Suited for the Thirsty

The following is a guest post from +Patrick Yurick

Myles Horton & Paulo Freire at the Highlander School

“The people wanted and needed to read and to write, precisely in order to have more of a possibility to be themselves... Because of that, you could start without too much preoccupation concerning methods and techniques and materials because you had the principle ingredient, which was the desire of the people...”

Paulo Freire - 1990

I remember reading that book during my first education course at Plymouth State University seven years ago as I started my path towards becoming an educator. I was completely enamored with the tone of revolutionary thinking involved in educating people who desperately needed education. I did not fully understand the irony, at the time, of studying countercultural education during a government mandated credentialing program.

It was soon after Freire's words, and my subsequent blog writings and experimentation with emerging communications technology, that I found myself working at one of the most revolutionary educational environments in the world, High Tech High Chula Vista. I spent five years at HTHCV developing collaborative projects and assessments with over 750 students. The campus brought me in as a college graduate and raised me to be an educator.

Still, Freire’s words above kept ringing in the back of my head. Why weren’t my students universally happy? Why did they care about grades when I was giving them literacy?
Every semester I saw dozens of students who were being pressured to attend school by their parents and society consistently “check out” of their educational experience. Subsequently, I saw them performing miserably in my class setting. No matter what I did as an educator, I could not reach every student.

“...the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires.”
Paulo Friere - 1968
Pedagogy of the Oppressed

There was an environment where I witnessed the active fostering of desire derived: an after-school program called the “High Tech High Graphic Novel Project”. Populated with students from all grade levels at HTHCV, with a desire for comic/art education, and selected based on choice, I began to see the educational environment Friere spoke of. We would stay for all-nighters, weekend classes, and go to conventions. Parents were involved and would regularly attend sessions to help. Outsiders wanted “in” as well and the students saw a slew of professionals come to donate time just because they had heard about what we were doing.

Victor Flores, now a Freshman at Cogswell University, 
brush inking a page of comic book artwork.

The 2011 Graphic Novel Project team presenting, as experts, 
on a panel at San Diego Comic Con International 2011.

Since the formation of HTH GNP, my principal’s mid-year evaluation would always have this part included: “What you are doing with Graphic Novel Project is amazing. How do we bring it into your classroom?” How could we bring mixed age-level classes into the classroom? How could we create an educational environment based on choice, passion, and commitment? I would always tell my director that unless we can restructure everything that school thinks it is about -- we can’t. At some point, people started going to school because it was expected of them as opposed to wanting education.

Learning and education became a hopeful byproduct of schooling as opposed to the point. School is about so much more than just education. Cultural requirements like proms, rites of passage, teams, theater, community are not bad! In fact, they seem to be vital to the human experience. It was when school stopped being about a pointed educational environment for the student that it lost its ability to be effective at education as an endeavor. School became about too many things, resulting in the gradual diminishment of all the things it was attempting to serve.

Students selling their comics at 
Wondercon Anaheim 2012

Students working on a collaborative comic during a 24 hour work session, during school vacation time

Student creating STEM comic books at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington DC

A little over a year ago, the core students in GNP happened to be in the same graduating class and subsequently were all leaving the school at the same time. I had two options: 1) I could continue the Graphic Novel Project and recruit a new roster of workers or 2) I could do something else. I chose something else. Even though I was given incredible freedom to experiment as an educator, I felt that the constraints of working within a system with large numbers of students, grade levels, and bell schedules still constricted the likelihood of a pointed educational environment. I chose something else because creating a new, pointed educational environment was the only option I had if I was going to test my theories about the reasons why GNP was so successful.

I wanted making comics and teaching to passionate learners to become my full-time job and that meant leaving the standardized education system in all of its forms (including beloved charter schools). In the next incarnation of my educational journey, I had to abandon that idea of school.

I have seen the power of calling yourself an artist. People react differently to artists. They equally criticize and revere them, and I believe that is because they cannot seem to define them. Where do artists work? In “art studios.” What were we going to concentrate on? Comic books. Thus we knew “Comic Book Studio” was going to be in our name. The last piece of what we were was defining what we were about. When we read the Leo Leonni book Swimmy we knew our name: Little Fish Comic Book Studio.

                                                         Little Fish Comic Book Studio launch party Friday August 31 2012

Teaching comic book theory at 
Little Fish Comic Book Studio

An all ages created comic book mural led by Little Fish for San Diego’s Figment 2013

Little Fish members/students range from 
11-40. Each come in with a comic project 
they dream of finishing.

I am sitting in my comic book studio a year later looking over at the members who are attending Little Fish. I am tempted to call them students, but they are more than that - they are creators. A 30-year-old who joined to work on his 150-page autobiography, two 14-year-olds who are launching weekly webcomics, an 11-year-old who loves manga but is just starting out, and an early 20-something who has been publishing but is looking to push his work to the next level. They are all making jokes about comics and movies that are coming out soon. You can hear the scratching of pens on paper as they are looking down at the concept art that they are designing for their individual projects.

They are here because they want to make comic books. They want to learn and they passionately have stories to tell. Each conversation is outlined with this implied expectation that they each share: “We are all brilliant. We all need each other in this moment to continue our journey.”

In the short seven years since I have read the line: “The people wanted and needed to read and to write, precisely in order to have more of a possibility to be themselves” and I am seeing it before my eyes. When I first read it, I was inspired, but also thought that if Friere tried to teach my students it probably wouldn't occur now because the system will not allow it.

MYLES: can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.
MYLES: This is a problem they deal with in academia by hitting the horse over the head and beating on him till they force his nose in the tub, and just to keep the blows from continuing, he'll try to drink.     My system is to make him thirsty, so he'll volunteer to drink.
Myles Horton & Paulo Friere - 1990

As I sit in my studio and work with the people who have come to be a part of it, I can’t help but think of the interaction between Horton & Freire above. The creation of Little Fish may have been a fool’s gesture, but I think it was a necessary one. What if educational environments were pointedly suited for the thirsty? What would a place look like if the common denominator between all people was just how much they wanted to be taught? Who would show up? I’d like to think that I would.

Patrick hosts monthly comic book & education related hangouts, free classes, resources, and more at Little Fish Comic Book Studio Website:

To see more of the kinds of work Patrick has done as an educator check his portfolio/website:

Patrick’s webcomic “American BOOOM!” at which uses a superhero story to talk about the ongoing narrative of the US/Mexican Border.

My favorite learning environment would fail today's education technology standards

I want to tell you about one of my favorite ways to learn new things:
  • It is essentially a lecture, I'm not able to ask questions or get clarification from it, I just sit there in my chair for hour after hour. 
  • Occasionally it is available online, but this option is relatively new, nonetheless I am able to access it from anywhere. 
  • It doesn't cost much money and I often get myself involved in at least 2 at a time. There's rarely an extrinsic motivation for me to learn this way but yet I have a pretty high completion rate.

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about books. However, these talking points (and many more) have been raised in support/derision of MOOCs. You know, those Massive Open Online Courses everyone is talking about. Its funny to me that people are not raising the same issues about books that they are about education technology. The number of kids turned off to education by bad pedagogy using books is likely far greater than those who have not completed a MOOC. Yet everyone is coming out strongly for or against the idea of MOOCs. I guess books have just been around longer.

Now about completion rates, a physical classroom has a monopoly on your time. Say you signed up for: Physics 101 for 3 days a week / 1.5 hours a day (plus homework) at your local university. You have likely paid for this class and your ability to get a degree and potentially a job requires that you pass the class. You have a lot of extrinsic motivation and perhaps an equal amount of intrinsic motivation (because Physics is awesome).

MOOCs have a few things working against it. You signed up for the course (or multiple courses) because you've always wanted to learn more about     fill in the blank    . You likely have none of the extrinsic motivators mentioned above, in fact you probably have a few working against your completion of the course like your day job, the school you are attending for credit, or other aspects of your life.

What to do, where/how should we learn? Well that's a question that is different for each topic and learner but here are some of my thoughts.
  • When a student tells me they want to go to college to study     fill in the blank     because it sounds interesting, I tell them to go buy the book, get an internship, or something else like that. I've heard universities defend their place in society because of the experience and community. That's great and I agree, but I can have a discussion about a topic anywhere. I've said this to students for years, and I'll say it now, "Go to college to get a job (about something you are passionate about)". If you are paying a university tens of thousands of dollars a year just to learn something, with little or no job prospects, you are either fabulously wealthy or out of your mind. Make sure you are going to get a return on your investment.
  • Semester long courses and video tutorials are not my preferred method of learning but they may work for you. It used to be the only way to learn something was to get a book or take a class. Now you can find all kinds of ways to learn a topic in whatever medium you wish. There are hundreds of videos about the Pythagorean Theorem alone! There's also websites, books written for all levels of learner, MOOCs, forums, meetups, etc.
  • If you want to learn more about a topic, a long course might not be the best way to start off. Do a little research on your own first to find out if you really want to invest weeks of time and energy into it (plus it would greatly improve the registration/completion ratio).

I love the Web and books because I can get what I need and thats it. But, before you bring up the shallows argument, believe me I read giant tomes cover to cover because once I learn a little, I want to go deeper and understand more. MOOCs are a fantastic resource, but we need to be a little less obsessed with completion rates and as my colleague says determine whether or not people are meeting their learning goals/needs. Learning is a messy lifelong process and sometimes it takes weeks/years to fully understand something.

I've always defended things like this (we seem to have shifted our ire from Khan Academy to MOOCs) not because of what they are, but because of what they could be. Formal classrooms have existed for hundreds of years, the technology powering these MOOCs are not even a decade old. Technology will catch up with pedagogy and even provide opportunities to learn in ways not easily accomplished otherwise. That's no excuse for a poorly designed class. A poorly designed online course is no better (and often worse) than its live counterpart so please think of your learner experience but also think of how the new medium impacts your content.

I'm excited that more people are talking about education and technology's role in effectively supporting it. Regardless of your opinion of MOOCs, they have made pedagogy and are making content accessible to learners a part of the national conversation. We should always defend others right to experiment (and fail) and continue to be skeptical of overhyped claims.