Guy Wesley Wagner
A dedication to education. A vision for its future.
“The good school is the school where kindness, hard work, respect for others, and a fundamental happiness should be in constant evidence,” said Guy Wesley Wagner, Director of the Iowa State Teachers College Laboratory School from 1941 to 1945 and again from 1960 to 1962.
“I believe that children should have the opportunity to share in the development of their own school standards and programs, but because they are still children there is need for much important planning if there is to be effective teacher guidance.”
Enrichment, creativity, and fun (“happiness”) were the touchstones of Wagner's legacy as Laboratory School director, as head (twice) of the ISTC Department of Teaching, and as founder and director of the ISTC Curriculum Laboratory. Collaboration was his key.
Wagner was born on August 15, 1902 in Reinbeck, Iowa, and graduated from Reinbeck High School in 1920. During his college days at Iowa State Teachers, he already stood out as a leader. He played on the 1922 ISTC football team and lettered in baseball. Asked his senior year by the College Eye's Inquiring Reporter “Why doesn't this school have school spirit?”—Wagner replied: “I believe that this school does have school spirit, but it is SCHOLASTIC school spirit, which should be as much admired as athletic school spirit.”
Wagner was elected President of his senior class, and, in November 1925, led a delegation of 40 ISTC students to the Des Moines State Student Convention to explore the theme “What is wrong with our education system?”
Back on campus, he conceived the idea of ISTC's first Senior Class Prom and served on the seven-student committee that made his idea a reality. In the north half of the Women's Gym on February 8, 1926, nearly 100 senior B.A.'s and their friends participated in the grand march headed by Wagner and his partner. They marched toward “an artistic canopy” of lavender, pale green, and pink streamers. As each “man and maid” parted at the canopy, each was given a leather address book with a gold TC seal and an attached leather pencil.
In 1926, Wagner was one of eight male finalists voted by the student body in the Old Gold Popularity Contest. At graduation in May, he penned a poem for his “Class of '26” that was printed in the 1926 Old Gold. He was commemorating, too, ISTC's 50 years as an institution:
We are the class of '26
That's gathered here with all since '76
Come join with us
To give a cheer
On the 50th birthday year.
TC forever and for aye;
We back our college every day.
We sing praises far and near
To our Alma mater dear
That will prove to all our loyalty.
These words proved truer than he knew.
Wagner's major was Earth Science, and he was hired immediately to teach science and athletics and to be principal at Colesburg, Iowa. By 1931, when he left Colesburg, he was Superintendent as well. During his years at Colesburg, he pursued further education. He studied at the University of Washington in Seattle and at the University of Iowa, where he received his M.A. in Education in 1929.
In 1933, Ames, Iowa hired Wagner to serve as supervisor of its elementary and junior high schools. During several years, he also taught at Wartburg College's summer sessions in Clinton. In 1935, Wagner earned his Ph. D. in education from the University of Iowa, and was immediately named principal of the Training School at the State Normal College in Oswego, New York. There he served also as director of the college's curriculum laboratory and as coordinator of methods work.
During his undergraduate days at ISTC in the 1920s, Wagner had worked directly under the supervision of Dr. Eva Mae Luse, the Laboratory School's Director since 1918. In 1940, Dr. Luse married and moved to New York City. ISTC President Malcolm Price turned to its popular (and now prominent) alumnus and drew him from Oswego back to Cedar Falls. In 1941, Wagner became both the new Director of the Laboratory School and Head of the Department of Teaching.
“If the preparation of teachers is as adequate today as it was when I attended here, and I am sure it is, then surely the students are receiving as fine a preparation as could be had in any institution in the country,” Wagner declared. “I sense this is a teachers college where the good and usable in the traditional program is being retained, while at the same time new ideas of merit are being capitalized on.”
Wagner told the College Eye: “It is a real pleasure and privilege to come back and work with the people of my own state. So far I have received splendid cooperation and I am indeed very happy.” He said he was proud to follow Dr. Luse and “maintain the steady growth of the teacher training program that developed during her administration.” He wanted his office, he said, to be “known as a friendly office, an office in which pupils of the Campus School, students of the college, and fellow faculty members will always feel welcome.”
Immediately Wagner began to place his own stamp on the Campus School. He appointed an elementary school principal for nursery through sixth grades and a secondary school principal for the junior and senior highs. He also created specialist positions within the Campus School: senior and junior supervisors. C. Taylor Whittier, nearing his Ph. D. at the University of Chicago, was named senior supervisor of eighth grade. Whittier had supervised the development of a testing program for the Oak Park, Illinois schools. John Bleise became senior supervisor for science. An ISTC alumnus, like Wagner, and former instructor at Cedar Falls High School, Bleise had served as a senior counselor for the Iowa Junior Academy of Science. Junior supervisors for various areas were also named.
For the summer of 1942, Wagner changed the Laboratory Summer School to one nine-week session. In previous years, the grade school had operated on an alternate six-week basis, with one class attending the first six weeks and the other the last six weeks, while the high school ran the full twelve weeks. A record 140 students attended the 1942 summer session designed “primarily as an enrichment program for children,” Wagner explained, “one that will be attractive to pupils with all grades of ability.” All boys and girls fourth grade and above received swimming instruction. Training in the 3 R's was offered for children needing make-up work in reading, writing, and arithmetic. “We believe that the program will contribute strongly to the children, not only from the standpoint of academic achievement, but also social, emotional growth and physical welfare,” said Wagner. “It is only by providing the best possible school for children that we can fulfill our obligations to students and observers.”
By the summer of 1943, enrollment had increased by 77%. Previous Summer School enrollment had been 80 in 1941, 140 in 1942, and now 247. Wagner credited the large increase to the new “enrichment” program which emphasized activities without sacrificing the 3 R's. At the start, a diagnostic test was given to each child. “This showed both teacher and child what he must work on,” Wagner explained. “This last is important because the student must sense his own difficulties before he can correct them.” A special academic program was then designed for each student. These were supplemented by music, work in the art shop, creative writing, choral reading, dramatics, and swimming. The first graders went on many excursions and planned pet and toy shows. The sixth grade students worked with a high school group on practical gardening. They grew tomatoes and asked to can them in the fall for the nursery school.
In the spring of 1942, Wagner also tested a special new one-year program for rural teachers. Wagner first approached the superintendents in Iowa's 99 counties. They were invited to nominate a rural school and teacher for the program. The superintendents and Wagner then together chose the new “senior teachers” (as they were called) on the basis of their outstanding work as teachers and ability to give excellent guidance to young “apprentice teachers” enrolled in the new one-year rural program. The senior teachers received enhanced monthly pay. They also were expected to take certain summer school courses related to supervision in the rural schools (tuition free). In the new program, ISTC students would round out their year's training with three months' actual practice teaching in rural schools as assistant to the regular teacher. During this period, the students lived in the locality—often their home counties. The apprentice teachers sent back weekly reports of their activities along with the lesson plans they used. While “practice teaching,” they also took a five-hour course in rural school management.
Before this new program, a period of observation in one of the two rural demonstration schools was the only “real-life” teaching shown the students. This would still occur, but the three months' “apprentice teaching” would give fuller experience. “Young women who may never have been inside a rural school were given opportunities to experience such actualities as playground supervision, record keeping, class teaching, and janitorial work,” explained Dr. Elmer Ritter, the new TC director of rural school apprentice teaching. Sometimes the apprentice teachers directed a school play or a community project.
Wagner had just begun at ISTC when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 plunged the nation into war. Immediately, President Price asked Wagner to serve on ISTC's Defense Board. Wagner and his fellow Board members were to provide advice and aid to students regarding military service. “These men stand ready to help in any way possible,” President Price explained. The Board's second duty was “to keep in touch with professional education groups relative to what can be done on this campus so that we may be able to render a professional service to our students and nation during this present emergency.”
Wagner's first move was to set up a parallel Campus School “Defense Council”—one of the first in the nation. It consisted of eleven Campus School seniors (including President Price's daughter, Nancy, today the well known novelist). By early January 1942, the Campus School students were selling defense stamps and encouraging the whole school to conserve electricity, paper, and soap to make shortages less serious. Student Glendora Saack led a Campus School initiative to send boxes of food, books, and magazines to soldiers in the armed forces, “and especially to alumni.” In late March 1942, Wagner opened a series of five Holy Week talks on the theme “Light for Living in a Darkening World.” He titled his talk “We are Able.” In the fall, he chaired a panel of ISTC professors discussing “Developing Global Understanding in the Middle and Upper Grades” and shared his views on “Educational Priorities in the Time of War” with the general public over KXEL radio.
By 1943, the Campus School had organized a “victory corps” focused on curricular and extracurricular activities geared toward winning the war. These included recycling waste, physical fitness activities, Red Cross work and other critical occupations. Wagner himself became chair of the local Red Cross camp and hospital committee which supplied materials to hospitals and military posts in the area. The magazine School Activities brought national attention to TC through Wagner's article on “The Campus School Program to Help Win the War.”
Another national magazine, Junior Arts and Activities, published Wagner's suggestions for “The Rural School in Wartime,” while Midland Schools, the publication of the Iowa State Education Association, published his article outlining “The Tasks Ahead.” In 1943 Wagner was also involved in a convention for Cedar Falls, Waterloo, and Hudson focused on “Children in War-Time and Afterward.” On the radio he spoke of sacrifices required.
Early on, Wagner was asked “What's Ahead for Teaching?” in light of the war. His views went beyond the war. “Education will be extended downward to reach younger children and upward to reach more adults,” he declared, foreseeing initiatives we know today as Head Start and lifelong learning. “The school plant will be used for more hours in the day and months of the year; supervision of the teachers will be more informal and democratic; and studies in science will be extended downward to the lower grades.” Wagner called for a future that would provide “equal educational opportunities for everyone and increasing hemisphere solidarity by introducing studies of Latin American countries and their cultures.”
In 1945, the United States War Department asked Wagner to teach public school curriculum and administration at a new Army University established in Shrivenham, England. It was designed for U.S. troops in Europe who wished college work. On leave from TC for this assignment, Wagner received the praise of Brigadier General C. M. Thield, the Commandant of the Army University. Thiele wrote to ISTC President Price that Wagner's work in England upheld “the best traditions of institutions of higher education in the United States.” He suggested that “The excellent results being obtained by Professor Wagner undoubtedly [would] be a source of pride and gratification” to Price and colleagues at ISTC.
In 1947, the United States War Department asked Wagner to serve as a curriculum consultant for its Dependent Schools across the world, schools for children of American citizens in foreign countries. Wagner was assigned specifically to aid the 40 Dependent Schools in the European theatre, with authority to send materials to these schools at a moment’s notice.
In 1946, the war at last over, President Price had a new task for the returning Wagner. At the State Normal College in Oswego, New York, Wagner had directed a curriculum laboratory as well as serving as principal of the College's Training School. Now Price asked Wagner to establish a Curriculum Laboratory for ISTC. A campus committee had carefully investigated this new direction. Dr. Dwight Curtis was hired to take over Wagner's role as Director of the TC Laboratory School so Wagner could create this new “Laboratory” which would assist, not only the Laboratory School and schools in Iowa, but also schools and teachers across the nation and world.
From 1946 to 1947, Wagner assembled courses of study in all subject fields from TC's Laboratory School and from hundreds of schools throughout the planet. In 1947, Wagner explained this new service in an article published in the national magazine Educational Leadership. One of the main purposes of TC's Curriculum Laboratory was to survey the broad field of teaching materials, select the best, classify them and make them easily available to teachers and pre-teachers.
Open from 7:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Curriculum Lab offered hundreds of textbooks, pamphlets, pictures, teachers' manuals, standardized tests and reporting forms, and a variety of free and inexpensive charts and posters. In 1949, the Curriculum Laboratory added an Audio-Visual Center. While the Curriculum Laboratory focused on “what to teach,” the Audio-Visual Center showed students, teachers, and administrators “ways to teach” and “tools to use” for optimum teaching.
Wagner and his staff served as consultants to schools everywhere. Upon invitation, they would visit a school, observe its programs, and make suggestions for the revision and improvement of the curriculum. Delegations from schools would also come to campus to study new teaching materials and consult with the staff. Wagner and his staff were kept busy answering hundreds of letters of inquiry: “What are the latest methods of reporting to parents?”; “What is a good fourth grade program?”; “How can we go about evaluating textbooks in high school physics?”; and even “Where can I get pictures of real Native Americans?” Colleges near and far wished to establish their own curriculum laboratories and sought direction. Such queries ranged from the University of Oregon to Cortland State Teachers College in New York, but also from Venezuela, Korea, the Philippines, and Alaska and Hawaii before they were states. In 1949, the new Audio-Visual Center had available for use by TC students and staff (and beyond), some 400 motion pictures, 1,500 filmstrips, 340 disc recordings, and a multitude of maps, globes, charts, models, and slides. The Laboratory School soon had its own audio-visual coordinator in Dr. Robert Paulson, who worked closely with Wagner and—alongside his Lab School duties—taught classes in effective educational use of audio-visual tools.
That year, Jessie Parker, Superintendent of the Iowa Department of Public Instruction, turned to Wagner to complete an immense curricular task for the state. W. H. McFarland of her Department had begun assembling and publishing high school courses of study in 21 subjects when he died in 1948. Wagner headed a committee that completed the task. The new books, curricular guides for secondary teachers ranging from 22 to more than 400 pages, set up sequences of content and learning activities. They suggested, Wagner explained, “what should be taught, in what order, and how” and were available to students and teachers in Iowa through the ISTC Curriculum Laboratory as well as through the State Department of Public Instruction.
In 1950, Wagner led an effort related to the atomic bomb that reached the entire state and nation. Called “The Iowa Plan for the Study of Atomic Energy,” it was the first school program of its kind attempted in the nation. Grade school and high school “bulletins” were created which allowed students to probe atomic science and the past and future social implications of the atomic bomb. Wagner headed the committee that created the grade school bulletin. In September 1950, one-day teacher institutes were held in 32 Iowa communities to introduce the cutting edge “Atomic Energy” course which could be incorporated into existing science or social studies courses or taught as an independent unit. The July 10, 1950 Newsweek stated that the Iowa Plan was “the best being done” and that it stood “far in front” of any other statewide attempt to promote atomic education.
Wagner directed the Curriculum Laboratory until his retirement in 1971; however, he kept close ties with TC's Lab School across these years—and throughout his retirement. Beyond collecting, analyzing, and classifying curricular materials for use of teachers near and far, Wagner never stopped creating new educational materials to enrich students' lives. “Though much of his career was spent as an administrator,” Robert Eller wrote at Wagner's death, “he delighted in visiting classes and interacting with children at their studies.” A ceaseless innovator and prolific writer, he would collaborate with Lab School teachers to make new enrichment activities available to students and teachers across the world.
By 1946, he had joined the college’s Educational Publication Committee. In 1947, he partnered with the Readers Digest to offer schools the Reader’s Digest’s Workbook in Reading, a new kind of elementary textbook. The Workbook followed the format of the national Reader’s Digest magazine, but was designed for elementary students. From the previous 20 years, Wagner chose Reader’s Digest articles appropriate for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders: articles with high reading interest and low reading difficulty. Illustrations increased in the students’ version, and each story or article was followed by an exercise adapted to the nature of the piece. This first Workbook stressed vocabulary improvement and fostered reading speed, comprehension, and the ability to evaluate reading critically. Many more Reader’s Digest Workbooks came from Wagner and Lab School teachers in the next years. More than a million copies were sold.
Lab School elementary teacher Joan Duea explains Wagner’s collaborative process: “He dropped into my classroom and introduced himself. He sat and watched me teach and then, when I had a break, he asked what committees I was serving on. Ross Nielsen has assigned me to the Lab School’s math and science committees. Guy said I should do my research in those areas and he would make sure that we got something published during my first year. He guided me in a collaborative team and Reader’s Digest published the two books.”
Duea speaks of Wagner’s kind support. “He was very sensitive to what it was like to be a first-year teacher at the Lab School. He reminded me that I needed balance in my life. When we started a writing project, he organized it in such a way that we would submit pieces and he became the main editor. The process was simple and he broke it into pieces so it was easy to accomplish.” On Joan and Jerry Duea’s first Easter and Christmas in Cedar Falls, Wagner brought stuffed toys for their young daughter. Duea found in Wagner, she says, “an astute professional, a thoughtful mentor, and a cuddly ‘grandpa’” for her children.
Wagner regularly collaborated with Lab School faculty for his creative publications. In 1963, Wagner and Lab School fourth grade teachers Max Hosier and Mildred Blackman published Language Games, 175 language games classified in four levels of difficulty. The games encouraged clarity and originality in communication; fostered vocabulary growth; built dictionary and spelling power; and even made practicing “correct usage” fun. The trio earlier authored Listening Games and Reading Games. Soon Lab School teacher Laura Gilloley joined the team, and by 1965, the Teachers Publishing Corporation had added new books on arithmetic and social studies games.
“Teachers have always used games of some sort to lighten the day’s work,” Wagner explained, “but often the games had little or no relationship to the classroom routine.” Wagner’s series, in contrast, were not just for fun. “Each game,” Wagner noted, was “carefully analyzed and designed to strengthen the students’ skill in certain areas. We aren’t trying to sugarcoat education or disguise it, but we certainly have no aversion to having the children enjoy their education.”
In 1967, Enriching Elementary Science with Games and Activities became the seventh book in the series. Joan Duea continued on the team and was joined by Louis Finsand, a Lab School elementary science consultant, and Dorian Mork, an educational media consultant. The eighth volume, Games and Activities for Early Childhood Education, came out the same year. Wagner and Lab School teachers Laura Gilloley and Betts Ann Roth designed the activities in this book to engage the whole family. “The very act of participating in activities and games of mutual interest to parents and children tends to enrich home life, develop comradeship, and strengthen family ties,” Wagner stressed, “as well as encouraging academic performance.” Geared for children from three years old through the primary grades, the book was meant for use by day care centers and Head Start programs as well.
Wagner retired in 1971; however, he never stop creating, collaborating, and writing. In 1972, he created a monthly series called “The Challengers” for Early Years, a national magazine for teachers. Each article offered teachers ideas and activities to inject fun and creativity into learning. Aimed at early childhood and primary level teachers, the series won four awards from the Educational Press Association.
The same year, Wagner and Hosier published two new books: Word Power Games and Learning Games for Intermediate Grades. Wagner now started to add his own daughters to his teams—one a writer and tutor; the other a reading teacher. In 1973, Wagner joined with his daughter Jacqueline and Lab School teachers Betts Ann Roth and Marshall Schools for a book titled Challenging Activities for the Early Years. In 1974, Health and Safety Games and Activities followed from Macmillan publishing—further work from Wagner, Hosier, Wagner’s daughter Joan, and Mary Holt, an instructor in physical education and health for the Montezuma Community Schools in Iowa. This book was followed by Building Language Skills with Dynamic Activities in 1975 and a volume for the 1976 bicentennial, Kindling Patriotism with Challenging Activities. When Wagner died on March 21, 1985 at the age of 82, two more elementary science books, Our Human Body and Our Solar System, were all ready to be published at the end of the year.
Guy Wagner was a popular motivational speaker across his career, and he gave back to his first and last college as a nine-year member and then President of the UNI Foundation Board. He served at various times as chair of the Cedar Falls chapter of the American Red Cross, as Education Committee chair for the Lions Club, state radio chair for the Iowa PTA, and President of the Iowa Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
All the while, he never stopped creating, writing, and making learning fun. He published more than 35 books with collaborators and some 300 articles on his own. Max Hosier, who wrote with him for more than 20 years and created with him more than 1,500 classroom games and puzzles, explained that “Through classroom games, a student can become an independent learner. He or she can be independent in the acquisition of a skill or some aspect of character development. Education doesn’t have to be dull.”
“The purpose of the games is to make children creative,” Wagner would add. “If I’d give them a game and they worked it out, then I’d ask them to make up a similar game on their own.”
Wagner also never stopped envisioning education advance. As early as 1950, he declared that “A look into the future reveals possibilities for parent conferences to replace report cards, for parent education, for universal health examinations, for more highly specialized personnel to assist teachers, and increased education for [students with disabilities].” Wagner declared that the movement “toward continuous progress for all pupils suggests that eventually grade grouping as such will be eliminated. Groups which are based upon levels of experience and achievement as well as social maturity will be substituted instead. Teacher activity might very well be changed by such an individual curriculum. A smaller number of pupils will be assigned to each teacher for a greater length of time, probably for a 2 or 3 year period. Teachers might be employed year round with some time available for curriculum planning and others types of planning activities.”
“It is only by providing the best possible school for children,” he claimed, “that we can fulfill our obligations to students and observers.”