Skip to content

Composition Forum 23, Spring 2011

Ayers, William and Ryan Alexander-Tanner. To Teach: The Journey, In Comics. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010. 128 pp.

Bookmark and Share

Jessica Restaino

William Ayers sets our expectations high as he introduces the return of his 1980 teaching memoir, now envisioned through cartoonist Ryan Alexander-Tanner’s comic-strip renderings: “I thought we were simply combining words with pictures, but that marriage gives birth to a third, all-new form—sequential art and a dazzling dance of the dialectic” (xiv). In fact, Ayers’s words are profoundly correct: each page of this book is bound up in a tension between the deceptive simplicity of Alexander-Tanner’s cartoon images and the vacillating nature of Ayers’s language about teaching, which settles neither on passionate abstraction nor grounded practicality, but instead buzzes back and forth, cognizant of the inadequacy of either pole in isolation. The end result is a restless, eager, anxious work, one that points menacingly at the big picture while it also celebrates the “smallest” triumphs, one student and one teacher at a time.

Ayers is clearly aware of the most haunting and most ambiguous problems that face teachers and schools, the ones for which only large scale reform seems to be the answer. At times, To Teach seems to live comfortably with this awareness, shifting from broad educational problems to in-class problem-solving. At these shifts, I found myself restless as a reader, as if the overarching issues were traded in for microcosmic stories about those exemplary teachers who, despite the crushing realities, excel anyway. But as I read I found that Ayers always returns to remind us that things are never simple, never just as they appear on the surface, and that daily triumphs are just as necessary for school reform as major policy initiatives. To Teach is the story of Ayers’s first year in the classroom, where he found himself “struggling just to keep my head above water” before morning’s end on his first day (2). On that chaotic first day, Ayers frames his initial—and perhaps most enduring—questions, “What is teaching, and who is a teacher?” (2). From this point of departure, the book takes on popular myths about teaching, contends with the realities teachers face (like low pay and absent classroom resources), and offers anecdotes from Ayers’s experience, portraits of exemplary teachers, and models for practice and reform.

Early in the book, Ayers partly attributes teaching’s “low status” to a “legacy of sexism,” explaining that teaching “is largely women’s work, and it is constantly being deskilled, made into something to be performed mechanically” (9). Here I found myself instantly restless, eager for Ayers to somehow debunk the association, the still-relevant fact that the high representation of women in teaching sustains its lower status. Instead, in the pages that follow, the next two teachers who are actually named in mini vignettes—in addition to Ayers himself and one of his sons, Malik—are both men, Kevin Sweeney and Avi Lessing. Here we see Ayers make this characteristic shift from large-scale problem to smaller, hopeful detail. In this quiet move, Ayers invites a series of possible questions. Should we point with greater deliberateness at successful male teachers in hopes of recruiting more men into the profession, as it is only through their growing numbers that teaching will garner the respect it deserves? In what ways do male teachers carry the burden of sexism, and in what ways—if any—are they somehow exempted from it? Are male teachers inherently activist when they enter the classroom, if for no other reason than their willingness to take on a professional identity in which they have been historically underrepresented? Ayers does not give answers to these questions; in fact, he does not indicate any rationale for his choice to profile male teachers first in the pages that follow his acknowledgement of the sexism that has long-plagued teaching as a profession. Later in the text, he profiles exemplary female teachers, as well, which left me both relieved and yet still haunted by lingering questions about how to combat sexism in a profession historically founded upon it.

In chapter two, Ayers introduces two “central office staff,” ominously named “Mr. Bricker” and “Ms. Asile.” They appear—suited and, in Ms. Asile’s case, clipboard in hand—in Ayers’s classroom to “define each deficiency and provide a neat note home to the parents of each ‘at risk’ youth” (18). These two characters give Ayers an opportunity to reference, and then destabilize, the common caricature of the administrator as the teacher’s nemesis. By the close of the book, Ayers finds himself sitting next to Ms. Asile (“aisle”? “asyl-um”?) at his students’ graduation ceremony. After admitting, “I think we’ve had enough structure for one year,” Ms. Asile also reveals that she is a ballroom dancer in her free time (118). Reacting to Ayers’s surprise, she retorts, “What did you think, Bill? Administration was my whole life?” (119). The message is no less urgent for being implied: there is a real person here. The work of school reform depends, at least in part, on our willingness to find points of human connection, to acknowledge that, behind the clipboard and the “note home” there could be a thinking, feeling person worthy of dialogue.

The challenge of “creating an environment for learning,” which is the focus of the third chapter of the book, perhaps best employs Alexander-Tanner’s comic artistry to point to enduring problems while also celebrating immediate and isolated solutions (33). One of the many “harsh realities” of the classroom, “too many kids,” is represented by the visual image of endless rows of desks that run clear out of the allotted space (9). In the third chapter, this image returns as a problematic model for space organization, secured on a clipboard and held in Ayers’s hand as a kind of inherited directive (35). Ayers asks, “What do we want from our classrooms?…What does the space invite [students] to do?” (35). Later, we are given the ideal image for classroom space, one bustling with diverse activities and organized around non-linear, inviting, and multiple centers for learning (46). Interestingly, unlike the first image of rows, which indicates an overcrowded classroom (I counted at least thirty student-filled desks), this later image contains only twelve students, all busily engaged in the various opportunities for learning the space occasions. Beyond providing a visual model for how to organize a classroom, the later image suggests that learning depends on more than spatial organization alone. In other words, in order to thrive, students need not only diverse and engaging spaces for learning, they need an environment that is not overcrowded, and they need a teacher not spliced among thirty students. Ayers leaves this last point unspoken, but the shift from one image to the next suggests the necessary eradication of an enduring obstacle to teaching that only more radical, large-scale, policy-driven reform could occasion.

But how do we get there, from one space to the next? While Ayers provides evidence that such moves are not only possible, but already realized in certain places, he also maintains that some of this transition needs to be left to us, to how we choose to fill in the gaps with real change. Ayers profiles Lawndale Little Village, a school that represents a model for change built on the particularities and even eccentricities of one community. A group of local mothers and grandmothers staged a hunger protest, garnering the necessary funding from the city to found the school (102). This example, so clearly a product of distinct circumstances, reminds us that there are many pathways to school reform. As Ayers writes of curriculum, “no text could ever suit the needs of everyone. We all more or less assume that curriculum will sum things up, and that’s a mistake. In a dynamic, forward-charging world, there is no final word, no ‘the end’” (69).

For Ayers, the nontraditional “marriage” of text and image in his reinvigorated teaching memoir becomes the ideal medium for opening possibilities rather than delineating overly proscriptive and totalizing directives about how to initiate educational change. Indeed, in a video trailer in which Ayers and Alexander-Tanner discuss their project, Ayers locates the mystery and potential of comic strips in what comic artists call “the gutter,” the space between frames. For Ayers, the gutter is about possibilities: “you’re looking at one picture and another picture, and something happened in between, that’s where all the imaginative space is” (YouTube). Ayers wants us to find that space, to experiment, to question, and to find each other, and he assures us that concrete realities exist on either side on which to pull ourselves up and out.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 23 table of contents.