When you start an endeavor – say, a basketball game or a musical performance – you don’t just start by shooting three-point shots or blowing jazz riffs.
You start with the simple stuff: dribbling drills and layups, scales and arpeggios. The work is raw, rote, repetitive. But it prepares one for the challenge ahead.
That is how Steven Carey approaches his Joy of Reading program – a program that the weeknight Salvation Army Kids Cafe started last year to boost the reading levels of struggling Beech Street School students.
Carey starts with what he calls Phonics Chant, a call-and-response drill that he augments with pictures of the English language sounds.
“Cheesy Cheesy Ch, Ch, Ch.
“C-H in ‘change’ says Ch.
“Short vowel, T-C-H in ‘catch’ says ch.
“T-U in ‘picture’ says ch.”
On it goes, until all 45 or so sounds in the English language are drilled. Carey and the students shout out the sounds and phrases so fast that I think that the Somali children are teaching him their language.
“I heard it four or five times. I can kind of pick up what’s going on,” said Michael Harper, commanding officer of the Manchester Corps of the Salvation Army.
Now in its second year, Joy of Reading is on solid enough footing that the Salvation Army is highlighting it as one of the programs that enjoys support from the Union Leader Santa Fund for the Salvation Army.
It’s run by Carey. He’s 28 and works as a paraprofessional at Beech Street School, where he comes in contact with most of the 12 or so regulars who participate in Joy of Reading.
Carey doesn’t have a teaching degree. He attributes his phonics-heavy approach to two influences.
One is Marva Collins, a Chicago educator who drew fame in the 1980s for her emphasis on classics and positive thinking to rescue kids in underperforming schools. The other is Carey’s classical music background, and the repetitive practice that any musician endures.
When I visited, Carey wore a stocking hat. His skinny frame was lost in a loose fitting flannel shirt and corduroy pants.
Yet, his personality dominates the room. The mood during Phonics Chant approaches that of Fenway Park during a ninth-inning Red Sox comeback.
The drill is usually followed by a 10-minute meditation break. The two hours end with individual reading, which for many of the kids involves sounding out words.
Carey moves around the tables effortlessly. He rubs one kid’s head and places his hand on the shoulder of another.
“I think that reading with a child is one of the most intimate things you can do,” he said.
“They don’t have a lot of material things. But if they can achieve intelligence and claim ownership over their lives, I’ve done my job.”
The work might be fun and rewarding, but it’s not easy.
Students stumble and don’t recall a sound that would seem obvious to Carey or volunteers (which he needs, by the way).
He works on the word “stream” with a student, patiently revealing each letter as a student makes the correct sound.
“Storm,” the kid exclaimed after seeing the R.
“Don’t guess words; read them,” Carey said.
The Salvation Army targeted Beech Street School because fewer than 10 percent of its students read at proficiency level, one of the lowest percentages in the state. And if kids don’t know how to read by third grade, they’re going to end up in classes where expectations are low, Harper said.
In a promotional video produced by the Salvation Army, a second-grade teacher at Beech Street, Chantal Champagne, said two of the kids in Joy of Reading have made tremendous improvement.
“The (Beech Street) teachers are just blown away by their academic success in such a short period of time,” said Champagne, whose father is program director at the Salvation Army. (I attempted to get input from the school itself, but the school district did not arrange it in time for this article.)
Carey said he grew up in the Manchester area and moved back in 2016 after his younger brother committed suicide. His brother had worked at Beech Street School, and Carey took up an offer by former Beech Street Principal Christine Brennan to work there.
He creates the materials, such as the Phonics Chant , that he uses.
Halimo Abdi, a middle-school student and volunteer, said the difference between their program and school programs is in the individual attention.
“They (schools) give individual attention, but it depends who they give attention to and who they don’t. Steve wants to help out everyone,” said Abdi.
Hashim Osman, a second-grader, sums it up like this: “We read. We don’t do math. We do different stuff.”
By offering a phonics-based approach, Carey is reviving the phonics/whole language battle of the 1990s. He guesses he learned to read by whole language. He doesn’t remember sounding out words. His parents tell him he quickly picked it up.
He theorizes that children who live in neighborhoods rife with violence, poverty and drug abuse can’t easily pick up literacy. The troubles prompt them to turn off parts of their brains that allow for perception and inquiry, almost as a survival skill, he said.
So as an alternative, he bypasses the part not working and concentrates on phonics and memorization. As a bonus, Kids Cafe provides the safe space for kids to relax and concentrate. And learn. The final mantra in the Phonics Chant:
“We do hard work, and we do it well.”