By Art Petrosemolo
When I moved to Lancaster in the 1970s to work at Franklin & Marshall College, I knew very little about the Plain Sect Amish and Mennonite communities. I saw Old Order Amish at farmers’ markets, and roadside stands and met some farmers who, back then, even sold their produce from spring wagons right in my Grandview Heights neighborhood .
Although my career took us through multiple stops in the East over the past decades, we always planned to retire in Lancaster County and in 2016, we became the first residents of the Sycamore Springs neighborhood at Garden Spot Village. It wasn’t long thereafter before I made several friends in the Plain Community who have been a godsend to me when I find myself writing about farm topics for Lancaster Farming newspaperand Mid-Atlantic Horse magazine. They always make sure I’ve got it right or bail me out when my naivete gets me into hot water.
My interaction with Amish friends is primarily face to face so I was a little surprised recently, when I received a call from a local dairy farmer. I had photographed Mervin and his son Jason feeding their dairy cows for a Lancaster Farming story and again last fall as he bailed silage.
The reason for his call was to ask me if I would be a guest teacher at a local Amish school to talk to students about researching and writing interesting essays. I was surprised to say the least and honored to be asked and said yes immediately. It was only when I hung up that I begin to think of the challenges.
First I was going to spend an hour or so with 28 children in grades one through eight in a one-room schoolhouse and try to keep them all engaged in talking about writing essays. Their topic was the Bald Eagle. Within an hour I had found enough material online to write five different essays and planned to share it all with the students, as I knew they did not have access to the world wide web but only to library books, magazines and the school’s copy of the World Book Encyclopedia.
Then I thought of illustrations. I always tell my friends I write to photograph and its true. I find farm or agricultural photos I want to take—maybe riding in a combine during harvest, sheep shearing, goat yoga, or making Amish root beer—and then pitch my editor to do both the photos and a story. It’s been fun and in seven years, I haven’t run out of subjects yet.
We all take photos with our phones daily but naturally that isn’t the case with Plain Sect children. I struggled for a few minutes on how they could illustrate their essays and decided to download eagle coloring templates that they could finish with crayons or colored pencils to add illustrations to their stories.
My session with the students was early afternoon on a windy, March day. When I arrived at the school, the windows were filled with curious faces trying to get a first look at the “English” man who was going to talk about writing. I was warmly greeted by the students, their teacher and teacher’s assistant. I had a packet of materials for the teacher so she had handouts for the students including my coloring templates and lots of eagle background articles form my web searches. I assured her that I wasn’t going to contradict anything she had taught them but rather give them new ideas on how to research and then construct an interesting essay.
Amish children are pretty reserved, so getting them to interact with someone new took a few minutes. It wasn’t too long before the 5th–8th graders were answering questions and sharing what they had learned about the majestic birds and what they knew about a Bald Eagle’s size, habitat, wingspan, flying speed and breeding.
I introduced the students to every journalist’s fallback when writing by being sure they answered the questions of “who, what, when, where, why and how” as they crafted their essay. Then we discussed the importance of having an interesting introduction or lead, a narrative that covered what they hinted about in the introduction and then to wrap it up with a summary conclusion. I kept it simple enough, I think, for the younger children and answered questions on much of the research I had provided for them.
The hour flew by and my wife, who is a retired teacher, thought I did OK. I had asked the teacher before I got started if it were possible for the children to sing for Tina and me before we left. If you haven’t been fortunate enough to attend an open house for parents at an Amish school and heard young Plain Sect children, guided by their teacher, sing two and three-part harmony, you don’t know what you are missing. Older Amish children sing to the bride and groom while they open their presents at the wedding luncheon and it can bring tears to your eyes. The Cattail School students treated us to a 15-minute concert of hymns and it was the icing on the cake for a once in a lifetime afternoon.