I’m happy today to introduce you to Adora Svitak, though many of you may already know her. I’m going to take the liberty here to share TED’s short bio of her:
A voracious reader from age three, Adora Svitak’s first serious foray into writing — at age five — was limited only by her handwriting and spelling. (Her astonishing verbal abilities already matched that of young adults over twice her age.) As her official bio says, her breakthrough would soon come “in the form of a used Dell laptop her mother bought her.” At age seven, she typed out over 250,000 words — poetry, short stories, observations about the world — in a single year.
Svitak has since fashioned her beyond-her-years wordsmithing into an inspiring campaign for literacy — speaking across the country to both adults and kids. She is author of Flying Fingers, a book on learning.
“A tiny literary giant.” Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America
Like Isabella Taylor, Adora was kind enough to talk with me about her own unique education, and I’m excited to share that conversation here. But first, please enjoy her wonderful TED talk. And don’t forget to check out her webpage!
Adora, you have experienced a wide range of educational models, including a brick and mortar school, online classes, and the school that your mom set up. Can you talk about these experiences? How do you feel about the various modes of learning? What are your favorites, and what hasn’t worked, and why?
The school that my mom set up, Seeds of Learning, took place at my house; some other neighborhood kids joined us for afterschool lessons, and classes were never larger than 10 people. As a result, we all got very personalized learning, and each student could be working on a different project, all in the same room. I loved the fact that we were able to form great relationships with our teachers, who usually taught us for 2 years or more. Definitely I would say the Seeds of Learning experience was ideal—individualized learning, small classes, good teachers, involved parents.
My online classes offer me flexibility and the rigor of a planned curriculum with teacher support, but I don’t feel quite as close to my online high school teachers as I did to teachers at Seeds of Learning (unsurprising, considering that the teachers at my online school have to teach hundreds of students where teachers at Seeds of Learning taught ten). I feel that there are some things that just can’t be replicated easily online—hands-on group work, science labs, et cetera—without losing some of the tremendous value of face-to-face interactions.
Going to a brick-and-mortar school gives me a chance to meet diverse groups of people and better learn how to work together; it also introduces me first-hand to what it’s like sitting inside one of the “typical classrooms” I’ve mentioned often in my speeches. I do definitely see a lot of problems that need to be fixed. I feel that the brick-and-mortar school model needs to shift away from the focus on obedience and order that pervades everything, from how students are seated and told to behave, to the use of passing-hour bells; after all, if you were teaching someone at home, would you get up and ring a bell every hour to indicate that they should get up, leave, go to the bathroom or talk quickly, and then come back for a different subject? It would seem ridiculous. Yet this is what we train students to do at school. I think there has to be a better way to arrange school schedules and teach kids that is a little less military drill-evocative. Overall the biggest problem I see with brick-and-mortar schools is that for the most part it’s still a very 19th-century model.
Taking mostly online classes lets me bring my studies with me; however, it definitely has been a challenge to balance work and school. I’ve fallen behind a few times and sometimes have to catch up over weekends and breaks. Honestly, often I’ll sit down to write an essay for school and in the back of my head I’ll be thinking, “Remember that you have three speeches to write, two presentations to edit, and a blog post to write”—and whenever I work on one of those, I’ll be thinking about the next thing. I think it all depends on how you manage your time—unfortunately for me, I’m a terrible procrastinator (I’ve stayed up past midnight to write speeches for the next day). I know that I wouldn’t be able to do it all without the help of my amazing mom, who schedules events for me and manages requests for my teaching. In general, managing a busy life needs good time management…in absence of or in addition to that, great parents. 🙂
How much in charge do you feel of your own education? Do you help make your own goals? How much control do you have in what you pursue?
Like many other students, I feel a little powerless on the issues that really matter. Even as someone who speaks widely about education and blogs for Edutopia and the Huffington Post on school-related issues, I can’t do anything about an ineffective teacher in my classroom or a course that doesn’t challenge me. The important thing is that my classmates have insights to share that are of equal value, yet there are no good ways for us to submit feedback to our teachers and administrators and see rapid change taking place as a result, a problem I’m working to change.
I definitely do make my own goals, but there are often differences between my career goals and my academic goals, and sometimes I feel that my learning in school doesn’t always further my career goals. For instance, it’s difficult for me to miss more than a week of attendance at my brick-and-mortar school to go and travel, yet in the long run probably that week giving speeches will benefit me more than the hours sitting in the classroom. I would love to have more control in what I pursue—in the ideal world, I’d be able to work closely with teachers to design more independent studies for myself in various courses, calling on teacher support when needed (actually, something I think all students could benefit from). Right now I can choose which courses to take at school, but I don’t have a voice in what is taught or how it’s taught.
What have your parents done for you to help you pursue your creative passions?
My parents have done a great deal to help me pursue my creative passions—by providing the unique educational experience for me so that I would have access to high-quality, challenging learning from a young age (I was lucky to be able to sit in creative writing classes with seven- and eight-year-olds when I was just three years old), and also by taking my dreams seriously. When I declared to my mom, “I want to publish a book!” at six years old, I didn’t realize how rare and precious her support was.
Talk a little about your varied work. You are an author, you teach kids about writing, have coordinated a TEDx conference, and have guested on countless news programs. It’s clear what you’re teaching in all this – you’re giving back to so many people, both kids and adults. But what are you learning from the process? In other words, how are your activities a part of your own education? How are they preparing you for your own future?
This is one of the most unique and intriguing questions I’ve received about my work—thanks for the different perspective!
In my education talks, I always bring up the importance of being a teacher and a learner; a favorite quote of mine is John Cotton Dana’s “Whoever teaches, must never cease to learn.” As a teacher and a student, I understand this very clearly through my own experience. If I had stopped learning about the art of teaching by deciding that I had learned everything there was to learn, when I first began teaching students about writing, I would be a pretty ineffective teacher today. There’s nothing that saddens me more than teachers who have given up on constant self-assessment and improvement of their own teaching practice and do no more than go through the motions year after year. I am incredibly lucky to have my mom around—as an observer, she’s able to give me feedback on my teaching that I can use to improve.
Through my presentations and speeches I’ve learned about many important skills that relate to how I interact with others, whether through a video conference camera or on a stage. I’ve learned how to address different audiences, how to walk the fine line between supporting revolutionary ideas and offending traditional views (particularly difficult when it comes to talking about education or youth voice), even how to deal with people you don’t like.
In the more academic sense, my speaking, teaching, and organizing has greatly improved my writing by keeping me practicing constantly. When I write content for a presentation, I have to balance the amount of material I want to get through with a need for conciseness and clarity. When I write emails to various companies about sponsoring TEDxRedmond, I sharpen my real-world persuasive writing skills and how to get my point across using as few words as possible (considering that my email’s readers are likely busy executives who read email on their phones). The social, writing, and business skills I’ve learned from my career have been tremendously valuable to me throughout my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve been really lucky to have many opportunities throughout life because of people’s support—the adults who believed in me, the students who listened to me, the readers who read my writing—but even if you think, “I don’t have any speeches lined up or books written, I can’t really do anything,” remember that your life is what you make of it. You can create your own opportunities. Get informed and decide on issues you care about and then advocate for them tirelessly—on your social network, at school, among friends. You can set up groups of your peers to plan events (that’s what I did to organize the youth conference TEDxRedmond) or watch TED Talks and have discussions about meaningful issues. You can submit writing to magazines or start your own. And the important thing to remember is, whenever you first experience success, make sure to thank those that helped you along the way and give back in whatever way possible. That’s what I try to do through my teaching and advocacy.
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