By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 29, 2007
Julie Derucki’s eyes filled with tears as she watched history come to life for her students.
The six students from Notre Dame Academy were a part of what assistant principal Derucki called a “traveling classroom.” But this wasn’t just any classroom.
The eighth-grade students spent March 10-16 in Rome, Italy, where the lessons they’d learned in the classroom took on a whole new meaning.
Derucki especially noticed the tangible way the students were affected while visiting the Sistine Chapel.
“They had read about Michelangelo and knew he was an old man who had spent a lot of time painting,” she said. “But when we walked into the Sistine Chapel—you’re not allowed to talk or take pictures—it was a truly spiritual moment. All of a sudden it was alive to them.”
The international trip is part of the eighth-grade curriculum at Notre Dame Academy, which opened in August 2005. Last year, a group traveled to Japan, and next year the students will visit Ireland. The students spend time researching their destination and the various sites they will visit there, and choose a site to focus on for their project.
They also prepare Power Point presentations about their chosen site and after returning from the trip, present their projects to students in lower grades.
Student council president Billy Davidow chose the Trevi Fountain for his project.
“My grandma went to Rome and showed me pictures, and I thought it looked like the coolest fountain I had ever seen,” he said.
But seeing the fountain in person was an experience he will never forget, he said.
“It was much different than the pictures. It was real. It was amazing. We got to see it during the day and at night, and it was different both ways.”
Davidow was one of six students—five boys and one girl—to travel to Rome. While there, they stayed at a convent and were required to keep a journal of their journey. They visited all the major historical and religious sites in Rome and had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
Michele Mandula, 13, said that seeing the pope was not what she expected.
“He is one of the major religious leaders in the world and the head of our religion, but I think if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know he was the pope,” she said. “It was like a person could just walk up and talk to him like he was a normal person.”
Another surprising lesson for the students came while visiting the Colosseum, the site of early Roman gladiatorial battles and executions.
“I got so misty-eyed watching them. They were not prepared for the sense of death they felt while there,” Derucki said. “They’d all seen ‘Gladiator’ and knew what happened there. But all of a sudden, it dawned on them that there is the Hollywood version and there is the real version. And the real version is even darker.”
Throughout the trip, Derucki communicated with the school and parents via her Blackberry device, and the students’ trip was detailed in a series of articles on the Atlanta Journal Constitution Web site.
“That was a great experience,” Davidow said. “When we got home, we felt like celebrities. I had 61 e-mails when I got back from my family members, and Mrs. Derucki said that the Web site had received over 3,000 hits. That’s pretty amazing.”
Derucki said that the experience of traveling abroad is an important one for students to learn.
“We become globally aware that the decisions we make have to be based on our good conscience. Whether you’re in Italy or in the state of Georgia, the students become aware that we all have to work together as one unit globally,” she said. “We realized that we weren’t just representing Notre Dame Academy or Georgia, but that we were representing America. This was an opportunity for them, as young people, to shine. And they really did.”
An educator for nearly 20 years, Derucki feels passionate about the benefits the students receive from traveling, and hopes to inspire other teachers to take their lessons beyond the classroom.
“This is applying everything they learn and tucking it into their resources. These students get to touch it, feel it, taste it, and everything they’ve learned just comes alive for them,” she said.
The idea of taking a group of students on an international trip is not just limited to private schools, Derucki added.
“We are not a school just for the affluent. Every year there will be kids that can’t afford it,” she said, adding that the students spent the year raising money for the trip. “But we make it work. I hope teachers from other schools would consider this and know that where there is a will, there is a way.”
Most importantly, Derucki said, this is a trip that will affect the students for the rest of their lives.
“We had so many incredible moments that we decided to stop calling it a trip and start calling it a journey. A trip shuts off when you go home. With a journey, you get to decide what to absorb and what you will do with it,” she said. “In their sights, this is a journey that’s almost magical. It goes on.”
To read more about the Notre Dame Academy students’ Roman adventures, search on “Notre Dame Academy” at www.ajc.com.