Adora Svitak – Writer, Poet and Speaker

Since the age of 4, Adora Svitak has been exploring what she can do with the written word: everything from championing literacy, the voices of the youth and education reform, to guest blogging for Mashable and the Huffington Post. Hoping to instill her love of learning in other children, she taught her first class at a local elementary school the year her first book, Flying Fingers, debuted; since then, she has spoken at hundreds of schools, classrooms and conferences around the world. She co-authored her second book, Dancing Fingers—a collection of poetry—with her older sister Adrianna in 2009.

At 12, she delivered the speech “What Adults Can Learn from Kids” at the prestigious TED conference. That video received over one million views and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Now 14, Adora’s list of accomplishments has broadened. She joined the ranks of President Bill Clinton and Sesame Workshop last year when she received one of public education’s highest honors, the NEA Foundation Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education. Adora is a staunch advocate for innovation in education—her latest project is bringing student voices to the international education discussion through “The Student Union” Facebook group and Twitter hashtag.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently writing short stories and poetry, as well as working on some literary proposals for non-fiction books. I have several speeches in the months to come about topics ranging from the arts to technology to education. Three big causes I’ve been raising awareness about are student voice in education (with “The Student Union” group on Facebook, I’m hoping to really shine a spotlight on our school experiences and why educators need to involve us in education reform), fighting world hunger (in my work with the World Food Programme, I hope to get more and more youth helping others) and feminism–I’m one of 6 finalists in the Women’s Media Center’s “Girls’ State of the Union” contest, which I’m super excited about. (Kyra Sedgwick tweeting about my video was pretty awesome.)

Where did the idea to start writing come from?

From my brain! Well, in all seriousness: I had the idea to write my first book, Flying Fingers when I was 7 because I really wanted to see my stories get out there to a wider audience. In particular, there wasn’t much in the way of fiction for kids written by kids at the time. I think it helped that I had a naive lack of understanding about how hard it is to get published; as I talked about in my TED speech, naivete can actually be a good thing when it makes you think the seemingly impossible is possible. My TED speech was the launch of my “idea worth spreading”–what adults can learn from kids–on a global scale. My idea was heavily inspired by the TED 2010 theme of “What The World Needs Now.” I was originally thinking of something like “what kids need now,” but I decided that something more useful for the mainly adult audience would be why kids and our ideas are important and have value to them. Talking it over with Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, was immensely helpful, and voila! the idea was born.

What does your typical day look like?

I once posted on Facebook that I lead a Hannah Montana life–teaching by morning, in school by noon, speaking by night. That isn’t quite accurate chronologically, but it’s pretty close. I often teach a language arts class via video conferencing in the morning, then walk to school, come home and work on my online classes, write speeches and blogs, start initial planning for the conference coming up later in the year (TEDxRedmond), do homework, eat dinner and watch a bit of TV…it’s usually a pretty packed day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Some people bring their ideas to life on a canvas or with a blueprint, an instrument or a test tube; my tools of the trade are the pen and the microphone. When I get an idea, it’s usually in the form of a poem, a story, a blog post or a speech–so it’s pretty easy to bring an idea to life. However, I’m also never content with just speaking my mind; I want to see action as well, so I start conferences and write emails to raise awareness for causes I believe in.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m super excited by the trend of open education resources (OERs), as seen with MIT’s OpenCourseWare and other programs. Right now, it’s mainly certain lectures offered for free from universities, but I look forward to the day when we have an international network of schools–elementary, middle, and high school–all streaming their courses for free around the world. On that same note, I’m super interested in the flipped classroom model (look it up–it’s really intriguing and I think it has some positive implications for education).

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I haven’t had that many jobs in my life, but one of the worst would probably be cat-sitting for my aunt and uncle. Cats’ natural lovability notwithstanding, cleaning a litter box is never ever enjoyable. From this, I learned that: 1) people who do sewage/garbage/waste-related jobs really need the respect of humanity and serious pay raises and 2) if you try to take shortcuts and not do a thorough job, as I did with the cat litter, you will be found out; in the words of my uncle: “there’s moldy cat pee here. Someone didn’t scoop very thoroughly.” To summarize: always scoop the cat pee.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Looking back, I think that I wouldn’t change a whole lot because I don’t know where I would be today if I changed little things along the way. Even our struggles and challenges make us who we are, so I’m glad for (okay, maybe not quite glad) every hair-tearing midnight speech-writing session when I decided to procrastinate way too much.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I always look at things from an ethical standpoint. Too often I think we forget about the importance of ethics in how we deal with others and the way we go about doing business. When you have an important decision to make, is the first question you ask, “is this right?” or is it “how much money will we make?” “How many people will see this?” “How much time will I spend?” We seem to take for granted that people automatically do the right thing, but it’s not something we can get complacent about; we have to continually question the decisions we make in terms of ethics in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of letting money or power obscure our knowledge of right and wrong.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I don’t really run a traditional business–I write books, articles and blogs, give speeches, teach and advocate for causes. I guess one idea I’ve picked up that I think many people could benefit from is that no “customer” is more or less “valuable” or “important” than another. They may not be my “customers” exactly, but I spend as much time writing an email to a fourth grader asking for writing advice as I do replying to a CEO. When people see that you respect them equally as people, not because of wealth or status or the size of their contract with you, they see how genuine you are.

Tell us a secret.

Then it wouldn’t be a secret!

Oh alright: I once took a really surreptitious camera phone picture of Lois Lowry, the author, when she was sitting across from me at a Wisconsin reading association event. I was pretty starstruck.

What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?

  • Urban Dictionary: this is a must-have for anyone who is a teenager or needs fast definitions for things you hear from teenagers (really anyone under a certain age). It includes definitions for such essential vocabulary as ROFLMAO, trollface, oh snap, etc. I love that if I fail to interpret something I hear/see on my Facebook news feed, I can just look it up.
  • Facebook: I know, I know, it’s cliche, but where else can you find everything from news articles about serious topics to quizzes asking, “are you a cookie?” The variety is lovely.
  • Tumblr: I’m just starting to explore it, but all the different functionalities are pretty awesome. I love that you can crowdsource with “Ask anything” and “Submit.” Plus, I’m a huge themes junkie so browsing all the different options in the theme garden makes me very happy.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I have a vested interest in saying mine, but I’ll go with my heart and say The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Why should intelligent adults be reading a young adult fiction novel about a dystopian future where children are entered into televised games to fight to the death (sucky summary, by the way)? Because it’s an interesting book and it’ll put you in touch with my generation and what we’re all talking about. Plus, there’s a movie coming out and you should really read the book beforehand instead of getting your impression of the series from celebrity news magazines superficially gushing about the movie. You can tell I’m really into it.

What’s on your playlist?

Quite honestly, I don’t listen to that much music, but when I do, it’s usually an odd mishmash of my dad’s, my sister’s and my own tastes, so: the Beatles, the Who, Judy Collins, Lady Gaga (sister is a fan), Adele, Coldplay, Natalie Merchant and Jake Shimabukoro.

If you weren’t working on writing and supporting causes, what would you be doing?

If I weren’t working on writing and causes, I’d be reading, eating, playing board games, watching TV/movies, biking, hiking, hanging out with friends, shopping or traveling.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

  • @WFP The World Food Programme is technically not a person, but as the United Nations’ food aid organization, it has some of the most educational and interesting tweets out there.
  • @AmbassadorRice: I know this is running sort of a UN theme, but see above for why–informative and interesting. Plus, I really think our ambassador to the UN deserves more followers than Lady Gaga (sorry, Little Monsters).
  • @JohnSvita: okay, okay, it’s a little nepotism because he’s my dad, but: 1) he’s not an every-five-seconds tweeter (translation: almost never) so you don’t have to worry about tweets clogging up your feed, 2) he has a Ph.D. That should really count for something, and 3) he tweets about a wide variety of topics from education to coffee, so there’s something for everyone!

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

This evening watching the comedic mockumentary series Parks and Recreation on NBC. I love that show. The last time I laughed really, really (embarrassingly) loudly was in my AP Art History class when a classmates presented on Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch’s epic triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights,” accompanied by some commentary from another classmate. The innuendos in that painting…let’s just say, awkward fruit symbolism + high schoolers = absolutely uncontrollable laughter.

Who is your hero?

If I have to pick just one, Eleanor Roosevelt, because she was definitely an incredibly pioneering woman and first lady. Her work to help others, using her privilege for the sake of all, is admirable and inspiring. One of my first favorite nonfiction books was a biography of her, actually; I think that seeing how many struggles she had in her own life, from childhood onward, showed me that your challenges make you stronger.

What attracted you to do what you do instead of…say, robotics or just being a “normal teenager?”

I couldn’t program robots for my life, while on the other hand, writing is almost like breathing for me. I travel, speak, write, teach and advocate because I believe strongly in making the most of my ability and privilege no matter how old I am. Why limit myself by my birth date? The message I have for adults, wondering if they should tell their kids “wait until you’re older” when they want to pursue daring projects, would be: “letting kids be kids” means letting us be everything we can be.

What have you learned from your travels?

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have been able to travel to 11 countries and 27 states so far. My travels have taught me that letting go of wanting to plan everything (which I always want to do) can be okay and even more fun sometimes, that taxi drivers are some of the best conversationalists that you will meet and that your reaction to “oh, I got a very minor case of food poisoning as evidenced by my gastrointestinal distress” should not be “I hate -insert country here- and will never eat food again,” but rather “I’m going to have some humorous anecdotes to tell.” Adventure, talking and optimism. Now I just need to apply that learning in my non-travel life…


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