As an elementary school teacher, my mom did everything she could to ensure I had good reading skills. This usually consisted of weekend reading lessons at our kitchen table while my friends played outside. My reading ability improved, but these forced reading lessons didn’t exactly inspire a love of reading.
High school changed everything. In 10th grade, my regular English class read short stories and did spelling tests. Out of sheer boredom, I asked to be switched into another class. The next semester, I joined advanced English.
We read two novels and wrote two book reports that semester. The drastic difference and rigor between these two English classes angered me and spurred questions like, “Where did all these white people come from?”
My high school was over 70 percent black and Latino, but this advanced English class had white students everywhere. This personal encounter with institutionalized racism altered my relationship with reading forever. I learned that I couldn’t depend on a school, a teacher or curriculum to teach me what I needed to know. And more out of like, rebellion, than being intellectual, I decided I would no longer allow other people to dictate when and what I read. And without realizing it, I had stumbled upon a key to helping children read. Identity.
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?
DeSean, a brilliant first-grader I taught in the Bronx, he helped me understand how identity shapes learning. One day during math, I walk up to DeSean, and I say, “DeSean, you’re a great mathematician.” He looks at me and responds, “I’m not a mathematician, I’m a math genius!”
OK DeSean, right? Reading? Completely different story. “Mr. Irby, I can’t read. I’m never going to learn to read,” he would say. I taught DeSean to read, but there are countless black boys who remain trapped in illiteracy. According to the US Department of Education, more than 85 percent of black male fourth graders are not proficient in reading. 85 percent! The more challenges to reading children face, the more culturally competent educators need to be. Moonlighting as a stand-up comedian for the past eight years, I understand the importance of cultural competency, which I define as the ability to translate what you want someone else to know or be able to do into communication or experiences that they find relevant and engaging. Before going on stage, I assess an audience. Are they white, are they Latino? Are they old, young, professional, conservative? Then I curate and modify my jokes based on what I think would generate the most laughter. While performing in a church, I could tell bar jokes. But that might not result in laughter.
As a society, we’re creating reading experiences for children that are the equivalent of telling bar jokes in a church. And then we wonder why so many children don’t read. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire believed that teaching and learning should be two-way. Students shouldn’t be viewed as empty buckets to be filled with facts but as cocreators of knowledge.
Cookie-cutter curriculums and school policies that require students to sit statue-still or to work in complete silence — these environments often exclude the individual learning needs, the interest and expertise of children. Especially black boys.
Many of the children’s books promoted to black boys focus on serious topics, like slavery, civil rights and biographies. Less than two percent 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?
This is why I created Barbershop Books. It’s a literacy nonprofit that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barber shops. The mission is simple: to help young black boys identify as readers. Lots of black boys go to the barber shop 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 number one 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. In exchange, some of the children’s books that adults love so much for funny, silly or even gross books, like “Gross Greg”.
“You call them boogers. Greg calls them delicious little sugars.” That laugh, that positive reaction or gross reaction some of you just had, black boys deserve and desperately need more of that. 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.