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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
January 30, 2006
DeKalb — Pam Nelson, a professor in the Northern Illinois University Department of Literacy Education, will become president of the Illinois Reading Council in June.
It's a good fit: Children's books top Nelson's personal list of reading for pleasure, and hundreds of them hide behind the myriad Mary Engelbreit tote bags in her Gabel Hall office. She can quickly locate on her shelves a book she's recommended to a parent of pre-schoolers. She gasps with delight at the mere mention of children's authors or titles she adores. A cart of books preferred by boys sits near her desk as it works to balance the appeal of her collection.
“Being able to read, write, listen, speak and interpret visual information impacts all parts of my life,” says Nelson, who came to the NIU College of Education in 2002 after nine years on the faculty of Dominican University in River Forest.
“Being literate helps me take care of day-to-day tasks and make new discoveries. Being literate helps me find the words for what I may have been thinking or feeling and couldn't communicate,” she adds. “As Louise Rosenblatt would say, ‘It helps us carry away information. It also allows us to live through the experience of others.' ”
The Illinois Reading Council, based in Normal, has about 5,900 members and hosts the nation's second-largest state conference on reading. Nelson organized this spring's event, scheduled for March 16 to 18 in Springfield.
“We are a large, active group,” Nelson says. “We encourage teachers and professors to keep examining their practice and refining their practice and to support each other as they try something new. Professional involvement is what keeps you happy with what you're doing.”
Norm Stahl, chair of the NIU Department of Literacy Education, calls Nelson a “bundle of energy” who will make a “tremendous impact.”
“Pam is a tremendous organization person who has served the IRC doggedly over the years and provided leadership, both to individuals who are established reading specialists and those who are coming up the line,” Stahl says.
“My inclination is we'll see a presidency that advocates the importance of students having opportunities to work with the best of children's and young adolescent literature. That is her love, of course. She is the archetypical book lady, not unlike Mary Poppins, magically appearing with her load of children's books.”
As president, Nelson hopes to grow the membership by reaching out to young teachers and diverse teachers across the P-20 spectrum. The ideas shared at conferences can literally change the lives of children, she says.
Nelson herself became involved with an International Reading Association reading council while still a young teacher in Kansas. A colleague who noticed Nelson was “inundated” with the job invited her to a conference where she heard the late children's author and literacy advocate Bill Martin Jr. speak of his holistic approach to reading in the curriculum.
Martin's words resonated with Nelson when she moved to Arizona and began linking her reading lessons with those in math, science and social studies and watching how the children responded to instruction embedded in a story or a trip to the museum.
“I could see how important reading was for the students. It made a difference. They got it,” she says. “It's exciting to see a world open for somebody. They can do something they couldn't do before.”
When Nelson moved to Illinois and enrolled as a graduate student at NIU, she took advantage of “the wonderful, wonderful conferences” available through the Illinois Reading Council and the Northern Illinois Reading Council, where she started her service as a hospitality chairman.
“We need to make sure we're reaching out. That is what I really want. We need to have some teachers within their first four years,” she says. “As we diversify our membership, we have more opportunities for different types of projects, and people are going to see new needs to meet.”
Involving graduate students in literacy also is among Nelson's goals.
“I know how important it is to get these graduate students to present papers. It was very significant for me. It made me aware of that much larger piece of the puzzle going on at a much higher level, and I felt more connected to the rest of the state.”
Nelson's students in children's literature already are required to attend one local reading council meeting during their studies. They usually witness school teachers who already have spent hours in their classrooms gathering at night simply to improve their abilities, she says.
“They see these people out there doing it,” she says of her graduate students, “and they know the children in those teachers' classes are the ones who are going to benefit the next day.”
For Nelson, the mission to teach reading to children and adults alike called loudly enough to bring her to higher education.
“I truly enjoyed the time with the children – mostly adolescents, and then later with pre-schoolers – but I think I was ready to work with adults and for the level of study it takes to work with adults,” she says. “We really are concerned about literacy for all.”
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