August 2, 2008 - One-room school near Kutztown is past perfect for lessons in German cultureBy Ron Devlin, Reading Eagle
In a one-room schoolhouse near Kutztown, where a portrait of George Washington looks down on a potbelly stove, 82-year-old Paul Kunkel puts a question to his class.
"What does 'Wu gehscht in die Schule?' mean?" Kunkel asks the young students.
With puzzled looks, the students try unsuccessfully to decipher the odd-sounding words.
"Where do you go to school?" says Kunkel, answering his own question.
It was a scene that could have taken place before the Civil War, except that back then, the first language of students in the Freyberger School was Pennsylvania German.
Now, 153 years after the school was built, the 40-minute lesson in the dialect of their ancestors is a novelty to children adept at communicating in text messages.
In a sense, that's the point of the weeklong Children's Cultural Camp at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University - to expose 21st-century youngsters to 18th-century farm life.
Samuel Yoder, a Kutztown veterinarian whose ancestors settled in the Oley Valley in 1711, said it's important for children to know where they came from.
"Today, kids often don't have a connection to their past," said Yoder, whose 8-year-old daughter, Rachel, attended the camp. "Coming here gives them an identity, something to be proud of."
Darlene Moyer, coordinator, said the camp curriculum mirrors life on a Berks County farm 100 years ago.
In its eighth year, the camp attracted 34 students, from 6 to 18 years old. Some came from as far away as Nazareth, Northampton County.
From teachers who grew up on Berks County farms, they got a taste of farming skills such as thrashing wheat, breaking flax and preparing seed for planting.
Nicholas Keller, 10, of Kutztown learns how to make candles.
They dipped candles, wove cloth on a 19th-century loom and cooked "boovischenkel," a type of pierogie, on an open hearth.
"They're learning how their ancestors lived, what they ate and how they spoke," said Laureen Hoffman, a camp worker who traces her Pennsylvania German heritage to 1738. "It was a totally different way of life."Elaine Vardjan imparted bits of Pennsylvania German wisdom in her "scherrenschnitte" (paper-cutting) class, held in an authentic 18th-century log cabin.
Elaine Vardjan of Exeter Township teaches German paper cutting at the Pennsylvania Heritage Center at Kutztown University to, from left, rear, Ethan Scalese, 9, Hannah Arner, 10, and Katie Skidmore-Hess, 9; and, foreground, from left, Rebecca Rabenold, 10, and Kiona Peters, 11.
"My grandmother used to say, 'Idle hands have time to do the devil's work,' " she told the class of elementary school-age children.
As a child, Vardjan said, her hands were kept busy learning the tedious art of cutting Christmas trees and pineapples from folded sheets of paper.
Nine-year-old Ethan Scalese of Newmanstown, Lebanon County, fared well in making "tischschmuckschnitte" (table decorations) in Vardjan's class.
Ethan Scalese, 9, of Newmanstown, Lebanon County, practices "tischschmuckschnitte." He's cutting a table ornament from paper in the Freyberger School during Children's Cultural Camp at the Pennsylvania German Heritage Center at Kutztown University.
But, contemplating 19th-century life without television, video games or iPods, Ethan said, "Oh, man."
Kiona Peters, 11, of Lenhartsville was intrigued by the complexity of the way things used to be. It took the better part of a day, for example, to cook an evening meal.
"They had rough lives," Kiona concluded. "They had to make everything by hand and take care of the garden and their animals."
Camp participants started off the day in traditional rural fashion - saluting the flag and singing the national anthem in Pennsylvania German.
Some of the boys wore straw hats, plaid shirts and suspenders. A few girls wore calico dresses and bonnets.
In the kitchen of the center's stone manor house, children used to spreading their toast with Promise learned how to make butter. The recipe couldn't be more simple - put heavy cream in a Mason jar and shake rapidly.
Jane Naus, the teacher, said the shaking motion causes tiny fat globules in the cream to solidify into butter.
In the old days, Naus explained, farmers would skim the thick cream off the top of the milk pail shortly after it came from the cow. She simply bought a container of heavy cream at the supermarket.
Either way, it comes out the same.
Learning to shake heavy cream into butter are, from left, Rachel Yoder, 8, Kutztown; and Cierra Peters and Rachel Rabenold, both 7, of Lenhartsville.
"It's such a surprise to the kids," Naus said. "They shake and shake, and suddenly, it's butter."
•Contact reporter Ron Devlin at 610-371-5030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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