“A note at the bottom said something about how great the presentation was and asked if I had ever considered becoming a teacher,” recalled Nosbisch, who teaches kindergarten through third-grade reading to Amish students in rural Buchanan and Fayette counties.The evaluator, Cory McDonald ’96, a U.S. government, civics, world history, and contemporary affairs teacher at New Hampton High School, continues to impact students. He was recognized at Wartburg’s 2015 Commencement as one of two outstanding high school teachers. His nominator, Jenna Fitzgerald ’15, said McDonald is “known for inspiring imagination in his students through academics and athletics.”
“He was actually one of my favorite teachers,” Nosbisch said. “I don’t know if it was a coincidence he graduated from Wartburg or if Wartburg just made him such a great teacher and that was why I liked him so much.”Nosbisch was similarly impressed with Dr. Susan Sherwood, a Wartburg education professor who spoke to her high school’s Future Educators of America organization.
“We had been having presentations from different colleges about their education departments and most of the presenters just made me very nervous about teaching,” Nosbisch said. “I went home that night and told my parents I wanted to seriously look at going to Wartburg.”Coincidences continue Nosbisch’s interest in the Amish culture was piqued during an excursion for a Wartburg human relations course that required students to complete two cultural experiences outside their comfort zone. Her group chose to tour one of the several Amish retail communities in northeast Iowa.
“We were driving around on these gravel roads, and I saw the Amish schools with public school names. As a future educator I was very interested in how the schools operated,” she said. “I had the same questions as everyone else. Do they have heat? Electricity? Do they have to stoke a fire to keep the building warm?”She soon had the opportunity to ask those questions, and many more, during a job interview after finding the opening for her current position on the TeachIowa website.”
“I had to learn what they could read about or even learn about. I would go to garage sales to buy books, and there were cars in them. I didn’t know if they could learn about them,” she said. “They can. The only subject they can’t really learn about is babies and pregnancy, even animals mating. That topic’s off limits.”Looking back, Nosbisch is certain she met at least one of the families she now teaches during that trip from Wartburg.
“I had some hesitation when applying for the job, but I decided to give it a shot,” she said. “Everyone I talked to about it thought it would be interesting, and it certainly has been. Now, when I go places, I hate to be the person who talks about their job all the time, but I usually just can’t stop. It’s fun to talk about and interesting for others to learn about.”
FROM THE MAGAZINE
Reading teacher blends modern education with Amish traditions When Amy Nosbisch ’14 tells people she teaches Amish students in rural Buchanan and Fayette counties, most picture a scene straight out of Little House on the Prairie.
In some ways, they are right. Her students come from homes without electricity or indoor plumbing. They walk to school—regardless of weather—with some coming from at least a mile away. During winter, they bundle up with straw caps and bonnets. When the temperature rises, they come barefoot.
At school, they draw water from an outdoor pump and use an outhouse when nature calls (an indoor bathroom is coming this fall).
But when the school day starts, the 30-plus kindergarten through eighth-grade students study the same concepts as their peers in the Wapsie Valley Community Schools.
They just do it without modern technology.
“I was actually surprised by how similar it all is,” the New Hampton native said. “We still use the latest teaching techniques and attend professional development. We are still up-to-date with all the technology. We just don’t use it.”The same, yet different The Wapsie Valley school district operates four rural schoolhouses for Amish students. Nosbisch, who teaches kindergarten through third-grade reading, splits time between two.
Inside, the schoolhouses look similar to other elementary classrooms. Brightly colored name tags adorn the desks. Art projects hang on the walls and from the ceiling. Books, puzzles, and other learning tools are stacked in see-through containers.
But, a state exemption allows these students to complete their formal education with eighth grade. The reading, writing, and math skills taught in the traditional school are then translated into life skills that can be used to help run a family business.
And, while traditional school districts are fighting for funds to provide a laptop or iPad for every student, Nosbisch is spending her school budget on paper, pencils, and other educational tools that fit into the Amish lifestyle. The school’s only piece of technology—an overhead projector—is rarely used. Instead, the teachers rely on good, old-fashioned textbooks and, when needed, pages printed from the Internet.
“Regardless of the technological tools or skills a student brings to their classroom, Wartburg is producing high-quality educators who can adapt to a variety of situations,” said Josh Sinram, the Wapsie Valley Elementary Schools principal and a 2008 Wartburg graduate. “At the end of the day good teaching is good teaching, and Wartburg is ensuring students in the education program are ready to teach, lead, and serve the students they encounter.”
Nosbisch’s students say they speak “Amish,” though most of Iowa’s Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a mix of Low German and English. They are not allowed to speak “Amish” inside the school walls, but Nosbisch sometimes allows her younger students to explain thoughts in their native language.
“Sometimes it is the only way they can express what they are trying to say,” said Nosbisch, who’s even begun a dictionary of the otherwise unwritten language. “You do have to do a lot of guessing, but next year will be better because I will know some of the words.”For many of her students, finding books to connect with is challenging.
“One of the first books we read had a kid who wanted an elephant as a pet. I thought they would understand because they know about elephants, but the kid in the book asked how he could get it in the apartment. They didn’t know what an apartment was,” she said. “The dad said they could hoist it up like a piano; they didn’t know what a piano was. This year in the test books, one grade had a story about a roller coaster. How are you supposed to answer questions when you have never seen one or know what one is?”Nosbisch also has used her Wartburg connections to bring new experiences to the students. Dr. Michael Bechtel ’94, assistant professor of science education, brought some of his classroom animals to the schoolhouse, and education students made new math games the students could play during quiet time (similar to how some teachers use iPad games during independent study). Despite the challenges, Nosbisch has found great joy in her role. “I just love it. This is the most exciting thing I do every day,” she said. “It’s not ordinary, but I’ve learned so much from them.”