Ask the sixth-graders in Delores Murray's class at Bancroft Elementary School about freedom, and they no longer talk in terms of slavery in America, Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle or the repressive governments the families of a few classmates left behind in Central America.
Since early last month, the students at this Mount Pleasant school answer questions about liberty and justice with talk of post-World War II Poland and the overthrow last year of Warsaw's communist government.
"They never had freedom before," Tara Pickstock, 11, marveled in class last week. "I thought every country had freedom."
Latasha Fonville said of Poland today: "Some people say it's like a construction site. It's been all crushed down, and they are trying to build it back up."
For weeks the lessons in Murray's classroom have been devoted almost exclusively to modern European history, including abbreviated study of World Wars I and II to get through the material in time.
The students, meanwhile, have rushed to make a videotape of Mount Pleasant and other notable sites around the city to send along with letters, drawings and friendship bracelets to Poland.
They're in a hurry because in a few weeks, 10 students from Primary School 38 in Warsaw arrive for a week's visit, compliments of the JW Marriott Hotel as a promotion for the year-old Warsaw Marriott.
"It's a different approach," said Murray, who has taught at Bancroft for 34 years. "It makes Europe come alive."
JW Marriott spokesman Greg Deininger said the corporation wanted to choose an inner-city public school as the destination. And Bancroft Principal Erasmo Garza said the school, which struggles to find money for basic equipment such as microscopes and battery models, welcomed the offer.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- we're going to meet some kids who have lived in a system that is totally foreign to us," Garza said. "The experience in and of itself is priceless."
So with the big day drawing near, the rush to prepare is escalating. The class has spent hours writing essays on Polish history and "What freedom means to me."
They painstakingly sewed an eight-foot-square welcome banner showing Polish and American children visiting the White House, the Capitol, Bancroft and the Marriott.
And over the next few days, they will learn how to say "welcome," "what's your name?" "please" and "thank you" in Polish.
The cost to fly the youngsters and two teachers to Washington will be about $12,000, Deininger said.
But getting inner-city American youths in touch with the complex realities of Eastern Europe takes more than promotional money. To Bancroft students, most of whom are black or Hispanic, Poland remains a largely alien concept.
"One child said to me, 'I never even heard of it before,' " Deininger said.
So to help them understand the Solidarity movement, Murray used the more familiar struggle against apartheid in South Africa. To help them define civil liberties, she compared life in the Soviet bloc to life in black townships such as Soweto. And to teach them about constitutional rights, she discussed the Ku Klux Klan's march on the Capitol.
"There is a cultural lag," she said. "You have to kind of fill it by giving them what is known and then moving into the abstract."
The project also offered students a crash course in capitalism. One young boy said earnestly, "We may get to go to Poland later this year, if Marriott wants to pay."
In view of the economic downturn, such a trip is unlikely, Deininger said.
Instead, JW Marriott employees hope to donate time to Bancroft, which school officials chose for the program because of its ethnic diversity. Hotel staff members speak more than 20 languages and could work with the school's many foreign-born students, hotel officials said.
For now, the students will focus on Poland and the arrival later this month of their pen pals with strange-sounding names.
"They realize that this is a special privilege, and they're very excited about making new friends," Murray said. "My problem now is keeping their feet on the ground. It's like waiting for Christmas."