Re-engaging Disconnected Youth

Transformative Learning through Restorative and Social Justice Education – Revised Edition

by Amy Vatne Bintliff (Author)
©2016 Textbook X, 195 Pages


As many young adults continue to disengage with learning each day, teachers and administrators struggle to find ways to re-engage secondary students with their schooling and communities. Re-engaging Disconnected Youth profiles a program that succeeds in doing so, one that can serve as a model for others. In a Midwestern alternative school, three teachers built a curriculum around hands-on learning, restorative justice Talking Circles, and multicultural education, in the hopes that it would re-engage and inspire youth. Drawing on Adult Transformative Learning Theory, the book is an in-depth, qualitative study of the ways the program transformed adult and youth perceptions of trust, connections, schooling and human rights. It breaks down stereotypes about youth labeled «at-risk» and provides evidence that it is never too late to become passionate about learning. This new revised edition includes updated research and a chapter exploring the impact of the program on middle school youth.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Program Design and Implementation
  • A History of the Experiential Outdoor Education Program
  • Westward Bound Expedition Closing Circle, June 2006
  • Chapter 2. Heading West: Hands-on Learning and Outdoor Education Increases Student Motivation
  • Factors That Influenced Transformative Learning: Hands-on Spontaneous Education
  • Factors That Influenced Transformative Learning: Separation From “Normal” Life
  • Factors That Influenced Transformative Learning: Nature
  • Chapter 3. Restoring Community: The Impact of Restorative Justice Circles on Student Feelings of Connectedness
  • School Connectedness
  • Restorative Justice Overview
  • Restorative Justice in Schools
  • The School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • The Origin of Peacemaking Circles
  • Philosophy of Circles
  • Components of a Talking Circle
  • Causes of School Disconnection
  • Circle Fosters Positive Student–Teacher Relationships
  • Circle Shifts Student Perceptions of Each Other
  • Shared Experience, Mutual Respect/Trust, and Relatedness
  • Connectedness
  • Additional Results of Circle Experience
  • Forgiveness and Circle
  • Healing and Circle
  • Chapter 4. Multicultural Education, Human Rights Education, and Teaching for Social Justice: Transforming Ideas About History, Racial Identity, and Service
  • Content Integration
  • Knowledge Construction—Transformational Learning via Wounded Knee
  • Prejudice Reduction—Racism and Circle
  • Equity Pedagogy
  • Culturally Relevant Practices
  • Human Rights Education
  • Social Justice in Education
  • Promoting Justice for Students
  • Chapter 5. The Impact of Westward Bound on Middle School Learners
  • Needs Assessment
  • Unique Needs of Middle School Youth
  • The Middle School Program
  • Middle School Results: Hands-on Learning
  • Middle School Results: The Impact of Talking Circles
  • Extending the Boundaries of Transformative Learning
  • Afterword: Teacher as Transformative Learner (2011)
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


I would first like to thank my Westward Bound students. You all shared so much with me both during the program and during the writing of this book. I grew as an educator and human being through our shared experiences and by listening to your voices speak honestly about your lives. I love you all.

To my first dear colleagues, Angel Salathe and Randy Bauer, I owe my gratitude. The collaborative relationships that we have are simply filled with joy, creativity, and passion. Angel, even though miles now separate us, we will continue to partner to create great programs for students. Thank you for your words, insights, and encouragement during this long process. Randy, we miss you. Our community still grieves over the loss of a true environmentalist and passionate educator. I am so grateful that we got to share in those last interviews.

To my new colleagues, Will Howlett, Kami St. Clair, and Kim Walker, I thank you for believing in the program and “going with it” even through the hail, flood, and tornado warnings! Your energy and care for our 8th and 9th grade students is a great gift.

Thank you to the staff and leaders at the alternative school where this project took place. Your support and creativity are amazing!

← ix | x →To Kathy Seipp and the staff at The Advocates for Human Rights —thank you for your time, interviews, and the training that you provide for so many teachers. Your support continues to inspire me. Your organization was the voice that said, “Of course you can…”

To my Hamline professors, Walter Enloe and Paul Gorski, I owe a huge thanks. Your passion for social justice was contagious and your feedback helped greatly with the first drafts of Chapter Three.

To Dr. Carolyn-Boyes Watson, Nancy Riestenberg, Margaret Thorsborne, and Kay Pranis for their inspiring Circle work.

To Living Justice Press for all the wonderful resources on Circles.

To Rob and Mary Gooze—your participation in our 2013 trip was a huge act of love and generosity. Much love to you.

To those who have consistently donated to the program. You are changing lives.

To my editor, Joseph DeVitis. Your gentle encouragement, patience, and feedback helped form this book. Thank you for believing that a classroom teacher can participate in the research community. So many teachers’ voices are silenced in this practice—your work encourages new voices to emerge and that is much appreciated.

To the amazing staff at Peter Lang. Thank you for your expertise and quick responses.

And thanks finally to my husband, Chris, and daughter, Dakota Dawn, for your patience and encouragement. You set aside time for me to journey with my students, write, and research. You understand that teaching is a calling. Thank you.

← x | 1 →·1·


Program Design and Implementation

I’m probably not the only one, but up until not that long ago, no one really saw me. No one got to know me. No one gave a crap who I was or what I was about. Anything. But, in the past year, I’ve met some of the most amazing people and I’ve connected with more people then I ever thought I would have. And I never thought I would trust to tell people the things that I have. Especially this group. It’s hard to talk about the things that hurt you most, but we talk about it and I finally feel that I’m not so alone. Everybody’s unique, but everybody’s so much the same. It’s nice to figure that out. To find that connection.


This student and 75 (rather than 28) others, whose names have been changed to honor privacy, all shared in an experiential education summer school program that was designed and implemented at an alternative school in Minnesota. Students were offered credit in history, English, and science via a course that included an in-depth look at Westward Expansion history. During the three- to four-week course, students traveled from Minnesota to Wyoming stopping at historical sites along the way. The course, which included using restorative justice Talking Circlesa, hands-on learning, and curriculum that centered on human rights and social justice was designed by two other teachers and I because we saw that our students needed to reconnect with learning, with other individuals, and with their communities. Having ← 1 | 2 →worked with youth labeled “at risk” for seven years, I had seen the fall-out of disconnections and loneliness. Drugs, alcohol, neglect, abuse, distrust, violence, criminal activities, truancy, disengagement with school, and feelings of alienation appeared time and time again at my alternative school. Over the course of five summers, 76 students experienced the program. Through qualitative interviews with both students and teachers, and the analyses of journals, it is evident that students experienced transformations in their ideas about race, culture, and historical events, their ideas about relating to others, and their actions and responses toward education.

A History of the Experiential Outdoor Education Program

In order to begin the discussion of what our students learned and what transformational learning occurred it is important to have background knowledge about the program as a whole. Over a four-year period of time, Angel Salathe, Randy Bauer, and I planned a unique learning experience for our alternative high school students. We believed that our students could succeed in school if they had more opportunities to have hands-on learning experiences both inside and outside of our building. We agreed with Herdman (1994) who wrote of Outward Bound experiences at a school in New York State:

Our work with Outward Bound has been called experience-based or experiential education. To some, these terms mean simply learning by doing, but at George Washington we used physical experiences not only to bring students’ academic class work to life, but also as a bridge to a greater understanding of their own lives. (p. 16)

We differed from Outward Bound in some elements, but we did want to foster the following design principles of expeditionary learning Outward Bound:

Although not an Outward Bound program, we wanted to focus on using nature, camping, and history to motivate disengaged youth. For many of our students, the stigma of “failure” in mainstream programs had adversely affected their desire to learn. Many students had been referred to an alternative education site due to truancy, failure to complete work, and a general “lack of motivation.” We began asking students questions, such as, “Would you ever want to actually see the places you read about in history class?” and “Have you ever been camping before? Would you like to try it?” Many students expressed interest and we began planning.

Once funding was gathered from donors, Angel, a history teacher, and Randy, a science teacher, worked with me, an English teacher, to write summer school programming that included an outdoor education travel experience. The first summer, 2003, Angel and I laid the framework for an experiential study of the Lewis and Clark Trail. Students studied topics of history, social justice regarding the Native American perspective, and environmental preservation during a six-week classroom experience. We then left for an eight-day trip that followed the Lewis and Clark Trail as far as the Rocky Mountains. Leaving from Minnesota, we traveled through South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. As instructors during this experience, we observed higher student participation, more detailed journals and more positive group dynamics than in our traditional classes. We also noticed strong bonds forming within our group. Of those eight students, six graduated from high school, three went on to college, one dropped out of school, and one, sadly, died of an overdose.


X, 195
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Social Pedagogy Theory of Teaching Transformative Learning Intercultural Education
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. X, 195 pp.

Biographical notes

Amy Vatne Bintliff (Author)

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 received the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bintliff is a graduate student in Educational Psychology- Human Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Title: Re-engaging Disconnected Youth
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208 pages