The Education of Sky McCloud

Last Thursday, the Comparative Media Studies Program and the MIT Media Lab played host to Scott McCloud, the comics theorist, creator, entrepreneur, activist, and visionary, who traced for us the progression of his thinking about comics as a medium — from his first book, Understanding Comics, which gave us a language for thinking about sequential art, through Reinventing Comics, which argued that digital media represented important new opportunities for comics creators and readers, through to Making Comics, which offers practical advice to would-be comics writers and artists and in the process, lays out some important new arguments about the role of choice and styles in graphic storytelling.

As McCloud noted, he first spoke in that same room 12 years before in the wake of the first book’s publication and I have helped to bring him back to MIT on several other occassions. Indeed, we were lucky enough to have him do a week long workshop for our students several years ago when the ideas for Making Comics were first taking shape. So, with Scott, I knew what we were getting — an articulate, empassioned, and visionary thinker about comics as a medium, whose work has implications for anyone who thinks seriously about the popular arts. McCloud engaged thoughtfully with questions from the MIT community on everything from the economics of online publishing to the potentials for comics on mobile platforms, from the design of tools for making art to the evolving visual language of the medium. I certainly recommend checking out the audio recording of his presentation and question and answer period.

Yet, the big surprise of the evening was Scott’s 13 year old daughter, Sky McCloud. When Scott first asked if his daughter could make her own presentation following his opening remarks, we were not sure what to expect but immediately agreed.

The last time I had seen Sky, she was a toddler interupting her father’s talk at Harvard’s Veracon. Today, she is a dynamic young woman – a delightful mix of goth and geek — who felt self confident enough to share her own perspective in front of a packed Bartos auditorium crammed with several hundred MIT and Harvard types.

She told us about the family’s plans to do a 50 state speaking tour over the next year as her father rolls out his new book and as the family (Scott, his wife, Ivy, and his daughters, Sky and Winter) conduct an experiment in home schooling. Each member of the family is blogging about the trip over on Live Journal. And they are working together to produce a series of podcasts which they are calling Winterviews (after youngest daughter, Winter, who will be the on-camera presence in these films). The daughters will research about some of the comics people they will meet along the way, read and discuss some of their work, prepare questions, do interviews, and edit them for transmission via the web. Sky is also preparing an evolving powerpoint presentation as they travel to explain to various audiences about the trip and what they have learned along the way.

Meanwhile, she remains in contact with a larger circle of home schooled kids who are also tapping into their interests in popular culture (in this case, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars) to inform critical essays and research projects. We all concluded that Sky could be a poster child for the new media literacies we have been exploring through our project with the MacArthur Foundation — someone who is tapping the full range of new media technologies to learn and share what she is learning with a larger community. Sky is incredibly articulate, holding her own debating the fine points of comics aesthetics with her dad and fully comfortably plopping herself down and conversing with a room full of graduate students. We were delighted to hear her say she was potentially interested in being an MIT student some day. She won the hearts of many of us here.

Let’s be clear: Sky is an exceptional child, the offspring of a remarkable man, and her parents have had the flexibility to incorporate her learning (and that of her sister) into their professional lives. Not just everyone can take off for a year and travel the country with their family and still take in an income from speaking gigs. Yet, the core of what they are accomplishing here should be part of the educational experience of every child — what she is learning grows organically from her own interests; she is being encouraged to express herself across a range of different media; she is encouraged to translate what she is learning back into public communication and is empowered to believe that what she thinks may matter to others. As I have suggested in a blog post this summer, these experiences are so far more available outside of the formal educational system through afterschool programming and home schooling than they are in the public classroom. Like many other home schoolers we have encountered through our research, she is using the potentials of new media both for creative expression and social networking.

I know that I make some people nervous when I talk here about the values of home schooling. Many people assume that home schooling is mostly used today by the religious right to escape secular education. But in fact, today’s home schoolers come from many different backgrounds and are stepping outside of formal education for many different reasons. More and more kids are moving in and out of schools depending on where they are at in their emotional, social, and intellectual development or what kind of situation they are confronting in their local community. My wife and I home schooled our son for a year when he was Sky’s age and oddly enough, one of his primary textbooks was Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but at the end of that year, he returned to a private school for the rest of his high school experience. I am not suggesting everyone should home school their kids. Most people should not. But I am glad that it is an option and I think that educators should study what is working in these home school contexts and pull the best of it back into their pedagogical practices. As they do so, they could learn a lot by listening to Sky McCloud speak about her experiences on the webcast of the event.

Comments

  1. Katya says:

    … what she is learning grows organically from her own interests …

    This concept has been around in the homeschooling world for at least the last fifteen years–it’s called unschooling–but it’s been largely unpublicized because a certain faction of homeschooling parents believe that it’s too non-traditional and will undermine their credibility with school administrators and others who have the power to approve or reject a parent’s plan to homeschool their child.

    I’m extremely pleased to see the idea (and the idea of homeschooling in general) getting a little more widespread and positive attention. As global communication becomes easier, this educational model becomes even more viable.

    (As a side note, you might be interested in checking out http://www.k12.com; they partner with many public school districts to offer a technology-based blend of homeschooing and public education that includes online and in-person interaction between students.)

  2. KayJay says:

    … she is being encouraged to express herself across a range of different media; she is encouraged to translate what she is learning back into public communication and is empowered to believe that what she thinks may matter to others.

    What a wonderful insight into how the convergence of media and user can affect someone lucky enough to a) grow up during this period of time, and b) be supported in pursuing/spending time in what many on the outside of the internet might see — correction, do see — as a waste. Every person approaches the use of technology and their time devoted to it from a very personal perspective, but society at large sees both kids and adults who spend a lot of time online playing around or fiddling with tech or blogging or what-have-you as ‘addicted’ or ‘withdrawn’ from what those of us online refer to as Real Life. Don’t get me wrong, too much of anything can become problematic (need to consider my own advice there, heh). However, while there seems to be a cultural schism taking place between the those ‘inhabiting’ the online world and everyone else — complete with a new vocabulary, frames of reference and in-jokes of our own (orly? yarly!) — the positive aspects of growing up on the internet are rarely pointed out or explored by anyone offline. True, that generation is still a work in progress, but there are enough teenagers now who are showing signs of true ‘convergence’ in their world that someone could start talking about it anyday now.

    *waits*

    *hears crickets chirp — except in this blog, hurrah!*

    Homeschooling/unschooling more easily allows for a lack of structured time for children, in an age where many parents feel inadequate if Little Johnny has one hour going to waste without some class or lesson or homework or scheduled family activity. It seems almost as if the easy-going exciting exploration of our world so omnipresent in my own childhood has moved from an increasingly more dangerous Outside to a more easily controlled (yes, I do believe that for the most part) Online.

    My own unschooled 16yo son programs gaming mods, runs his own gaming server, handles donations from dozens of players, exercises leadership skills, writes and produces a podcast, works with backend software, designs graphics and websites, and has an entire world full of choices for his life that may not have been as readily available to him — or as encouraged by other peer groups — had he been traditionally schooled. As it is, his chosen peer group encompasses other remarkable young people, ranging from years younger to people in their twenties. He has learned from them, been inspired by seeing their accomplishments, and in turn collaborated and produced and, as you say, has been empowered by a network of positive and immediate feedback that in my opinion simply couldn’t be duplicated in most traditional school settings.

    Bravo for Sky and her generation. It’s a brave new world, one which should be embraced to whatever degree one sees fit, not approached with fear and suspicion. Perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

  3. COD says:

    Go type unschooling into the Amazon search engine, or just into Google. It’s far from unpublicized. Yes, there is a small and somewhat loud faction of homeschoolers that are opposed, but they have been generally discredited over the years.

    If your school district is providing K12 for you, then you are not homeschooling.T

    That’s not to say that the blended programs don’t have value, but it’s important to recognize that if the school system is providing the curriculum via K12 or any other facility, the strings to the system have not been cut, you are answering to the school system for attendance and results, and you are not homeschooling. Put another way, you probably won’t get any credit for a presentation on your dad’s book tour on a K12 school at home program.

  4. Katya says:

    COD -

    Homeschooling parents pretty much answer to the government anyway, unless they’re homeschooling “illegally.” With mandatory education in the U.S., all that differs is the degree to which the state can dictate what one does, and that’s on a state-by-state basis. For instance, when I started homeschooling my daughter (in 1991), it was illegal to homeschool in several states, and those who did so risked going to jail over it.

    My point wasn’t that K12 is traditional homeschooling–obviously it’s not–but that it’s an alternative to both traditional public and homeschooling and one that features some of the distance-based social aspects that Professor Jenkins was talking about.

    As far as the current level of publicity unschooling receives, I said I was pleased that it is getting more widespread attention. Googling now doesn’t give much indication of the historical level of publicity, however. In my experience, unschooling was the whispered-about option, though I’ll admit to being about four years out of date when it comes to homeschooling politics in my state.

    I’ll also admit to being one of those radicals who believes education should be tailored on a child-by-chld basis; summarily dismissing a program because it’s affiliated with a public school is as short-sighted as summarily dismissing a program because it’s homeschool-based.

  5. Interested Party says:

    Do you have a listing of future dates/locations? I’m particularly interested in anything near Chicago.

  6. Lydia says:

    I love this idea — of blogging the trip and doing the podcasts. Wonderful. Another example of the kind of lesson the child will never ever forget, as opposed to most of *my* high school education. Which I mostly forgot a few days after I learned it. Sounds like a very cool family. :D

  7. Ian Bogost says:

    Henry, I am always happy to see your comments about homeschooling, but I am uncomfortable with the way in which the comments here have aligned them with unschooling. I should preface the following comments with some necessary context that should reinforce the fact that my interest in this subject is not merely theoretical: my wife and I homeschool our two young children and my wife is also a board member of a local coop school, in which she also teaches Latin. We own and operate part of an educational publisher that sells partly, although not exclusively, to homeschoolers. I myself have been directly involved in the production of a Greek curriculum for families, including children as young as 8, of which we have happily sold thousands of copies.

    In particular, many homeschooling parents object to unschooling not because of its potential to undermine credibility with school administrators, but because of its potential to undermine education completely. Some unschoolers mistake a child’s every whim for a necessary and desirable individual pursuit. I object to this kind of pandering. Quite frankly, I want my children to pursue art, programming, game development, comic books, and other creative virtues that develop from their own interests and talents. But I also want them to be versed in an intellectual tradition.

    To be fair, there are many flavors of unschoolers, but I grimace at the hyphenation of the terms in these comments. We homeschool because we are interested in a grounded education for our children that includes materials not taught in the public schools. Yes, we are also interested in the flexibility to follow our kids’ individual needs, wants, or desires. But for us, and for many other homeschoolers, these traits are balanced against a considerable measure of traditional material and approaches. Just as I might not want the readers here to think that homeschooling is limited to a religious practice, I also wouldn’t want the readers here to think that homeschooling is limited to one particular educational philosophy.

  8. Henry Jenkins says:

    A reader above asks for the details on the McCloud family tour. You can get the schedule as far as it has been announced at http://www.scottmccloud.com/makingcomics/tour.html

    Nothing listed for Chicago yet but it looks like the Midwest is scheduled for Spring 2007.

  9. There are no so many people who stand for homeschooling but i think that for some young people, it is not bad at all… and even preferable. I was studying at home for 3 years and that was the best time for me – besided getting education at my own pace, I learnt to manage my time and enjoyed real freedom :-)