Tag Archives: nonfiction

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).

Bad News and the MG reader

One of the things I love most about writing for MG readers is their fascination with the wide world around them. UnknownI want that wide world to be a kind and welcoming place, but this last stretch of three months has been awash in very difficult news from the wider world. Much as I’d like to shield young readers from the harsh realities of the events in Ferguson, MO, the activities of violent insurgents in the Middle East, natural disasters–a volcano in Japan, a blizzard in Nepal, it’s too late for that. MG readers also read or see or hear about the news all around them. This news has an impact on how they view the world.

So how to address disasters in the news with young readers who are not so young, and here I’m thinking kids under the age of 8 or so, that they can skip the it and learn later when they are better equipped to understand. 9-14 year olds are old enough to have a discussion about the news. 513lCzmWx3L._AA160_

I’ve found over the years that books are a great way to offer context on horrific events. Two mainstays of my household have been The Encyclopedic Atlas of the World and Children Just Like Me. They offer some context about where world events are happening and a few bite sized morsels about  what life is like there under not-tragic circumstances. I think it’s important for kids to see a country and culture not in crisis to counter the images they see in the news. A few minutes with Aseye, the Ghanian girl featured in Children Just Like Me, gives a useful counterpoint to frightening images from the region. Africa is more than Ebola.

51Slf5+HDOL._AA160_ 61W7Zg3ReIL._AA160_Sometimes a more general book about an issue in the news also helps a child put concerns in context. Understanding something about how disease transmission occurs is a good jumping off place for understanding any epidemic. Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus series both have titles about germs and how they interact with the human body. These are on the young side for MG readers but sometimes it’s not so bad to go back to non-fiction picture books as a starting point for conversation.

Once a child has a grasp of some of the basics about epidemics and how they function, and an understanding of their own risk and the wider risk to the world, it’s great to have a more in depth conversation about how people act during an epidemic and the larger issues of discriminations that occur because of them.


Christopher Paul Curtis’s newest book, The Madman of Piney Woods includes the epidemic of Typhus that the grandmother endures on her immigration from Ireland to Canada. It has some some parallels to what is occurring now with our talk about who should travel to and from West Africa. It would be a great jumping off place for an in depth conversation.

And lastly I’d love to highlight some of the best biographies of people who have dedicated their lives to the eradication of disease. And here’s where I’d love to have some reader input. Have you got a favorite biography of Louis Pasture, Jonas Salk, or Marie Curie? What other heroes of micro-biology would you like young readers to know about? Please mention them in the comments and I’ll add the covers to this post in the next few days.

Labor Day: More than a picnic

There’s just a week left until Labor Day. For many of us, Labor Day means the end of summer or the beginning of the school year. For others, it means a picnic or a festival. Or perhaps a 5K Fun Run (if you can call a 5K run fun).

Labor Day weekend is a weekend to celebrate, but if it weren’t for the labor movement, we wouldn’t even have weekends. The labor movement limited child labor,  improved workplace safety, and gave us the 40 hour work week.

Labor Day—the first Monday in September—celebrates the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of America. Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894 in response to a strike that crippled the railroad system. Federal troops were called in. There were riots. People died.

A couple of years ago, Tracy Abell put together a post about child labor. I encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already. She listed some great books. Read them. And here are some more books about the labor movement and the children involved in it.

Tracy’s post listed two books–Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman and Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop– that feature photographer Lewis Hine and his influential photographs. The photos exposed the horrendous conditions in a way that words couldn’t. His photos spoke truth to power. A Lewis Hine photo graces the cover of another book in Tracy’s post: Growing up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In fact, the same photo is used on the cover of this book:

Breaker BoysBreaker Boys: How a Photograph Helped End Child Labor by Michael Burgan (Compass Point Books 2011)  

From IndieBound: “Child labor was common in the United States in the 19th century. It took the compelling, heart breaking photographs of Lewis Hine and others to bring the harsh working conditions to light. Hine and his fellow Progressives wanted to end child labor. He knew photography would reveal the truth and teach and change the world. With his camera Hine showed people what life was like for immigrants, the poor, and the children working in mines, factories, and mills.”

Like Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson, which was featured in Tracy’s post, The Bobbin Girl takes place in a textile mill, one of the industries that made extensive use of child labor. (Many of Lewis Hine’s most powerful photos of working children were taken in textile mills.) This particular subject is close to my heart, since my own grandmother was one of those girls. She worked in a silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey after she finished the eighth grade. Because she was gifted academically, the teachers at the high school pleaded with her parents to let her continue her education, but as the eldest of nine siblings, she had to work.

Bobbin Girl

The Bobbin Girl written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Dial 1996)

From IndieBound: “Rebecca Putney is a bobbin girl who helps support her struggling family by working all day in a hot, noisy cotton mill. Working conditions at the mill are poor, and there is talk of lowering the workers’ wages. Rebecca’s friend Judith wants to protest the pay cut–but troublemakers at the mill are dismissed. Does Rebecca have the courage to join the protest?”

In November 1909, workers, mostly Jewish women, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York went on strike for shorter hours, better wages, and safer working conditions. The strike grew to include 20,000 garment workers and lasted until March 1910. The following year, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 people, the youngest a 14-year-old girl. The next two books–one nonfiction, the other fiction–bring the realities of the sweatshop and the tragedy to life.

Flesh and Blood

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy By Albert Marrin (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2011)

From IndieBound: “On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames.  The factory was crowded.  The doors were locked to ensure workers stay inside . . . It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet.  It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster.  And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.”


Uprising By Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2011)

From IndieBound:  Told from alternating points of view, this historical novel draws upon the experiences of three very different young women: Bella, who has just emigrated from Italy and doesn’t speak a word of English; Yetta, a Russian immigrant and crusader for labor rights; and Jane, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Bella and Yetta work together at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory under terrible conditions . . . Yetta leads the factory’s effort to strike, and she meets Jane on the picket line . . . Through a series of twists and turns, the three girls become fast friends–and all of them are in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, the day of the fateful fire.”

The photographs of Lewis Hine and tragedies like the Triangle fire may have prompted changes that improved the lives of American workers.  But that didn’t put an end to problems faced by workers. It was complicated . . . 

marching to the mountaintop

Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Hours By Ann Bausum (National Geographic Children’s Books 2012)

From IndieBound: “In early 1968 the grisly on-the-job deaths of two African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, prompted an extended strike by that city’s segregated force of trash collectors. Workers sought union protection, higher wages, improved safety, and the integration of their work force. Their work stoppage became a part of the larger civil rights movement and drew an impressive array of national movement leaders to Memphis, including, on more than one occasion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King added his voice to the struggle in what became the final speech of his life. His assassination in Memphis on April 4 not only sparked protests and violence throughout America; it helped force the acceptance of worker demands in Memphis. The sanitation strike ended eight days after King’s death.

The connection between the Memphis sanitation strike and King’s death has not received the emphasis it deserves, especially for younger readers. Marching to the Mountaintop explores how the media, politics, the Civil Rights Movement, and labor protests all converged to set the scene for one of King’s greatest speeches and for his tragic death.”

. . .  and the struggle continues. 

sweat and blood

For a comprehensive look at the role of labor unions in American history, check out  Sweat and Blood: A History of U.S. Labor Unions By Gloria Skurzynski (Twenty-First Century Books 2008)

For a roundup of web-based sources on Labor Day, go here.


Go ahead, enjoy your Labor Day picnic, but as you serve up the hamburgers and potato salad, give a thought for those who made it possible.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. Her next book, with coauthors Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long,  is Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press). Bayard was an active supporter of the labor movement.