Sydney Gurewitz Clemens

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Telephone: 415.586.7338


Book Reviews

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Pay Attention to the Children: Lessons for Teachers and Parents From Sylvia Ashton-Warner

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
(1963, 210-11):


    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, the peace.

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 education.

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, and—most revealing—how 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 today—and 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 corrected—the 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.

More 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 22:27:30 -0500
From:       Patricia Cruickshank-Schott 
Subject:    Revisiting Violence, Power & Control
To:            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.

I 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 it highly.  

Patti Cruickshank-Schott

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 possible.

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.

This review appeared in
The Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 
  Volume 18, Number 1, Winter/Spring, 1997
by Dorothy W. Hewes, San Diego State University

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 Clemens 
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?

Janet 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 lot.


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 needed. 

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens has captured all this and much more. 


James T. Greenman, Early Childhood Environments Developer, 
Minneapolis, MN: 

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 thinkers. 


Dr. George 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. 

I found 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 character. 


Dr. Elizabeth Jones, Author of Emergent Curriculum, Teaching Adults, and The Play's the Thing ,  Faculty, Pacific Oaks College, Pasadena, CA: 

From 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. 

It 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.

by Daniel S. Rubin, student, friend and publisher of
Sylvia Ashton-Warner

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, well done.

[Excerpted from a letter to author Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, dated 20 January, 1998


E-mail:, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, 2007

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