Field Notes THE STACKS

Creative Teaching

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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share a sweet red apple for the birthday
of a creative New Zealand teacher.
** Linger to consider the challenges of balancing multiple cultures at a young age.
** Savor a last ½ cup smiling over a science lesson in rap battle style.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


First Sip:

‘A few cool facts,’ you asked me for
I don’t know that there’s a cool fact in me,
or anything else cool for that matter,
on this particular subject.

I’ve got only hot long facts on
the matter of Creative Teaching,
scorching both the page
and me.

– from Letter to My American Editor
Sylvia Ashton-Warner


Slice of Cake:

Sylvia Ashton-Warner was a teacher of 5-year-olds in the 1950s
in a small town in New Zealand.

Sylvia’s mother was also a teacher—
but was probably not her role-model…

As a child in the 1920s, Sylvia spent time in her mother’s classroom,
saw her mother’s strict style of rote learning—
and then grew up to teach in a very different style.

In 1938, after their second child was born,
Sylvia and her husband decided they wanted to work together.

They found jobs as teacher and principal at a school on the
North Island with mostly Māori students.
It was a job few other white New Zealanders were interested in.
While there, Sylvia slowly began to understand more about Māori culture,
and to learned to speak te reo Māori, the Māori language.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner also began writing books,
both fiction and non-fiction, with some success.
One of her novels was even adapted into a 1960s movie
starring Shirley MacLaine.

side note:
The film Two Loves (1961)
with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Hawkins is
based on Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s book Spinster (1958).
Supposedly, Ashton-Warner was disappointed by the movie.
…I’m guessing she wasn’t the only one!
(I looked, but I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere.)


Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s most famous book is Teacher (1963).1
It’s part diary, part memoir, and part practical details about her
innovations in child-based literacy and key-vocabulary techniques.

Her teaching method harnessed a natural energy source—
one she found in abundance—
the children’s own need to express themselves.

I talk to them all day.
I answer thousands and thousands of questions.
Mainly they teach themselves.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

With love, guts, creativity, and a lot of listening,
Ashton-Warner used this wellspring of child-driven creativity
to teach not only reading and writing, but
the complicated skills of how to navigate between cultures.


** Happy 115th Birthday **
Sylvia Ashton-Warner

– born on December 17, 1908
in Taranaki, New Zealand


Linger Awhile:

my niece & nephews
(when they were schoolchildren)
San Francisco 1983


I’ve been thinking this week about what we ask of our children in a multi-cultural society.

When a teacher comes from a different culture than her students,
it takes an extra effort on her part to understand and connect with them.
This week I’ve been reading about exactly that—in two quite different books:

** Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) and
** For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin (2016).2

It’s not beauty to abruptly halt the growth of a young mind
and to overlay it with the frame of an imposed culture

It’s little enough to ask that a ori child should
begin his reading from a book of his
own colour and culture.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

If we are truly interested in
transforming schools, and meeting the needs
of urban youth of color
educators must create
safe and trusting environments that are
respectful of student’s culture.

– Christopher Emdin

They’re separated by 60 years and almost 10,000 miles:

One was a white New Zealand woman who taught 5-year-olds
(in what was then called ‘the infant room’) in the 1950s;
The other is an African-American man who works with
high school students and teachers in 21st century America.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Christopher Emdin seem an unlikely pair
Yet their messages about teaching methods have a lot in common.3

They both talk about tapping into the creativity within their students,
and the importance of finding creative ways for students to
bring their own culture into the classroom.
Both also mention the amount of noise all this creativity can generate!

Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Reading Ashton-Warner’s book—
as she explains her experiences and methods in her own words

was sometimes confusing to me.
Her thoughts often seem to race ahead of her words.

But her writing is so delightful
as she describes her classroom challenges and innovations.
I loved her enthusiasm—and hearing about her amazing young students.

When Sylvia Ashton-Warner first started teaching early reading,
she was quickly frustrated by the accepted methods.

In particular, she saw that schools lacked an understanding of
how to help Māori children bridge the divide between
the two cultures they were being asked to live in.

This transition made by ori children is often unsuccessful.
At a tender age a wrench occurs from one culture to another,
from which
not all recover.

The delay
due to language, as well as the
imposition of a culture, [means that] many children arrive at the
secondary school stage too old to fit in with the European group
and they lose heart to continue.

Some fall in and out of trouble,
become failures by European standards,
and [lose] their social standing.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

To help her students,
Ashton-Warner came up with something she called Creative Teaching.

Some Things I Learned
Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Creative Teaching

I take the Key Vocabulary in the morning
when the energy is the highest.

I take it the minute they come in
before they touch any other medium,
because I don’t like to interrupt them later
when they are deep in blocks of clay.

Also I want to catch the first freshness.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Children Can Pick Their Own Spelling Words

What she found, through trial and error,
is that it’s important for a child’s spelling words
to have significance for that individual child.
If a word carries a vital meaning, the child will want to learn it.

So Ashton-Warner began something she called Key Vocabulary
letting the kids choose their own words to learn to spell.

Each morning the new words go up [on the chalkboard].
It’s exciting for us all. No one ever knows
what’s coming.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

She tested a small group of five-year-olds
by introducing a group of words, then immediately
testing which ones they remembered.

Almost half of the children could read the word ‘football.’
And more than half of them recognized ‘kiss’ and ‘cried.’
But all nine children could both read and spell the word ‘frightened.’

Why? Because these were the words and ideas that
the kids were already thinking about—words that were
packed with the most significance to them.

It’s interesting that it’s not the length of the word
that makes it harder or easier for the children to spell.

For instance,
she writes about one of these students taking six weeks
to learn the words ‘come’ and ‘look,’
which are classic first sight words of traditional early-reader books.

No time is too long
spent talking to a child to find out his key words,
the key that unlocks himself, for in them is the secret of reading,
the realisation that words can have intense meaning.

Words having no emotional significance
no instinctive meaning,
could be an imposition, doing him more harm
than not teaching him at all.

They may teach him that words mean nothing
and that reading is undesirable.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

She found that the children especially liked verbs.
‘Verbs are sentences in themselves,‘ she writes.

And she quickly figured out that the verbs should be past tense.
That way, not only can each sentences use fewer words—
but each word is meaningful.

Her examples:
‘Rangi cried’ rather than ‘Rangi will cry’.
‘Mummy kissed me’ instead of ‘Mummy will kiss me’.

The word ‘jalopy’ made its fascinating appearance the other day.
Brian wrote: ‘I went to town. I came back on a jalopy bus.’
This word stirred us.

The others cross-questioned him on the character of such a bus.
It turned out to mean

They still ask for it
“We haven’t had ‘jalopy’ for spelling lately,” Brian says.
He loves spelling it, which is what I mean when I say that
the drive is the children’s own.

It’s all so merciful on a teacher.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Children Can Write Their Own Reading Books

Like many Māori teachers at the time,
she found the subject matter of the
standard infant reading books too removed
from the real-life experiences of
the Māori children.

– Emily Dobson

How good is any child’s book
compared with the ones they write themselves?
– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia Ashton-Warner did not like the
standard reading texts, which at that time were mostly stories
about ‘Janet and John‘—two white American children.

Ashton-Warner quotes an official education publication which,
in praise of these textbooks, said:
‘A child can be led to feel that Janet and John are friends.’

Ashton-Warner scoffed at this idea of ‘Can be led to feel.’
She wrote:
Why lead him to feel or try to lead him to feel that these strangers are friends?
What about the passionate feeling he has already for his own friends?

She has the children write out two- or three-sentence stories
about their everyday lives.
She then has the children pair up and—I love this detail—read aloud
to each other the books they’d just written.

An example of student writing
from Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner

A child’s writing is his own affair
You never want to say, it’s good or bad.

You’ve got no right at all to criticise
the content of another’s mind.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

If a child said they didn’t want to write,
she would ask, Why?
The child was usually quick with “an account of some grievance.”
And she’d reply: Then that’s what you should write about.

(Which is, I think, quite a neat trick for any adult with writer’s block!)

There’s no occasion whatever
for the early imposition of a dead reading,
a dead vocabulary.
I’m so afraid of it.
It’s like a frame over a young tree
making it grow in an unnatural shape.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Make Room
for Noise

True, there is noise to it that
some would object to as unprofessional;
but when did I ever claim to
be professional?

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

In her book, Teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner talks about
some of the push-back she got from school administrators
and from some of the parents.
A common criticism she faced was that
her teaching methods encouraged an awful lot of noise.

She was okay with that.

Although the room will seem disorderly by sight,
it is not so by feel.

There’s a noisy kind of peace throughout the
long creative periods in the morning when
every child is engrossed in some medium of construction.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Here’s a story she tells about a beautiful Spring day,
a classical piano piece, and the spontaneous response
of her students—a moment she later recalled as her teaching’s
‘highest peak of achievement’

Last weekhaving settled them all down
busily and noisily writing stories,
feeling keenly myself the spring in the air

I ran over to the piano and began playing ‘Hark, Hark, the Lark!’

Then something happened

There was a flash of yellow to my right; I looked round.

It was Twinnie dancing.

A fine, exquisite, expressive dance
perfectly in rhythm with the music
and followed the feeling of it.

Ronald got up, and Matawhero,
the little Tamati girls, Riti, and Hine,
and there was the loveliest sight I have seen.
Swaying, dipping, whirling to the spring music of Schubert.

I give all the flowers to Schubert.
But I keep one myself for a crown.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner


“Half Cup More”

Students have developed a
disdain for school because they feel that to
be successful they must repress their authentic selves.
When students
see that the content being delivered respects
and values their culture
[it can] connect to students
in ways that the traditional curriculum cannot.
– Christopher Emdin

The full title of Christopher Emdin’s book is:
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too:
Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education

Dr Emdin talks about the problem he sees where,
the minute students step into a classroom,
they’re asked to leave behind their their everyday selves.

Students are rewarded for sitting quietly and listening:
Not for interacting with other students.
Not for asking too many questions of their own.

These students are unseen by teachers,
mere reflections of teachers’ perceptions of who they are.

– from Chapter 2:
Teach Without Fear

In practice, this doesn’t work for anyone.

In this model, very few of the students
end up successful

The students who receive preferential treatment because of
their performance of teacher-defined smartness
never truly
engage in the learning process because they are
too preoccupied with playing a role.

Students who refuse to comply
become so preoccupied with shattering
the inauthenticity of the classroom that they
lose the opporturnity to be academically challenged.

– from Chapter 6:

Instead, Dr Emdin proposes a very different idea for teaching:
It’s something he calls Reality Pedagogy,
and it works to value each student’s voice and
foster family within the classroom.

It’s “reality” because it allows urban students to bring their real
experiences and ways of interacting into the classroom—
so that classrooms can become more like communities.

He goes on to illustrate these ideas with examples from the community:
Black church congregations. Neighborhood barbershops
and hair salons. Even the students’ hiphop battles.

The point is not to
force everyone to be a part of the dominant culture,
but rather to move everyone to be themselves together.

– from Chapter 6:

His idea with rap battles is not just using the music itself—
but taking inspiration from the organization
and participation styles of the rap battle itself.

For instance, students prepare a short poem or rap
about the science topic they’d been learning.
Some students volunteer to be the rapper.
Others are ‘on the team’: helping with research,
word choices, and rhyming ideas.

In the battles themselves, just like in a regular rap battle,
the rappers go back and forth.
There’s lots of vocal encouragement and percussion from the listeners,
but only one person at a time has the floor.
This goes on, as Dr Emdin writes:
“Until it is clear to everyone in attendance who has displayed
the best combination of knowledge, technique, and ability.
Once this happens, the rappers shake hands,
members of their respective groups do the same,
and the battle is over.”

And everybody knows a lot more about their science topic!

The students have to first connect to
a classroomthat welcomes their brilliance,
celebrates it, and make them realize that they have
a natural ability
to be academically successful.

– from Chapter 10:
Code Switching


Take-Away Box

I like unpredictability and gaiety and
interesting people, however small.

And funny things happening, and
wild things happening, and sweet,
and everything that life is

I like the true form of living,
even in school.

– Sylvia Ashton-Warner


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

notes & footnotes

Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too:
Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education

by Christopher Emdin

In modern educational practice,
the teaching methods of Sylvia Ashton-Warner
and Christopher Emdin are called
Culturally Responsive Teaching.
It is an area of increasing theory and reasearch
and a focal area of my husband’s work!


Please note:
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2023

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