teaching, comics and autobiography

Last week, Kate and I spent some time at the OLA conference problematizing the “teacher” label, as it works in the context of library instruction.  So it was a little surprising that after coming home from Bend and then busting up to Portland, the main thing I wanted to buy at the Stumptown Comics Fest was all about teaching:

To Teach: The Journey, In Comics
William Ayers & Ryan Alexander Tanner
Teachers College Press
2010

Stumptown was really excellent this year.  We brought the kiddo and introduced one of her friends to the experience — I kind of wanted to spend my whole time spying on them to see what they bought, but I restrained myself.  I haven’t been to many comics festivals, but I’ve heard that Stumptown is kind of unique.  Portland is a major creative center for comics, and a lot of the people showing are both local and national, if that makes sense.  It’s also very artist-writer-creator focused.  It’s not that there aren’t local comics publishers – there totally are and they’re present, but they don’t overwhelm the event as a celebration of all of the individual creativity that produces these works.

So, To Teach.  Written by William Ayers with art by Ryan Alexander-Tanner (but the process as depicted in the book itself was more collaborative than that implies).

We have a rule that we look at everything before buying and Stumptown is still small enough to make that possible.

(Shaun totally broke the rule this year, though.  Just so you know)

The artist was off doing a “Teaching with Comics” panel when I went back to buy this book (I didn’t break the rule) so I don’t have a cool signature in my copy.  But if he had been there, this is what he would have looked like:

Creative Commons licensed by Ocean Yamaha at flickr.

But he has my money, which is the important thing. The book is a comics version of William Ayers’ memoir To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. It’s deeply autobiographical, very opinionated and pretty inspiring.

For us in libraries, yes, much of it talks about the kind of deep knowledge of our students that we can’t get in the one-shot.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here for us, even in that context.  Not just for credit course teachers, this book.

First, right up front there’s a big section on myths, and how myths about teaching can be destructive — this connects back to those posts from last year about hegemonic assumptions and many of the other insights in one of my other favorite teaching books — Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

These are the myths that must be slain:

  1. Kids today are worse than ever before
  2. Teachers always know what’s going on in the classroom
  3. The teacher’s work is to “save” the children
  4. Good teachers are good performers
  5. All children are above average (this one is about the idea that there is an average)
  6. Good teachers always know the material

Want to see how this all plays out in comics?  Here’s a little sample of the art.

(There’s more at the TCP link above)

Chapters include ideas about how to really “see” students, building learning environments, assessment, what curricula is good for (and what it isn’t), and teaching/learning as a constant cycle.  Woven throughout is the idea that autobiography is a crucial lens for the teacher.

Two more pieces really jumped out at me thinking about the library context — one piece directly from the interviews Kate and I have been thinking about — the role of self-criticism in improvement.  Ayers says that if we’re never self-critical then we can’t improve.  That makes sense.  He also says that if we’re too self-critical then we become “powerless and timid.”

That also makes a lot of sense.  One of the things that Kate and I talked about at the Information Literacy Summit a couple of years ago was how much responsibility we take on to ourselves as library teachers.  We asked for stories in that long-ago project and one of our prompts was “tell us about a situation that haunts you.”  We got so many stories about situations way beyond that which any individual could control, but threading through much of it was the sense that those situations are always salvageable, if only we’re flexible, or prepared, or quick-witted enough.

So yes, self-criticism good – in moderation.

The other piece that struck me as especially useful to think about was about the broader environment — the school.  This was presented in a series of panels about “good schools”

  • Good schools are geared toward continuous improvement
  • Good schools are powered by core values that are explicit, apparent, and embodied in daily life.
  • Good schools have high expectations for all learners.  Students feel nourished and challenged in the same gesture.
  • Good schools are always unique: Each is the creation of particular people working to bring their vision to life in classrooms.
  • Good schools are places where lots of good teachers have been gathered together and allowed to teach.

These ideas are important, I think, because it can be easy to feel disconnected in library instruction — we have volumes of literature and mountains of conversation about this in terms of the library’s relationship to the college or the university.  But I also think this is worth talking about in terms of the library.  Libraries aren’t schools, but they do provide a context that shapes the teaching experience.  I know there are academic libraries that have explicit, apparent, embodied in daily life core values that inform and nourish library teaching — but I don’t know that I think all of them do.  I’m not sure what that means, but I do think it’s worth thinking about.

So, I’m still poking at the “teacher” label in my mind and in conversations with others – which is I think entirely consistent with this book, and the others like it that push us to question the assumptions underlying those labels, and to do what we do when “teaching” intentionally and critically.

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