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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Adora Svitak is off to primary school with her mother. Today's lesson is about poetry and she's really looking forward to it. But 11-year-old Adora isn't a pupil… she's the teacher.

Described as "a tiny literary giant", there is, it seems, no end to Adora's talents. She started teaching at seven and in the same year had her first book Flying Fingers (a collection of short stories which contains tips and hints for other aspiring writers) published internationally. Her second, Dancing Fingers (a collection of poetry written with her older sister), was published last year and she's currently working on another four. Historical fiction and fantasy are her favourite genres, although she prefers J K Rowling to Charles Dickens, whose sentences are, she tells me, "a little convoluted" for her liking.

Adora is quick; she types between 80 to 112 words per minute, reads two to three books per day, and writes around 330,000 words per year. She sees herself as an "educator, poet and humanitarian," but to the rest of the world she is simply a child with an adult brain – and a gruelling daily schedule which often doesn't end until 11pm.

Adora has never taken an IQ test. They are "not necessarily the best way to determine one's literary intelligence," she explains in the carefully considered manner of a benign professor. "But I was thrilled to be able to read at three. I just thought everyone loved reading as much as I did."

On discovering otherwise, Adora quickly set about spreading the joy of literature to others at her own request and becoming, according to her mother Joyce, the youngest teacher in the world. She has travelled, all expenses paid, to more than 300 schools and classrooms worldwide including China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and once to a primary school in the UK, gaining the nickname "Dora the Explorer" for the way she opens up the experiences of reading and writing to children.

Her family has now converted the basement of their home in Redmond, Washington DC, into a TV studio from which Adora gives daily video conferences to children, adults and teachers, earning $300 per 50-minute lesson. She's in big demand in the corporate world, too, where she can command up to $10,000 for an appearance speaking to educators and business people about the impact technology can have on the creative process and has recently been hired by Microsoft to do demonstrations about educational computing.

Watching her teach, it's impossible not to be impressed by Adora's slick performance. She's full of praise for her pupils, whatever their age or ability. "When I was a kid, I needed encouragement," she says. Has she forgotten that she's still only 11? Apparently not. "When I talk about childhood in the past tense I'm usually describing myself between the ages of two to nine," she adds, to clear up any confusion. "I realise I'm still a child, though I do feel older. I recently did an on-line test called 'What's Your True Age?' My result was 50-60 years old. My family joke that I'm really a very senior person who accidentally happens to be 11."

Her family may be right, although they are surely in part responsible for Adora's outlook on life. They're all very bright, of course. Father John has a PhD in physics and is a software engineer, while their eldest daughter, Adrianna, 13, is a gifted musician. Joyce was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution and was prevented from having books. Determined her children should not be stifled academically, she decided to home-school.

"My childhood experiences do influence the way I raise my kids," she admits. "I tell them stories about my childhood, the deprivation of books, not having enough food, but I don't take credit for how Adora has turned out. There are many brilliant kids born every day. What makes Adora exceptional is largely due to her own hard work and dedication. Besides, knowing how to write is one thing, but to teach how to write is another game."

Is she a pushy parent? Joyce insists it's the other way around. "It's not me who's doing the pushing," she says. "Adora is self-motivated. She would work till 11 or 12pm for the next day's presentation. I'm the one who asks her to take a break."

Joyce also denies that her daughter is driven by a desire to gain approval from her parents. "Adora knows she doesn't have to work to please me," she says firmly. "She's just a very wise, lovely child."

Nevertheless, Adora's timetable would cause even the most work-obsessed to break into a cold sweat. Apart from meal breaks and a power nap at 2pm, Adora works all day and most of the evening, too, although being Adora, she doesn't consider this a bad thing. "It's all really fun for me," she says simply. "And I love to watch the news. I watch three different channels of evening news (ABC, NBC, and CBS), as well as special programmes at weekends."

While acknowledging that her daughter's childhood isn't normal, Joyce is sure she's happy. "When I see her jumping up and down with joy when her textbooks arrive, dancing across the room when I buy her favourite yoghurt or shouting with excitement when she sees some news on TV that I would enjoy, I know she's living a happy childhood."

Adora is keen to point out that she has many friends and has never been bullied. "I believe that's largely because I've been able to share my talent and skill with other people," she says. "I'm not scary."

To prove it, she lists all the activities she does for fun, including roller skating, ice-skating, cooking and eating cheese. "I also enjoy hide and seek, tag and truth or dare," she adds.

For a moment, she begins to sound like an all-American kid, although how she manages to fit all this "fun" into her schedule is perplexing.

So does Adora worry about anything? "The world economy I suppose," she says. "Also global warming, cholera in Zimbabwe, the decline of the quality of US education and world hunger." (She keeps an on-line blog in which she comments on events of "international significance".)

"But mostly, I avoid worrying since the time spent doing it could be spent more constructively."

Indeed. Could this deep-thinking 11-year-old be one of the world's cleverest children? Broadcaster Mark Dolan certainly thinks so. He chose her as one of only three children to feature in his forthcoming Channel 4 documentary The World's Cleverest Child & Me. "Adora is certainly in the elite as far as writing and language skills go and may well be the youngest teacher in the world," says Dolan. "She's also a genuinely charming girl who makes J K Rowling look like a bit of a slouch in the writing department. But it's difficult to gauge how responsible she really is for her huge workload.

"She certainly isn't harassed into it and shares her mother's vision and ambitions for her, but she's got all these opportunities mostly because of her age. What will happen when she loses the cachet of being a child genius?"

Professor Joan Freeman, a distinguished psychologist and author of How to Raise A Bright Child (Vermillion £9.99), has been studying gifted children for 34 years and believes Adora may have a tricky few years ahead. "There's a big difference between a gifted child and a gifted adult," she says. "All a child has to do is be advanced for their age. An adult has to push the frontiers of knowledge.

"Currently, Adora loves what she does and gets glory and praise. Problems may arise when she hits adolescence. You can't work as hard as she does whilst also giggling with girlfriends, hanging out with boys, stomping around and slamming doors. Life could get very difficult."


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