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A program at a Jamestown elementary school is helping students become creative thinkers.


Books, desks and blackboards.

That's what most folks envision when they think of education.But imagine turning a classroom into a space voyage (electronic music included) or an Olympics hot spot that offers such events as the bubble gum blowup, the empty trash can roll and the loudest-music listener who can sign his name the best.

Or asking a class full of kids to use their knowledge of similes to describe themselves. Their replies? Active as ants in a picnic basket, flexible as overcooked spaghetti, talented as a hedgehog contemplating the theory of relativity, good-looking as Tom Cruise in a bathing suit. To name a few.

It's elementary school education in the 1990s - a concept that aims to entertain the students while convincing them to use their heads to go beyond the first answer to a problem.

This educational concept is being put to use at Jamestown's Millis Road Elementary School, where they call it Talents Unlimited.

``I've been teaching for 20 years, and it's hard to realize we have to entertain the children,' says Crissie Harmon, a fifth-grade teacher who is one of North Carolina's three Talents Unlimited trainers. ``But think of the Nintendos, HBO at home and the video games at the mall.

``Now, because of all this, we have to do things differently.'

It all started in the early 1970s in Mobile, Ala., where public school officials came up with a program to improve students' critical and creative-thinking skills by incorporating some new concepts into the basics of elementary-school education.

The program involved five concepts - communications, productive thinking, decision-making, planning and forecasting. Its impetus: to help students think better, feel good about themselves and perform better on tests.

The program worked, officials say.

After three years of Talents Unlimited, students in Mobile performed significantly better on tests involving academics, critical thinking and standardized achievement, officials say.

Soon, Talents Unlimited attracted the federal government's attention. The U.S. Department of Education adopted the program, disseminated program materials nationwide and turned Alabama into the national training headquarters.

Since then, more than 2,200 school systems worldwide have initiated the Talents Unlimited program. That includes school systems in 15 foreign countries and in all 50 states.

Federal education officials are currently considering pushing Talents Unlimited into more middle and high schools nationwide so students can be better prepared for graduation.

``With the expanding base of knowledge, we're going to have to look for ways to make the curriculum and the content teachers share with these kids more real,' says Brenda Haskew, national director for Talents Unlimited Inc. in Mobile. Ala., ``because we have to look at the world our children will be living in and prepare them for that world.'

Millis Road Elementary started the program almost three years ago, after teacher Crissie Harmon spent two days of her summer vacation looking into Talents Unlimited.

Harmon was hooked right away. Using the program's five tenets, she saw that the program could help students understand the ``whys' behind the fill-in-the-blanks answers.

For example, the program might prompt students to think about the effects on California's economy if gold hadn't been discovered there or the results of changing the Earth from the third to the fifth planet nearest the sun.

There's no thought of turning to page 68 and working a bunch of problems.

``If a teacher says do problems six through eight,' fifth-grader Kelly Titzer says, ``you know you won't do anything but write. But with Talents, you sort of like, it makes everything fun.'

``You open yourself up,' adds her classmate, Aimee Couture.

``Like, if you didn't have Talents, you'd think this was only a 'A,' ' says student Lauren Oliver, holding up the capital letter A. ``But with Talents, you see that it's wood, it's got angles, and it could be a deer with one eye. Really, it lets us be more creative and have a lot more ideas than we used to have.'

To Harmon and other Millis Road Elementary teachers, the bottom line is that students like Lauren are learning the real-life skills - such as where to find information - which teachers say they need to succeed.

``These are the things employers are looking for in the real world,' Harmon says.

Another big plus is that the program isn't what Harmon calls an ``add-on.' The program doesn't add to, but enhances a teacher's workload because it fits into daily lesson plans, teachers say.

Now, teachers in six other Guilford County elementary schools have incorporated Talents Unlimited into their curriculum. In addition, teachers at three elementary schools and Guilford Middle School are looking at coming on board.

Meanwhile, Millis Road Elementary - the springboard for Guilford's Talents Unlimited emphasis - wants to become a national demonstration site.

If chosen, Millis Road would be one of 13 schools nationwide recognized as a place where interested educators could come and observe the program first-hand.

``It may not be a big deal to some people, but we think Talents has been very successful at our school, and that (being recognized) would be an honor,' Harmon says.

One morning recently, Pam Myers' second-grade students split up into small groups and came up with new Olympic events using classroom materials. Balancing erasers on their heads, spelling the most words in two minutes and listening to loud music and writing words were some of the events that made one group's list.

``Unusual is essential in productive thinking,' Myers told her students.

Around the corner, Elizabeth Graham's fourth-grade students closed their eyes, swayed back and forth and described their thoughts about living in outer space. A tape called ``Dream Flight' played nearby.

``This all makes them better thinkers and helps them go beyond the first answer, the first observation,' Graham says.

``This makes them go deeper inside themselves.'


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