FAMU professor Cheeks on mission to encourage reading

Barbers from Creative Hairstyles gave free haircuts to Riley Elementary School students who participated in a recent Home of Reads Initiative event.

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

Jeremiah Medine was one of the first boys to walk into a room at Riley Elementary School where a table was packed with books, while three barbers waited.

Medine strolled over to the one of the barber’s chair for a free hair cut. Two other students joined him shortly after.

Within minutes, all three boys were engaged in a conversation with Makisha Cheeks, an English professor at FAMU. She repeated the same conversation for about 90 minutes with other boys who showed up for  the “Barbers Books and Boys” event. 

It is part of a mission that Cheeks, founder of Home of Reads Initiative, has been on for three years in an attempt to get children to read more. Her focus is on children from low income communities, where surveys have shown that children who live in those neighborhoods struggle with reading.

FAMU professor Makisha Cheeks sets up books in preparation for ‘Barbers Books and Boys” at Riley Elementary School.
Photos by St. Clair Murraine

“We aren’t going to change everything,” Cheeks said. “You’re are not going to change every child overnight and make him or her a reader but if I can put some quality books in their hands they’re going to always remember.”

Each of the participating students took home their choice of a book. Medine chose “A Very Baby Mouse Christmas” and seemingly was eager to begin reading it.

“Reading these books helps with learning new words and bigger words,” he said. “Whenever I see a word in a book, I just know what that word means.”

Medine and every other student will be tracked through their schools and as part of a follow-up, she will engage their parents. Each child’s parents will be asked to participate in encouraging independent reading, she said.

Additionally, students will be invited to a summer reading camp.

What Cheeks is trying to do is change some of the astonishing finding by Reading Is Fundamental, a literacy organization. According to its findings in conjunction with the Center for Education Statistics, there is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families by age 3. Additionally, the study found that 34 percent of kindergarten age children don’t have the basic language skills needed to learn how to read.

Cheeks pointed to several reasons why children might have difficulty taking up a book, including being forced to read as a form of punishment. They may also have difficulty relating to characters that they’re reading about, she said.

The stop at Riley is one of several that Cheeks has made in her quest to increase the number of children who enjoy reading. She’s taken her initiative to Gadsden County, Madison County and even as far as Greenville, S.C. 

Part of the exercise she did with the boys who showed up for “Barbers Books and Boys” was to have them answer questions that test their ability to pay attention to details. For example, they were asked to explain some of the things they would observe on trip to the store.

“It helps them to begin to think about critical thinking skills opposed to always being on a tablet or being on a cell phone texting and doing other things,” Cheeks said.

She started the initiative during the 2016 African American Read-In in Madison County. Now Cheeks, who started her teaching career at Nims Middle School, has big plans to grow the program, although she doesn’t have a funding source. Most of the books she uses are provided by publishers.

However, recruiting help is on-going, she said, pointing to the participation of the barbers from Creative Hairstyles who did the haircuts at Riley.

Agreeing to help was a no-brainer, said Rick Thompson, one of the barbers. It’s their way of giving back to the community, he said.

“If we don’t do it; who is going to do it,” he said. “We love doing it. It’s not about the money. It’s about these kids and seeing them smile and talk about books and what encourages them.”

Thompson, who admittedly didn’t care much for reading when he was a student at Rickards High School, praised the work being done by Cheeks. 

“She is really dedicated to this,” he said. “She is dedicated to going into the Black communities and helping the kids that can’t help themselves.”

As the parent of an 11-year-old, Thompson said he makes reading with his son a daily routine and he has seen dividend from the 30-minute sessions.

“You could see it when he gets his report card,” Thompson said of his son’s progress as a reader. “You see it in his attitude and his vocabulary. I will encourage any parents to get their kids to read.”