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Surf’s up: Literacy Ed’s Norm Stahl to retire

December 6, 2011
Norm Stahl

Norm Stahl

Norm Stahl could see the Pacific Ocean from the windows of the home where he grew up in San Francisco.

The waves eventually beckoned him to surf, something that became a lifelong passion. The smell of the water and the feel of the sand between his toes still resonate deep inside his senses, even after 25 years in America’s heartland (he’s still waiting for a swell to come up the mighty Kish).

“I kept a surfboard in my office at San Francisco State, and everyone kind of knew that office hours would be canceled if the waves were up,” says Stahl, chair of NIU’s Department of Literacy Education. “I love surfing. It’s kind of the man-against-nature thing, but I grew to realize that I couldn’t do battle against it. I had to work with it, become one with the wave.”

Stahl, who came to NIU in 1987, will retire at the end of this month.

A celebration of Stahl’s career is planned from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, in the Duke Ellington Ballroom of the Holmes Student Center. The program begins at 3:45 p.m. Call (815) 753-9036 for more information.

THE EVENT WILL END THE DeKALB CHAPTER FOR A BEACH BOY AT HEART, a self-labeled “old surfer” has lived his philosophy of the waves throughout his more than 40 years in education.

From teaching to tutoring to mentoring, his career is a textbook endorsement of the value and rewards of collaboration.

And his younger colleagues have taken notice. Given Stahl’s striking white beard and his fatherly approach to them, they’ve affectionately nicknamed him Papa Smurf.

“There’s something that feels good about mentoring. There’s something that feels right about it. I was lucky. I had some good mentors along the way,” he says.

“I look at my assistant professors now, and boy, are they good. They’re all going to make it. They’re all going to contribute to the profession. They provide me with a great deal of pride,” he adds. “In the education field, your legacy is your students and, in a sense, their students, even more so than the research you conduct or the service you perform.”

Stahl’s original plan to teach history to students in secondary schools washed out to sea after professors at San Francisco State – he holds bachelor’s (1971) and master’s (1976) degrees from his hometown school – sent him to a local junior high school for clinical hours.

“I was tutoring a group of kids. I was supposed to go two hours a week. I went every day. I loved it,” he says.

When his professors of education asked him to write some curriculum to teach tutoring skills, Stahl did. He eventually started teaching courses on tutoring and re-launched the San Francisco State Tutorial Program.

At the same time, he became interested in literacy development.

“San Francisco State had some of the top people in the field of literacy in the country,” he says. “They kind of took this kid under their wings.”

The 1970s were a “golden age of higher education, and there was no greater poster child back then than the schools under the California master plan system,” he adds, calling himself lucky to have been there.

Working as a lecturer, he served on an Academic Senate Committee that created the model for learning communities still in use now across the country.

Committee members recommended the development of an intra-disciplinary integration of courses around a particular theme – “One of the first of ours was on peace. It fit perfectly. It was the Vietnam era,” Stahl says – that involved professors and specially designed courses from across campus.

Stahl earned a doctorate in 1983 at the University of Pittsburgh, where faculty pushed him toward post-secondary literacy development rather than his initial plan to study preschool literacy.

He was an assistant professor of reading at Georgia State University when the NIU position opened in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. It offered more of an opportunity to work in teacher education, which he wanted.

IN DeKALB, LIKE AT MOST EVERY OTHER STATION DURING HIS LIFE, he found himself at the right place at the right time.

Reorganization of the NIU College of Education took place about seven years later, laying the foundations for one of the first departments of literacy education in the country. Language sat at the center of the faculty’s interests, a direction most of the other programs in the nation followed.

When the Department of Literacy Education was officially formed in 1997, Stahl became its first and – to date – only chair.

Don Richgels and Richard Orem

Don Richgels and Richard Orem

He’s leaving on the heels of longtime colleagues Don Richgels, who retired in September, and alongside Richard Orem. Together they represent more than 100 years of experience in post-secondary education.

Richgels, a Distinguished Research Professor at NIU, is a nationally recognized scholar in phonemic awareness: the conscious attention to the sounds that make up words.

Orem, a Distinguished Teaching Professor, has worked on the front lines of immigration as he prepares teachers of English Language Learners for the classroom.

And Norm’s a proud Papa Smurf.

Training ELL educators is a cornerstone of the department and something that earned the state’s only nod of approval from the national TESOL (Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages) organization.

A 2005 partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education, the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois Resource Center resulted in a federally funded initiative to recruit and train bilingual teachers.

The ELL projects in the department brought as much as $10 million in federal, state, and private funding to NIU while it took aim at the critical shortage of bilingual teachers in Illinois: People with bachelor’s degrees in any field who wished to change careers and become bilingual teachers suddenly had that opportunity.

Even more unique was Project ESCALERA, which brought paraprofessionals with associate’s degrees up through the academic ranks to earn the bachelor’s degree, Type 03 certification and master’s degrees.

Hundreds of participants who were fluent in English and another state-targeted language – Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Urdu and Vietnamese – earned master’s degrees at NIU.

The latest initiative – Project DREAMS, under the direction of James Cohen – enjoys a $1.8 million grant from the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) of the U.S. Department of Education.

While its overall objective is to increase the number and quality of teachers who serve English language learners in the region, Project DREAMS is unique in that it adds a science and math focus.

LIKE MANY THINGS IN HIS LIFE, it reminds him of California, specifically the Hispanic community of the Mission District of San Francisco, where he started his work in pedagogy.

Photo of a man surfingRetirement will offer a new surfin’ safari of sorts.

First, however, there are loose ends to tie up.

There’s a book deadline to meet in the spring. He’s conducting research at Joliet Junior College to measure the culture of reading there; it eventually will grow to other community colleges. He’s also on the City Colleges of Chicago Reinvention Task Force.

And, of course, he’s now president of the College Reading and Learning Association.

Stahl takes great pride in also having served earlier as president of the College Reading Association (now called the Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers) and the National Reading Conference (now the Literacy Research Association) and as chair of the board of directors of the American Reading Forum.


He and his wife Carolyn, a surgical tech at TAILS, might return to California. Maybe he’ll open a surf shop.

Their daughter Jennifer, who’s engaged to be married, will likely stay in DeKalb.

Even though the Midwest girl was born and raised here, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t shot the Pacific Ocean curls with her surf instructor dad, who counts an old photo of the two with their surfboards among his favorites.

Meanwhile, Stahl might take on some accreditation work. He’s enjoyed the opportunity to travel, see other literacy education programs and bring back good ideas to NIU. Maybe he’ll pursue a deanship somewhere.

It all will depend on whether he’s at the right place at the right time – and whether the opportunity will make someone else’s life sunnier.

“I’m an Eagle Scout. I’m proud of that,” he says. “My Scoutmaster always said to us, ‘If Scouting’s been good to you, you have to turn around and give twice that back.’ That’s my mantra. That’s the philosophy I live.”