The wall map in Tom Thrasher's classroom at Glenwood Middle School shows the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as an orange monolith stretching from the Baltic to the Bering Sea, but the seventh-graders in his world geography class know better.
They know that Leningrad is now St. Petersburg, Uzbek is now Uzbekistan, and part of the Soviet Union is now the Commonwealth of Independent States. Earlier this year, they learned about the changes independence has brought to former Soviet bloc nations in Eastern Europe and they followed the clash of Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia.
Faced with fast-changing political boundaries and maps that are outdated before the ink is dry, some county middle school teachers areputting off lessons on Europe and the former Soviet Union until the end of the school year. Others, like Thrasher, are tackling it in themidst of change.
"I use newspapers, magazines and TV, because thetextbook -- my supervisor said you might as well have the kids file it. So we did," he said.
Students say they like studying a subjectfeatured on the news.
"It's nice to know this before my parents know," said Kristi Spicknall, 12, of Mount Airy.
In addition to working out where everything goes on the new map, she figured out the correct answer to an analogy Thrasher has been using to help his students understand the economic changes: USSR is to command (economy) as CIS is to market (economy).
Jill Reeder, 12, of Ellicott City, saw advantages in studying the new commonwealth while it's on the front pages. "But it's a little hard, because there's so much information you can look up about the past USSR, and now it's all wrong," she said.
The teacher works as hard as his students to keep up with the political scene.
"Six a.m., I've got the TV on to find out what's going on," he said. "Or if I know there's a program about the Soviet Union, I'll videotape it."
He reads weekly news magazines and finds updated maps in newspapers that he can use in class.
It's history live. As Ryan Kafer, 13, of Glenwood put it, "What we learn here is real neat."
Many of the Glenwood seventh-graders see a future filledwith hardships or battles for the newly independent states and nations.
"There might be fighting," said Marissa Popkin, 12, of Ellicott City. "In U.S. history, you can see there was a lot of fighting when we started to be independent."
Robbie Parrish, 12, of Woodbine, believes that the commonwealth will hang together but under grinding poverty. David Gibson, 12, of Woodbine, said
Russians may flee their homeland because of poverty.
"I think a lot of them are going to die," said Paul Francis, 12, of Glenwood. "Because of the prices, they're going to starve."
He referred to food prices that skyrocketed after Russian President Boris Yeltsin lifted price controls early this month.
Much of the class discussion has focused on changes, but some of the things Thrasher teaches his students have not changed.As he pointed out, the Ural Mountains are still in the same location, and the Russian people still share a common language and culture.
Political boundary changes, however, create triple-strength headaches for textbook publishers and the school systems that buy the books and maps.
R. William Sowders, executive supervisor of social studies, had two new world geography textbooks up for public scrutiny in the annual instructional materials review from mid-December through mid-January.
"We pulled them," he said. "They were fine books, just outdated."
At $40 apiece, it costs the county school system about $90,000 to replace social studies textbooks for one grade level.
The supervisor went looking for updated maps last fall. He said he found that with the boundaries constantly changing, "what I heard was wait and see. (Publishers) don't want to invest too much because it will be obsolete so soon."
Seventh-graders in all county schools study Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Western Europe, Latin America, Canada and the United States and "global interdependence," a unit that spans the sixth and seventh grades.
Students learn aboutthe geography, history, culture and economics of each region, Sowders said. The sequence of the units is up to the teachers.