December 02, 2008

Amish children from Elimsport, Pa., walk each day to their one-room schoolhouse

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. – Kylie Brandt imagined the one-room school house would be gloomy and dark, crowded and stark, with nothing decorating the walls inside.

She was unsure how the Amish and Mennonite students would respond to her as a Bucknell University student giving lessons on science: a seemingly contradictory concept in the Anabaptist culture.

"I expected a little school house, a little wood cabin…and it’s nothing like that at all," Brandt recalled. "Really, the only difference was their dress and how they act. They were the most respectful kids I’ve ever met in my life. They were very excited for us to be there."

Brandt, a third-year student, is among a few dozen Bucknell students who have taught science in new-order Amish and old-order Mennonite schools through an education course developed by Katharyn Nottis, an associate professor of education. Previously taught through independent study, "Teaching in Diverse Environments" now is a formal course that gives students the opportunity to build skills outside traditional classrooms. Nottis received a curricular development grant from Bucknell for the course.

Building on a connection
The program grew out of an outreach effort of the Herr Memorial Library in Mifflinburg, where librarians forged a connection with the Amish and Mennonite schools more than a decade ago. Librarian Jeanne Roberts and staff member Carol Hollister first connected with the schools through a book-sharing program and later taught social studies in a dozen one-room school houses.
Some lessons went over better than others. A class on Vikings was not as well-received because Vikings are considered a myth among the Amish and Mennonites. Eventually, teachers started asking questions about scientific subjects. That is when Roberts and Hollister called on Bucknell.

Nottis and her husband, Gary, a Bucknell alumnus, work with the Herr liaisons to choose books and develop lessons that address real-life issues, such as encroachment of development on farmland or wildlife habitat, Katharyn Nottis said. The liaisons ask a Mennonite teacher to review the books before seeking permission to visit the schools. Gary Nottis creates digital maps, showing characteristics of the local area, such as soil type and landforms were certain crops grow best and habitat for songbirds.

"We don't do anything that would endanger their culture, but try to choose things that are useful to their everyday life," Roberts said. "We never talk about anything that would cause them discomfort, like genetics and evolution." 

The world around us
Past lessons have focused on soils, stream health and diminishing songbirds. This spring, the Bucknell students will give lessons on disappearing honeybees.

"We are helping them to process information that is being brought to them," Gary Nottis said. "There are people who try to introduce concepts into their community.  Some groups are pushing the idea of certified organic farming, and they don't understand it. They were suspicious of it.”

A teacher in an old-order Mennonite school in the Mifflinburg area said the lessons have made her students aware of things they do not see in their textbooks, which focus on reading, writing, math and German, their first language. The traditions of Amish and Mennonites vary depending on their order and religious beliefs, but, in general, they value simplicity and do not embrace technology in the home.

"As a Christian school, we teach from the Christian perspective of being aware of the world as God created it," said the teacher, who is not being identified to preserve the privacy of the schools. "This helps open their eyes and be more aware of what is going on. There was a lesson on water conservation that gave a new perspective. Most of the boys will be farmers one day, and they don't see this kind of thing."

Lessons begin before class
The teachers prepare themselves and the students for the science lessons before the Bucknell team arrives, and the lessons continue after they are gone, the Mennonite teacher said.

"We spend four or five weeks learning the terminology," she said. "I have the students write thank you letters to the guest teachers, too, which becomes a lesson in writing and vocabulary."

The Bucknell students prepare, too. Under the guidance of Nottis, they research the topic, and develop lesson plans for children ages 5 to 13. The Herr liaisons coach the student-teachers on how to dress – no skin, tattoos or earrings showing – and tell them to avoid the subjects of religious beliefs. Slang, which is offensive to the Amish, also is banned.

Another world next door
The Bucknell students said they learned from their experiences.

"A lot of Bucknell students don’t realize how close we are to this amazing culture," Brandt said. “It was fascinating to work in a different type of environment. We had to adapt our lesson plans. The way we spoke – we couldn’t say certain things. We had to really think on our feet. I think I grew up as a potential teacher.”
Fourth-year student Erin Wolfe, who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, had studied Anabaptist culture before visiting old-order Mennonite schools last year, but she was surprised at how well-behaved the students were.

"You could literally leave the building for an hour and come back and they would be sitting there with their hands folded, ready to go," Wolfe said.

Molly Babcock, also a fourth-year student who taught a lesson on songbirds last year, said she was surprised how much the students already knew.

"We would show them a picture of a bird I'd never seen before, and they knew the names, call and that they travel a lot," she said.

Contact: Division of Communications