Illustrating The Journey: An Interview With William Ayers

William Ayers smallWilliam Ayers is an author, educator, and social justice activist. A Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he has published numerous articles and books on teaching and social justice, including To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (released through Teachers College Press), which mixed Ayers' accounts of his classroom experiences with observations on the skills and actions necessary for quality teaching. Recently, Ayers teamed with artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner to create To Teach: The Journey in Comics (978-0-80775-062-9, $15.95), a graphic novel adaptation of his book.

Diamond spoke with Ayers to discuss the process of bringing To Teach to graphic form.

What drew you to teaching?

I'd never really considered teaching until it snuck up on me, and captured me when I wasn't paying attention. I was 20 years old in 1965, living in Ann Arbor, and returning to the University of Michigan from a stint in the Merchant Marines. The US invasion of Viet Nam was escalating, and in October, in the midst of growing conflict and protest, I was one of 39 students who sat-in and disrupted the local Selective Service office. I was jailed for 10 days, and there I met a fellow anti-war activist who was involved in a small freedom school affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement. I walked out of jail and into my first teaching position and everything—the kids, the sounds and smells, the energy and the rhythm—felt somehow just right. From that day until this teaching has been linked in my mind to the long and never-ending struggle to create a more peaceful, just, and balanced world.

What inspired you to make a graphic novel of the book? What was the aim of presenting To Teach in this form?

To Teach smallI'd read comics all of my life and even used graphics in my college teaching, so I'd like to say the inspiration leapt full-blown from my head, but the truth is a little more wobbly. I was asked by my publisher to do a third edition of a book of essays that I'd written over 15 years before, and the thought of it bored me, so I responded glibly that I would do it if they would let me do it as a comic book. That was meant to end the conversation and finish the matter, but a month later they said OK, and the journey began. I never thought I would be involved in writing a graphic novel, and I'm still a bit surprised and elated by the whole thing.

What value do you see in using graphic novels in school? Have you used graphic novels in your own teaching?

The value is simply that graphic novels are part of the wildly diverse, wacky, and rich gumbo of our culture. If you were teaching a history class today on the Holocaust in Europe, you would mobilize memoir (Ann Frank, Elie Weisel) essay (Hannah Arendt, Thodore Adorno), and film (Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity) to help students get a deep and meaningful, nuanced and complex picture of the entire sweep of the times and events. To leave out Maus would be to banish a fresh and intimate work that adds immeasurably to our overall understanding of the Holocaust.

Dykes to Watch out For is an essential text if you hope to understand the Clinton/Bush years. On and on and on: teachers integrate poetry and literature, art and science, film and painting into everything they teach. Why not comics?

I teach a writing class on memoir, and I use Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Epileptic along with Homage to Catalonia and Black Boy. Students respond variously, but I would be irresponsibly narrowing their horizons if I left out the comic books.

What was the collaboration process with Ryan Alexander-Tanner like? Was it difficult to translate To Teach into a graphic novel format?

When we went looking for a comic artist, my publisher had a lot of more established folks in mind, but I remembered that my younger brother had had a student in high school who handed in a lot of stuff in comic form — quirky, original, irreverent. The kid had gone off to art school, and was living in Portland. We connected, and it was pretty much love at first sight. He moved to Chicago, and lived with us for several months while we worked on the project.

I thought that the process would be straight-forward: he would illustrate the existing text. It took me a while to understand that that was not going to happen—no way. We had to write an entirely new book, a fictionalized account that captured the main ideas of the original essays, but now with characters and plot, a beginning and an end, tension and drama and resolution. The novel opens with the story of a young teacher stepping into his first classroom on the first day of school, experiencing the distinct sensation of drowning, and then struggling to swim, unsteadily at first, to a distant but reachable shore. By the end of the book he has become a teacher of some substance and certain purpose.

For me our process involved learning when the drawings can do the work and when the words would carry the weight. I had to understand that the original could be recast as a story, and I had to learn the power of concision and compression. Ryan really is kind of a genius, not just as an artist, but as a writer and as a teacher as well; he taught me a lot in this process, and together we created a world within a classroom with all its messiness and burgeoning ideas, its academic demands and social convolutions.

Looking at the finished product, a comic book about teaching seems somehow just right to me now—the intimacy of classrooms, the aesthetic and the feel of being an educator, the challenge and the joy, the pain and the promise—all of it tough to describe, and represented here with a distinct immediacy. We try to offer a pathway into the ineffable, relying neither on words nor images, and not mashing pictures onto words, but a third thing altogether with its own opportunities and demands—words and images working together in a dance of representation and meaning.

It seems like teachers' jobs are becoming more difficult, and there seems a definite pressure to do more with less. What do you think teachers can do to cope with this situation?

Organize, link up with their natural allies (parents and students) and fight back! This involves in the first place changing the frame of the discussion.

The noisy proponents of market competition in public education have managed to push their ideas onto the agenda by the force of their wealth, certainly not based on any moral persuasion or even the results that their schemes have produced. But the project continues, because it is faith-based and fact-free. We need to challenge the freight train with evidence and argument and a vision consistent with our deepest democratic dreams.

In a school focused on the needs and dreams of the broad community, we would be inspired by fundamental principles of democracy, including a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being. We would rally around the idea that the full development of each is the condition for the fullest development of all, and conversely that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each. One implication of this principle is that in a truly democratic spirit, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their kids—that is exactly what we as a community want for all of our children.

Imagine a school or a classroom where asking, framing, and pursuing their own questions becomes the central work of both teachers and students; where the question of what is worthwhile to know and experience is taken up as a living challenge to focus all student activity; where we would practice participatory democracy; where all the themes, implicit and explicit, are built on a foundational idea that we are swirling through a living history, that nothing is guaranteed or foreordained, that we are, each and all of us, works-in-progress swimming shakily toward an uncertain and distant shore; and where every day we act out the belief that the classroom, far from being a preparation for life, is indeed life itself. Building community and trust and traditions and engagement would then become central lessons of a successful school.

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