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Alvin Irby: How to inspire every child to be a lifelong reader

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According to the US Department of Education, more than 85 percent of black fourth-grade boys aren't proficient in reading. What kind of reading experiences should we be creating to ensure that all children read well? In a talk that will make you rethink how we teach, educator and author Alvin Irby explains the reading challenges that many black children face -- and tells us what culturally competent educators do to help all children identify as readers.

- Educator, comedian, social entrepreneur, author
Whether speaking to barbers about early literacy, entertaining strangers at comedy clubs, or reading to kindergarteners at a local school, TED Resident Alvin Irby endeavors to make learning relevant and engaging. Full bio

As an elementary school teacher,
00:12
my mom did everything she could
to ensure I had good reading skills.
00:14
This usually consisted of weekend
reading lessons at our kitchen table
00:20
while my friends played outside.
00:24
My reading ability improved,
00:26
but these forced reading lessons
didn't exactly inspire a love of reading.
00:29
High school changed everything.
00:35
In 10th grade, my regular English class
read short stories and did spelling tests.
00:38
Out of sheer boredom, I asked
to be switched into another class.
00:45
The next semester,
I joined advanced English.
00:48
(Laughter)
00:52
We read two novels and wrote
two book reports that semester.
00:53
The drastic difference and rigor
between these two English classes
00:57
angered me and spurred questions like,
01:01
"Where did all these
white people come from?"
01:05
(Laughter)
01:07
My high school was over
70 percent black and Latino,
01:09
but this advanced English class
had white students everywhere.
01:13
This personal encounter
with institutionalized racism
01:18
altered my relationship
with reading forever.
01:22
I learned that I couldn't depend
on a school, a teacher or curriculum
01:25
to teach me what I needed to know.
01:29
And more out of like, rebellion,
than being intellectual,
01:31
I decided I would no longer allow
other people to dictate
01:35
when and what I read.
01:39
And without realizing it,
I had stumbled upon a key
01:41
to helping children read.
01:45
Identity.
01:47
Instead of fixating on skills
01:49
and moving students
from one reading level to another,
01:52
or forcing struggling readers
to memorize lists of unfamiliar words,
01:55
we should be asking ourselves
this question:
02:01
How can we inspire children
to identify as readers?
02:05
DeSean, a brilliant first-grader
I taught in the Bronx,
02:10
he helped me understand
how identity shapes learning.
02:15
One day during math,
I walk up to DeSean, and I say,
02:18
"DeSean, you're a great mathematician."
02:22
He looks at me and responds,
02:25
"I'm not a mathematician,
I'm a math genius!"
02:27
(Laughter)
02:29
OK DeSean, right?
02:31
Reading?
02:34
Completely different story.
02:35
"Mr. Irby, I can't read.
02:37
I'm never going to learn
to read," he would say.
02:39
I taught DeSean to read,
02:42
but there are countless black boys
who remain trapped in illiteracy.
02:44
According to the US
Department of Education,
02:50
more than 85 percent
of black male fourth graders
02:53
are not proficient in reading.
02:57
85 percent!
02:59
The more challenges
to reading children face,
03:02
the more culturally competent
educators need to be.
03:07
Moonlighting as a stand-up comedian
for the past eight years,
03:11
I understand the importance
of cultural competency,
03:15
which I define as the ability to translate
03:18
what you want someone else
to know or be able to do
03:20
into communication or experiences
that they find relevant and engaging.
03:25
Before going on stage,
I assess an audience.
03:30
Are they white, are they Latino?
03:33
Are they old, young,
professional, conservative?
03:36
Then I curate and modify my jokes
03:40
based on what I think
would generate the most laughter.
03:43
While performing in a church,
I could tell bar jokes.
03:46
But that might not result in laughter.
03:50
(Laughter)
03:52
As a society, we're creating
reading experiences for children
03:54
that are the equivalent
of telling bar jokes in a church.
03:59
And then we wonder
why so many children don't read.
04:03
Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire
04:07
believed that teaching and learning
should be two-way.
04:10
Students shouldn't be viewed
as empty buckets to be filled with facts
04:13
but as cocreators of knowledge.
04:18
Cookie-cutter curriculums
and school policies
04:21
that require students to sit statue-still
04:25
or to work in complete silence --
04:28
these environments often exclude
the individual learning needs,
04:30
the interest and expertise of children.
04:35
Especially black boys.
04:39
Many of the children's books
promoted to black boys
04:41
focus on serious topics, like slavery,
civil rights and biographies.
04:44
Less than two percent of teachers
in the United States are black males.
04:50
And a majority of black boys
are raised by single mothers.
04:54
There are literally young black boys
who have never seen a black man reading.
04:58
Or never had a black man
encourage him to read.
05:04
What cultural factors,
what social cues are present
05:09
that would lead
a young black boy to conclude
05:14
that reading is even
something he should do?
05:16
This is why I created Barbershop Books.
05:19
It's a literacy nonprofit
05:24
that creates child-friendly
reading spaces in barber shops.
05:26
The mission is simple:
05:31
to help young black boys
identify as readers.
05:33
Lots of black boys go to the barber shop
once or twice a month.
05:37
Some see their barbers
more than they see their fathers.
05:41
Barbershop Books connects reading
to a male-centered space
05:46
and involves black men
and boys' early reading experiences.
05:50
This identity-based reading program
05:55
uses a curated list of children's books
recommended by black boys.
05:57
These are the books
that they actually want to read.
06:01
Scholastic's 2016 Kids and Family Report
06:06
found that the number one thing
children look for when choosing a book
06:10
is a book that will make them laugh.
06:16
So if we're serious about helping
black boys and other children to read
06:19
when it's not required,
06:24
we need to incorporate
relevant male reading models
06:26
into early literacy.
06:29
In exchange, some of the children's books
that adults love so much
06:31
for funny, silly or even gross books,
like "Gross Greg".
06:36
(Laughter)
06:41
"You call them boogers.
Greg calls them delicious little sugars."
06:45
(Laughter)
06:50
That laugh, that positive reaction
06:52
or gross reaction some of you just had,
06:56
(Laughter)
06:58
black boys deserve
and desperately need more of that.
06:59
Dismantling the savage inequalities
that plague American education
07:05
requires us to create reading experiences
07:09
that inspire all children
to say three words:
07:13
I'm a reader.
07:17
Thank you.
07:19
(Applause)
07:20

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About the speaker:

Alvin Irby - Educator, comedian, social entrepreneur, author
Whether speaking to barbers about early literacy, entertaining strangers at comedy clubs, or reading to kindergarteners at a local school, TED Resident Alvin Irby endeavors to make learning relevant and engaging.

Why you should listen

Alvin Irby is a former kindergarten teacher turned social entrepreneur. He is founder and chief reading inspirer at Barbershop Books, a nonprofit organization that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and provides early literacy training to barbers. His work connecting reading to male-centered spaces and involving men in boys’ early reading experiences earned him the National Book Foundation's 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize.

As a cultural competency specialist, Irby trains educators and administrators to translate learning objectives for children or adults into relevant and engaging communication and experiences. Irby's nationally recognized keynotes and workshops excavate his eclectic professional and personal life to better understand and address one of American education’s greatest challenges - cultivating children’s intrinsic motivation to read.  

Irby's debut children’s book, Gross Greg, combines his passion for early literacy and comedy; it is a laugh-out-loud story that captures the hilariously gross behavior of kids everywhere. His clever social commentary and astute observations shine through in his 2012 comedy album They Know Too Much. One of the highlights of Irby's comedy career was being selected as a 2015 StandUp NBC national finalist and performing at the legendary Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles, CA. 

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.

More profile about the speaker
Alvin Irby | Speaker | TED.com