Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: To Teach: The Journey, in comics

 Greatness in teaching engages students, interacts with them, draws energy and direction from them, and offer reasons to plunge into classroom life.  Greatness in teaching is always in pursuit of the next challenge, the next encounter… greatness demands an openness to the new and the unique.  For great teachers, it must always be, ‘Here I go again.’

Bill Ayer’s reworking of his book, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics is a wonderful, inspiring read, reworked into a comic medium (don't call it a genre) with illustrator Ryan Alexander-Tanner.  One can only imagine the twists and turns of Ayer’s journey from being on the FBI’s wanted list as a member of the Weather Underground during the height of anti-Vietnam protests to being a kindergarten teacher and now professor or education.

I first met Mr. Ayers when he keynoted the Humboldt State University inaugural Education Summit.  As part of the organizing committee under my then-mentor Eric Rofes, I was gifted with hours of conversations with Mr. Ayers over breakfasts and dinners.  He is an amazing storyteller and a wonderful teacher.

Most of the story is about Bill thinking about teaching and about how his children learn.  There are great stories about exploration, creativity, perseverance, and wonder. 

Sprinkled through out are vignette from other teachers that Bill clearly admires.  One such story talks about an elementary school teacher who has her class fill up a bookshelf every year as they learn about something that she, the teacher, knows nothing about.  Together the teacher and the students become co-learners, exploring where their collective curiosity leads them.

Another story is about a high school teacher who is trying to “teach a really good kindergarten class with 18-year-olds.”  In this story, we learn about how scary it is to allow students to control the learning environment, and how rewarding it can be.

Periodically the “specialists” form the central office show up in Bill’s classroom to explain to Bill how his children should be labeled as deficient or “at risk” and what standards he should be covering with his kindergartners.  When they leave, Bill jumps upon his soap box to talk about how the standards movement, and it’s enforcers, get in the way of the very human relationship that is teaching and learning.  After one such meeting, when his children are diagnose as ADHD, learning deficient, and “at risk” he states, “Focusing on what I can’t do diminishes hope and limits possibility.  It pays no attention to what I can do.” 

When the “specialist” leave, one of Bill’s children asks, “Are they coming back?”  When Bill answers in the affirmative, the child speaks with what many teachers may agree is their own voice…  “They’re weird.”

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