Guest learned by teaching
- Published: May 23, 2013
The first graders in Ellen Guest’s class are lucky this year. Being the last class in Guest’s three-decade teaching career, the students get to carry out many of the fun projects she’s created over the years. The evidence is scattered around her classroom, where sunflowers sprout, worms compost, chrysalises transform, chicks hatch.
While the district will begin so-called project-based learning (PBL) next school year, Guest has been exploring similar methods for decades, squeezing in projects wherever she could. That’s one reason her retirement at the end of this school year is tinged with sadness.
“It’s bittersweet because [project-based learning] is the way I’ve always wanted to teach,” Guest said.
The Mills Lawn Elementary School first and second grade teacher of 12 years retires after 35 years in the Yellow Springs School District. Statewide changes to retirement benefits prompted her departure, she said.
Reflecting on her long local career, Guest said she always felt supported by the district in crafting new ways to reach students.
“Yellow Springs schools are wonderful because you have an opportunity to pursue the things you’re interested in with the kids,” Guest said. “As long as what you’re doing is still helping students to perform, you can approach things in the way you see is best for kids’ learning.”
Guest has sought to engage students with the natural world as much as possible, planting gardens right outside her window and bringing nature into the classroom. This year students harvested and cooked food from the school gardens, dissected owl pellets on a field trip, and watched a live Internet feed of a red-tailed hawk nest as part of a unit on the food chain (“What did the squirrel eat before it became dinner for the hawk?” Guest asked them).
Guest taught at nearly every grade level from K–8 during her time in the district. She enjoyed the playful and energetic middle schoolers, but in recent years has relished first and second graders. Teaching them is “like opening a present all year long,” Guest said, since it’s a mystery just how they will develop.
“They’re really blooming,” Guest said of the age group. “They’re discovering who they are and what they like, and I’m glad to be on the ground floor on their journey of self-discovery. It’s a privilege to be there when certain things get revealed about themselves.”
Mills Lawn was also a supportive and enriching environment, Guest said. She was consistently inspired by the talent and dedication of her colleagues. School-wide initiatives, which this year included modules on the 1940s and peacemaking, helped to nurture community in the school. And over the years a focus on art and artist residencies — from puppeteers and muralists to poets and musicians — engaged students.
Guest didn’t immediately know she would love teaching. After graduating from Blackburn College with an English degree, she taught high school in the Marshall Islands as part of the U.S. Peace Corps and also worked in adult education. It wasn’t until she began interviewing teachers as a reporter with the Yellow Springs News that she became attracted to public education. She went on to get a teaching certification through Antioch College and a master’s in reading and language arts at the University of Dayton.
It was her love of learning that drove Guest as a teacher, she said. When she interviewed for her first teaching position in Yellow Springs in the late 1970s, then Superintendent Ed McKinney asked her what her goal was as a teacher.
“On the spot I said I just want to be a better teacher,” Guest recalled. “I love to learn myself and teaching is always stimulating that way. Like other teachers I’m always trying to find a new and better way to teach something or address a child’s special needs.”
As she leaves, Guest is optimistic about the move toward project-based learning. She saw the benefits in her own classroom this year when she piloted a PBL project. Students focused on solving a real world problem — helping other students understand the food chain — and used inquiry and collaboration as well as learned content in the process of creating a book. In her retirement, Guest, who lives in the village, plans to spend more time hiking, canoeing and gardening, pursuing a photography hobby and visiting her granddaughter on the West Coast.
But for the next month Guest is trying to work in as many projects as she can. This week her students are decorating houses on paper according to their unique imagination, learning “how do you recognize what your dream is for your life?” Guest said. They’ll read Miss Rumphius about an old woman who makes the world a more beautiful place while challenging her students to do the same.
And, for the last time, Guest will read Megan McDonald’s Insects Are My Life while encouraging her students to find their own passions. Then, as she has done for years, she’ll write down on the inside cover what this year’s students love — stuffed animals, water slides, dolphins, Nana’s house.
“[The book] helps kids understand and appreciate that we’re all unique and all have our own special interests,” Guest said. Most books and materials Guest plans to leave for the next first-grade teacher. But she’ll take McDonald’s book with her and looks forward to one day reading it to her grandchild and sharing with her the loves of so many children that were once her students.