Books and Barbers: How a Haircut Is Helping Students Read

02 July, 2019

Summer time in the U.S. usually means slower days, and no school.

"Yes it's summer, my time of year..."

Teachers know, however, that summer vacation means students will likely fall behind, and forget things they learned during the year. Simon Vanderpool, a special education teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, decided to do something about it.

He started a program called Books and Barbers. Children go to the barber, chose a book and read out loud while the barber cuts their hair. The child gets a sticker and can take the book home.

And there is an added bonus: money. The kids get paid to read. The program is for children ages about 5 to 12. There is no limit to the number of haircuts they can get.

Vanderpool says barber shops are places where kids can feel comfortable.

"Once a student feels comfortable, that's whenever the brain opens up, and that they are able to start focusing on nothing but learning."

He says last year, teachers at his school noticed "a huge difference" between kids who were in summer reading programs, and those who were not.

Austin Lopez reads a book to Amir Shalash as he gets his hair cut at Prince Cuts, Lexington, KY
Austin Lopez reads a book to Amir Shalash as he gets his hair cut at Prince Cuts, Lexington, KY

Austin Lopez is seven years old. In the fall he will be in second grade. His mom, Amanda Lopez, brings him to Prince Cuts Barbershop in Lexington. First, Austin says, he chooses a book from the shelf full of colorful ones.

"Well, then I go on a chair to go to the barber, I mean, like get my haircut and then while he's doing my haircut, I read the book."

And what does he likes about reading?

"That you get to learn"

This day, he will be reading a book about the popular cartoon "Angry Birds." The books for the program are donated by fellow teachers, people who heard about the program and the International Book Project.

Austin's favorite books are encyclopedias. Sometimes he says, he is a little worried about reading out loud.

"Sometimes I get words wrong in those books I like."

That is where the barber can help. Amir Shalash owns the barber shop. But he is doing more than cutting Austin's hair. He is listening to him read, and helping him with his reading. Shalash says all the children ask for help, and that opens a chance to connect.

"They reach out to us, and they're like, 'what's this word say?' And we'll help them out, you know. Kind of give them a little insight on it. We engage with the story so it's like, we'll listen to what they're saying, we'll kind of engage back with them, kind of get them into the book a little bit more."

Austin's mom, Amanda Lopez, praises the program:

"They truly encourage reading, which, my son loves to read and, you know, education is truly important, for all of us parents."

Shalash says the money gives the children a good reason to try reading out loud. The parent is charged $16 for the haircut and the child is given $3 either to spend right away, or to save for something later.

Simon Vanderpool says the money provides an important lesson about saving.

"The overall picture of giving that, is to not only increase their engagement within the program, but to also see the lesson of being able to save money and to invest their money as well."

Austin Lopez is saving his money to buy a new Lego toy set.

Books at Prince Cuts Barbershop, Lexington, KY. Kids keep the book after reading to a barber.
Books at Prince Cuts Barbershop, Lexington, KY. Kids keep the book after reading to a barber.

Most of the children getting haircuts at barber shops are boys. Vanderpool's idea was to do more than just help them with reading and money. The teacher wants to help kids who are growing up in a home without a father-- like he did.

"Also, I created the program in order to provide a positive mentor for the kids that go into the barber shop, and are able to have someone that they can rely on and they can trust in, and just build a bond between the two of them."

The organization reports that at least one in four American children lives without their father in the home.

Austin Lopez's mom says having a man pay attention and listen to her son is helpful.

"As a single mom, I definitely love how the guys in the barber shop, they actually reach out to our kids and they actually try to be in their lives. That means a lot to me, and I know my son as well."

Shalash says he and his fellow barbers like being mentors.

"The biggest thing is is that we try to influence as many kids as we can, and that was my whole intention of it."

Vanderpool is spreading the program to more barber shops in Lexington and in Ohio. He is also talking with hair salons to start programs aimed at girls. And, he has started a new nonprofit to bring professional athletes to barber shops to read with children.

In the fall, Vanderpool begins his second year of teaching. This time, he will be working in a high school. He, the barbers, the parents and the children all believe that the students' reading levels will show that they took the time to read this summer.

And when he starts second grade, Austin Lopez should do well in reading, as well as in his favorite subject — math.

I'm Anne Ball.

Anne Ball reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English, with information from the Associated Press and The Lexington Herald. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

Do you have summer reading programs in your city? Let us know what you think of this story. Write to us in the comments section below.


Words in This Story

barber – n. a person whose job is to cut boys' and men's hair

sticker – n. a piece of paper with a picture or writing on it and a sticky substance on its back that is used to attach it to a surface

focus – v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific

shelf – n. a flat board which is attached to a wall, frame, etc., and on which objects can be placed

cartoon – n. a series of drawings that tell a story

encyclopedia – n. a reference work (such as a book, series of books, Web site, or CD-ROM) that contains information about many different subjects or a lot of information about a particular subject

encourage – v. to make (someone) more determined, hopeful, or confident

mentor – n. someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person

salon – n. a business that gives customers beauty treatments (such as haircuts)