Alvin Irby: How Can We Inspire Children To Be Lifelong Readers?

Oct 2, 2020

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode School of Life

Even though kids learn to read in school, many hate it. Educator Alvin Irby shares insights on inspiring children—especially Black boys—to discover books they enjoy and begin identifying as readers.

About Alvin Irby

Alvin Irby is an educator, author, comedian, and the founder of Barbershop Books, a nonprofit organization that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and provides early literacy training to barbers.

Irby hosts cultural competency workshops as well as Diversity & Inclusion training for school districts, library systems, and education organizations. His programs help educators better understand and address the systemic and personal challenges that inhibit children's motivation to read and learn. Irby holds a Masters in Childhood Education from the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, a Masters in Public Administration from the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, and a Bachelors in Sociology from Grinnell College.

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALVIN IRBY: OK. So my name is Mr. Irby. Can you all say Mr. Irby?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Mr. Irby.

IRBY: Perfect. So today, I'm going to read a really, really fun and a really funny and a really exciting book.

ZOMORODI: Today on the show, The School of Life - lessons we learn outside the classroom. So take reading. Most kids get taught how to read at school. But learning to love to read - that doesn't always happen.

IRBY: You know, I want children to be free to realize their full potential. And I think the key to that is children identifying as readers and understanding that if they control when and what they read, they can learn anything.

ZOMORODI: This is Alvin Irby. He's an author, educator, comedian. And he's the founder of Barbershop Books, an early literacy group for young Black boys.

IRBY: You know, there are Black boys who don't have Black male reading models at school or at home, right? But yet people are surprised or curious or frustrated about why Black boys aren't reading.

ZOMORODI: Alvin picks up his idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

IRBY: There are countless Black boys who remain trapped in illiteracy. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85% of Black male fourth-graders are not proficient in reading - 85%. The more challenges to reading children face, the more culturally competent educators need to be. Many of the children's books promoted to Black boys focus on serious topics like slavery, civil rights and biographies. Less than 2% of teachers in the United States are Black males, and a majority of Black boys are raised by single mothers. There are literally young Black boys who have never seen a Black man reading or never had a Black man encourage him to read. What cultural factors, what social cues are present that would lead a young Black boy to conclude that reading is even something he should do?

ZOMORODI: So you're saying that kids need to see people around them reading. Tell me how you found a different way to make reading part of kids' everyday lives, to do that with Barbershop Books.

IRBY: Yeah. So I was teaching first grade in the Bronx, and there was a barbershop across the street from my school. And so one day after school, I'm getting a haircut, and one of my first-graders walks into the shop. And he just kind of plops down on the sofa, starts staring out of the window, starts getting antsy, you know? And his mom is like, sit down, you know? Stop, you know, moving around. And he's my student. I know his reading level, right? So the whole time I'm observing this, all I keep thinking is, oh, I wish I had a children's book to give him because he should be practicing his reading right now. But I didn't. I didn't have a book. And so I remember thinking to myself, you know what? Someone should put children's books in barbershops so that while children are waiting, they have fun books to read.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

IRBY: The mission is simple - to help young Black boys identify as readers. Lots of Black boys go to the barbershop once or twice a month. Some see their barbers more than they see their fathers. Barbershop Books connects reading to a male-centered space and involves Black men and boys' early reading experiences. This identity-based reading program uses a curated list of children's books recommended by Black boys. These are the books that they actually want to read.

Scholastic's 2016 Kids and Family report found that the No. 1 thing children look for when choosing a book is a book that will make them laugh. So if we're serious about helping Black boys and other children to read when it's not required, we need to incorporate relevant male reading models into early literacy and exchange some of the children's books that adults love so much for funny, silly or even gross books like "Gross Greg."

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: So "Gross Greg" happens to be a children's book that you wrote in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IRBY: He said that his name sounds like a cool basketball cheer. Look. The people are cheering. They're saying, Gross Greg, Gross Greg.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting) Gross Greg. Gross Greg.

IRBY: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. I need everybody to say it with me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting) Gross Greg. Gross Greg. Gross Greg.

ZOMORODI: And it's about a kid who grosses everyone out by publicly eating his boogers. And you actually recorded a reading that you did for some first-graders a few years ago. And they - I mean, God, I just love listening to them respond to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.

IRBY: You call them boogers.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Ew (ph).

IRBY: Greg calls them delicious little sugars.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Delicious little sugars. Ew.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Look at his sister. His sister is grossed out.

IRBY: Let's look at her. Oh, my goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So, Alvin, I - you know, I have to ask, what are you thinking about this school year? - because a lot of kids - they're not actually in school. What would you tell parents who are worried about keeping their kids on track with reading and giving them a way to identify - to start to identify as readers?

IRBY: Yeah. I mean, there are some practical and simple things that parents can do. Read physical books. If a child sees you looking at a pad, they don't know whether or not you're reading, right?

ZOMORODI: Right.

IRBY: I have parents all the time - Mr. Irby, my son doesn't want to read. What can I do, Mr. Irby - his reading skills? And I was like, well, has your son - does your son see you read? Well, Mr. Irby, I read to him a few times a week. No, no, no. Not do you read to him a few times a week? Does your son or daughter see you read? And so reading physical books in front of your children provide excellent modeling for them because - you know, this is what I learned teaching kindergarten and first grade. At the end of the day, kids just want to be grown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

IRBY: Whatever they see the grown people in their lives doing, that's what they want to do. And so if they don't see the grown people, the people who feed them, who clothe them, who love them - if they don't see them reading, then they may conclude that maybe reading isn't something that they do in their family.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

IRBY: Instead of fixating on skills and moving students from one reading level to another or forcing struggling readers to memorize lists of unfamiliar words, we should be asking ourselves this question - how can we inspire children to identify as readers? Dismantling the savage inequalities that plague American education requires us to create reading experiences that inspire all children to say three words - I'm a reader. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That's Alvin Irby. He's the author of the children's book "Gross Greg" and the founder of Barbershop Books. You can find his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.