To Teach: The Journey, in Comics

To Teach: The Journey, in Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner (Teachers College Press, $15.95 trade paper, 9780807750629/080775062X, May 1, 2010)

The eight chapter titles of To Teach, including “Seeing the Student,” “Creating an Environment for Learning” and “Liberating the Curriculum,” are by no means misleading–they promise a serious assessment of trends in contemporary education, which William Ayers delivers with passion and authority. But the buttoned-up chapter titles don’t really prepare us for the fact that the text (mostly dialogue balloons) and artful cartooning within each chapter are anything but dry and abstract. Using arresting visuals and snappy design for this graphic memoir, Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner succeed in setting the principles from the bland chapter titles spinning with wit and animate concepts you might have worried would be dull. The result is education at its best: you learn and have fun, too.

Alexander-Tanner’s style is especially well-suited to illustrating the contrasts between his own and Ayers’ senses of humor. Alongside Ayers’s discussion of designing the right kind of creative environment, Tanner slips in a visual of his own workspace (in which he also lives): mothers will wring their hands and weep at the chaos and filth that he regards as heaven. And when Ayers proclaims a key point in bold type (“Labelling students has become an epidemic in our schools… [and] suppresses possibility”), Tanner’s cartoon snarkily places him on an upside-down soapbox. Ayers, with self-deprecating humor, loves the joke on himself. Their collaboration here radiates sweet good feeling throughout.

The presentation of Ayers’s ideas in the medium of a graphic memoir is so engaging that many may miss how innovative his thinking is unless we recall our own educational experiences, when exciting classes and great teachers were the exception and boring classes, uninspired instruction and clocks whose hands never seemed to move were the norm. The approaches that Ayers advocates spring not from theory but from the real-world experience of many teachers who strive to create classrooms for active learning. “All teachers must become students of their students,” he proclaims in his call for observing each child as an individual in the classroom; one size does not fit all when it comes to learning.

“We all have lots of things we’re good at and other things we’re learning to do better,” he tells his students in one frame that emphasizes the pluses rather than the minuses. “As long as I live, I am under construction,” he assures us when he invites the rest of us to join in the same kind of continuing adventure.–John McFarland

Shelf Talker: An innovative educator’s graphic memoir that is as sweet, smart and sassy as it is inspiring.

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