Interview Part 2: How Does “The World’s Youngest Teacher” Use Web Technology? An Interview with Adora Svitak
| Thursday, October 08, 2009
|Part 2 of my recent interview with Adora Svitak, age 11, the World's Youngest Teacher is below.
How Does “The World’s Youngest Teacher” Use Web Technology?
An Interview with Adora Svitak
by Curtis J. Bonk, Professor, Indiana University, USA
7. CJB: What exact types of lessons, topics, or courses do you teach with technology? Do you have any favorite ways you use technology? What are the ages of your students?
AS: I teach language arts and social studies. More specifically, I present lessons that focus on typical elementary, middle, and high school curriculum, areas that are tested in state standardized tests, with an added emphasis on lifelong skills and writing inspiration. I also offer professional development courses to teachers that cover technology integration in classroom. The ages of my students range from elementary school students to college students and teachers.
I love to use technology to learn and teach; education, after all, is really a two-way street. Writing can be challenging to teach; the subject demands a real-time learning environment. Students need to be able to ask questions as soon as they see something they don't understand, and I need to be able to get to know my audience, so that I can demonstrate concepts in a way my audience understands. Technology has made this possible by allowing me to demonstrate the process in an immediate and interactive way. When I teach writing, I type up the writing on my screen and show it to the students, word by word, line by line, while incorporating their ideas into the writing. This approach makes writing not just an educational activity, but also a social one; it allows me to interact with the audience and it allows the audience to interact with me.
I am able to demonstrate techniques for writing with the click of mouse. For example, I can click on the synonym function on Microsoft Word to show students how to use better word choice. Making the writing process visual is very important to students.
8. CJB: Can you give 2-3 examples of innovation in your teaching pedagogy? Anything risky you have tried that worked or did not work? Along these same lines, is there anything controversial in what you do as a teacher? How might you push beyond the norms?
AS: Certainly I can think of things that I have tried and haven’t worked, although some of them are less innovative than others. One time, for instance, I was hooking up my computer to my video conferencing system to show my presentation to the audience. They said that they were only able to see a black screen. Because a great deal of important text was on my presentation, I instead resorted to something decidedly old-school—I wrote keywords on a whiteboard! I think that, as educators, we have to realize that innovation goes both ways—using, and knowing, new technologies well, and not being afraid to use old methods when we have to!
On a more pedagogically innovative level, I have students write more than slightly off topic when learning about persuasive writing. Although it is common practice to have kids stay to the same kind of dry persuasive prompts, I prefer something a little more—otherworldly. When I was introducing the persuasive letter, I had students write to aliens to convince them not to destroy Earth. My theory behind this is that when kids are introduced to a supposedly boring topic, such as persuasive writing, they might be more receptive to it if they are caught “off-guard” by a fun activity. How are they supposed to know it’s educational?
Another thing I do is employ my blog to share student work on the World Wide Web. Many schools are leery of blogs; I promote the use of blogging as an educational tool and a way to give students an audience for their writing. After working on a collaborative writing activity with students, I often post that writing on my blog.
9. CJB: How might tens of thousands of 11-year-old teachers like you be nurtured? What need or gap in education might a nucleus or core of such young teachers fill?
AS: A shift in thinking needs to happen in order for educators to embrace the idea that every student should be given the opportunity to share what they know, what they are interested in, and what they’d like to teach. The best way to show you value someone’s knowledge is to give them the platform to teach somebody else. The technology we have today can make it happen easily.
In order to create young people capable of teaching others, we need to instill in them a love of sharing their knowledge with others; empathy for students who may have more difficulty understanding certain concepts; and the importance of bringing their “kids’ eye view” to education. I love the idea of a mini-army of teachers—or would it be an army of mini-teachers? I think that other teachers my age would fill a huge gap in education—the fact that education is not always student-centered. Student teachers would draw attention to the issues that matter to them and their peers, instead of the issues that matter to grown-ups collecting paychecks. Although I’m not opposed to young teachers getting salaries.
10. CJB: I see that you have used YouTube and TeacherTube to post videos of your teaching. How many teaching videos do you now have in your channel? Can you explain how these are used? How might they be put to better use by other educators? What is YouTube lacking for teachers and students that might be added? How might you go back and reuse these in a decade or two?
AS: I now have approximately 300 videos on my YouTube channel. These videos are used in a variety of ways: I use them to demonstrate my teaching style to others; one professional development leader wished to use videos of me teaching the six traits [of good writing] to show other teachers how it was done. Many classrooms, before they connect with me over video conferencing, will view some of my videos to familiarize themselves with my work. I think that these videos have value as teaching tools (teachers can show them in their classrooms, for instance). I believe they could be put to better use if circulated among a wider audience. Ten years from now, I will probably refer to my videos as benchmarks for progress; I would see how much I had improved, and skills that I wanted to maintain.
YouTube lacks a consistent thread to link education videos; when you search for a keyword, you may find informative lessons mixed with slapstick humor and teenage singers. I think there needs to be a central area for students and teachers, where education videos can be posted, or a better way of organizing the search so that you can effectively find the right videos. Very few schools allow students to go to YouTube due to those inappropriate videos being mixed with possibly valuable ones. I think that when YouTube gives schools and classrooms the ability to filter their searches more effectively, they will have a larger audience in education.
11. CJB: Are there places you visit online for examples of stellar teaching? If so, what are they?
AS: Regarding technology use, I enjoy watching Promethean’s “Featured Teacher” series. It covers teachers who use interactive whiteboard technology to engage students in different ways.
12. CJB: Has anyone asked you to contribute to a website or portal of online teaching tasks or activities?
AS: Ken Royal, a columnist at Scholastic Administr@tor Magazine, has invited me to contribute to his blog, The Educator’s Royal Treatment (Svitak, 2009). CDW-G’s EdTech magazine asked me to contribute to their online website and to their print magazine.
13. CJB: Do you have an underlying philosophy, model, or framework you use for teaching?
AS: I wouldn’t say I have a unifying teaching dogma; I think, that in such a rapidly changing technological and educational environment, that the philosophy I come up with today might not stand tomorrow. I do believe strongly in three fairly timeless ideas: (1) The student comes first! In order to empower learning, student access to technology is essential. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and the leaders of tomorrow need to know technology like the back of their hand. (2) The teacher should not be afraid to collaborate with students and be a team player. A lot of learning happens when students see their teachers working in symphony with them. (3) Teaching is an art. It requires constant tuning and crafting. As a continuous learning process for every educator, it requires innovation, creativity and vision. There is no “one style fits all.”
14. CJB: What do you particularly like and not like about education today? What do you think needs changing first?
AS: I like the fact that online public education is gaining support and that I have the choice of choosing a publicly funded online school to satisfy my learning needs and preferred style. I dislike the fact that many available educational technologies are banned in schools, such as YouTube and blogging. This only widens the digital divide, which is depriving some well deserving students the opportunities to excel in their learning and later in their career.
I also dislike the fact that much of education is not student-centered. As far as a general cultural attitude goes, I think that our culture does not have a positive attitude about education. Instead of aspiring to become astrophysicists or professors, modern youth may at times idolize felons and the “gang culture” that is propagated by modern music. Education needs respect. When we look at countries in Asia and Europe, a well-educated person—and continuing education—is highly-regarded, if not demanded.
The cultural attitude has to be changed.
15. CJB: And how would you go about any changing or reshaping of education?
AS: I would also offer a kid’s eye view of education so that teachers and administrators understand what students need and want in the classroom. I also try to make a larger difference by writing about my views on education.
If I were in a position of power, I would start out by selecting the best and brightest people to go into teaching and administration. People who have a passion for lifelong learning, who are open-minded about innovation, would be my top picks. I would make sure that students understand their responsibility, and the expectations society has placed on them. Both teachers and students will work harder to meet international standards. American students are competing, and will be competing, with students from all around the globe.
16. CJB: And, besides your young age, why do you think your work as a teacher is so popular?
AS: I think that my work as a teacher is popular because I really enjoy what I talk about. What I teach is very relevant to my students. Teachers find them very practical and useful for their own teaching. I use humor and encouragement throughout my presentation to make my audience feel at ease and eager to participate. Writing, for me, is high entertainment, and I depict it as such. Being an avid reader and prolific author has given me a lot of credibility when I teach. My passion and love for the literary arts comes across clearly in every lecture I present.
I don’t teach to the test—I teach lifelong writing skills and inspire and motivate writers whose enthusiasm will last long after acing the state standardized assessment.
17. CJB: How do you teach online? What approaches work best for you and why?
AS: I teach online through live two-way interactive video conference system; Webinars and on-demand videos. Typically, I try to incorporate many Web tools into my lessons, such as video streaming, so that audiences are able to see me and get a better idea of the person behind the lesson.
18. CJB: How do other children kids react to your teaching approaches?
AS: The reaction from my peers has been very positive. Those who are younger and the same age as me may think “She can write and publish; maybe we can too.” Those who are older may feel a little challenged to work harder. My use of technology, I think, really helps engage kids and make them feel comfortable with me and interested in the content.
19. CJB: Do you have international friends from all your online teaching and learning? If so, what countries do many of them come from? How do you stay in contact with them?
AS: I do have many international friends; it is one of the best parts of traveling and online teaching! My friends come from Canada, China, England, and the United Arab Emirates primarily. I stay in contact through email, Facebook, and Twitter.
Note: My interview with Adora Svitak, the World's Youngest Teacher, will continue with the final questions in a day or two. This will be the third and final installment of this interview. In the meantime, you can watch an interesting video she recently produced, "The Thankless Search for Intelligence Out There... Somewhere" for "Motherboard." She interviews people from SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). See the SETI Institute. Cool stuff for an 11 year old.