Hurricane Katrina -- the talk of the nation, the talk of the world -- also has become the talk of Room 18 at Redland Middle School in Rockville.
Here, science teacher Abby Hendrix is using Katrina to engage her eighth-graders in discussions about global warming and meteorology. They're learning about the hows and whys of hurricanes and tropical storms -- and now, because of Katrina, what happens in their aftermath when people are displaced and there is no clean water to drink.
Whether it's economics (How much will it cost to rebuild New Orleans?), race and class (Were people not rescued because they were poor or black?) or compassion (How can we help?), the lessons and student curiosity are in abundance at area schools.
"No class has escaped having teachers talk about this and how it affects other children," said Ivy Allen, spokeswoman for Loudoun County public schools. "They are using this tragedy as a way to teach kids the importance of helping people in need."
For students, the television footage and news reports offer all-too-real examples of how what they're learning plays outside the classroom.
"Having Katrina makes it more lifelike," said Redland's Sonia Galiber, 13. "It gives us an idea of what a hurricane can do."
At Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Joyce Saadi has led discussions with students in her African American experience class about the federal response to the hurricane. They looked at articles describing the demographics of New Orleans and tried to examine whether the delayed response could be tied to racial bias. At James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, Raquel Marshall's pre-engineering students are examining the impact of the levee design failure that led to the massive post-hurricane flooding. Marshall's goal is to have students come up with possible design solutions.
At Redland, Hendrix opened class last week by asking students to come up with a series of "I wonder . . . ." questions about hurricanes -- queries that she'll incorporate into future lessons.
"I wonder when the first hurricane was and how people reacted?" wrote one student.
"I wonder if you could survive in the eye of a hurricane?" asked another.
The students shared what they'd seen on television the night before. Some wanted to know why there were people in New Orleans who didn't want to be rescued.
Down the hall in her U.S. history class, Samantha Johnson, 12, said she and her classmates also have been talking about Katrina -- but their debates have explored the politics, as in: Could more have been done to get help to people in New Orleans?
Samantha, an eighth-grader who is student government president, said she can't understand why the government could get aid to tsunami victims living halfway round the world but couldn't do the same for people living only a few states away.
"It just doesn't make sense," she said. But she and her classmates are channeling that worry and concern into a fund drive for the American Red Cross.
"They're very concerned about the people,'' Hendrix said. "Everyone has been asking, what we're going to do to help them."
The news about Hurricane Katrina brought back terrifying memories for Silvia Boyd, who was in sixth grade when the remnants of Hurricane Isabel swept through the Washington area, knocking power out in her family's home. But watching Katrina, she realized being without power for a few days was nothing compared with what its victims are going through. That stoked her desire to do more than just watch the events unfold on television. Now, her family is taking in cousins displaced by the storm.
"It was all very scary," she said about Katrina. "New Orleans is devastated, but I'm thankful we're together."