In World History teacher Betsy Rybarczyk’s classroom, students are challenged to use their imaginations to envision themselves in historical settings around the globe. On any given day, the room could become part of the Italian Renaissance; 1500s England; Christmas Eve, 1914, in Europe. “Your imagination is your only limitation, so seize the day,” she recently told her Comstock Park High School class.
But it seems that Rybarczyck’s imagination has no limitations. Students have arrived to find her dressed in full Army fatigues, yelling to her “soldiers” to get down low to avoid enemy fire.
“I start screaming, ‘Get in the trenches!'” A fog machine starts as students hide under their desks and a recorded battle plays on. Suddenly the gunfire stops, and Rybarczyk says, “What was that? What was that?” The faint sound of people singing “Silent Night” gets louder and louder.
The reenactment of the Christmas Truce of 1914 invokes the emotion of when thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with German enemies along the Western front.
Rybarczyk has also been known to don a hooded robe to present a dramatic monologue as Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, before her beheading. She’s turned her classroom into a monastery under a vow of silence; she’s sent students on James Bond-style missions, searching the school to uncover clues related to a history lesson.
An intrepid world traveler, Rybarczyk bought a plane ticket to Europe at age 18 to tour by herself. Since then, she’s visited 41 countries. She has taught in Comstock Park for 14 years and, before that, spent a year teaching at an international school in Prague.
“History comes alive in my classroom, because I have traveled to so many places that I am required to teach about,” she said. “When I have to teach about places like the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, or The Great Pyramids I am able to take my kids there vicariously through my experiences and stories. Travel has shaped who I have become as a person; it is my hope that I may play some small role in shaping my students’ lives by exposing them to international experiences,” she said.
Junior Alyssa Yost said Rybarczyk is fascinating. “She gets you caught up in the moment of her stories. She makes you feel like you are there,” Yost said. ” She connects real life through what’s happening right now with history, and she does it very well. I don’t know anyone else who’s been to 41 countries and can tell you what she’s seen with her own eyes.”
From Classroom to Countries Far and Wide
During a recent class period, Rybarczyk announced a special day tied to the Renaissance art students were studying.
“It’s Michelangelo’s birthday,” she said, showing them a picture of the Pieta, a sculpture of the body of Jesus on the lap of Mary, which is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
There’s a good chance some of Rybarczyk’s students will see in person the sculpture, the only piece artist Michelangelo Buonarroti ever signed. Every year, she takes students overseas by partnering with the company EF Tours. She’s embarking with students to London, Paris, Florence, Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento and the island of Capri this Spring Break; and to Australia and New Zealand in June. Trips to Costa Rica, Italy and Greece are planned in 2016.
She brought students on a Holocaust Tour last year of Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Prague. In 2012 and 2013, students accompanied her to Europe, and even got to meet with high-level diplomatic officials at the American Embassy in Paris.
“Previously, I was limited to making history come alive through only my personal stories, but now, I am able to take my students literally around the world,” she said. “Not only will students experience the history and culture of the incredible countries we travel to, but they are becoming global citizens and their eyes are being opened to a whole new world of opportunity. The vast majority of my students go on to seek study-abroad programs when they are in college, due in part, to the exposure they received on one of my trips.”
Sophomores Sierra Vroma and Abbey Downer plans to go on the trip to Costa Rica next year.
“Mrs. Rybarczyk knows everything,” Vroma said. “She’s crazy smart. She always excited, never boring and she really gets into her teaching.”
“She’s seen everything,” Downer added.