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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 14, 2008
DeKalb — Pam Nelson was assigned to the hospitality committee when she first became involved with the Northern Illinois Reading Council in the early 1980s.
Among her responsibilities: storing and transporting the plastic water pitchers used at meetings and conferences in a giant trash bag. She eventually served as the group’s president.
Twenty-five years later, on the eve of her retirement this month from Northern Illinois University’s Department of Literacy Education, Nelson has received one of five International Reading Association Maryann Manning Outstanding Volunteer Service Awards.
And when she names some of the wonderful activities of the local, national and global literacy organizations, she gushes with the same passion she taps to describe her favorite children’s books.
“It feels wonderful,” Nelson says. “It’s easy to stay involved when you’re part of a strong group, and I’ve had so much support at both the local and state levels.”
Pam Farris, a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus from the Department of Literacy Education, nominated Nelson.
“She was the first name that came to mind – and the second, the third and the fourth. She is the most sincere, warm and compassionate faculty member in the College of Education,” Farris says.
“Certainly her influence extends beyond NIU and throughout our state. She is revered for her efforts,” Farris adds. “She has been recognized throughout the state of Illinois, and now internationally with this award, for her service in the area of reading and literacy and her dedication to getting teachers more involved in the teaching of reading and the use of children’s literature.”
Nelson’s work ethic is not bound by school hours, Farris says, and her community spirit is not restricted to the promotion of reading. Nelson is a docent at the Naper Settlement and sits on the Naperville Settlement Advisory Board for Educational Programming and Interpretation.
“She does things quietly in the background,” Farris says. “You can call her office at 7:30 in the morning, and she’ll be there, and this after having taught a night course, and she spends her weekends devoting time to volunteer organizations.”
Nelson was a young teacher in Kansas when she became involved with an International Reading Association reading council. A colleague invited her to a conference where she heard the late children’s author and literacy advocate Bill Martin Jr.
In 2006, she held the presidency of the Illinois Reading Council. Based in Normal, the Illinois Reading Council has about 5,900 members and hosts the nation’s second-largest state conference on reading. She also served the state organization as secretary and student membership chair.
Last year, she volunteered as the regional director for Region 1, which includes the Northern Illinois, Northwest Illinois, Blackhawk and Sauk Valley reading councils. (The Northern Illinois Reading Council, which serves DeKalb, Boone, Ogle, Winnebago and eastern Lee counties, is led by Mary Gardner, an instructor in NIU’s Department of Literacy Education and a reading specialist in the Oregon School District.)
Nelson still recruits her students to join the organizations as they become professionals and frequently receives stacks of brochures in the mail to boost her marketing efforts.
“When this envelope came, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a student promotion.’ I almost didn’t open it,” she says. “And here was this letter that said, ‘Congratulations.’ ”
The work of reading organizations is crucial.
Nelson says some teachers who are feeling the pressure of meeting federally prescribed “No Child Left Behind” goals are moving away from reading aloud to their students, for example, so they can use that time to teach toward the benchmarks.
But they need to stand their ground, she says.
“It’s hard to do that when you feel as though you are alone. Professional organizations offer teachers a lot of support,” she says. “Teachers should make time for best practices that are research-supported and theoretically strong. Rather than making you doubt yourself, we give you support.”
Teachers also can find good ideas and camaraderie at small “Teachers as Readers” gatherings held at neighborhood bookshops or libraries where they meet to discuss books on literacy education topics.
Meanwhile, Nelson says, members of reading organizations are reaching out to their communities.
The Northern Illinois Reading Council works with Habitat for Humanity to ensure its homes include book cases stocked with good reading tailored for the specific family that will be moving into the home. The Northwestern Illinois Reading Council sends Santa Claus to a local library at Christmastime to read and share books.
Reading councils invite all stakeholders in literacy to their activities, she adds.
“We’re open to anyone interested in promoting literacy and reading: publishers, parents, librarians, learning center directors, service organizations,” she says. “Our work makes people aware of books to share with their children.”
Nelson came to NIU in 2002 after nine years on the faculty of Dominican University in River Forest.
She earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees here in DeKalb, where she also reunited herself with reading councils after taking some time off to raise her children.
“I came back to school and I remember going to the fall conference. I was so excited about that event and was just taken by all the experts. It was wonderful to have other professionals from the area talk about what they do,” she says. “Donald Graves, Ken Goodman, Stephanie Harvey, Tomie dePaolo, Lois Lowry – they brought these people right to me, to DeKalb, to Springfield. When you’re getting that kind of service, you can store a few water pitchers, bring them back and rustle up a few cookies.”
Nelson, who teaches courses in language arts and children’s literature in a multicultural society, has an office in the Children’s Literature Collection filled with colorful books, stuffed animals that represent storybook characters and even pillows, curtains and knickknacks celebrating fiction for young readers.
Her focus in recent years: keeping boys interested in reading as they end their elementary school years and head toward middle school.
One project paired fifth-grade boys from a Rockford elementary school with “pen-pals” at NIU – Nelson’s students – to discuss good books via e-mail. Nelson was able to choose several imaginative works from a children’s literature market that recently has seen publishers “willing to put money into the development of wonderful books.”
She hopes to keep teaching a course or two during her retirement.
“I’ve gotten to do something I love,” she says. “Read the books, share the books and buy marvelous turkey puppets.”
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