Can Do, Can Draw, Can Teach

"To Teach: The Journey in Comics" from Teachers College Press
"Of course teachers should use comics across the curriculum, just as they might use film or poetry or painting. I can’t imagine teaching the Middle East without Sacco, the holocaust without Spiegelman, gender without Bechdel." ~ William Ayers, author of "To Teach"
All comics creators, whether they are visual artists, writers, editors, or comicsmiths have the ability to share through their sequential art. By 'share' I mean that they can communicate thoughts, feelings, ideas, and even specific memories to the reader. It's fitting that this teacher/author you may have never hard of before should cite Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Alison Bechdel as they have all created honest portrayals of their lives in comics memoirs, a somewhat rarer genre of comics, to which Bill Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner have now added their graphic novel "To Teach: The Journey in Comics". For perhaps the first time, a memoir has been adapted from prose (with considerable input from the original author) into the medium of comics.

"The Classic Teaching Memoir... Now also in Comics" is a bit of a strange promotional line, but this is something of a strange project. In 1993, William Ayers wrote a memoir titled "To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher", it was published by Teachers College Press and found such wide success that it eventually received second and third editions and now a sequential art adaptation (TCP has a website here, including a promo video for "To Teach" with both Bill and Ryan). Bill Ayers is not only an author, a brilliant educator, and an education reform activist, he was a founding member of the Weather Underground, making him a former domestic terrorist for peace. Contradictory positions, so it would seem. The artist, Ryan Alexander-Tanner won a Xeric Grant Award to self-publish his comic "Television" #1 in 2oo7 and "specializes in... teaching kids how to make [comics], and teaching grown-ups how to teach [comics]!" (Ryan's website is full of great stuff.)

Teachers College Press put these two like-minded creators back in touch with one another (they had met casually years earlier) and Alexander-Tanner moved in with Ayers and his family for half a year to make this project a reality. They produced the comic through what sounds like a tortuous process: Ayers would condense chapters of his famous memoir down to a few pages, which Alexander-Tanner would read and then sketch images and design sequences that captured the essence of Ayers' original thoughts, requiring more condensing, which then required more cartooning... Ayers has said this in interviews and at an numerous events: "It took a while for me to really get the fact that we were writing an entirely new book, not an illustrated version of something I had already written, and not a floppy gateway drug into the “real” To Teach." Each of the creators Ayers mentions in the quote I started this review with are comicsmiths [my word for creators who take on all steps in the creation of a comic] and therefore have the greatest opportunity to communicate their memories directly to other people just like autobiographers, documentary filmmakers, and singer/songwriters can, but Ayers and Alexander-Tanner have pushed their psyches to adapt a textual work into a graphical/textual work together.

Of "To Teach: The Journey in Comics", all I really need to say for the purposes of review is this: the ideas are important, the writing is sharp, the cartooning is great, and the storytelling fluid. The tension between text and graphic communication in the adaptation process has made for a gap-bridging work.

For these reasons, the number of people I know along the entire spectrum from casual acquaintance to decade-long friend, from comics literati to comics illiterate, and from neophytes to retirees who would get a great deal out of reading this comic is astounding. ANYONE can read this comic.

-Rachel Altvater is a college student whose self-declared ideal career path is "educator and revolutionary". She also likes a good comic every now and again. Ayers' ideas about teaching are revolutionary, not to mention important. Not a bad match.

-Aaron Lebow struggles on a daily basis with abstracts like 'quality of life', 'psychological effects of environment', and 'following your passion' that are dealt with in this comic. He is also, like me, fascinated with different mediums of communication and adaptation methods between them. Reading "To Teach" might help him understand more about himself as a living, thinking human being.

-Rebeka Felicity is a former classmate of mine who just spent the first of two years in a teaching program that will pay for her college education. Unfortunately, her experience has been less than stellar. She has found hostility among her students and a lack of resources in the school in general. She is an avid comics reader and a fellow comicsmith who has already made a comic representing her experiences; a practice this comic both encourages as a tool for recording and evaluating the student's activities and literally does, as it is a comic about Ayers' experiences as a teacher.

-Cory Lally is one-half of a 'caricature entertainment partnership' that goes by the name of The California Boys. He and his friend Jared can whip up a cartoony image in a matter of minutes, and often do so on the streets of Manhattan for free to spread the word about what they offer! Cory and Jared have begun working on a comic together using the 'exquisite corpse' technique. Alexander-Tanner's style is, like Cory's, cartooning: simplified features of reality to create the illusion of animate life. Cory might be surprised, and I hope inspired, to see what someone else is communicating to an audience with the power of the economy of line inherent in cartooning.

-Tim Lewis just started a graduate program in teaching. Guess what one of the assigned readings is? Selections from "To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher" by Bill Ayers. Guess what his new job is? Research assistant for a book on Superman. He's going to be hungry for more and as a busy grad student who enjoys non-fiction comics (I happen to have been present when he bought "Stagger Lee") there is no question that the best thing he could do for himself is to buy himself a copy of Ayers' and Alexander-Tanner's graphic novel.

-David Wise is a retired high school educator and caring beekeeper who is well-read and curious about comics. David has known me for my entire life. Ayers writes that a teacher must be sensitive to differences brought about by environment just like a beekeeper must alter techniques for bees of a different climate. I am sure he would be fascinated to discover the thought of Ayers and enjoy the unique experience of a discussion about his venerable profession in sequential art.

-Not to mention my fellow writers on this blog, Clare (who is considering pursuing a teaching degree after obtaining her undergraduate degree) and Josh (who is well on his way already to becoming a comics scholar)!

"To Teach: The Journey in Comics" is a unique combination: a collaboration adaptation how-to memoir comic. I've said this before, but it's rarely been as true. EVERYBODY should read this comic.

(A copy of this graphic novel for review was obtained at no cost from Teacher's College Press at BookEXPO America.)

~ @JonGorga

P.S. ~ Both quotes from this review are from an interview with William Ayers conducted by our friends at! You can read it here.

1 comment:

  1. Miss Rebeka has been convinced by a read of the first two chapters at a Graphic Summer reading circle yesterday that 'every first year teacher should read this'!