The idea came to him when he least expected it. Alvin Irby was at a barbershop when he saw one of his former students sitting in the shop with a bored look on his face. That's when Irby realized that by pairing barbershops and books, he might be able to inspire young black boys to read.
Irby, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, knows how important it is for young children to read. He also knows that young black boys in particular often don't have adult male role models who inspire them to read. "Many young black boys may literally never see a black man reading in school during the years when they’re learning to read because there are so few black male elementary school teachers," Irby told Mashable.
That's where the barbershops come in.
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Irby launched Barbershop Books as a way to not just get books into the hands of young black boys, but to also create community reading spaces in a place where kids go frequently. Since its inception in 2013, the program has created kid-friendly reading spaces in 50 barbershops in 12 states throughout the United States.
Irby isn't the first person to see the connection between barbers and books and boys. Hair stylist Courtney Holmes from Dubuque, Iowa, launched an initiative a few years ago offering free haircuts to kids as long as they read to him while he cuts their hair.
That's the kind of environment that Irby wants to promote with his program. The reading spaces created by Barbershop Books help to spark an interest in books by showing kids that reading is about more than just spelling and vocabulary skills; it's about making reading a low-stress activity that can help them relax, laugh and have fun.
"Our belief is that if we can create positive reading experiences early and often for young black boys, then they will choose to read for fun because they will identify as a reader," Irby noted, adding, "This is really what Barbershop Books is about, getting young black boys to say three words: I’m a reader."
Irby's idea is catching on, and it will continue to spread thanks in part to the National Book Foundation. Barbershop Books recently won the organization's 2017 Innovations in Reading prize, which is given to programs that use reading to make a social impact. The award comes with a $10,000 prize. Irby plans to use the prize money to bring Barbershop Books to more communities and to offer training programs for barbers so that they can create their own community reading spaces.