Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia Ashton-Warner with children in classroom, ca 1951 Reference Number: PAColl-2522-2-001

Sylvia Ashton-Warner with children in classroom, ca 1951
Reference Number: PAColl-2522-2-001

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.

2 thoughts on “Sylvia Ashton-Warner

  1. WOW, Kate, per usual, so much to consider here. If you don’t mind, I will get windy once again.

    Please allow me to note I know nothing about New Zealand except I suspect there are still tensions between the indigenous and the current majority peoples, just like there is in Australia, here in the U.S. and throughout the world.

    Mentioning Australia makes me recall a conversation I had with a lovely lady who volunteered at a food pantry where I also volunteered for a few months. She said non-native teachers would get native students in the classroom and think the students were rude because they would suddenly get up and walk around the class, or even leave and come back. The teachers also often viewed this practice as a sign of ADHD, when in fact, the students were taking traditional “walkabouts,” common in their culture. As you can see, the cultural misunderstandings got in the way of learning. So to me, a teacher in a foreign country would need to learn and understand the culture in order to make the class learner-friendly and successful.

    Second, as you know, adults (and kids) cannot sit for long periods of time. They need to get up, stretch, take mental breaks, etc. The body is not meant to be as sedentary as our society demands. I believe the average length of attention for an adult is about 45 minutes, but that average does not include students with learning and other disabilities. So teachers have to ask students how they are doing, watch for body language that might indicate brain-overload and switch out activities quite often while maintaining the same theme in order to meet some kind of objectives. This is why I carry a huge, rolling suitcase full of books, games and materials to my classes.

    As far as coffee? My adult ed students who attended class at night or early in the morning came to class tired. Night students might have worked all day, day students might have worked all night, and many had kids who kept them up day AND night. I never minded my students bringing in drinks (though the school actually didn’t allow it because sometimes drinks would spill). In fact, the first time I taught at my former university, I had an 8 a.m. English composition class. I actually hauled in a coffee maker and offered coffee to my students as I enjoyed my own. They thought I was weird, but when I stopped doing it, they asked, “No coffee this morning?” So back came the coffee maker.

    Third, I agree that emotion plays a big role in the class. Engage the heart and the mind at the same time and you get some powerful learning as well as motivation to continue to study. One of the best classes I took in grad school was called “Drama and Improvisation in the Classroom” taught by Ellie (Friedland?) at Cambridge College in MA. She had been a professional clown, studied Buddhism and poetry and lived the kind of artistic, intellectual, spiritual life I will always respect. I probably learned more in her class than I did in any other education class. Since I’m an emotional person anyway, I found a way to unite.

    In grad school, I also re-learned about the power of association, that you could rapidly learn vocabulary and ideas by linking them to pictures, songs, actions, dynamic discussions and stories. This was a helpful reminder. I’m a very associative person anyway, with diagnosed ADHD, which means one idea always leads to more, (often too easily), so I naturally fell into this pattern.

    As for guilt (“What did I do wrong?”), I find that to be a useless expenditure of energy, just like worry. Unfortunately, I’ve got lots of both, but I am aware of it and working on it. Consistent learning, adapting, education and experience can help overcome these counter-productive feelings. In fact, feeling guilty or nervous can become a signal that I am taking on too much responsibility emotionally and that throwing my mind into problem-solving mode instead is much more effective.

    Finally, there is the issue of discussing racism during class. I try to avoid this, especially because I work in a jail with immigrants who already feel discriminated against. In many cases, I agree that they HAVE been discriminated against, and outside of the jail, I have advocated for them as immigrants and inmates. However, I do not bring this into the classroom. The last thing I want to do is incite a riot! Instead, I try to encourage interactions between cultures, and I try to learn about their culture and language. (I attempted to do this on my latest trip to Mexico, but unfortunately, had to leave early due to a medical emergency.)

    There are many countries I want to visit, but I am not seeking tourist destinations. I want to meet the real people, the people who land in my classroom. I want to understand who they are, what motivates them. I don’t want to know their life stories (don’t want to slip into counselor mode), but I do want to connect with them on some level, make them feel as comfortable as I can and let them know they are in an accepting, safe environment. This means establishing clear rules and noting when those rules have been violated. It would be nice to be fluent in another language so I could catch some of the undercurrents that affect the class, but at the moment, I don’t have time or money for the structure I require to learn.

    I can see why Sylvia Ashton-Warner made such an impact on you, just as you are having a huge impact on me! For her time, Ashton-Warner was revolutionary. The 1960’s here were also revolutionary. There was a lot of experimentation happening in the educational systems, particularly in higher ed where drug use was promoted as a route to inspiration and knowledge. Drug use is no longer acceptable (or legal), and we have come a long way in developing more effective teaching methods, but I think we still have a long way to go.

    • Yes, so often our assumptions lead us to characterize student behaviour as rude or pathological, when a little information would tell us it is neither. I try to remember that the way to test my assumptions is to ask, either in the moment, or in the background.

      I know that Maori culture is distinct from the aboriginal culture of Australia, and that mainstream New Zealand culture is distinct from mainstream Australian culture, but beyond that I cannot go. However, I’ve just remembered that I know someone I could ask!

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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