Bankstreet for Adults

Bill Ayers: How To Use Comics In The Classroom

Posted by Claire Daniel on February 06, 2012

Bill AyersOn Saturday, February 4, over 60 educators braved the first snowstorm of 2012 to participate in The 12th Annual Language Series opening workshop, The Language of Sequential Art: Comics in the Classroom.

Throughout the day, Bank Street alum Bill Ayers and cartoonist Ryan Alexander-Tanner led dual-language, bilingual, Special Ed., and monolingual teachers through a theoretical and practical exploration of comics (which is, as they said time and again, a medium—and not a genre) as a powerful tool for literacy and social justice in the classroom.

Ayers began by sharing his own introduction to comics, skillfully illustrating his own “aha moment” through the introduction of his classic book, To Teach, where, for the third edition, Ayers partnered up with Alexander-Tanner to reinterpret the text as a graphic novel.

Over five panels, Ayers’ cartoon character comes to the realization that by combining words and pictures, “a third, all-new form” is created.

Where at first he thought he was simply employing Alexander-Tanner to illustrate his words, what he discovered through the process was, in his words, “a dazzling dance of the dialectic”—a collaboration “where reader’s imaginations are called upon to make connections and invent meaning” in a much more accessible and democratic way.

Literacy, for Ayers, goes beyond the usual skills of reading, writing and speaking. For him, literacy is access to the culture. It’s access to meaning making.

“In a complex culture such as ours,” he said to the audience, “being a democratic person requires engagement with different media and different ways of interpreting and making sense of the world. We need to think of literacy as something that gives everyone access to everything.”

A tall order, he admitted, but one that visual literacy makes easier to serve.

Locating Possibility: Sequential Art in Teaching

For hands-on practice using comics as a teaching tool, Alexander-Tanner and Ayers had the audience participate in an interactive exercise on the theme of ‘snow.’ Using an empty six-paneled comic block template, each person started a narrative in the first block and then passed the paper to the right to continue the story through illustrations and words by the next person.

As they completed the exercise, the audience discussed with each other their own thoughts and experiences with sequential art. Student teacher Claire Hiatt, who enjoys working with 3rd grade students as they make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn, commented: “During my student teaching last semester, I noticed that my students struggling with that transition had a lot more success with image-based text.”

“That’s how social justice fits into it,” 3rd grade teachers Melanie Macioce and Denise Oehl mused. “There’s an entry point for everybody. In that everybody is able to enter in and understand it.”

Later in the day, participants broke into groups according to their classroom level to construct a panel that told a story about ‘bullying.’ Dual-language 5th grade instructor Marisol Parra divulged that her group plans to use the one they created when they cover Western Expansion to motivate her students. 

“We wanted to look at this from the pioneer and Native American point of view,” she explained as she held up her paper. “I feel that this method is very beneficial for students in a dual-language setting. Fluent and basic students can convey the same ideas whether through illustration or with illustration and text. It helps both groups come through with the same message.”

Luisa Liliana Costa, coordinator of the Language Series, concurs: "Comics is a medium for all grades. It's an enjoyable way of accessing information that can be used effectively in our classrooms with a diverse group of learners. I will continue searching for experts on the use of comics to invite them to Bank Street!"

Other events in the Language Series:

January 28, 2012 8:30 am – 1:30 pm: Supporting Language and Literacy Development in Content Area Classrooms with Dr. Nancy Cloud

February 4, 2012 8:30 am – 1:30 pm: Exploring Diversity in Our Lives and in Our Classrooms with Kelvina Butcher and Melissa Bernardin


Bill Ayers portrait sketched by cartoonist Cody Pickrodt during the workshop.