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.