I have roots in New Zealand. Not physical roots—none of my ancestors came from New Zealand, or, as far as I know, ever visited there. But the roots of my ideas about teaching came from Sylvia Ashton-Warner, whose book Teacher I read in the mid ’60’s. She has been the single most important influence on my teaching practice.
She wrote about teaching pre-school and primary school children, and as far as I know never taught adult literacy or wrote about helping adults improve their literacy skills. But her ideas about creativity, what she called “organic teaching,” her respect for and celebration of the ideas that came from her students, not from curriculum and received texts, all of which went along with solid practical advice about classroom management, schedules, and “discipline,” spoke to me when I was in training to become an elementary school teacher, and came back to me when, much later, I started in adult literacy.
Emotions in Teaching and Learning
She wrote with passion about teaching, and worked with her students’ passion for life to teach reading and writing. Her ideas about “key vocabulary” were exactly the opposite to what I had been taught. For example, she taught beginning readers to read words that had a personal emotional charge, words like “ghost,” and “fight,” and “lollies,” no matter if they were polysyllabic and didn’t follow simple phonetic rules. Kids wrote and read about their own lives, from the one and two-word sentences that the very littlest ones wrote, to the half pages of the six-year-olds. She articulated the connection between emotions and the ability to remember words on a page.
Her division of the school day into periods of “breathing in” and “breathing out” led to my setting up “inhale” and “exhale” rooms to divide and balance the kinds of activities that learning requires.
Students Teaching the Teacher
She taught me to use my students’ behaviour as a lens through which to examine my teaching. She reports a young student who wanted to go outside long before the scheduled time; instead of reminding the child of the rules, or chastising him for not working, she thinks to herself, “Well, it’s my fault if he wants to go outside. Something wrong with my Infant room” (p. 97 in my Bantam 1971 edition).
I learned to notice when my adult students got up to get coffee, not with a judgement about them, but with a question–“What’s happening here and now that makes them want to leave?”
Respect for Maori Culture
She wrote about being a white teacher in a school that had a largely Maori student body. I don’t know how her writing about this is received now in New Zealand. (Perhaps some of my readers from NZ will tell me.) I notice some dated words and phrases that make me wince in this era when so much attention and energy is focused on diversity issues and anti-racism work.
When I first read her, I was a young white woman who had grown up with practically no real experience of cultures other than my own (although I had read many novels). I was inspired by her love for her students, the way she welcomed them to bring their whole selves to class, and her quick and critical response to the racism she saw in her own community. When I began to teach First Nations adults here in Canada, I tried to bring the same spirit to my teaching.
I’m hoping I haven’t made too many errors in writing about a small slice of a country I know very little about, but I’m willing to learn, so let me hear about them.