Students attending one-room village schools in this Mennonite colony 60 kilometres south of Santa Cruz use slates instead of notebooks.
Instruction is in German and the main study materials are a Bible written in Gothic script, Gesangbuch (hymnal) the Fibel (primer or reader) and Catechism (basic church doctrines). Girls usually receive six years of formal education and boys go to school for seven years.
Jacob Friesen, a teacher in one of the colony’s 39 schools, is one of the first teachers to use a new teaching resource published by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Bolivia.
“If I see a good teaching resource to use in the school, I’m interested in using it,” said Friesen, 27.
The 63-page booklet provides teachers with lesson plans and a teacher’s manual for 13 mathematical concepts—including addition, subtraction, percentages, land and wood measurements and time.
Teachers are required to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, Bible lessons and singing but Friesen said without formal training teachers can only teach what they learned in school.
“If you had a good teacher, then you can explain it very clearly to your students,” he said. “But if you don’t understand it or didn’t learn it, then you can’t teach it. Now we have a book and everyone can teach it clearly.”
MCC worker, Elma Schroeder, said the lesson plans and teacher’s manual were developed in response to requests from teachers in Old Colony schools and were reviewed by teachers in Bolivia and Paraguay before they were published.
The package also has a map of Bolivia that includes the 63 Mennonite colonies and settlements in Bolivia—a map that can also be purchased at MCC’s Centro Menno resource center.
Another new resource that is now available to students and their families is the Plautdietsch (Low German) Bible, published in 2003. Friesen said students are encouraged to read this Bible in their homes but it is not used in schools or churches.
“It is important that children learn to read and that they learn to read with comprehension,” he explained. “Children use the Plautdietsch Bible to understand what the German Bible is saying.”
Friesen is enthused about another new initiative undertaken by teachers in the Riva Palacios Colony. Beginning in 2009 teachers started to meet regularly in small groups of four to discuss different methods of teaching, learn songs for singing lessons, share information and learn from each other through visiting each other’s schools.
He said the meetings are sanctioned by church leaders because teachers in Canada had similar meetings before the Old Colony Church, officially known as the Reinlaender Mennoniten Gemeinde, moved to Mexico in the 1920s.
The church, founded in Manitoba in the 1870s by Mennonite settlers from Russia, moved to Mexico in an effort to maintain school systems, civic structures and traditions that were adopted by founding members of the church.
The Riva Palacios Colony was started in 1967 by Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico.
“It is very hard to keep the old ways—many things threaten the old ways,” said Friesen. “But I want to keep the old ways—when we get baptized we commit to be faithful to God and to the church.”
New teaching resources are helpful but “the most important thing I can do is to help students get to heaven. My wish is that they could grow up in an Old Colony community, keep things the way it has always been and go to heaven.”
Friesen and his wife Aganetha have three children, ages 2, 4 and 5 and supplement their income by farming six-hectares of land. Friesen was working in a cheese factory when there was an opening for a teacher. He approached the church leaders and expressed his interest in teaching.
“I want to be a teacher because it is a service I can give to the church—I have a longing to be involved in Christian service,” he said.
Visit https://mcccanada.ca/learn/what/categories/low-german-communities for more information about Low German Mennonites.