Monday, February 16, 2015

To Teach: The Journey In Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner


We get a lot of Divinity School students -- folks studying to become ministers -- over at church. One day it came up in conversation that I draw comics, and one of our members mentioned how one of his divinity school friends was reading a graphic novel in their class. I HAD to know what it was. What kind of graphic novel would they be reading in divinity school?? Fortunately the school mate was visiting that day, and I immediately sought him out, introduced myself and asked what the book they were reading in class was, and he told me "To Teach: the journey, in comics".

Kind of an essay, with a little bit of memoir, To Teach is a book written by a teacher for those who love to teach and have the heart to learn how to serve those who wish to learn. It's quite simply, a beautiful little book. The writer is a kindergarten teacher -- and the story pours from the perspective of a person who really enjoys the process of teaching little ones, big ones, and himself.

On his first day of school Ayers is peppered by the questions of his 5-year-old students: "Why is the sky blue?" "Why does the ball bounce?" "Why is your skin pink and mine brown?" "Why did my dad have to go to war?" The questions are the moment. The questions are what we ask, what we want to know ... it's what makes teaching so beautiful, irritating, magical, exhausting, energizing ... it doesn't matter that these are five-year-olds asking -- they have the same questions we all do, at every age. And Ayer's big question is: "What is a teacher and what is teaching?"

Yes. "What is a teacher and what is teaching?"

Is teaching giving extra help to the child who is in need? Labeling the kid who doesn't act quite the same as everyone else? Is it debasing individual kids into piles of faceless national percentiles of abilities and achievements? Is it applying standardized tests to children who are not standard, because there really can't be just one standard across a country as large and as varied in its makeup as America (which is kind of the very point of her? Yes, I did just have a soapbox moment there. My apologies. Back to the book.)

Reading/seeing Ayers face school system bureaucrats who don't understand about students' growth, who don't get that the constant interruption of a school-wide intercom can be really CREEPY and see them interfere with methods that work because they just "don't understand" because they weren't taught that way (oh yes, the irony, right?) was nail-bitingly frustrating.

I LOVED the journey of this graphic novel. It is an adaptation of a textbook Ayers had written -- but I think it fits the graphic novel format wonderfully. It is a thoughtful reflection on the process of teaching and becoming better at it. And it's adorably drawn by Ryan Alexander-Tanner.

Chapter 7 opens with a terrific quote I will share in part here:

"Teaching is the vocation of vocations, a calling that shepherds a multitude of other callings. It is an activity that is intensely practical, and yet transcendent, brutally matter-of-fact, and yet fundamentally a creative act."

I think that's a rather lovely observation.

 

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