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#vted Reads: Troublemakers with Mike Martin

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In this episode of #vted Reads,

we talk about Troublemakers, a book by Carla Shalaby. We touch on what we’re really doing when we ask our students to code-switch, Black Lives Matter, and the trouble with classroom norms, and we pose the question: ‘How do school systems bestow unearned privilege on some, and un-earned hardship, on others?’ Oh, and we talk about Harry Potter. Naturally.

Anyway. Welcome back to #vted Reads!

Let’s chat.


Jeanie: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Mike: Sure. My name is Michael Martin. I work as a Senior Associate for the Rowland Foundation which is a Vermont based non-profit. I’m also the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District.

Jeanie: Excellent. Well we go way back and so I’ve been really looking forward to having this conversation about this book because I know we both loved it.

Introduce us to the structure of Shalaby’s book. How she uses student stories to frame her thinking.

Host Jeanie Phillips (left) and Mike Martin (right) with a copy of Carla Shalaby's book Troublemakers.

Mike:   Well the thing that I love about this book is the thick description as they say that’s provided through the methodology of portraiture that Shalaby is using. It obviously just immediately draws the reader in.

There are just so many passages where you’re incredibly moved.

There are a few that I remember that were really painful, where there is sort of peer exclusion of some of the students in the story.

I had flashbacks to playgrounds, some of the playgrounds of my youth. Thinking of specific students who were kind of the black sheep and were ostracized by their peers. Feeling like a visceral reaction and blushing and just thinking back and wondering why was it okay for this person to be treated so poorly.

It’s a really powerful book. Everyone that I know has been really moved by it. At the same time, it’s really touching, it’s definitely an appeal to empathy. It really brings out compassion, I think.

When we’re thinking of these individual students as people again instead of as numbers. There’s this incredible human dimension and at the same time, there’s a systems lens that’s applied to the book.

The challenge that Shalaby poses to us is to think of troublemakers as our greatest assets in schools and that’s not how we treat them.

Jeanie: To be clear for those of you who haven’t read the book, Carla Shalaby takes four troublemakers, kids who are identified as troublemakers by their teachers, in really high performing schools with really high-quality teachers and she follows them for I think a year. She’s in their classrooms observing and taking notes, sort of like an anthropologist. And she gets to know their families. She talks to their parents, she goes and visits their homes and she gets to know them in their full lives.

Mike:   I love that you drew attention to that because one thing that jumped out at me is how we don’t tend to think of students as having public and private personae. But that comes through here.

Anybody who’s ever coached a sport or been a co-curricular advisor knows that students, that the way students act in the classroom is obviously very different.

And it just makes you realize what a thin slice of human potential of individuals we’re actually encountering on a daily basis in the strict structures of school. So that really comes through.  I really appreciated that her talent as a qualitative researcher to go deep and to actually find out this family dimension that shed so much light on these individual students.

Jeanie: I think the other interesting thing is that they’re all in first or second grade. They’re really young, and yet this book is entirely relevant to middle and high school situations. Having been a K to Six librarian for a number of years, you talked a little bit about how this book made you – reading these accounts made you uncomfortable thinking of yourself on the playground or in school. And I definitely felt that.

I also felt a little discomfort and shame about my own teaching.

There were things I saw that looking through Shalaby’s lens I could see that I was doing harm now. I didn’t think that I was doing harm then, and so this book was really tender for me.

Mike:   I really appreciate that you said that. There’s actually a passage that – if it’s okay for me to bring this up?

Jeanie: Please.

Mike:   On page 12, where one of the teachers is asking students to develop norms in the classroom. And so at first glance, you think this “Oh, this is great, this is like encouraging student voice and they’re going to decide how they’re going to conduct themselves within this classroom space.” But when we look at some of the norms. I’m on the bottom of page 12 in the book,

Keep the classroom green and clean.

Respect other people.

Respect the materials.


Treat people the way you want to be treated.

They tend to skew towards classroom management needs.

The interesting thing here is at this very young age the students already know what the teacher wants to hear.

So it’s very clear that they’ve been socialized to act a certain way. And there’s actually not room for sort of this human dimension. So when Zora calls out that “comfort somebody” be a norm it’s ignored and doesn’t get taken up.

I totally understand that. From a teacher perspective, we’re thinking about getting through a lesson, we’re thinking about scope and sequence. We may not think that comfort somebody is going to be a norm that’s going to help us really do our jobs. But it really highlights the fact that sometimes when we think we’re incorporating student voice it’s not as authentic as it could be. Also this idea that there are many hidden rules that we enlist students to sort of co-enforce with us.

Jeanie: Yes. There are some powerful passages in the book just about that. And I have to tell you listeners that Mike and I could probably read half of this book to you. It’s so quotable and there’s so much power in this very small concise book. So we’ll try to limit ourselves but it’s going to be hard.

Absolutely, I hear you about how we talk about using student voice. We solicit it but we know what we want to hear.

Are we really allowing students to co-create community and to co-create a sense of space, or are we giving student voice lip service?

Mike:   Right. Well, you mentioned the book Drive, right, by Daniel Pink which has everything to do with intrinsic motivation. I had the great fortune to be at a session with Grant Wiggins and Angela Duckworth. Grant Wiggins was questioning some of her assumptions around grit. One of the provocative questions that he raised was “whose goals are they?” We talk about perseverance towards goals but to what extent are students able to set their own goals or do those goals even have meaning for students.

So this question of motivation or what good behavior means is something that we need to look at with a critical lens.

Jeanie: Absolutely. You read something from the beginning, but I’m going to read something from page 151 from her conclusion. That I think takes this full circle a little bit and allows us to broaden our lens.

If we saw these four children only in school, we might not be able to see them as anything but troublemakers. In school, they are exhausting and tireless, frustrating and challenging. This school identity can seem to be their only identity if we fail to account for who they are in the many other parts of their lives– daughters and sons, martial artists and basketball players, poets and artists, experts and natural learners. The voices of the families in this book– mothers describing their precious and fragile babies in utero, recalling their toddlers’ earliest triumphs and struggles, flipping through photo albums of their most human memories– paint alternate pictures of their children for us to view with reverence and delight.

These alternate images allow us to view children as complex and beautiful human beings rather than caricatures of troublemakers. Their humanness encourages us to try to understand their difficult behavior through a more generous lens– a lens that treats troublemaking as a verb rather than a noun.

I could keep reading because Shalaby’s words are so beautiful and so poignant. But she argues after this section that troublemakers should be signs that we need to stop trying to fix people and to focus on fixing systems. And I want us to put that out there right front and center because I want to be clear that

Shalaby’s intent isn’t to make teachers feel bad for what’s happening in classrooms, but thinking about how we’re all trapped in a system.

What are your thoughts on this as a systemic problem?

Mike:   I really appreciate that. This idea that school is not culturally neutral is not a new one. I’m a pretty big fan of Pierre Bourdieu. He spoke really eloquently to the idea that school does position itself as the neutral arbiter of merit in our society. But it’s not neutral. So it’s really important to see that. And that something comes through really clearly in Shalaby’s book.

To take the example of Zora, there are a different set of values that most people that you would talk to would also think are awesome. Like, stand up for yourself, express yourself. These are things that we claim to encourage in school but it’s hard to do. It’s hard to make that machine run smoothly. The fact that we can see these other sides to students really sheds a light on this systemic problem where school has one set of values that tend to be white and upper middle class.

That immediately puts certain students at a disadvantage depending on their home background.

Jeanie: So Zora, for example, is – her mother is Puerto Rican, her father is African American. Her mom’s an artist, her father wears bowties and loud socks, and they’re really exceptional people. Zora stands out and in fact, she is outstandingly creative and rambunctious. But her teacher is so concerned that she won’t fit in. She says “I don’t want her to stand out as a child of color.” And yet Zora’s whole world is about standing out.

She stands out because she’s a minority in the school which is mostly white. But she also stands out because she’s bright and bubbly and loud and she doesn’t conform to gender norms. So it’s painful for her. School is painful for her.

Mike:   Such a great point.

It’s scary to see how quickly and at what an early age these students are labeled as troublemakers.

Then it becomes a recursive process where they’re going to lean into that role. I love Shalaby’s – the way she puts it is that they’ll tend to sing more – the more that that’s repressed by the systems of school,  the more there’s a tendency to sing more loudly, right?

Jeanie: Yeah.

Mike:   So I really appreciated that. It also reminded me of – there’s this great essay that I think you read at one point by a French philosopher, contemporary, Michel Onfray.

He talks about how our schools look and function like prisons, and how much of school is really about controlling your body.

Not just sort of modes of communication or different norms about how we communicate or even power relationships, but literally controlling your body.

So I’m thinking of like crisscross applesauce. I’m thinking about how long young students are expected to sit on rugs sometimes, and how little opportunity there is for movement breaks sometimes. The first thing that we do when we see people acting out because they probably needed the movement break or mindfulness break is to take away recess.

Jeanie: The thing they need most.

Mike:   Exactly. That comes up a lot.

Jeanie: Even when I’m forced to sit in a high school desk, one that has the desk part attached to the chair, I’m so uncomfortable. I think how do kids do this all day? Following a student for a day is grueling.

Mike:   Right. Everyone that I know who’s –I mean many of them have like graduated from college so in other words, they’ve been able to be successful in traditional academic settings find that grueling.

They find it exhausting to just be subjected to any one of our students’ daily lives and daily routine.

I think that brings us back to this canary in a coal mine idea presented by the author here. Where she’s saying, so the canary in a coal mine, right, is going to show when there is poisonous gas in the mine. It’s going to impact the canary before the miner so they were used by miners as early warning systems for toxicity in the air.

And she’s saying that our troublemakers serve the same function. We should be paying much more attention to them because even if they’re the members of our school community who are suffering the most, that toxicity is still there and impacting other students who are not acting out.

It brings us again back to a question of systems instead of pathologizing. She actually has a great quote if we have time. There’s a quote in the preface. So its Roman Numeral XIX:

Routinely pathologized through testing, labels, and often hastily prescribed medications, these young people are systematically marginalized and excluded through the use of segregated remediation, detentions, suspensions, and expulsions. The patterns of their experiences, especially those of older children, are well documented in what we know about the school-to-prison pipeline. But this pipeline begins disturbingly early. Children as young as two years old are expelled from their pre-schools at an alarming rate– a rate, in fact, that is more than three times higher than the national K-12 expulsion rate, disproportionally impacting children of color to a degree that should sound civil rights alarms. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black preschoolers are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. These little ones are deemed problem people before they even begin kindergarten.


I think it juxtaposes really nicely with this other quote from the end of the book. Because I think they’re both about exclusion and belonging, so I’m going to share this in relation to that and then we can open up a dialogue about it.

By excluding trouble, schools hope to erase it. Schools gain their legitimacy from the appearance of goodness, from the willingness of their students to behave well, to work well, to score well. The hope is to eliminate noncompliance, to make misbehavior disappear, and this requires that “problem children” themselves be rendered invisible.

This certainly affects troublemakers or problem children, right, that we exclude from the system. But it also means every other kid knows there’s a possibility that they could be excluded. That that threat is there. And for me, this is about belonging. I’m reminded really strongly of Parker Palmer who says,

People learn best in hospitable spaces.And if you feel like you could be excluded, it’s not really that hospitable.

Mike:   Such a great point. Thinking about our ability to learn, our ability to listen to other people if we’re in fight or flight mode or if we’re in that defensive stance.

Jeanie: Say more about that, because I think that’s really important. You’re talking about brain-based learning. So do you want to just expand on that a little bit about the fight or flight and how that gets in the way?

Mike:   Well, I think that’s been well documented. I mean whether we’re talking about the new brain research, where that’s so clearly a thing, whether we’re thinking about trauma-informed education and triggers. Whether we’re thinking about how physically constraining school is and what we know about the mind-body relationship. I think those are all kind of showing us that our systems aren’t healthy. That’s really the source of some of this – of students reacting against that and acting out.

Jeanie: I was thinking a lot about culturally sustaining pedagogies and culturally responsive pedagogies where you’re really recognizing the cultures of the students that go there. I know that I have told you that I grew up really working class, working poor and I was really good at school. Because I’m really good at following rules. I learned really quickly.

School always asked me to make a choice between my family’s value system and the school’s value system.

Sometimes that was really painful for me, and sometimes it was in these really obvious ways.

One that I really remember was being in third grade and winning a coloring contest and coming home with a lot of anti-smoking paraphernalia. Like posters, t-shirts, all this stuff to a home full of smoke.

And other things. I would have to hide to read. I love to read but I would have to hide to read. So it’s always asking me to choose. I loved my family, I was well loved but I had to always choose.

I always felt like I was betraying my family when I chose school values.

And I think our kids face that, and even more painful than that, when they’re not good at school or when they can’t even make sense of the values. And when their home values which have value, which are important, these kids in this book are well loved and well cared for. Marcus for example really values community and looking out for each other and that value, he’s stymied by that in school.

Mike:   I’m glad that you brought up Marcus, too. He’s a really endearing example in the book and just displays so many positive attributes and has so much potential. It’s so clearly not being recognized by the school. It’s interesting actually from again going back to Shalaby’s work; it’s interesting that that was only student that she was unable to do a home visit with and for. And I think that is a reflection of the mistrust of how African American families have been treated by many institutions.

So when we think about institutional racism, it’s not just about police.

We need to be holding a really critical lens up to the implicit biases that are perpetuated in public school.

Because public schools are supposed to be for everybody, but we can see there are certain values or certain folks’ values that are really emphasized at the expense of others. That lack of trust on the part of the family, which is clearly a protective urge, and I guess you can say it’s a weak spot in Shalaby’s study because she was unable to have that and she speaks really openly about that and is honest, doesn’t try to hide that at all, I think is really telling.

Jeanie: Yeah. It makes me think too about so many of the schools that I have worked with. They have really struggled with family engagement for certain population of kids. And they are always like, “I send emails, and I send home notes, and we have parent night, and we have parent teacher’s conferences, but some families will never come.” And I think there are some hidden blind spots that we can’t see.

This is a multigenerational problem where certain groups of people have felt really alienated from school.

Where returning to school is really painful and brings back bad memories. And it’s not a place where they feel like they have agency, where they feel empowered, where they feel good about themselves. And that trickles down through their kids and their kids’ kids.

Mike:   Totally. When you think about that, that’s also us, so I’m including ourselves in there as educators.

That’s yet another way we let ourselves off the hook in the work regarding equity.

It’s like, well we sent them the memo and they didn’t come to parent night, so it’s their fault. So now they are at fault. And so again this is like how we pathologies families and perpetuate certain ideas about, “Well, these folks don’t value school.” Well, they do but maybe we need to ask them about how they would like to be engaged in the school? Instead of some of these traditional channels where they may not feel at ease or may not feel like they’re being honored.

Even though we think of school as the great social ladder. That’s how we like to think of school. So school is like the key institution in our meritocracy. If you work hard and you’re nice to people and you do a good job at school, then you’ll have a good life. There’s a promise of social mobility, it’s the American dream.

The relationship between public school and the American dream is very strong.

And yet what we see over and over again when PreK students are being expelled or when we see these four portraits from Shalaby, and how much these students have sort of already hardened into these self-concepts, it’s clear that it’s a systemic approach and that it’s not a case by case or a personality thing.

And so in the preface on what is page XXII, there’s this one passage that really stood out to me, where she writes,

Teachers-in-training learn to punish transgressions because it’s not controversial to be castigated if you misbehave. It is your choice and your fault. This logic is deeply embedded in the American psyche– the nation with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world– and it justifies our decision to throw away young lives by making young people think the fault for that exclusion is entirely their own. It seems impossible to blame a caged bird for its own death in a toxic mine, but we nonetheless manage to do so.

Jeanie:  I love that you’re pulling all of these quotes from the preface because all of my quotes come from the conclusion and they’re like bookends. So I’m going to share one from page 153, that bookends what you just said,

School is generally understood to deliver instructional content to children, arming them with the knowledge and competencies required for a future in the job market. Teachers often believe this work is neutral, shaped by objective standards rather than subjective values. But schools make people. In the everyday work of classrooms, social identities are fomented and cemented in the minds and bodies of young people.

I’m just going to pause to say that the idea that a preschooler could think they are bad before they are age five breaks my heart.

Mike:   I love that quote for a bunch of reasons. Something I think about a lot actually. When we’re thinking about school and its formal curriculum and standards and mission statements, a lot of our mission statements really speak to citizen-making. School is not just training or memorization of facts or skill acquisition, it’s something deeper, the Jeffersonian ideal.

So, Shalaby really shows that we’re not doing a good job on that front. We’re doing it with good intentions, I think. She’s really clear that there are no school administrators and teachers, there’s no malevolence. It’s a systemic problem.

The problem is that we don’t have time to be human because we have to get through the scope and sequence.

And yet as soon as you look at our transferable skills or ends policies of different schools or mission statements, they talk about inclusion, they talk about how we treat each other, they talk about individuals finding their place in a democratic society. But that’s not really what schools do at the end of the day. So it’s what we aspire to. But when we look at what we actually do and how things are structured, it doesn’t lead to that.

Jeanie: I love that you brought up the transferable skills because I work in middle schools and I hear again and again and again from teachers that students don’t know how to be self-directed. Middle school students don’t know how to be self-directed. I also hear students don’t know how to collaborate. And I’m often struck dumb by that. What do we do? How well did we get here? What do we need to do? So we need to teach that. How do we teach that?

This book put that in a different light for me and it made me realize if all were asking elementary school students to do is follow the rules, they’ll never learn to be self-directed.

If all we’re asking them to do is conform to behavior expectations, they’re not going to learn to collaborate. They’re not going to learn freedom as Shalaby calls it, they’re not going to learn independent skills. Some of them will because they’re going to learn it from home or on the athletic field, but not all of them will. And they won’t necessarily know how to apply it in school if they’re never asked to do that.

Mike: Such a great point. I think that Shalaby has a really sympathetic view of teachers who are overwhelmed and experience the frustration because of that inherent contradiction that you just described.  I think that’s really important.

The other thing too is, that, it’s kind of the hidden curriculum piece. What these students are experiencing, it’s not like well, that’s an academic thing. It’s life, it’s their peers, it’s whether it’s how they see themselves as humans. It’s whether or not they feel accepted by different groups.

And so we can really see students starting to interiorize some of these forces that are acting on them. And as Shalaby says, when they are kind of acting out, when they’re making trouble, they’re singing loudly. They’re resisting being forced into compliance mode, into conforming in a certain way, into maybe rejecting their own home culture and the values of their own family.

Being forced to give them up. And so when they’re acting out, they’re pushing back against that.

Jeanie: It’s like inhumane. We don’t recognize it as such, but a lot of what she’s saying is that they’re letting us know that this is inhumane. That these are not conditions in which people thrive. And situations where preschoolers are being expelled, those are not conditions where humans can thrive, I would think.

Mike: Right.

Jeanie: She talks a lot about … you brought up earlier classroom management. She talks about how many books she’d read as a teacher in classroom management, which I found completely charming. Because that’s a struggle for most new teachers. And she says,

“Classroom management” seems a neutral and harmless phrase. But the management of classrooms requires the management of children– which means power over people, control over bodies.

This brought up for me two things that I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last year or so. One is consent.

How do we teach consent if we never ask children for consent?

We force their bodies to do things they don’t want to do against their will. And then also about white supremacy and power and the way in which policing people’s bodies is our legacy from white supremacy, from slavery, from our prison culture. And I wondered if you had any thoughts on either of those things?

Mike: That also, that jumped out at me too.

I was reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ insistence on the black body as something that is mistreated.

But also this desire to control the black body, to commodify it. So that really jumped out at me. This sort of physical control. And even like I was talking with a colleague this week about a practice that exists in some schools which is called bubbles and tails.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, but the way it was explained to me, students moving from point A to point B in the school have to put their hands behind their back. So that’s kind of like the tail. And they have to puff out their cheeks as if they were holding their breath, that’s the bubbles. And so obviously if you’re puffing out your cheeks and holding the air in you can’t talk. So it ensures silence. And the hands behind the back means you can’t get in trouble with your hands.

But obviously, it looks a lot as if you were to march people who were handcuffed down the hall. And you talked about the school-to-prison pipeline.  I mean that’s just this one point, an example that reminded me once again of this book

Jeanie: That is astonishing to me. We depend so much on silence in schools. I was recently in a school working on a battle physics project. And the teacher stepped out to saw some wood. And I was in this classroom with these kids and it was a little loud and I was a little frazzled like,

“Is it okay that it’s this loud?”

I made sure the door was closed and it was really loud. And so I was like, “Okay, take a deep breath, look around.”

Every single student was engaged. Every single student was on task and engaged, productive. And I was like, “What’s your problem, Jeanie Phillips, they’re just loud. Who cares?” They were learning, who cares? And I had to really, I’m not a “shush” librarian. But I like a certain volume. Eventually, I did make a joke like, “Hey, you know what guys; if we all lowered our voices, we’d all be better able to hear each other.” And they kind of laughed and went along with it, but it’s really my problem, not their problem.

And that leads me to this idea of, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Because we don’t behave the way we expect our children to behave in schools and also kids are picking up on all this power and control. And Shalaby goes into it a great deal. Like for example, Zora is really good at calling out other kids’ bad behavior. Because she’s learned it so well by having her behavior called out all the time. And of course, we hate when students do that. But Zora is learning it from the source. She’s learning it from the teacher.

And that brings me back to consent and citizenship and how we are in the world. We’re learning to exert our power over each other even as what we really want in society is for us to have power over ourselves and to respect other people’s power that they have over their own bodies.

Mike: And there’s one part where Zora’s teacher, I think its Ms. Beverly is being interviewed by Carla Shalaby. She’s talking about implicit bias in the school environment and in her curriculum. And so she’s responding to questions about that. She’s saying, “Well, it sort of makes sense because we’re preparing students to be successful in a white-dominated marketplace. And these white upper middle-class values are the ones that are dominant in social settings. And in places of power, where people have power gather.”

I thought that was a really interesting dilemma that the teacher raised. And I was wondering if you had any idea or your own reactions to that. This idea that I’m sure maybe the culture skews a certain way. But we’re actually doing students a favor by preparing them to code switch and navigate the way people of power talk and act.

Jeanie: One thing I would say is, I’m not sure we are preparing students well. Like when you listen to people talk about how students are arriving at college or into the workforce, what we’re hearing is that students aren’t prepared for the kind of work that’s out there. We don’t celebrate people who play by the rules and know how to follow rules. Like when we celebrate like the success of a Steve Jobs, it’s because he broke a lot of rules.

What we really value in our society right now, the thing that’s really hot is creativity, and you’ve got to break a lot of rules to be creative. So I’m not sure that we are doing a service to our students by preparing them in this way.

The other thing I thought about was Paris and Alim who’ve done a lot of work on culturally responsive pedagogies. And I was thinking about something I think that they quoted about Barack Obama, that a good deal of his success politically is because he was able to code switch so well. Because he was able to talk to Iowa farmers. He was able to talk to African American city dwellers, say.  He was able to talk in all these different ways.

We don’t actually teach kids to code switch. We really teach them that the way they talk at home is not okay.

And I am a person like that. The way my family talks is not the way I talk. And I can’t code switch. Like I can’t talk like my family talks because I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. That that didn’t work for me. And I’ve had to unlearn my bias towards incorrect syntax and grammar and see that there is intelligence in the way they talk too.

So I’m not sure that Zora learns to code switch, because she’s in Ms. Beverly’s classroom. I think Zora learns to not like certain parts of herself, to not value certain parts of herself. And Marcus especially learns to not value or like certain parts of himself.

Mike: Just to keep going with that idea. If we were to actually teach students like, “Okay, this is how you navigate Wall Street. Or when you go to college, there’s going to be this dominant culture that’s going to be pervasive. And this is how you deal with that.” I think you’re right. I think it would look very different.

If we were to actually teach students how to code switch or navigate situations culturally, instead of actually punishing them each time that their home culture was at odds with the school culture. That would play out very differently.

Sometimes the rationale for not doing more work around building norms or having strong classroom routines that foster social belonging, that create strong learning communities.  Our excuse sometimes or reasoning for not having time to do that work is that like we’d have to get through the curriculum.

Just to come back to some kind of curriculum things and something that you were asking about earlier with the brain research.

In the proficiency movement, the idea is not to look at what was delivered from curriculum, but what’s being learned. Clearly, if your student is in fight or flight mode, if the student has an oppositional identity to the school that they’re wrestling with that’s going to create enough interference that learning most likely won’t happen.

So, I think more and more we’re seeing teachers who are exasperated given some of our social challenges. Like rising inequality and families where parents are working three jobs, the opioid epidemic. There are these societal challenges that we’re experiencing and they’re finding that they can’t do that traditional approach.

It’s not just one troublemaker that you can kind of write off. Now, you have a significant portion of your class that is not going to be ready to learn. And so do we want to just keep going? I think we’re getting to a place now where we can see that we could never provide enough interventions to address that problem.

And so, kind of the optimistic thing: I’m seeing out of necessity, teachers and schools turning to metacognition, incorporating mindfulness, thinking about resiliency, thinking about trauma-informed practices. And also, thinking about culturally sustaining pedagogy in order to make sure that we’re not disenfranchising our students.

When we think about critical pedagogy, just to go back to our code switching example, if we were to actually say, “What does it look like? What are the norms that—what are our classroom rules?” But to say, “Where do these rules come from and what are the rules in this setting and what culture does that reflect?”

If we were to hold a critical lens up to not just the content in school, but the way we conduct school. Now we’re back to Dewey and “education is life itself.”

And that critical lens is what we always say like, “Kids are bad at critical thinking.” Maybe we should hold the critical lens up to our practices, our content, whose voices are missing from the story. If we were to do that, I think it would greatly strengthen the way our students think and the way they move through the world.

Jeanie: What are we spending our time on? If it’s covering content, they’re not going to be good at critical thinking.

So I know this is going to shock you because you’ve known me for a long. I think it’s going to surprise you because I’m the big collaborative practices person. I’m a big norms person, but I’ve gotten really skeptical of norms. And the reason is that norms often sustain privilege. We make norms. Sometimes a norm will be…we’ll talk about norms as a place to keep everybody safe.

But safety itself is a privilege and some people move through the world never feeling safe.

And so it just serves to make some people continue to have privilege and other people not. And so I’m thinking about classroom norms that way. Who do they privilege?

Gorski asked this question that I sit with all the time: How do systems, how do school systems, bestow unearned privilege on some and unarmed hardship on others? I think it is.

And that’s a powerful question because norms often do that. I was a kid who could sit still and so that rule or that norm in a classroom, being able to sit still, it’s something I could do. My sister, my son could not.

Mike:   So, I love that you brought that up. I’d also gently push back on that because you’re such an expert of collaborative practice, you’re holding a really rigorous criteria or evaluation of how equitable those norms are. I’ll just share that, kind of going the other way with that idea that I found that oftentimes, I think you and I have talked about this, the folks that hate following the protocol the most are white males or folks who are in a position of power or are able to derail meetings with their privilege, et cetera.

Another thing I think with norms if we’re thinking about wait time, sometimes, there’s an inclusiveness there, where we’re giving people who need processing time or code switching time. We’re building that into the system hopefully a little bit.

There are norms that I’ve noticed are, as I’ve gotten a little more into some of the equity literacy work, definitely some norms that are problematic and that do protect the status quo.

Jeanie: Such as?

Mike:   Well, so, “speak your truth” is a great one.  I don’t think that that always honors the difference between intent and impact. So, everybody can just say whatever while paying no attention to the impact, then that’s problematic. That’s just one example.

Jeanie: I think that we could meet in the middle and say norms are important in a classroom but interrogate them and figure out who are they serving? Are they bestowing privilege on some people who maybe haven’t earned it? Are they making trouble for the kids who maybe haven’t earned that trouble either?

Mike:   If I could just say too that, just by making norms transparent, we’re already holding a critical lens up.

So I think that just that in and of itself has value. By saying, “Okay, here are the norms.” And then they’re up there for us to critically examine. So, just that, taking that first step is already important.

Jeanie: Yeah. I absolutely agree because there are so many norms that are invisible to us that we just know to conform to because of our station in life.

Mike:   Right. Going back to the book here, that’s what she shows is really pernicious, is that there are all these assumptions about how things are supposed to work that are never examined and then people are victims of these assumptions.

Jeanie: Yes, absolutely. So, let’s do return to the book because it’s not all bleak folks. Actually, she does not give answers and she’s really clear about that. But she does give… she does ask us to think differently in a way that just really resonated with me.

She asks us to think about how to be love in our classrooms and it reminded me of a book I adore On Being by Krista Tippett. I’m sorry, On Being is the podcast, the book is called Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett and she describes love as  muscular. She’s sort of thinking about love, not a Valentine’s love. We are coming up on Valentine’s Day here, but love the way John Lewis describes it as the heart of the civil rights movement.

Love as a social good.

I think one of the reasons that resonates for me is because truthfully, I showed up to school because I loved my students.  It wasn’t okay to say that out loud. You would never tell somebody I love my students, but I did and they still tug at my heart even though I haven’t been at a school in a couple of years. But I run into students and it warms my heart to see them. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think most teachers have that experience.


And so, Shalaby asks us really to think about being love and to turn toward a loving way in our classrooms. And it’s not a fix for systems, but she’s saying there are systems in place that make it hard for us to do this, but we can in our classrooms turn toward a loving way.

She asks teachers to “discuss the meaning of freedom and the rights and responsibilities of free people.”

And isn’t that what we want for citizens? And to “present problems of freedom that are common in classroom life, and practice how we might respond” to them. So this is like treating your classroom like a democracy. Taking the time to problem solve together.

And I think that sounds really onerous at first but I think kids can get really good at it. And how will they get good at solving those kinds of problems unless they have that opportunity?

Mike:   That’s really great. I really appreciate the way you just put that.

It sounds like just reconnecting with our mission statements.

Jeanie: Yeah, right. She goes on to talk about identifying “a human need that the behavior may be signaling and decide together on a way you will all try to meet it.” And I think about my own son who was a little bit of a troublemaker and so often, I think he was bored and it was a way to feel something.

Learning is really emotional, learning is social and we learn best, I think when we feel good or we feel outrage and we want to do something. And so I think often he got in trouble as a way to alleviate his boredom and to make connection with somebody. It wasn’t positive connection with the teacher but with his peers. And so thinking about what’s the need behind the class clown behavior. Zora’s also a class clown.

Mike:   Feeling something is better than feeling nothing, right?

Jeanie: Yeah.

Mike:   And so even if it’s confrontational, even if it’s antagonistic, even if it’s going to get you in trouble, that’s still better than just excruciating boredom and flatlining.

Jeanie: Yes. It’s a self-medication of sorts.

So, as somebody who works at a system level, what are you seeing the implications of Shalaby’s research and her idea of teaching kids freedom?

Mike:   It just reminds me, with a number of schools around the state of Vermont raising the Black Lives Matter flag.

Usually, at the behest of their students. Some of the conversations I’ve heard, some of the concerns I’ve heard are, “We have to keep politics out of school.” Or “Well that’s not really the school’s business to talk about matters such as these.” And of course, it is.

Again, let’s go back to our mission statement to talk about contributing members of the democratic society or all students will contribute to their local and global communities.

All of our mission statements speak to the democratic mission of school and yet our curricula all just speak to skill acquisition and covering facts without critical examination of whose facts are they.

Going back to Wiggins’ motivation question of whose goals are they that I’m working so hard towards.

So, I’m optimistic about some of the things that I’m seeing. Some of them are subversive. They’re pushing back against these systems and are very messy. Most often they’re in pockets. So that we see people working really hard to fight the inertia of these school structures in order to bring out student voice and choice and figuring out a way to make sure that we’re not losing rigor, but we’re actually bringing more rigor to the learning. That makes me really optimistic.

But, at the end of the day, again, going back to the Dewey quote, “It’s not preparation for life, it’s life itself.” Our students, our students of color, are hearing this. They’re part of this conversation. They experience microaggressions. They get followed by the store detective when they go into a store. And they are going to see their parents pulled over for driving while black. They are going to get the talk from their parents about how to comport themselves in school, with police, in various situations.

To pretend that school is just like, “Well we don’t do those conversations,” is turning our back not just on the democratic mission but on students.

And I think that comes through really loud and clear in the book.

I’d love to go back to this idea of love and an optimistic note. I would just say that caveat, I think I would put out, is that this book is inspiring. Nobody that I know has read this book and not been uplifted. And at the same time it felt like, wow, okay. I am…

Jeanie: Also challenged.

Mike:   … also definitely challenged. But, I appreciate the fact that you’re saying that this is not a pessimistic view. It’s a hopeful one. This idea that there is something you can do. This idea of the love construct, the love table at the end of the book really speaks to me to teacher agency.

We know from very small micro-interventions and very small exchanges that we can have like a disproportionate effect on our students that we often don’t see for better, and for worse.

And so I think if a teacher were reading this book and say, “Yeah, it’s so depressing” or “Yeah, see, it’s a system. There’s nothing I can do. I’m just a brick in the wall, a cog in the wheel, whatever.” I would say, well, no, talk to anybody about how they went into their major, how they became an English major or a Math major. There was a somebody who encouraged them at some point. There was somebody who said, “You’re good at this.” Regardless of the endeavor, at some point somebody they respected and admired said, “You’re good at this”, or “Let me show you how to do this.”

And as radical an idea as it is to put love into the equation, that’s exactly where teachers derive their power from.

And so we can study curriculum until the cows come home. But kind of like Harry Potter’s super mega magic power, which was love, same thing for teachers.

I think that Shalaby really shows that the systems, the struggles that these systems provoke, chew up teachers as much as they do kids. And so we see teachers really struggling with these troublemakers. And as it relates to engagement, I think so often the idea for teachers when we talk to teachers about this sort of thing, teachers are like, “Well, how can I do 95 different lesson plans to engage every learner and there are many backgrounds?”

Really the simple solution is to ask students what they need, what they’re interested in. When we do that, teachers who have kind of had that breakthrough report a really huge mind shift.

Jeanie: What I hear you saying and what I truly believe is that a more humane system for students is also more humane for educators.

Mike:   Yes. Thank you.

Jeanie: I want to say a sincere thank you, for sitting down and helping me think more deeply about Shalaby’s four students and her proposition that we be love in our schools. And thinking more deeply about Vermont, the landscape of Vermont Education. Thanks so much Mike.

Mike:   Thank you Jeanie.

Jeanie: Such a pleasure.

I’m Jeanie Philips and this has been an episode of #vted Reads, talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading. Thank you to Mike Martin for appearing on the show and talking with me about Troublemakers. If you’re looking for a copy of Troublemakers, check your local library. To find out more about #vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarraninstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.