Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1908–1984)

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Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1908–1984)

New Zealand writer and teacher who achieved international fame as an innovator of child-based educational methods, vivifying her experiences teaching Maori children, and promulgating an educational scheme based on "organic" integration of the inner and outer self. Name variations: Sylvia Henderson, Sylvia. Born Sylvia Constance Warner on December 17, 1908, in Stratford, New Zealand; died on April 28, 1984, in Tauranga, New Zealand, of abdominal cancer; one of nine children of Margaret (Maxwell) Warner (a teacher) and Francis Ashton Warner (a house-husband); attended Wairarapa College in Masterton, 1926–1927; Auckland Teacher's Training College, 1928–1931; married Keith Dawson Henderson (a teacher), on August 23, 1931; children: Jasmine, Elliot, Ashton.


New Zealand State Literary Funds' Scholarship in Letters (1958); Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Educator's Award (1980); New Zealand Book Award (1980) for I Passed This Way; Member of the Order of the British Empire (1982).

With husband, taught in several country schools in New Zealand with largely Maori populations (1931–55); described her experiences in autobiographical novels and educational treatises, which profoundly influence child-based educational methods throughout the world (beginning in the mid-1950s); taught in alternative elementary school, Aspen Colorado (1970–71); was professor of education, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia (1971–73).

Selected writings:

Spinster (1958); Incense to Idols (1960); Teacher (1963); Bell Call (1964); Greenstone (1966); Myself (1967); Three (1970); Spearpoint: Teacher in America (1972); O Children of the World (1974); I Passed This Way (1979); Stories from the River (1986).

Horoera School for Maoris was accessible by horse over eight roadless miles along a beach at low tide. Here in New Zealand during the late 1930s—using State-mandated traditional readers promoting British culture—Sylvia Ashton-Warner failed, by her own estimation and that of the school inspectors, to teach non-western Maori children to read. Desperate, intellectually lonely, she sank into a profound depression from which she surfaced through exploration of her "undermind," which she identified as the well-spring of her creativity and the source of creativity in others, especially children.

Later in 1941, in another outlying Maori school, Pipiriki, located 50 miles upriver from the coastal town of Wanganui, the story was different; with élan, she taught Maori children by listening intently, encouraging them to excavate their inner lives, to transform their most relevant feelings and sensibilities into manageable words, culminating in English literacy. In this isolated corner of New Zealand, Sylvia Ashton-Warner

had invented a theory and style of teaching that would have global repercussions, transforming the manner in which children throughout the world would be educated in the last half of the 20th century. Many thought she had discovered a way to prevent future war.

In her autobiography, I Passed This Way (1979), Sylvia Ashton-Warner summarizes the teaching principles of "organic teaching," a mode that begins with gathering a "key vocabulary":

Touch the true voice of feeling and it will create its own vocabulary and style, its own power and peace.

Supply the conditions where life comes in the door: let it.

Supply the conditions where the native, inborn imagery of our child can surface under its own power to be captioned or named, harnessed, put to work and to make its contribution to society.

Supply the conditions where the impulse to kill can surface to be isolated and defused.

Born on December 17, 1908, in Stratford, New Zealand, Sylvia Constance Warner was a middle child of nine in an impoverished family. Her mother, New Zealand-born Margaret (Maxwell) Warner, was an elementary school teacher and the family breadwinner; her father, Francis Ashton Warner, was housebound, an invalid suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. As a young man, he had immigrated to New Zealand from Great Britain, toting a wooden box of family heirlooms, some dating from the 15th century, including a coat-of-arms. After marriage and before Sylvia was born, he managed to work as a clerk for four or five years; thereafter, he was an invalid at home, bedridden or on crutches, and sometimes hospitalized for his painful, crippling rheumatoid arthritis. As a two-year-old, Sylvia was left to his sole care while her mother worked. She was influenced by his humor and storytelling, his bed remembered as an oasis; he is commemorated in her novel Greenstone (1966).

Margaret Warner, Sylvia's mother, supported her family by school teaching, at first changing positions frequently for diversity's sake, later losing job after job, perhaps because of frequent pregnancies, perhaps because of bad inspector reports; by reputation, she was fiercely proud. For one year in 1919, unable to find a teaching position, she reluctantly accepted charitable aide, which required her to take work as a housekeeper and give her younger children to foster care. During the same period, she adopted the hyphenated Ashton-Warner form of her name.

No matter how destitute the Ashton-Warner family, there was always a piano in the house, although it was never owned and was sometimes repossessed, there not being enough money for rent or grocery bills or payments on the piano. A child was always practicing, for Sylvia's mother exempted anyone from chores who was at the keyboard. Chores were strenuous; the Ashton-Warners lived in rural circumstances, sawing and chopping wood for heat and cooking, sometimes preparing food on an open fire in front of their house, not possessing an indoor bathroom until Sylvia Ashton-Warner was 14 years old.

Sylvia attended eleven primary and three secondary schools. Her mother was her first teacher and, according to Sylvia's biographer Lynley Hood , strict, brutal, and old-fashioned; she tied Sylvia's left hand behind to force right-handedness, an accepted practice at the time. Sylvia achieved dazzling ambidexterity, simultaneously drawing rabbits with one hand and mice with the other, or, on the blackboard, starting a sentence simultaneously at the far right and far left and completing it in the middle.

Sometimes Sylvia was not promoted in grade sequence, only to catch up with a month or two of intense application. In her autobiography, she explains that her elementary education occurred to a considerable extent in fantasy games with her sisters, prowling the out-of-doors, the forests and swamps. In order to reach the Masterton district high school, she rode a horse first seven miles, then, after a family move, eleven miles, often doing her untidy homework in the saddle.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner emphatically did not want to be a teacher; instead, she dreamed of a career as a concert pianist or commercial artist. Despite her native talent as an artist and musician, she lacked training and opportunity to realize her ambitions. Moreover, teaching and nursing were accepted career paths for women in 1925. Between 1926 and 1927, she was a teaching apprentice at Wellington South School, living away from home, boarding at the Y.W.C.A. In 1928, aged 19, she entered Auckland Teachers' Training College where she was certified as a teacher in 1931 during the Great Depression. Though there was no work available for new teachers, which accounted for a defeated return to her mother's home, Sylvia Ashton-Warner was eventually placed at the Eastern Hutt School in Wellington where she taught until August 23, 1931, when she married a Training College companion, Keith Dawson Henderson.

The Hendersons settled in a provincial school district, Manuka in Whaeorino, where Keith Henderson continued to teach older elementary school students. Sylvia did not hold a teaching job during this period. In the late 1930s in New Zealand, wives were not allowed to teach in the same schools as their husbands, although exceptions were made for what were considered less desirable assignments in Maori schools. Neither Manuka, nor Mangahume, Keith's next assignment, were Maori. Sylvia had three children: Jasmine in 1935, Elliot in 1937, and Ashton in 1939. According to her biographer, she displayed little interest in domestic duties; her husband cooked, washed clothing, and cared for the children, while she devoted herself to writing and painting.

In 1939, Ashton-Warner persuaded her husband to apply for an assignment to a Maori school so that she could return to teaching. They were appointed to Horoera School in East Cape near Te Araroa, several days travel into the remote reaches of New Zealand. Sylvia immersed herself in Maori culture and language, becoming fluent. She came to realize that one reason Maori children were unable to learn to read was that they simply did not respond to orthodox readers, to English words like train and can, for the simple reason that they had never seen trains and cans. She was critical of Western cultural ruthlessness: "The main idea in Maori schools was to promote the English culture and it was not so long ago that Maori children were strapped for speaking Maori in school." Tentatively, she added a few Maori words like kai (food) and hoiko (horse), noting greater success. But she was afraid of the inspectors. She became despondent and eventually was unable to leave her bed. She remained so for months until she received psychotherapy, living in Wellington for months away from husband and children.

With the help of a Freudian therapist, Ashton-Warner believed that she reassembled a self, learning to identify what she called "fear" (selfishness) with survival of the individual and "sex" (selflessness) with survival of the species. She emerged determined to balance her self-defined career as an artist with her activities as a nurturing teacher.

Aged 32, she returned to teaching at Pipiriki School for Maoris; she also established a room of her own, a cottage in the woods to which she retreated to play the piano, to paint and sculpt and write; in every new residence of her married life thereafter, a cottage, cave, or room was designated for creative retreat at the end of each day of teaching and on weekends. The classroom was also a place for creativity; she painted murals on its walls, played sonatas on the piano while her children molded clay, controlled children with music, encouraged dance, and practiced the theory that children will learn best if their first words and stories are their own, a key vocabulary emanating from words of fear, crucial family words like mommy, and words of sex, like kiss. In Teacher (1963), she writes:

Back to these first words. To these first books. They must be made out of the stuff of the child itself. I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material. Whether it is good or bad stuff, violent or placid stuff, coloured or dun. To effect an unbroken beginning. And in this dynamic material, with the familiarity and security of it, the Maori finds that words have intense meaning to him, from which cannot help but arise a love of reading.

Organic reading assumes that all "art is communication. We never really make things for ourselves alone. The books are to be read to another."

Release the native imagery of our child and use it for working material.

—Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia established her style of teaching during the years of the second World War; as a writer, she assumed her maiden name, Ashton-Warner, as her nom de plume. She theorized that, by releasing suppression, aggression might be channeled into permissible, expressive art and words: "I have always been more afraid of the weapon unspoken than of the one on a blackboard." Herbert Read, the influential British author of Education Through Art, recognized that she had, indeed, "discovered a method of teaching that can make the human being naturally and spontaneously peaceable." Worldwide desire to reeducate human beings in order to avoid nuclear extermination crescendoed during the Cold War period, coinciding with the publication of Ashton-Warner's novels and educational treatises about her discoveries teaching Maoris. She had perceived that "inescapably war and peace wait in the infant room; wait and vie" and that enabling children to be creative in order to vent their violence was more than a teaching matter: "It's an international matter."

Sylvia Ashton-Warner was also representative of a wave of women seeking to expand their opportunities in the 1930s and '40s. Dora Russell , the British feminist and educator, describes her as:

a dynamic personality, much self-absorbed, in whom stirred many of the inter-war discontents—the lack of opportunity for those who had striven to make something of themselves; the rising of rebellion of women against their traditional status; disillusion indeed with almost everything that derived from authority and tradition.

In her cottage retreat, Ashton-Warner explored her artistic gifts and sometimes entertained her friends, particularly Joy Alley , the district nurse, whom she disguised as her lover Dr. Saul Mada in her journal of these years, Myself (1967). She established an intimate friendship by letter with Barbara Dest , the New Zealand writer. By 1948, Ashton-Warner was beginning to publish short stories in the New Zealand Listener. She was also writing a journal, the raw material of Teacher, and a novel that remained unpublished except for parts that appeared in serial form in the New Zealand Monthly Review between 1959 and '60.

In 1955, aged 46, Sylvia Ashton-Warner retired from teaching. She had written and illustrated books for school children to read; she was frustrated by lack of official recognition of her transitional readers designed as a bridge between the "key vocabulary" and mainstream Janet and John (the New Zealand equivalent to the American "Dick and Jane"). Indeed, it appears that the district office claimed her manuscripts were accidently destroyed when they were in their possession.

Focusing on issues of educational theory and racial understanding, her first novel, Spinster (1958), was published in England and the United States to critical acclaim, named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year. In Spinster, she fictionalized her experiences teaching Maoris. Reviewers thought it "a first novel of singular literary quality and impact," receiving it with "an exhilarating sense of personal discovery." In 1962, she presented her teaching scheme in Teacher, writing in her introduction that she believed her contribution "universal": "For black, for white, for yellow and brown … it is universal. With tragic and desperate application to the racial minorities learning another culture." Educators around the world, and particularly in North America, were captivated. Jeannette Veatch , a university professor from the United States, journeyed to New Zealand to meet her as did Sir Herbert Read and many others. She received more attention from abroad than she did from educators and literati in New Zealand, a source of bitterness for her, accounting for her refusal to allow her name to be listed in Who's Who in New Zealand.

In 1971, two years after her husband's death, Ashton-Warner accepted a position teaching American children in an alternative elementary school in Aspen, Colorado. In this period characterized by the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, parents were seeking to remake the world by establishing experimental schools for their children. In Spearpoint (1972), Ashton-Warner described her disillusionment with ideals of equality and freedom-as-license; "organic" teaching did not work well in chaos. She concluded that American children had been dehumanized by television:

As our child sits hour after hour before the man-made screen, as the radio intrudes on the background of his mind or as the rabble-rousing beat of the latest hit booms through the trembling house, it is not the channel outward [that] is blocked to his imagery; it is that his defenseless mind, the frail, unique human marvel of his living feeling, is bombarded into sedation by overstimulation or even into extinction…. Our child no longer feels with love or with hatred; he does not feel at all.

She left Aspen, but before returning to New Zealand she trained teachers for two years at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner died of abdominal cancer on April 28, 1984, in her self-designed home in Tauranga, New Zealand. Appropriately, she died in her "Selah," the name she gave all of her rooms, cottages, and caves of self-determined, creative retreat. Selah in Hebrew means "to pause or rest."


Ashton-Warner, Sylvia. I Passed This Way. NY: Knopf, 1979.

——. Spearpoint: Teacher in America. NY: Knopf, 1972.

——. Teacher. London: Virago, 1980.

Hood, Lynley. Sylvia!: The Biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. NY: Viking, 1988.

Russell, Dora. Introduction to Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner. London: Virago, 1980.

suggested reading:

Cliett, William. "Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Message for American Teachers," in Childhood Education. Vol. 61, 1985, p. 207.

Veatch, Jeannette. "Individualised Reading: a Personal Memoir," in Language Arts. October 1986.

Wasserman, Selma. "Aspen Mornings with Sylvia Ashton-Warner," in Childhood Education. Vol. 48, 1972, p. 348.


Private papers and manuscripts held in the Sylvia Ashton-Warner Archives, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

related media:

British film Two Loves (1961), based on Spinster, directed by Charles Walters, with Shirley MacLaine , Laurence Harvey, Jack Hawkins.

New Zealand film Sylvia (1985), based on Teacher and I Passed This Way, directed by Michael Firth.

Jill Benton , Professor of English and World Literature, Pitzer College, Claremont, California

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Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1908–1984)

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