​Sylvia Ashton Warner

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Sylvia Constance Ashton-Warner was born December 17th 1908 in Stratford, Taranaki. She was named after her parents daughter who had passed in 1905. Her mother was a strict teacher who found discipline important in schools and her father worked with manual labour. Because of her mother`s teaching habits, Sylvia and her family moved around a lot.
In school Sylvia was very shy and she considered herself ugly. She thrived for attention from her classmates and her mother. She was very talented in art. Her mother focused on children`s musical talent and this helped Sylvia in her musical talent, as well. Her happy family memories were those of music, and this inspired her to have a dream of becoming a concert pianist. She continued through her high school, focusing hard on her writing. It wasn`t until college when she started to become an interested in boys and make-up. At this time she became very social. By the end of 1930, Sylvia had become a fully certified teacher.

On August 23rd, 1932, Sylvia married Keith Henderson. During her second pregnancy, Sylvia became a member of a women`s institute and learned to speak Māorid. She started writing while teaching Maori youngsters, the descendants of the original Polynesian inhabitants. She had difficulty teaching and ending up having a nervous breakdown. Eventually, Sylvia got back into the role of teaching. She created many different children books which focused on an inspirational student. She continued her writing as well and published many of her works.
Sylvia`s husband developed cancer in his bladder and passed away January 7th, 1969. Sadly, on April 27th, 1984, Sylvia passed away from inoperable cancer. After her death, a movie created on her life was finished and went on to win the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award and the PEN First Book of Prose Award. An essay was also written in her memory. As said by Emily Dobson, Ashton-Warner has come to represent a challenge to a society that has been characterized by a distrust of emotion, restriction of opportunity for women, and an authoritarian control of non-conformity.



"I think that we have already have so much pressure towards sameness through radio, film, and comic outside the school, that we can't afford to do a thing inside that is not toward individual development, and from this stance I can't see that we can indulge in the one imposed reading for all until the particular variety of a mind is set"(page 96)

This was a book that Sylvia Ashton-Warner wrote in 1963. It is partially a diary, and outlines her teaching method in action and with examples. She believes that the environment must let kids grow and develop, and it is important to let the children go with their own ideas, and simply watch and observe them. It is stated that teaching is an organic process, and a teacher must process or cultivate "negative capability." She believes that the process of organic growth is that the strongest things will push up ahead of the less strong. Organic reading is indispensible in conducting a young child from one culture to another. In the Tolstory schools there is no programmes, no punishment, no rules, no forcing the will of a child; this has been very successful.
She worked with Maori children for several years, and in her book "Teacher" she talks about what happens in her classroom. To get her class to pay attention, instead of instructing them, she would play music. It is stated that there is a delay in the infant room because language and imposition of a culture. She believes that children have two vision; inner and outer. The inner eye is known to be organic, while the outer eye cannot be anything other than interesting. The first words a child speaks have intense meaning, and are already apart of one’s dynamic life. As for the first book a child reads, it is made of the aspects of a child. Reading helps to unlock the mind and release the tongue. The key words that a child will speak helps to unlock them, and therefore the secret of reading is exposed.
On page 42 of her book, there is a list of maxims that are in preparation of the Maori Infant Reading; the key vocabulary centers around two main instincts- fear and sex, the key vocabulary varies from one locality to another and from one race to another, backwards readers have a private key vocabulary which is one found launches them into reading, the power content of a word can be determined better from a backward read that from an average reader, in the presentation of key words to five year olds illustrations are to be shunned rather than content, the length of a word has no relation to its power content, and all matters in a Maori Infant room there is a Maori standard as well as a European standard. The standard to which they are discussing is to help bridge the breach between the races. Her class involves noise, movement, personal relations, actual reading, and above all communication with one another.
When the students help to teach one another, it helps the teacher so them she can teach them. One of the main and most important aspects she discusses and believes should be implied in a classroom is creative writing. It is very curtail because it involves key vocabulary. For students it is beneficial because they are able to write down their own key words, and will eventually be able to write more and more. Doing this helps with the students personality, because it lets them reach into their mind, and natures the organic idea of exercising the inner eye.
She believes that it is the teachers should see what is in the students mind and observe it. A creative way she helped the students learn was to take the students outside to see and handle things, they would come back inside to draw and write about this experiences which encourages students to learn. She also explains how the tone used when speaking to the students is qualified as the personality of the teacher, the personality of the children, and the method used. A big aspect she believes of teaching others is that she marries them. This is said this way because she believes they have to be a part of her, and for a good performance to take place you have to be whole. It is important to draw students near, and in spirit.
From page 101 in her book, there is a daily rhythm that is listed. Because people may not use this method of learning or agree with it, she feels like she is walking alone. However, she is inspired to go on because she has seen the meaning herself.

Daily Rhythm:
9:00-9:45 Breathe out- Organic work for Mornings
Creative writing
Creative dancing
Key vocabulary
Organic vocabulary
Paste painting
Doll's washing


11:00-12:00 Breath in
Key vocabulary ¼ hour for little ones
Organic vocabulary
Organic reading
Organic discussion
Stories, pictures, picture books for little ones

1:00-2:00 Breathe out- Standard work for Afternoon
Golden section
Plastic media for little ones

2:10-3:00 Breathe in- Standard work for Afternoon
Standard vocabulary
Standard reading
Maori book vocabulary
Maori book reading

Supplementary reading
Stories, songs, poems
Letters for little ones

(Ashton- Warner, Sylvia, Teacher. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1963)


"Key Vocabulary...the K. V....Captions of the action and pictures in the mind of our child."
In Sylvia's book "Spearpoint" she talks about a concept of using Key Vocabulary to bring out a child's native imagery and to use that as a way to build up their abilities to read by practicing with words that they know.

"Much of what they do learn, and regularly, is from the many accessible screens before which they loll form the moment they wake. They talk in high piercing voices to compete with the TV volume, simultaneously, and with an air of playing a TV role, so that you can't distinguish a TV role from the living performance. Children engaged in watching the screen are as good as the characters portrayed on it, so that they often find themselves answering a person on-screen instead of the one off-screen."

Talking about children and the way they educate themselves by television. Many of their words are influenced by the media, as seen by their use of words not related to their family or loved ones. One must remember this book takes place back in 1972, when Sylvia did her research, so much of it would be even more influenced by today's media.

(Ashton-Warner, Sylvia, Spearpoint. Alfred A. Knopf, INC., 1972)

Movie Trailer For the movie written on Synthia's Life

Created by:
Charla Mahlum
Chelsey Matheis
Derek Manson