Itwas in the 2008 presidential election that Bill Ayers achieved notoriety as awould-be spoiler—the terrorist Barack Obama was supposedly palling around with.This eye-brow raising recognition stretches back to his days in the activistgroup, The Weather Underground, which saw Ayers and his cohorts conducting abombing campaign in protest of the Vietnam War.
In the following decades, though, Ayers has been a teacher, awriter, a crusader for social justice and an advocate for progressive ideas inthe field of education—a role that has won him praise from the mainstream worldhe once fought against. His 1993 book To Teach:The Journey of a Teacher will be reborn in a new format this May-as a graphicnovel adaptation from the original publisher, Teachers College Press, whichAyers wrote in collaboration with Xeric Award winning cartoonist RyanAlexander-Tanner.
Ayers advocates for a form of education that downplays standardstesting and focuses on the student as a three-dimensional human being,supported by a curriculum that plays to the students' strengths and interests.Ayers also believes that a teacher should be viewed less as an authority figureand more as the students' fellow traveler, with as much to learn from theirexperiences as they do from the teacher's guidance.
Ayers offers a vision of a collaborative classroom in whichcritical thought and alternative sources of knowledge are advocated and theultimate goal is good citizenship in the form of an active and thoughtfulindividual. His book should captivate not only teachers and educationadministrators, but parents, as well.
A long-time comic book fan, Ayers credits his early love, Mad Magazine, as "the reason the countrywent off the rails." His favorites include Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel, and ArtSpiegelman, all of whom he uses in his education work as well as reads for hisown enjoyment.
PWCW: Why a graphic novel? Itdoesn't seem like an obvious choice for a book on educational theory.
Bill Ayers: To Teach is a book I wrote a decade anda half ago, and in my little world of teaching and teacher education it's beena very popular book used in a lot of teacher preparation programs. TeachersCollege Press approached me and said that it's still doing very well, but weshould update it, we should do a third edition, and to me that's the waypublishers think. I had already moved on and written several other books andwhile I know To Teach has a certainkind of standing in that little world, I just felt like it was something Ididn't want to do. I had too many other projects and I had already done it. Isaid to them that I'll do it if you allow me to make it a comic book and Ithought that would be the end of it.
I just said that to them to push them back and thoughtthat's the end of it. A month later they came back and said sure, let's do it.Then it became intriguing to me and I thought, gee, what does one do?
I searched around and found this young comics artist.He was my niece's roommate in Portland, and I knew him very, very vaguely. Hehad been a student of my younger brother who was a high school teacher inBerkeley, CA. I contacted him and found his web site and then I checked withthe experts, who are my three sons and who, at that point, were in their late20s and I said to look at this web site and tell me what you think of this guybecause I don't have a critical brain in my head about stuff like that. Theycame back with wild enthusiasm and said he's young, but he's got a style andhe's creative, he's smart. So I contacted him and we began talking, and hebecame intrigued with the idea. He moved in with us in Chicago and spent sixmonths living on the third floor.
PWCW: What was the actual process ofadapting it? Which one of you took the lead ?
BA: When Ifirst got enthusiastic about it, I thought that what would happen is that Ryanwould illustrate what I'd already written. It took me several weeks of workingon it and it took Ryan, I think, extra energy to teach me that actually writinga graphic novel is not an illustrated essay. It's a very different enterpriseand I had no idea that was true. I thought I had the easy part. The easy partwas that I'd give him the book, he'd read it three times, and then he'd drawsome pictures of it, and nothing like that happened ever.
I was stunned to be drawn into basically writing anovel. I'd never done anything like it. Certainly the ideas are there, butthey're there in a uniquely different format, with character, with plot, withnarrative arc, all those things you need to drive a story like that forward.The rhythm of his day is to be up all night and go to bed about six, and therhythm of my day is to get up about four and go to bed around 10, so we had acouple of overlaps of space where we could work, either early in the morning orlate afternoon, early evening. Typically, I would write some stuff and he wouldbegin to do some conceptual work with it, and we would talk about what'sworking and not working.
The interesting thing to me was that what I saw asterribly important in terms of description or words or an argument or someevidence that I had in a textual way, he'd in some sense render with just aquick picture, so all the descriptions I did of people were irrelevant, they didn'tmean anything. He could do it with a few minutes of sketching. I would describea classroom in great depth and he would draw a picture, and most of my wordswould fall away. The dance between us was figuring out when the pictures coulddo the work, and when the words had to do the work. It was really, for me,quite a revelation.
Now when I read comics, which I do all the time, I readmuch more the way he reads comics, which is as a peer, as somebody who is notconsuming the comic, but is figuring out how that writer, how that artist madethat decision. I'm much more critical at the same time; I think I have a muchdeeper appreciation for how complex and how really brilliant the work can be.It can also fall flat like anything.
PWCW: This was a revelatory creativeexperience for you.
BA: I amabsolutely smitten with it. I want to do more. I've got a couple of books in mymind that I'd like to think of graphically.
PWCW: Has working on a graphic noveladded to your views of using them in education?
BA: It'sfunny, because I think or I hope I have a deeper and more complicated and morecritical sense of how one could use them, but I teach teachers, and I've taughtteachers for the last 25 years, and from the beginning I've always had a daywhere I bring in my comics collection. There are two reasons for it. One isbecause I was a comic book person. I think when one sets an environment inmotion, one sets a classroom up and gets it moving, one thing you should do isaccount for the comics nerds. You should account for everybody, but one cornerof your classroom is going to be kids who read comics or kids who want to writecomics, and you have to accommodate them. My fundamental stance is that youhave to respect the people walking in the door and create an environment thatwill embrace everybody - and also challenge everybody. You should challengeeverybody who comes in. Some of those kids who come in are going to be comicbook people.
The second reason is that if you're teaching juniorhigh and high school, I think that the content of all kinds of comics isfocused on adolescence. And I don't just mean adolescent taste, I mean theexperience of being a teenager. Think of Spider-Man. Spider-Man is a nerd,Peter Parker is a nerd, and he got bit by something that's mysteriously andweird, and uncontrollably he changes and stuff happens. His body changes. Inhis regular life, he's kind of a normal, nerdy, plain nothing, but in hisSpider-Man life he's strong, he's heroic, he's perfect, he's muscular. It'sthat transformation that's absolutely the central theme of being a teenager. Iwas a teenage werewolf - suddenly there's hair where there was no hair before,and suddenly I have vicious feelings and uncontrollable urges and holy crap,what could be more adolescent than that, it's the developmental statement. Notonly allowing kids but encouraging kids to read and write comics is a way forthem to gain control over what at times seems beyond them, beyond their abilityto either understand or manage.
PWCW: You were working on the bookwith Ryan as the 2008 election unfolded, so you're in this period of excitingcreative exploration and at the same time you're being thrust into the nationalspotlight and being given some forced notoriety - how did that effect your work?
BA: Theexperience was somewhat surreal, but I've never, ever in my life - and theolder I get, the more this is established - read about myself. I don't read myclippings, so I was not as aware, for example, as my children were, about howbig it had become until I was stopped in the street by somebody or until I sawmyself on Saturday Night Live or I was a butt of a Colbert joke. I don't watchthe media, I don't follow blogs about me, and if I did I think I would drivemyself absolutely nuts. In some ways I think of all the people who might havebeen caught up in this madness, I was sort of well prepared for it because it'salways been true of me since I was 20 years old. I know who I am and I don'ttake seriously the views of who I am - neither the praise, nor the blame.
I didn't feel as insane as one might imagine watchingit from the outside. I got a lot of death threats and hate on the one hand, andI got an extraordinary amount of love and support. I've probably taught 3,000students in my life and thousands of them checked in. People would write mefrom the center of Nebraska saying, "I'm having arguments all the time with myfriends and family about you and it's crazy." It was okay, it was a little bitcrazy.
For Ryan, it was more of a roller coaster, because hehad never seen anything like it. We'd be at the grocery store together andsuddenly we'd be attacked by a Fox news team and he was just, "Whoa, this isjust incredible, what's going on?" But also, Ryan was here when we watched thefuture president vote 20 feet from us at the school across the street from ourhouse, and what a historic moment to be here in Grant Park, and the election,to be caught up in that swirling, good feeling, and in a society we all wish welived in but only happens once in a while. ß This previous sentenceI can't quite parse. I made an edit but I'm not sure if it was true to thespirit of the thing. That convergence the night of the election waselectrifying, and Ryan was part of that and I was part of that.
PWCW: He should write his owngraphic novel about the experience of creating this one.
BA: Absolutely.In fact, I think he might.
PWCW: The core of your bookaddresses a disconnect between adults and youth, and asks adults to look back alittle bit and think about how they wish they had learned.
BA:Absolutely, and I think in a funny way, most of us do learn in spite of schoolin an organic, integrated way like I'm describing. I think if you get outsideof the box called school and you ask yourself what were my passions when I was6 or 8 or 10, what did I care most about and how did I learn it, one of theinteresting things, and this is true of kids in all kinds of circumstances,it's the example in the book of the skateboarding kid, that's been myexperience all through my teaching. You have a kid who looks a certain way onthe surface and then you follow him two minutes into his lived life and he notonly has competence and capacity, but he has passion and interest and eagernessand the willingness to work hard.
I'm sitting here in the south side of Chicago and I'mlooking towards the lake where there's a basketball court. That court fills uphours and hours and hours a day. They don't have any adult supervision and yetsomehow, astonishingly, they not only play the game, but they play it peace,they play it with cooperation, and they play it again and again and again. Theyhave a passion there. Why can't an English class look like that? What's wrongwith us that we as adults can't create the conditions where kids want to be apart of it and want to learn the skills, and where a range of skills areaccepted on the court, in the class, and everyone is being challenged andeveryone is being recognized, and everyone is following his or her bliss. Howdo you do that? Well, it's the most complicated and demanding and energizingand frustrating and awe inspiring thing one can do.