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Laurie Block Spigel

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Pay Attention to the Children, by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens

Pay Attention to the Children - cover The work of Sylvia Ashton-Warner has influenced my life. My mother spoke to her students about this great woman in such a way that, as a young girl, I imagined her as an anthropologist who enlightened the world, and not as a teacher of children in a classroom. When I became a homeschooling parent, I was reminded of Ashton-Warner's work, and found a copy of Teacher — I think I had read it as a teen, and perhaps Spinster as well, but at that time I read them as novels. Now the book had become a touchstone for me, a well of inspiration. I find myself rereading passages again and again. In Pay Attention to the Children, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens's careful analysis of Ashton-Warner's life and work, I found details and practical applications that are missing in Teacher.

Ms. Clemens is an early childhood educator who recently co-authored with Leslie Gleim a comprehensive work in six parts titled Seeing Young Children with New Eyes: What We've Learned from Reggio-Emilia about children and ourselves. This educator's approach has its roots in Reggio-Emilio and Ashton-Warner: the child-led approach. "Child-led" can be interpreted many ways (like homeschooling and unschooling, these words have different meanings to different people). In Pay Attention to the Children, Ms. Clemens gives us the hands-on practical techniques that show just how to apply Ashton-Warner's child-led approach, how to find and use the key vocabulary, how to turn true stories into mythology, in essence, how to teach to the heart of the child.

Ashton-Warner's job as a teacher demanded that she apply a British curriculum to young Maori children, which resulted in massive failure. So she started to use the stories and words of the children to teach them, and the result was that they surpassed all expectations. I did this myself, taking the words, stories, and experiences of my own children and making these into their reading primers. But until I read chapters four and six, on the key vocabulary and telling credible and incredible stories, I didn't realize just how powerful and meaningful this application could be. Looking back, I now can see that when my son asked for the word "magician" he was talking about himself. His later pursuits (costume & set design, gaming master, writing fiction) were all ways of adopting this persona, the one who enacts a transformation for others. Thank you, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, for giving me a lightbulb moment on my own life! The very next day I applied the storytelling myth-making technique in this book with my students, with great success. And now I know just how far-reaching the effects of this work can be, far greater than the teaching of reading and writing. Language arts offers a liberating and healing experience for storytellers who create myths from their own lives.

Successive chapters examine the life of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, her strengths and weaknesses, through interviews and visits with people who knew her. As someone intensely involved in Ashton-Warner's work, is a logical progression for Clemens. However, for me, the great treasures this book offers are her personal examples of the application of a great educator's work.

You can purchase Pay Attention to the Children from Sydney Gurewitz Clemens's website.