit on a regular basis. Set up a shelf of children’s books specially selected to appeal to young boys (action-packed, culturally relatable, and led by male characters). Get the barbers to encourage boys to pick up “No, David!” or “Calling All Cars!” while they wait for their haircut, or even once they’re in the chair.

Even if the book is a little above or below the kid’s reading level, and even if there’s not an adult sitting next to him as he reads, boys are still making an implicit link between reading and barbershops—which are cultural hubs in New York City’s African American communities. The bit of encouragement from the barber, most often an older black man, is essential too.  Read more… New York City’s ‘Barbershop Books’ Could Be the Push African-American Boys Need to Get Reading – CityLab


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