A lot of you have probably heard of Adora Svitak.The now 14 year old literacy prodigy, came to prominence at the tender age of 7 (!) as a prolific writer. On her blog is a referenced article about a report on her by Diane Sawyer from Good Morning America. After reading the article and viewing the popular TEDTalk Adora presented a couple of years ago (as seen above), I started thinking about the impact of her story on education. Many have commented on Adora Svitak. Some comment on her unusual prodigious talent. Others ( not that much stock should be taken of the views of faceless YouTube commenters) question the “coaching” of her parents and how much of her ideas are truly hers. However, I approach her story differently. I focus on what has made an impact on her astounding growth in literacy skills and wonder whether the same influences can have similar, albeit not at the same level, effects on other children’s learning. Can Adora’s story be the story of every student in your grade?
Writing as means to express ideas
“On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer called Adora Svitak a ‘Tiny literary giant.” The title seems astute when you measure her diminutive stature against her accomplishments. Though only four feet tall, seven-year-old Adora has written over 250,000 words this year alone. Try that one on for size. She may be small, but she has big ideas, and, thanks to writing, she has the means to express them.”
While I don’t expect many children in Grade 2 to be churning out 250 thousand words this year, this highlights the importance of valuing their ‘big ideas’ and giving children the opportunity and time to express them. I used to love watching those interviews Bill Cosby did with kids. Those little wonders could talk about amazing things. Cosby let them be the star of the show. Do we give our children enough opportunities just to express what they are thinking? Or do we only let them talk about topics we plan to cover our curriculum? Have we ever considered that its not that little Johnny is struggling in class because of poor literacy but because we don’t let him share what he likes and knows about?
As we continue to teach in this new Age of Personalised Learning, has our mindset changed enough to stop pigeonholing class timetables into pockets of time limited rotations of lessons or 40 minute standardized tests and start giving our students the time and freedom to express what they are really thinking? If we do, maybe we’ll get more Adoras writing 250,000 words in a year.
Early Support, genuine interest in the child’s passions and pushing your own passions, time and effort is important even before they are ready. Over to you, Parents (and teachers).
“At an early age, Adora’s passion for reading inspired her love for writing. Although she was originally not so confident in her spelling and grammar and her early writing depended on help from her mom, her sister, and her tutors, she refused to be discouraged by her mistakes and kept asking for help. Pretty soon she was able to write simple stories that were a few pages long. Her ideas and vocabulary were now advanced beyond her years, but she was still hindered by a typical five-year-olds’ limited handwriting skills”.
Obviously, Adora wanted to write and loved to read. Where did that come from? Her parents. What’s important in the reference above is that her parents and others recognised she wanted to write, had some limitations but didn’t let those limitations get in the way of Adora’s passions. We need to find ways to support students to keep pumping their ideas out and not hold them back because they have not achieved mastery in all required areas. So what if we can’t read the student’s work? Write it for them. That’s what publishers do for authors. JK Rowling didn’t personally type the 450 million copies of Harry Potter books. If we want students to develop as writers we have to teach writing as expression of ideas, not as a series of perfectly constructed letters spelt correctly and in beautifully constructed sentences. I’ve sat through too many writing moderation sessions where teachers are automatically drawn to the poor handwriting and spelling mistakes before they even read the content of the text. This has to change. Adora wan’t discouraged by her mistakes or issues with spelling, grammar and punctuation, or her five year old handwriting skills. She and her parents were determined to get the stories told one way or the other. Did it make it any less of a story because Mum wrote the words out correctly? I don’t think so. Children end up hating writing because we focus on the mechanics and aesthetics, not the content. Let’s shift the focus.
Watch the video from 4:50 onwards. She tells of the other support her parents gave. I love the fact that Dad read Pioneer Germ Fighters and Aristotle to her as well as the Wheels on the Bus. As parents ( I have 2 brilliant (not quite Adora) kids of my own) it should be our goal to push the limits with our children. And it doesn’t have to be writing for parents who don’t have that passion. But push those boundaries. Teachers, I’m talking to you too. It is an abrogation of our responsibilities to let our our own limited interest in certain areas restrict student development. It’s also a crime not to share your own passion for learning, whatever it is, with children. Reach high. Expect greatness ( but not be disappointed if it doesn’t come ) Don’t be afraid to challenge your children and let them struggle. Support them through the struggle, as Adora’s parents did. This is not pushy parenting I’m talking about. This is just expecting the best for ,and from, your kids.
Technology plays its part. Don’t fear its influence. Embrace it.
“Her breakthrough came in the form of a used Dell laptop that her mother bought her in the spring of 2004. She was fascinated by what she could do with Microsoft Word. After her aunt and uncle showed her some of the functions, she was very eager to experiment and discovered many tools on her own. With the help of “JumpStart Typing for Kids” and DK’s “Creative Writing” program, she was soon typing 60 words a minute.
Her passion for writing grew as Word helped her surpass technical limitations. She could now check her own spelling, which helped her gain confidence. Even if she was not 100% sure of a word’s definition, she could now use the program’s simple ‘Look Up’ feature (Encarta Dictionary) or Dictionary.com on any new word she discovered in her reading, and she began using synonyms or antonyms to make her writing more exciting and precise.”
The key focus for me here ( and from the content of my blog my obvious bias is showing) is that technology enabled the breakthrough from struggling to prolific writer. As mentioned earlier, Adora’s writing was restricted by the limitation’s of a 5 year old’s physical writing skills. Using a laptop to compose her writing changed all that. I’ve made this point in another post, but I’ll say it again. We must stop seeing technology as an easy way out for writing. Spell check is an enabler, not the systematic destruction of spelling skills through laziness. Adora could concentrate on her ideas and let the computer help with the mechanics. From what she has become, it certainly didn’t affect her development as a writer. Access to computer based reference tools helped her expand her vocabulary far easier than flicking through page and pages of paper thesauruses and dictionaries. ( and when it didn’t help, no doubt her family was there to support). She didn’t have to wait for ‘teacher’ to correct her work before she moved on and I’m sure she wouldn’t have handwritten 250 thousand words in a year.
I’m not saying we just let computers take over the whole writing process. I am a major proponent of scaffolding writing, modelling text writing and improving grammatical and spelling knowledge. I’m saying that computers/laptops/tablets need to be part of the whole writing process. If we want more Adora Svitaks in the world, then we don’t just pray for good DNA; we need to build the environment she flourished in. TEchnology was a big part of that and continues to be today. She blogs, she authentically publishes for the world ( not just her classroom teacher and parents), she writes with other children. She’s done it all with technology at the forefront. We need to take notice of that.
What kind of person do we want our children to be?
“Adora has imagination, an ability to distill her vast learning into dynamic prose, the courage and curiosity to explore different genres, the wisdom and maturity to accept and learn from criticism, and a tireless desire to better her craft by writing and revising every day. She truly is a working literary giant.”
As teachers and parents, we have to develop these qualities in all of our children, not just the prodigy and the gifted. Not every child can be Adora Svitak. But every child has an imagination, which is sometimes repressed by the limitations of classroom protocols and restrictive parenting. Every child has curiosity, which can be killed off by the restraints of a prescribed curriculum focus. Genres are just different ways of communicating, which every child can explore if we allow them to, instead of mandating expositions for term 1 in preparation for standardised tests. As adults, we have to be brave enough to be critical so children can learn from their mistakes and our constructive feedback, instead of worrying about their fragile self esteem that can only handle ” that’s a great effort” when they write 1 sentence. Every child wants to be better, which will only happen in writing if we focus on revising. If we shift the focus from quantity and speed to quality, and allow technology to support revising instead of rewriting, there will be a lot more children out their writing as prolifically as Adora Svitak.
There will always be child prodigies in the world that stand out from the crowd. Little Mr “one sentence a week” in Grade 5 will never be Adora Svitak. Get him early, though, and with expectations, encouragement, support and a healthy dose of technology to guide him along, we can get him a lot closer. That’s my opinion, anyway. Am I way off? Without any research to back it up other than an amazing talent’s story, can I get this to happen? Over to you, readers. What do you think? Is it possible to create a world of Adoras if we get education right? Can all parents be this supportive? Join in the debate.