to return to the Bookstore
Attention to the Children:
Lessons for Teachers and Parents
The following is a review of my book,
Pay Attention to the Children. It is reprinted here
from the Summer 2002 issue of The Educational Forum,
Volume 66, pages 390-392. Persons may reproduce up to 40 copies
of this article if (1) duplication is for an educational purpose
in a nonprofit institutions; (2) copies are made available without
charge beyond the cost of reproduction; and (3) each copy includes
a full citation of the source including the publisher, Kappa Delta
Pi, an International Honor Society in Education. Permission
to reproduce it under other conditions must be obtained by writing
the Director of Publications at Kappa Delta Pi Headquarters.
Blueprint for Peace
A review by William
A. Reinsmith of
Pay Attention to the Children:
Lessons for Teachers and Parents
from Sylvia Ashton-Warner
by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens
Published by Rattle OK Publications,
1996. 172 Pages. ISBN 1-88965-41-1.
Available from the author, at 73 Arbor St.,
San Francisco, CA 94131-2918.
I first read Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Teacher (Simon
& Schuster, 1963) in the 1980s after two decades of teaching
on the secondary and college levels. I was doing research
for a book of my own. It didn't take me long to realize that
this was the greatest book I would ever read on the craft. Ashton-Warner's
account of her experiences teaching Maori children both riveted
and stung me. Where, I asked, in all the tomes on teacher
education would I ever come across a passage like the following
There is quietly
occurring in my infant room a grand espousal. To bring them
to do what I want them to do they come near me, I draw them near
me, in body and in spirit. They don't know it but
I do. They become part of me, like a lover. The askance
observation first, the acceptance next, then the gradual or quick
coming, until in the complete procreation, there glows the harmony,
This is the realm of eros, the insistence of passion, the mark
of incendiary truth. Her book was white hot in my hands. Here
was someone who had blazed her way to the center of what teaching
was all about. I knew this intuitively rather than experientially,
for I had never made that journey. The passage above and others
like it have stayed rooted in my mind.
Recently, I came to read Teacher again in conjunction
with Sydney Gurewitz Clemens's Pay Attention to the Children. I
began to comprehend what Sylvia Ashton-Warner had courageously achieved
for all of us in her experimental work with Maori children. By
turning their destructive energies into creative channels, she had
presented a blueprint for world peace. At the same time, her
methods stand as a wholesale rejection of the educational system
to which she stood opposed in New Zealand as well as all of our
attempts, past or recent, to press students onto the grid of mainstream
Ashton-Warner discussed the "volcanic energies"
of her Maori children and how she constantly sought contexts that
allowed these forces to escape in creative, artistic ways. The
crucial point was that these energies must be released rather than
suppressed, as conventional administrators advised.
If Ashton-Warner's classic is the best book ever written on teaching,
then Pay Attention to the Children is the best study ever
made of Ashton-Warner and her methods__far more empathetic and insightful
than Lynley Hood's biography, Sylvia! (Viking, 1988), which
gives her life a salivating, journalistic spin. Not that Clemens
whitewashes Sylvia's often-prickly personality. Geniuses and
innovators are difficult people, and
Sylvia Ashton-Warner was no exception. Clemens
warns us against idealizing her, as was the tendency with readers
during her period of fame in the 1960s. At the time I read
Teacher, I knew very little about the author herself except
what I could glean from my perusal of her memoir, I Passed this
Way (Knopf, 1979). Clemens discusses Sylvia's stifling
background, her severe inner tensions, her breakdown, her rebuilding
of her life, andmost revealinghow the release of her own suppressed
artistic creativity played perfectly into her work with the tempestuous
Maoris in her classroom. Coping with her own fragmentation
opened her to the world of the Maori. However, Clemens stresses
that, though Sylvia learned to "organize her life for survival,"
she was never able to integrate her personality fully. She
remained deeply flawed for the rest of her life. This unsparing
yet compassionate appraisal of a highly complex woman does nothing
to tarnish her image. In fact, there is no image at all. Clemens
renders the real person, with all her blemishes and contradictions,
rudeness and social awkwardness, frequent play acting, and anguish
even in the face of success. Such a discerning portrayal makes
Sylvia that much more authentic, as are her Maori children in the
turbulence of their powerful emotions.
What gives Clemens's account credibility is that she has employed
Ashton-Warner 's methods successfully in her own work
in the classroom (See her 1983 book, The Sun's Not Broken, A
Cloud's Just in the Way: On Child-Centered Teaching, Mt. Ranier,
MD, Gryphon House. ). Clemens offers vivid examples from the
work of others who have successfully used Key Vocabulary with inner-city
children. She admits that in the beginning she knew Ashton-Warner
only through her books. Unsatisfied, she traveled twice to
New Zealand in the 1980s "to build my own picture because I
didn't understand" (141) . She spent time with those
who knew and worked with Sylvia, including her daughter, Jasmine,
and Maoris who had once been her students. She also talked
with Selma Wassermann, who invited Sylvia to come to Simon Fraser
University in the early 1970s. Given the extensive nature
of her contacts, we are unlikely to get a more rounded picture of
this difficult (some would say even contradictory) woman than the
one that emerges from these interviews and discussions.
Clemens shows how Sylvia tried initially to teach reading to the
Maori children as she had been trained to do, and how counter-productive
such an approach proved to be. Their turbulent emotional experiences
had nothing in common with the sterile language of the suburban
Janet and John readers foisted on them. Out of this
failure, she learned to let them use the words they brought from
their real lives. Instead of filling their minds with the
stock in trade of an invasive colonial civilization, she helped
the children identify words that came from their own inner turmoil,
an approach much more honest and respectful. She came to see
that the strategies of "homicidal intrusion" carried on
by a teacher were far more deadly than any violence her Maoris brought
to the classroom: "I suppose they still give them books
about the birds in the trees and the breeze and all that, thinking
that by giving them peaceful books they'll make the children peaceful.
But what they're doing is fragmenting them further, disintegrating
them. The thing to do is to give them bad books like themselves,
then you integrate them, then you'd get them peaceful." (33)
Thus, through Key Vocabulary and Organic Reading, Ashton-Warner
made her great contribution. Everything came from the inside
out, nothing could be imprinted beforehand. Clemens (34) quotes
Sylvia in an interview for New Zealand Television at the end of
her life: "I spent my life studying in the undermind
of our child, to learn and understand the instincts and impulses,
because I wanted to isolate the impulse to kill. I wanted
to isolate it and to find out how I could harness it."
And so we come to the secret of peace, by confronting our fears
and demons, expressing them, naming them, and then seeing them creatively
transformed. Sylvia knew all about this process, because she
had confronted demons of her own and had been rescued through the
release of her own creativity. As Clemens (35) says, "What
finally made Sylvia's work with the children effective was the artist
in her communicating with the artist in them." One wonders
how different our world would be 30 years from now if, in every
classroom in every society with violence, Ashton-Warner
's methods were used in teaching young children to read and write.
I the light of tragic recent events, it would be hard indeed
to exaggerate her educational contribution.
Ashton-Warner 's work and writings were immensely influential with
U.S. teachers in the 1960s and '70s.
Ironically, her work was far more respected here than in her own
homeland, a fact that Clemens finally attributes to Sylvia's shattering
of the customary expectations for women of European stock in New
Zealand. Even here she is much less widely known todayand
hardly at all in universities with teacher education programs. Given
our present social conditions, the timing couldn't be more appropriate
to reintroduce her. Teacher should be required reading
for anyone in those programs who will be entering an inner-city
classroom, and Pay Attention to the Children belongs right
beside it as the indispensable guild to this great innovator and
her work. Though praised when it was published five years
ago, Pay Attention has never been given the full review it
so richly deserves. This oversight must be correctedthe
book should be available to all teachers who care about the art
of creative teaching and the mission of peace.
The reviewer, William A. Reinsmith, teaches humanities at the Philadelphia
College of Pharmacy and Science. His research interests include
the philosophy of education, pedagogical methods, curriculum design,
and liberal arts in the school.
about Pay Attention to the Children:
A mention in Young Children,
the journal of the National Association for the Education
of Young Children. In an article by Polly Greenberg, Editor
of Young Children, November, 1998, p.40:
There is a wonderful book about Sylvia
and her wonderful way of working with children (Clemens, 1996);
I hope you will read it and reap.
A Review from the Reggio Emilia Listserv:
Date: Fri, 4 Apr 1997
From: Patricia Cruickshank-Schott
Subject: Revisiting Violence, Power & Control
Multiple recipients of list REGGIO-L
I have been reading with great interest
the continuing discussion about gun play and the Good & Bad
guys. My children have continued to be fascinatedwith creating
weapons, drawing pictures, discussing the Bad Guys (usually theNazis),
and playing robber, jail, etc. We work with drawing
tools, clay,wood scraps and tape, as well as making transparencies
of their drawings to use on the the overhead. While I understand
that this may not fit thedefinition of a traditional project, I
also do not think that the childrenwould be exploring these issues
in such depth in the context of a grocery store or pet project.
have been on Spring break this week and was fascinated to Read Sydney
Gurewitz Clemens' new book, Pay Attention to the Children: Lessons
for Teachers andParents from Sylvia Ashton-Warner. At the
very moment when I am trying to articulate to parents why I am so
fascinated with the work that is done inReggio Emilia, it was heartening
to be reminded of a major influence from the beginning of my career.
It really gave me courage about this violence work I have been trying
to do. If you have read Sylvia Ashton-Warner, be sure
to read this wonderful new book. If you are concerned about
dealing withviolence, read this book. If you want more information
about the reasons forusing art with young children, read this book.
If you are interested infeminism, read this book. If you ever
struggle with not being a perfectteacher every minute of the day,
read this book.
It is a well written, thoughtful, wide
ranging piece of work. It reminded me of my roots—brought
me full circle in fact. I had read only a few of Ashton-Warner's
books, but she had stayed with me. Clearly she stayed with
Sydney in a significant way. I am grateful for the way that
she wove theinformation that she has collected over the years together
in such a way thatAshton-Warner lived and breathed again for me,
offering new life and inspiration to my work. This is a wonderful
teaching story, worth thetelling and reading. I recommend
From Dr. Jeannette Veatch, the professor
emerita at Arizona State University, who visited with Sylvia Ashton-Warner
in New Zealand and was one of her hosts in the United States.
Veatch brought the attention of American teachers of reading to
Ashton-Warner's Key Vocabulary:
Here is a book that furthers learner-centered
education far beyond any current educational practice. I believe
readers can use this book to support and develop their own methodology
and practice. I read it straight through, only pausing to
sleep. This readable book deserves the widest circulation
It is time for a resurgence of interest
in Sylvia Ashton-Warner, arguably the most gifted teacher of the
twentieth century. Clemens does a superb, insightful job in
researching and explaining this woman who gave the world so much,
giving us a marvelously complete and complex understanding of her.
review appeared in
The Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education
Volume 18, Number 1, Winter/Spring, 1997
by Dorothy W. Hewes, San Diego
Clemens, S.G. Pay Attention to the Children:
Lessons for Teachers and Parents from Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Rattle
OK Publications, 1996.
We all spend time reading to acquire
knowledge about such important matters as the latest research findings
or funding sources, but many readers of Spinster or Teacher
share the memory that this little paperback book validated beliefs
that they had never before recognized. The problems encountered
and worked through by Sylvia Ashton-Warner as she tried to teach
young aboriginal children in remote New Zealand communities were
not that different from those we were struggling with in the mid
60's. Sydney Gurewitz Clemens had this experience as a beginning
teacher in P.S.123 in New York City and it changed the trajectory
of her career, as many of us know through reading The Sun's
Not Broken, A Cloud's Just in the Way. This
non-linear biography is a wonderful mixture of sound historical
researching and philosophical self-searching.
Sydney visited archival collections
in Boston University and Pacific Oaks College and interviewed a
variety of individuals who had personal knowledge of Sylvia Ashton-Warner.
Beyond this, however, she made two trips to New Zealand to talk
with Maori and Pakeha (white) friends and critics. She was
not content with recounting what happened when—although there is
a detailed chronology showing important events in Sylvia's life
from her birth in 1908 through her own marriage and parenthood to
her difficult later years and international recognition by the time
of her death in 1984.
One of the fascinating aspects of
this account is the tension between all of the contradictory elements
in Sylvia's life and the personalized interpretation that Sydney
weaves throughout the book. It isn't just the teaching methodology
that has directly or indirectly influenced the way we teach our
own students and the public controversies about Key Vocabulary and
Whole Language. We also feel compassion for the guilt felt
by a mother whose husband voluntarily assumed many household duties
to free her for creative outlets and can identify with Sylvia's
confusion at the recognition that much of what she was taught about
teaching was violating the children's integrity.
Yes, I've used first names,
not those APA style initialed surnames. It's that
kind of book. We are reading about the innermost struggles
of our friends and colleagues. And ourselves.
E-mail to Sydney:
Date: Wed, 12 Feb 1997 10:00:49 -0800 (PST)
From: Tom Drummond
To: Sydney Gurewitz
Subject: Re: I look forward ...
Chapter nine is precious. I
have never seen the problem of teaching so elegantly stated.
I want to emblazon those words across the planet. Next week
I have been invited to a meeting in Olympia on the new teacher certification
system. I think I have something to contribute about the developmental
performances that celebrate essential elements underlying effective
teaching. Can I share some of your words with them?
Gonzalez-Mena, Author of Dragon Mom other child
development books, Napa, CA:
Sydney really knows her subject.
Her enthusiasm bubbles right out of the book. I learned a
Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, III, Fuller
E. Callaway Professor of Urban Education, Georgia State University:
Reading Pay Attention to the Children:
Lessons for Teachers and Parents from Sylvia Ashton-Warner,
gave me much more understanding of this magnificent woman.
I believe that this book deserves to be widely read by professionals.
I am deeply concerned that the practice of teaching has become a
technological exercise. While the technology is important,
the human context is even more so and I believe this book helps
to make that point.
Jack Shallcrass, New
Zealand Educator, Friend of Sylvia Ashton-Warner:
Like Paulo Freire, Sylvia Ashton-Warner
unlocked the power of the words that resonated the chords of people's
personal experience. For Freire this had profound political
and social implications because it was an act of liberation and
a call to action to right injustices. To be able to name something
was to have the power to confront it. Anything less than such
liberation was oppression—there was no middle ground. For
Sylvia the liberation was to free creative energy which lessened
the ever-present danger of the mind erupting destructively.
For Freire the logic of action was political, for Sylvia it was
to preserve the knife-edge balance between individual growth and
destruction. Though both believed and behaved with passionate
commitment, Freire was guided by intellect and Sylvia by her heart.
Freire is read and discussed predominantly in intellectual circles
while one of Sylvia's gifts was to make herself and her work accessible
to a wider public.
On these pages Sylvia appears as
I knew her: exasperating, charming and always, like good art, with
the capacity to surprise. What counts in the long run is that
she touched, challenged, and surprised so many people. She
made herself available at a time when such resonances were badly
Sydney Gurewitz Clemens has captured
all this and much more.
James T. Greenman, Early Childhood
I really liked
the quality of the writing and the content.
As an educator, I know the book will be a
useful addition to my library to draw upon
in future. Its audience should go
beyond fans of Sylvia Ashton-Warner or Sydney
Gurewitz Clemens, feminists, and proponents
of open education, to still more people who
read the book and go forward to learn more
from Sylvia Ashton-Warner and other progressive
Parekowhai, Teacher, Auckland College
of Education (New Zealand/Aotearoa):
As a young
Maori teacher I recognized the brilliance
of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, an inspired
Pakeha [white] country teacher, eliciting
optimum creative responses from infant
Maori learners, struggling to make sense
of a confused, foreign institution called
a rural Native/Maori school. Sylvia's
contribution for me is the response
of a sensitive teacher, entering and
transforming the natural world of a
Maori child, who was in search of a
worthy place in the violent, hostile
and competitive society of postwar,
mainstream New Zealand.
Pay Attention to the Children:
Lessons for Teachers and Parents from
Sylvia Ashton-Warner, to be a
detailed, sobering, scholarly expose
of her complex and often contradictory
Elizabeth Jones, Author of
Emergent Curriculum, Teaching
Adults, and The Play's
the Thing , Faculty,
Pacific Oaks College, Pasadena,
time to time there is a teacher
who inspires a great many other
teachers. Sydney Clemens's
passionate regard for Sylvia
Ashton-Warner as a teacher worth
learning from is vividly communicated
in this book.
Herbert Kohl, Author of
Reading, How to and other books about the possibilities of teaching,
Point Arena, CA: Sydney Gurewitz Clemens' book forcibly reminds
us that the work and life of Sylvia Ashton-Warner are every bit
as relevant today as they were when she was writing and teaching.
The book provides us with a personal and cultural portrait of Ashton-Warner
that adds depth to our understanding of her as an educator.
is about literacy that
comes from the heart and
honors children in a way
that is all too rare.
Diedra Epps-Miller, Specialist
in Parent and Staff Empowerment and Urban Education, San Francisco,
CA: Sydney Gurewitz Clemens has crafted a triple treat.
She has capably woven a biographical study of the enigmatic and
passionate Sylvia Ashton-Warner with a readable, scholarly examination
of Ashton-Warner's approach to teaching and other writings and has
added her own highly illustrative observations, reflections and
applications of this theory in her urban classrooms. Sydney's
insight and analysis of Ashton-Warner's work and its applicability
where cross-cultural teaching takes place provides the reader with
a new Key Vocabulary of critical elements for authentic practice.
Clemens and Ashton-Warner effectively
model the roles of teacher as researcher, as scribe and as guide,
while clearly articulating a viable framework for rewarding teaching
experiences. Pay attentiona simple yet profound credo÷challenges
adults to question the limits that society places on children's
potential. This book is a masterful story of inquiry, discovery,
exploration and validation, and I highly recommend it for Women's
Studies, Teaching Reading, and Urban Education courses.
Daniel S. Rubin, student, friend and publisher of
I really like the book, and think it
is an extremely valuable contribution. What I like about it
is the way it focuses on the real content and implications of Sylvia's
work. I especially appreciate the way in which you have made
it personal, and integrated your own perceptions as a learner and
teacher . . . .
The title of your book is very apt
. . . . Your understanding of what lies at the heart of education
is outstanding . . . .
It is the first piece I have
seen in writing that adequately reflects the real spirit of
what Sylvia was trying to communicate to teachers, other than
her own writing. Congratulations on an important job,
[Excerpted from a letter to author
Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, dated 20 January, 1998