It was in the 2008 presidential election that Bill Ayers achieved notoriety as a would-be spoiler — the terrorist Barack Obama was supposedly palling around with was Ayers. This eye-brow raising recognition stretches back to his days in the activist group, The Weather Underground, which saw Ayers ad his cohorts conducting a bombing campaign in protest of the Viet Nam War.

For the decades following, though, Ayers has been a teacher, a writer, a crusader for social justice, and a progressive ideas in the field of education that has won him praise from the mainstream world he once fought against. His 1993 book “To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher” will be reborn in a new format this May — as a graphic novel adaptation from the original publisher, Teachers College Press, which Ayers wrote in collaboration with Xeric Award winning cartoonist Ryan Alexander-Tanner.

Ayers advocates for a form of education that downplays standards testing and focuses on the student as a three-dimensional human being, with a curriculum that plays to the students’ strengths and interests. Ayers also believes that a teacher should be viewed less as an authority figure and more as a fellow traveller with the students, with as much to learn from their experience as they do from the teacher’s guidance.

Ayers vision is of a collaborative classroom that could be, in which critical thought and alternative sources of knowledge are advocated and the ultimate goal is good citizenship in the form of an active and thoughtful individual. His book should captivate not only teachers and education administrators, but parents, as well.

Ayers is a long-time comic book fan, and credits his early love, Mad Magazine, as “the reason the country went off the rails.” His favorites include Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel, and Art Spiegelman, all of whom he uses in his education work as well as reads for his own enjoyment.

JS: Why a graphic novel? It doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a book on educational theory.

Bill Ayers: To Teach is a book I wrote a decade and a half ago, and in my little world of teaching and teacher education it’s been a very popular book used in a lot of teacher preparation programs. Teachers College Press approached me and said that it’s still doing very well, but we should update it, we should do a third edition, and to me that’s the way publishers think. I had already moved on and written several other books and while I know To Teach has a certain kind of standing in that little world, I just felt like it was something I didn’t want to do. I had too many other projects and I had already done it. I said to them that I’ll do it if you allow me to make it a comic book and I thought that would be the end of it.

I thought that was a pretty glib and outrageous statement, and while I love comic books and I’ve read them all my life, and taught them even, so I know comic books from the outside, but I never really thought that I would do such a thing. I just said that to them to push them back and thought that’s the end of it. A month later they came back and said sure, let’s do it. Then it became intriguing to me and I thought, gee, what does one do?

I searched around and found this young comics artist. He was my niece’s roommate in Portland, and I knew him very, very vaguely. He had been a student of my younger brother who was a high school teacher in Berkeley, CA. I knew him vaguely and I contacted him and found his web site and then I checked with the experts, which are my three sons and who, at that point, were in their late 20s and I said to one look at this web site and tell me what you think of this guy because I don’t have a critical brain in my head about stuff like that. They came back with wild enthusiasm and said he’s young, but he’s got a style and he’s creative, he’s smart. So I contacted him and we began talking, and he became intrigued with the idea. He moved in with us in Chicago and spent six months living on the third floor.

JS: What was the actual process of adapting it? Which one of you took the lead ?

BA: Even when I first got enthusiastic about it, I thought that what will happen is that Ryan will illustrate what I’ve already written and it took me several weeks of working on it and it took Ryan, I think, extra energy to teach me that actually writing a graphic novel is not an illustrated essay. It’s a very different enterprise and I had no idea that was true. I thought I had the easy part. The easy part was that I’d give him the book, he’d read it three times, and then he’d draw some pictures of it, and nothing like that happened ever.

I was stunned to be drawn into basically writing a novel. I’d never done anything like it. Certainly the ideas are there, but they’re there in a uniquely different format, with character, with plot, with narrative arc, all those things you need to drive a story like that forward. I just learned a lot and I feel like I was really very lucky in this crap shoot way to find Ryan, who I think is something of a genius and really fun to work — great sense of humor, a lot of tolerance of the idiocy of the elderly.

Part of the process was getting through my thick wall of ignorance to understand what I was doing. Ryan said to me when we first started, “Let’s think up a beginning,” and we’d have a conversation and talk about a beginning. The way the book begins on the first day of kindergarten was not at all how I thought we would begin. I thought it would be something else, but he said let’s work on this and we thought of some idea. and he said, “Well, write some script on that,” and then I did, and then he pushed back.

The rhythm of his day is to be up all night and go to bed about six, and the rhythm of my day is to get up about four and go to bed around 10, so we had a couple of overlaps of space where we could work, either early in the morning or late afternoon, early evening. Typically I would write some stuff and he would begin to do some conceptual work with it, and we would talk about what’s working and not working. The interesting thing to me was that what I saw as terribly important in terms of description or words or an argument or some evidence that I had in a textual way, he’d in some sense render that with just a quick picture, so all the descriptions I did of people were irrelevant, they didn’t mean anything. He could do it with a few minutes of sketching. I would describe a classroom in great depth and he would draw a picture, and most of my words would fall away. The dance between us was figuring out when the pictures could do the work, and when the words had to do the work. It was really, for me, quite a revelation.

Now when I read comics, which I do all the time, I read much more the way he reads comics, which is as a peer, as somebody who is not consuming the comic, but is figuring out how that writer, how that artist made that decision. I’m much more critical at the same time; I think I have a much deeper appreciation for how complex and how really brilliant the work can be. It can also fall flat like anything.

JS: This was a revelatory creative experience for you.

BA: I am absolutely smitten with it. I want to do more. I’ve got a couple of books in my mind that I’d like to think of graphically.

JS: Has working on a graphic novel added to your views of using them in education?

BA: It’s funny, because I think or I hope I have a deeper and more complicated and more critical sense of how one could use them, but I teach teachers, and I’ve taught teachers for the last 25 years, and from the beginning I’ve always had a day where I bring in my comics collection. There are two reasons for it. One is because I was a comic book person. I think when one sets an environment in motion, one sets a classroom up, and gets it moving, one thing you should do is account for the comics nerds. You should account for everybody, but one corner of your classroom is going to be kids who read comics or kids who want to write comics, and you have to accommodate them. My fundamental stance is that you have to respect the people walking in the door and create an environment that will embrace everybody — and also challenge everybody. You should challenge everybody who comes in. Some of those kids who come in are going to be comic book people.

The second reason is that if you’re teaching junior high and high school, I think that the content of all kinds of comics is focused on adolescence. And I don’t just mean adolescent taste, I mean the experience of being a teenager. Think of Spider-Man. Spider-Man is a nerd, Peter Parker is a nerd, and he got bit by something that’s mysteriously and weird, and uncontrollably he changes and stuff happens. His body changes. In his regular life, he’s kind of a normal, nerdy, plain nothing, but in his Spider-Man life he’s strong, he’s heroic, he’s perfect, he’s muscular. It’s that transformation that’s absolutely the central theme of being a teenager. I was a teenage werewolf — suddenly there’s hair where there was no hair before, and suddenly I have vicious feelings and uncontrollable urges and holy crap, what could be more adolescent than that, it’s the developmental statement. Not only allowing kids but encouraging kids to read and write comics is a way for them to gain control over what at times seems beyond them, beyond their ability to either understand or manage.

The other thing about Peter Parker, of course, is that in the form of Spider-Man, he’s always misunderstood. While he tries to save somebody and does save somebody, the townspeople look at the wreckage that he’s left and they see him as a bad guy, but inside he has a heart of gold, he couldn’t be more wonderful — just like me! It’s a wonderful narcissistic kind of thing.

When I do this with my teacher ed people over the years I say, “Next week we’re going to talk about comics, if you have any comics bring them in,” and what’s fascinating to me is I almost get the same breakdown. If I have a class of 25 students, I’ll have four who bring in their comics collections, and those are the kids — those are the kids who everyone should recognize in every class.

JS: You were working on the book with Ryan as the 2008 election unfolded, so you’re in this period of exciting creative exploration and at the same time you’re being thrust into the national spotlight and being given some forced notoriety — how did that effect your work?

BA: The experience was somewhat surreal, but I’ve never, ever in my life — and the older I get, the more this is established — read about myself. I don’t read my clippings, so I was not as aware, for example, as my children were about how big it had become until I was stopped in the street by somebody or until I saw myself on Saturday Night Live or I was a butt of a Colbert joke. I don’t watch the media, I don’t follow blogs about me, and if I did I think I would drive myself absolutely nuts. In some ways I think of all the people who might have been caught up in this madness, I was sort of well prepared for it because it’s always been true of me since I was 20 years old. I know who I am and I don’t take seriously the views of who I am — neither the praise, nor the blame.

My kids were very instrumental to holding me to a certain standard of sanity. My three kids saw this coming, oh, a good year before it came, partly because they do read blogs and have me on Google Alert. We sat down over the summer before it hit and they said, “This could become very, very big because, depending on what happens with Obama, you’ll be caught up in his celebrity and his journey,” and the main thing that they argued to me and that my brother argued to me is that I had to be quiet. That runs against my genetic make-up, but the important thing was to let the campaign have its own life and let me have my own life — don’t try to mix the two and don’t get in it.

Occasionally I would lose my mind a little bit and I would send Zayd, my eldest son, an email that I got from Bill O’Reilly that said, “Just answer one question, do you really think you weren’t a terrorist and how do you explain that?” I’d write Zayd and say, “I’ve got to answer this one,” and Zayd would write back and he’d say something very Buddhist like, “Remember, Pops, you’re watching the roller coaster, don’t get on the roller coaster,” and so I’d calm down.

I didn’t feel as insane as one might imagine watching it from the outside. I got a lot of death threats and hate on the one hand, and I got an extraordinary amount of love and support. I’ve probably taught 3,000 students in my life and thousands of them checked in. People would write me from the center of Nebraska saying, “I’m having arguments all the time with my friends and family about you and it’s crazy.” It was okay, it was a little bit crazy.

For Ryan, it was more of a roller coaster, because he had never seen anything like it. We’d be at the grocery store together and suddenly we’d be attacked by a Fox news team and he was just, “Whoa, this is just incredible, what’s going on?” But also for Ryan I’d say to be here when we watched the future president vote 20 feet from us at the school across the street from our house, and what a historic moment to be here in Grant Park, and the election, to be caught up in that swirling, good feeling, and in a society we all wish we lived in but only happens once in a while. That convergence the night of the election was electrifying, and Ryan was part of that and I was part of that.

There were a million people in Grant Park and I couldn’t leave mostly because even though I knew the sun would have to arise tomorrow — both really and metaphorically — for that one night, that was the world I wanted to live in, young and old and black and white and Asian and Latino, everyone breathing a great sigh of relief, everyone feeling the sense of community. That’s the world I wanted. It didn’t last, of course, but it was wonderful. For Ryan it was quite an adventure to be in Chicago during that madness.

JS: He should write his own graphic novel about the experience of creating this one.

BA: Absolutely. In fact, I think he might.

JS: You advocate for collaboration in the classroom, critical thinking, examination of alternative and diverse sources — that’s a recipe for citizen activism. That’s really something that some people in government and school districts might not want in the classrooms.

JS: Without a doubt. In a sense, to be educated is to be able to ask questions and to question everything. To be educated is to have a critical mind. We talk sometimes about critical thinking, but there’s no thinking that isn’t critical, you can’t mean the rest is routine in habit. You have to be able to question why this, why that, and one thing about working with young children is that they do it so naturally. They’re just why, why?

What’s wonderful is that critical thinking, you’re born with it, you interrogate the world fearlessly, and then school teaches you not to do that. Line up, ingest this bitter pill, it’s good for you. But I hold a very strong belief which is not a unanimous belief among educators, but my belief is that in a democracy, we educate not just economy and not just to get a job, but to be a fully participating citizen. You can call it citizen activism, but I call it citizenship. You can’t be a citizen if your eyes aren’t open and you’re not looking at the world, if you’re not acting within the world and taking seriously that you’re part of the sovereign, that you’re part of the public square, and so my argument again and again about what kind of schools we need is that we need schools to prepare people to live, to work, to love, to participate in the public square, and that means that we have to take into account the whole child.

The standard you could put out there is whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children, that’s what we should want for our community, that’s what we should want for everybody. What we’re developing in a ruthless conversation that we’re having about schools is a situation where only the privileged will take trips to the farm, only the privileged will go to the museum or concert, or have music or theater, or art, and everybody else is just getting ready to be a drone who doesn’t participate in the life of society. That’s, to me, profoundly undemocratic and that’s why I want to see a classroom and a school and a school system that recognizes and honors every student who comes in the door and provides for them a full experience of culture, of life, and sees them as three-dimensional creatures with hearts and minds and spirits and bodies and goals and aspirations and skills. Without that, I think, we doom ourselves as a democracy. We not only become more anemic — and I think we have become more and more anemic even in my lifetime — but I think we doom the project of participatory democracy, which is a project I think we should reaffirm. In that sense, this is not a new idea, I’ve never actually seen much of a contradiction between what I’ve thought most of my adult life. I do think that we should be involved in civil society, I do think that I want to raise my kids to want to be involved. I have three kids. They’re not political activists, they’re not the way I was and the way my partner was or is, but they’re good people and they pay attention to the world and they feel they have a stake in the world and they are three dimensional creatures, and I think the way we are creating the educational system, we are creating one-dimensional man, and in the long run that’s a catastrophe.

JS: You advocate for collaboration in the classroom, critical thinking, examination of alternative and diverse sources — that’s a recipe for citizen activism. That’s really something that some people in government and school districts might not want in the classrooms.

BA: Without a doubt. In a sense, to be educated is to be able to ask questions and to question everything. To be educated is to have a critical mind. We talk sometimes about critical thinking, but there’s no thinking that isn’t critical, you can’t mean the rest is routine in habit. You have to be able to question why this, why that, and one thing about working with young children is that they do it so naturally. They’re just why, why?

What’s wonderful is that critical thinking, you’re born with it, you interrogate the world fearlessly, and then school teaches you not to do that. Line up, ingest this bitter pill, it’s good for you. But I hold a very strong belief which is not a unanimous belief among educators, but my belief is that in a democracy, we educate not just economy and not just to get a job, but to be a fully participating citizen. You can call it citizen activism, but I call it citizenship. You can’t be a citizen if your eyes aren’t open and you’re not looking at the world, if you’re not acting within the world and taking seriously that you’re part of the sovereign, that you’re part of the public square, and so my argument again and again about what kind of schools we need is that we need schools to prepare people to live, to work, to love, to participate in the public square, and that means that we have to take into account the whole child.

The standard you could put out there is whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children, that’s what we should want for our community, that’s what we should want for everybody. What we’re developing in a ruthless conversation that we’re having about schools is a situation where only the privileged will take trips to the farm, only the privileged will go to the museum or concert, or have music or theater, or art, and everybody else is just getting ready to be a drone who doesn’t participate in the life of society. That’s, to me, profoundly undemocratic and that’s why I want to see a classroom and a school and a school system that recognizes and honors every student who comes in the door and provides for them a full experience of culture, of life, and sees them as three-dimensional creatures with hearts and minds and spirits and bodies and goals and aspirations and skills. Without that, I think, we doom ourselves as a democracy. We not only become more anemic — and I think we have become more and more anemic even in my lifetime — but I think we doom the project of participatory democracy, which is a project I think we should reaffirm. In that sense, this is not a new idea, I’ve never actually seen much of a contradiction between what I’ve thought most of my adult life. I do think that we should be involved in civil society, I do think that I want to raise my kids to want to be involved. I have three kids. They’re not political activists, they’re not the way I was and the way my partner was or is, but they’re good people and they pay attention to the world and they feel they have a stake in the world and they are three dimensional creatures, and I think the way we are creating the educational system, we are creating one-dimensional man, and in the long run that’s a catastrophe.

JS: Speaking of worlds that we want to live in, that’s how I viewed a lot of what I read in the book — it was like this perfect public school system of your dreams. Wouldn’t it be great if classrooms were like that! The thing that impressed me most is the idea of a teacher being able to approach each student as an individual and being able to gear the educational approach with each student towards the student. That seems totally against the typical public school approach)

BA: Clearly the original book is written against the tendency to aggregate and to normalize and to label. It’s against all those things. It’s a cry for the deep sanctity and moral core of every human being. It’s an argument that every human being is induplicable, each one worthy of our respect and our awe and our reverence. It’s that argument, but let me add one thing — it’s that argument intentioned with the idea that we live in a community and so each individual, yes, but we also have to live together. I think there’s a banner in one of the pictures of the room that says, ‘We are learning to live together’ and that’s part of what it is, it’s the tension between a radical individualism and a very strong sense of community and being one another’s brothers and sisters and magnitude and bond that says we are all in this together. That to me is what great teaching is.

But let me just say that while you’re right that the system and certainly the national conversation about education is running in the direction of test and punish, winners and losers. All five-year-olds are exactly the same. There’s a standard called the eighth grade. That’s the tendency. I just spent the week, so far I’ve been in 10 Chicago public schools in the last three days. because my son Zayd and his family are moving to Chicago. The astonishing thing is that I had to call my son and daughter in law every two hours because I was blown away once again by this great school, so when they come here in a couple weeks, they’re going to have to look at a dozen schools — and that was just me sampling into the public schools in the neighborhoods they’re looking at.

What did I find? I found kindergartens that looked exactly like the one depicted in the book. I found teachers who are spending every ounce of their energy teaching against the normalized, accepted sense that you just described. What I was drawing was a possible world, not a likely world necessarily, or a typical world, but I was writing a possible world — and then I went out this week into the Chicago public schools and found example after example after example of it.

JS: The core of your book addresses a disconnect between adults and youth, and asks adults to look back a little bit and think about how they wish they had learned.

BA: Absolutely, and I think in a funny way most of us do learn in spite of school in an organic, integrated way like I’m describing. I think if you get outside of the box called school and you ask yourself what were my passions when I was 6 or 8 or 10, what did I care most about and how did I learn it, and one of the interesting things, and this is true of kids in all kinds of circumstances, it’s the example in the book of the skateboarding kid, that’s been my experience all through my teaching. You have a kid who looks a certain way on the surface and then you follow him two minutes into his lived life and he not only has competence and capacity, but he has passion and interest and eagerness and the willingness to work hard.

I’m sitting here in the south side of Chicago and I’m looking towards the lake where there’s a basketball court. That court fills up hours and hours and hours a day. They don’t have any adult supervision and yet somehow, astonishingly, they not only play the game, but they play it peace, they play it with cooperation, and they play it again and again and again. They have a passion there. Why can’t an English class look like that? What’s wrong with us that we as adults can’t create the conditions where kids want to be a part of it and want to learn the skills, and where a range of skills are accepted on the court, in the class, and everyone is being challenged and everyone is being recognized, and everyone is following his or her bliss. How do you do that? Well, it’s the most complicating and demanding and energizing and frustrating and awe inspiring thing one can do.

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