Adora Svitak speaks throughout the United States on literacy, has published two books and written numerous stories, been a speaker at a TEDx conference, coordinated the first ever TEDxredmond conference for kids and has won a National Education Association (NEA) award for Outstanding Service to Public Education. All of this passion and accomplishment has come from a 13-yr-old! Adora believes that everyone deserves the opportunity that comes with literacy and a good education. She has campaigned for literacy and a love of learning around the world. She started classroom teaching when her first book was published at age seven. She now has three major teaching programs: student-targeted presentations aligned to K-12 state standards; 21st Century technology integration training for college students enrolled in teacher training programs; and customizable professional development sessions for school districts and individual schools. To date, Adora has spoken to over 10,000 students, and to over 400 schools and classrooms across the world.
Adora is now utilizing new methods of teaching, such as video conferencing and webcasting, to spread her message and to teach students. Interactive distance learning lets her collaborate with students across the country and around the world. She teaches every day through distance learning in places as diverse as Florida and Quebec to Dubai and Costa Rica. She teaches over 30 different programs to audiences ranging in age and level from kindergarten to college, and even teachers.
With this wide range of educational experience at such a young age, let’s get Adora’s perspective on how education has been changed by technology:
AK: What inspired you to start teaching? How have you been inspired by some of your teachers?
AS: I was inspired to start teaching by my goal to get other kids interested in reading and writing; I started very informally, by going to local elementary schools with a box of stuffed animals in tow and using Microsoft Word to write up stories collaboratively with the students. Gradually I learned from my experiences, made presentations, wrote lesson plans, and started teaching via video conferencing and posting videos on the web. My teaching was really a gradual process. I have been greatly inspired by some of my teachers, starting with my own parents—it’s often said that parents are a child’s first teachers, and both my parents have been hugely inspirational in that role, by teaching me how to read and write when I was young. Other inspirational teachers included the tutors I had when I was younger, who would teach my sister and me about topics generally not taught to most seven-year-olds (like Mexican revolutionaries, European art history, and anatomy); from them I realized that not all learning is done “inside the box” of typical subjects; rather, learning is driven by human curiosity.
AK: What are some challenges and benefits of using technology in teaching?
AS: One challenge is that when technology can fail, it may…I’ve gone through many presentations failing, computers updating in the middle of a lesson and thus shutting down, video conferencing not working due to internet problems, and the list goes on and on. Overall, however, I think that technology provides more benefit—suddenly we’re able to have access to a giant library of the world’s knowledge, all with the click of a mouse. That greatly empowers us to learn more—faster—and, I think, better.
AK: In your TED speech, you said that learning should be reciprocal between adults and children. What key lessons do you think children should teach adults?
AS: One key lesson adults could learn from kids would be: keep dreaming big. I know that sounds cliché, but when you think about it, we seem to lose a lot of our optimism and big ideas as we grow older, replacing them with “no, that’s impossible” and self-discouragement. That spirit of naiveté, believing that anything is possible, is something I hope more adults can learn from kids.
AK: Your talks have been described as “extremely engaging.” How do you make them interesting to children and adults alike?
AS: I try to talk about relevant topics and have something for everyone. I also research my audience ahead of time so I have a better sense of where they’re coming from and what might help them. It also helps me design my jokes…Humor and relevancy are two of the most important things, I think. When I’m speaking to a mixed audience of adults and kids, I try to get both sides to connect with each other (for instance, by asking questions like, “What’s something you’ve learned from those younger than you?” “What’s something you could teach someone older than you?”) so that both sides get to hear the other’s point of view and ideas. Both children and adults have common experiences—I capitalize on those.
AK: What are some key points you’d like to share with kids about transforming their writing from ordinary to extraordinary?
AS: Going from “ordinary” to “extraordinary” writing can be done in a few different ways. I’d say the first thing is to look at yourself as a writer—not as at ten-year-old trying to write something for school, or someone who might like to write in the future—you are a writer right now. Being a writer means that you collect material from what you see around you, you look at everything as a possible source of inspiration, and you write frequently (don’t obsess over whether it’s “good” or “bad,” but keep practicing). By making writing part of your routine, looking at yourself as a writer, and drawing inspiration from the things you see around you, you can improve your writing greatly.
AK: What technology do you think every classroom should have to aid the teachers in their teaching? How do you think education will change over the next 10 years?
AS: I am a firm believer in the power of the internet to help education, and I think we need to utilize it to its full potential (where right now we’re only using a tiny fraction of what the web can help us do). People like Salman Khan, whose “Khan Academy” videos on practically every secondary educational topic, from algebra to world history, went viral, show that the internet can be used as a powerful learning tool. One of the most important skills we need to teach is how to evaluate the information that’s readily available on the web—digital literacy skills are invaluable for me and my peers. I think—and hope—that education will change quite a bit over the next ten years: becoming more open (as we see with initiatives like OpenCourseWare and University of the People) to people around the world; utilizing technology to its full potential; and encouraging more democratically-structured schools with reciprocal learning between adults and kids. I really look forward to seeing these changes happen.
AK: How would you like your role in educating kids and adults to change in the future?
AS: I hope that I can continually improve my teaching, of course. I’m interested in possibly studying education in college so that I can learn more about philosophies around teaching. In the near future, I want to reach greater numbers of people around the world—hopefully with my online videos, for instance—and have a bigger impact.
AK: Do you have any advice for a kid that would like to be a teacher? What can they do now to help others?
AS: I think teaching is one of the best jobs there is—you get to have a sense of fulfillment, it allows you to learn on-the-job, all the time, and you get a deeper understanding of social interactions and how we learn. My advice would be to learn as much as you can about teaching—whether the history of public education, a book with tips on engaging students, or editorial pieces on improving schools; and most importantly, get practice! Tutor little brothers and sisters, or younger neighbors. See what works and what doesn’t. (For instance, I was attempting to teach phonics to some peers when I was five by incentivizing them with marshmallows. When I left, they stole and ate the marshmallows. Was this slightly maddening? Maybe. But was it also a learning experience for me? Definitely.) Go large-scale by making presentations and giving speeches to larger audiences. And if after this, you realize, “Maybe I’m not cut out to be a classroom teacher,” realize that there are countless other ways of teaching out there, formal and informal—making videos about an area of expertise, giving speeches, tutoring, counseling, mentoring someone—even, as I’ve spoken about quite often in my speeches, taking the chance to teach someone older than you are. So: read up on education, practice, look at everything as a learning experience, and take the chance to teach in unconventional ways.
AK: You have taught people from the age of kindergarteners to senior citizens. How do you alter your teaching style depending on the age group of your audience?
AS: I use a lot more stuffed animals when I’m talking to kindergarteners for sure. Also, younger students are more likely to raise their hands and answer questions, so I don’t have to work quite as hard to get people to talk in the first place. With middle school and high school audiences, I tend to replace the stuffed animals with a different tool of audience engagement, like quick chatting about mutual dislike of Justin Bieber or something similar (just an example, which is not necessarily representative of my opinion, Bieber fans). A lot of middle and high school students can come into a video conference with a certain amount of skepticism that it’ll be just “another boring class” so changing that perspective is important to me.
AK: You have taught on video-conferencing and webcasting services, and used things such as youtube videos and ustream. Can you describe to us how this is different than teaching at conferences or in the classroom? What advantages does this medium provide to both you as the teacher and the audience participants?
AS: I love using video conferencing because it allows me to connect with students all around the world without having to leave my house. I have a professional video conferencing unit in my house, and schools with equivalent systems can dial in just like you might with a telephone. The difference is that it’s a flat screen, much like a two-way TV, so obviously I can’t quite reach through the screen and touch anyone. This is different than teaching at conferences, or in a physical classroom, because I can’t reach through the screen, hand out papers, etc. This can be a little challenging at times, but it’s mainly benefitted me and students, since otherwise I wouldn’t be able to speak to half the number of classes that I have so far—it’s helped me have a greater impact. Students who have access to video conferencing have access to content providers around the world, which I think is hugely valuable—the two-way interaction helps to make it fun and engaging.