Author Archives: Jacqueline Houtman

Re-Engaging Disconnected Readers

Amy Vatne Bintliff is a teacher and researcher who has taught language arts and reading in traditional and alternative programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has developed a wide array of programming for students who struggle with school. A passionate advocate for human rights and multicultural education, she believes strongly in listening to the voices of adolescents.

Amy VB

Amy is a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and the author of Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education (Peter Lang Publishing 2011).
bintliff cover

I sat down to chat with Amy, who is working on a new edition of the book, adding a new chapter about her recent work with middle school students.

What turns kids away from reading?

For many students, the hectic schedules that they lead turn them away from reading.  They are so busy with athletics, jobs, etc. that they just don’t build in the time.  And then when they do have time to read in class, they often feel sleepy.  That makes sense, right?  We know that most adolescents need more sleep. Feeling that they just aren’t good at reading also causes disengagement.  I find that many students get one MAP score or STAR score back that is low, and their self-esteem just tanks.  No matter how much I tell students that those scores don’t represent their complete lives as a reader, they internalize those scores and carry a feeling of defeat with them.  That turns students away.

Why do you think books with social justice themes are appealing to students and how do you use them in the classroom?

I began using human rights education and social justice education early on in my career partly because that’s where my own passions are.  But then I began really observing how active my students were when they were discussing or debating themes of injustice.  Nearly every young person I have taught has felt the sting of injustice in some way.  At the start of the year, we begin debating what is meant by the word “justice” and “injustice”.  We look at modern texts, such as opinion editorial pieces, plus brief excerpts by philosophers, such as Aristotle.  Then we read about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, Septima Clark, and others involved in social change.  We also each write a personal essay, journal or poem about times injustices have impacted us.  I also directly teach my students different frameworks depending on the text and student interest.  A few of the frameworks are:

Generally, students are presented with the frameworks and then have time to discuss them, choose an article, standard or stereotype that they want to explore more deeply, and present a group or individual project.

I then find some strong examples from literature, usually our class reads aloud to start with, so that we can explore with new eyes.  We then use the frameworks to analyze literature, current events, and our own responses to them.  Students begin to actively engage with text because they have a new vocabulary to back up their thinking.  When we get to Close Reading activities, students can say, “I found a gender stereotype here” or “What’s happening is going against the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.  They feel empowered.  They also feel moved by the very human stories involved in the work.  Finally, we create service projects that allow students choice.  For example, last year, my students chose to teach Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Standards to 4th graders.  The service portion of a reading classroom engages them and helps lessen the feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness often associated with reading about social justice themes.

What is the role of diverse books in engaging young people?

Diverse books allow students to create imagined dialogue with people outside of their normal daily interactions.  These imagined dialogues decrease fear and build connections.  It builds capacity, teaches background knowledge, and allows students to reflect on how they are similar or different from narrators or main characters.  Diverse books also teach students that one person’s story does not represent a whole race, gender, etc.  As a teacher, I reiterate that each time we explore a piece of literature.

 What are some of your favorite books to reach disconnected students? 

The graphic novels, March Book One and March Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell are fantastic!  Students who never read full books in the past completed both.  What I love about these graphic novels is that they tie to other social justice texts or current events.  Even though the books may take some students only a matter of days to read, there are many weeks worth of connections and discussions to stem from the graphic novels.  I love that the history re-connected not only struggling readers, but also students who generally weren’t enjoying traditional history texts.

march 2 March 1

I have had great success with the novel Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  There is so much to talk about in this book such as bullying, coming of age, poverty, and equality.

ninth ward

I also love poetry books.  Some of my favorites poets for middle school students are Naomi Shihab Nye, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Soto. Paul Janeczko’s book Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades has some good teacher resources.  Also, many of the poets have lesson plans on their websites.

Reading Poetry

In a classroom with students at a range of reading levels, how do you both challenge advanced readers and engage those that are struggling?

I think one of the key things is to engage students with concepts and philosophies that are challenging no matter what their reading level.  If the theme of a story, such as injustice, is carefully selected, students can work with partners, or solo, on the text.  You then need to create space for dialogue so that all students have equal opportunities to share their thinking.  I also help students select books that match their interests and push students to new levels when they are ready.  My reading students select their books of choice and I build in time for independent reading in a comfy part of the classroom.  I work with three rotating stations:  guided reading where I teach new strategies, a writing station and an independent reading station.

In your video (embedded below), you talk about including physical activities in the reading classroom. Can you elaborate on that?

Movement is essential when working with reading students!  I have a whole array of brief “brain games” that I use between station rotations.  I play the game with them, so we build trust by laughing, setting game goals, and getting blood flowing to the brain.

Where can our readers find out more?

Teaching Tolerance’s Appendix D–A tool for selecting diverse texts

The Advocates for Human Rights—Free resources and lessons

The Howard Zinn Education Project—History resources that are great to use with historical fiction

Booklists from Teaching for Change and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

We Need Diverse Books!

Miranda Paul has published more than 50 short stories for magazines and digital markets and is the author of several picture books from imprints of Lerner, Macmillan, and Random House. Her debut, One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, and her second book, Water is Water were both named Junior Library Guild selections. She is a Co-Regional Advisor for the Wisconsin Chapter of SCBWI and the administrator of, a site for aspiring writers.

Miranda Paul

I’ve invited Miranda to our blog to talk about her work with We Need Diverse Books™.

What is your role in WNDB, and how did you get involved?

My official title is VP of Outreach. I got involved at first by chatting on Twitter about diversity issues in literature with several of the individuals who became the force behind WNDB. The conversation moved off of Twitter and collectively, the grassroots team decided to launch a three-day awareness and action campaign. That’s how WNDB got started, really. We were trending days before the official campaign start date, and after the hashtag (#WeNeedDiverseBooks) took the world by storm, BookCon invited us to present in New York. From there, we launched our own website, filed for non-profit status, raised over $300,000 and began implementing several initiatives ranging from awards and grants to internship program and booktalking kits.

What does WNDB hope to accomplish and how?

Our official mission is to advocate essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. To accomplish this, we recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. We have continued a strong social media presence, and in 2015 we’ve expanded our presence on the ground and in communities through attending literary events, distributing kits, and bringing on more team members who live in different geographic areas.

Some of our upcoming goals include a mentorship program, a diversity festival, and more ways in which we can serve readers through helping them discover great diverse books that are already out there. The Walter Dean Myers Awards will recognize some of those books, and the Walter Grants will help new voices emerge.

*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.

What resources does WNDB offer to teachers and librarians?

Our “Where to Find Diverse Books” links page, our Summer Reading Series and our Booktalking Kits come to mind. Our links page is a quick go-to guide when looking for recommendations in particular diverse categories. The Summer Reading Series includes Picture Book, Middle-Grade, and Young Adult titles using a comparative graphic model. Some of the Chapter book & Middle-Grade novels included so far summer are:

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes

The Lulu Series by Hilary McKay

The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones

More titles will be posted throughout the summer at:

WNDB_Booktalking_Kit_Logo (2)

Our Booktalking Kits are wonderfully visual, and are being utilized by school and public librarians in addition to booksellers. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Booktalking Kit is a project that was developed with the American Booksellers Association and School Library Journal. This kit helps teachers, librarians, and booksellers promote non-majority narratives in children’s literature and includes:

PB, MG and YA diverse booklists designed to help shed light on lesser known books that are about diverse characters and/or written by diverse authors

Comparative title suggestions and corresponding comp title shelftalking mini-posters

Summer_Reading_Series_Sample_WNDB (2)

A We Need Diverse Books sign to create your own WNDB display

The great thing about these Booktalking Kits is that we plan to come out with new ones every year, so it’s a resource that will grow over time. Currently, there are ten Middle Grade titles including (just to name a few) Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost, Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows and Alex Gino’s George. Teachers, librarians, booksellers, and bloggers can request the full kit download at:

Booktalking_Kit_Sample_WNDB (2)

How can people get involved?

  • First of all, sign up for our newsletter, because that’s where we periodically send out calls for help/volunteers.
  • I also urge people to download our Booktalking Kits, which are now available online and share them with their local bookstore owners, librarians, and teachers.
  • If you’re part of an organization or business that wants to sponsor or support WNDB in a more significant way, we have a partnership request form and we review those quarterly.
  • Consider inviting WNDB to your literature festival, conference, or event as well.
  • Our success hinges on the keeping the diversity discussion alive and productive, so keeping WNDB news in the spotlight serves all of us. We’re grateful for the re-tweets, shares, and shout-outs.
  • We’re also extremely grateful for continued financial support as we implement our programming. (The “Donate” button is right on our navigation bar at!)

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press of FGC 2014).

CCBC Choices Winner

The winner of a stack of CCBC Choices (5 issues: 2011-2015) is:

Deborah L. Sebree

Congratulations, Deborah!

Reply to the message in your email inbox so I can send them to you.