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 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).
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:
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Framework
- Paul Gorski’s five stereotypes about poverty
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.
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.
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
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).