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.