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It's special project time in Dalene Teichert's class. Her fifth-graders come to class clutching their reports.

Probably that girl over there is cradling one on the geography of Utah, right? Or how about that boy? He's bound to have scrawled a one-page report on insects. And that kid, he likely reworded the encyclopedia.Stop!

Dismiss those notions about encyclopedia rewrites and kids who are practically dragged to the front of the room to mumble through their reports. When you enter Teichert's room, you enter a world run by a passion for learning.

A thrill for all types of knowledge allows students in Teichert's class to chose research topics such as gum, near-death experiences, gorillas, sports cars and swimming pools.

"I never open up a book and say, `Today, we're on page 54. Let's learn about such-and-such,' " Teichert says.

She can't. Her students need more. Teichert, who was named the Salt Lake School District Teacher of the Year, teaches fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Rose Park and Backman elementary schools. The district lists her as a teacher in the Extended Learning Program for the "academically talented." It means she teaches the gifted.

She has no set textbook, no 10-year-old lesson plans with faded bulletin-board pictures.

Teichert writes her own curriculum, using the ELP guidelines that say instruction for the gifted must be open-ended, challenging and reality-oriented. Each year, each day is fresh.

"I just love it; it's a give-give situation. They teach me so much. They are so bright, so curious that I'm really tired at the end of the day. It's a high-energy job," she says.

Besides, she adds, "Every year I learn all sorts of wonderful things I didn't already know. I can study about things I want to learn."

When 11-year-old Joeclyn Gukeisen chose near-death experiences for her special project, Teichert borrowed Gukeisen's books afterward for a little extra reading on a subject the teacher also found fascinating.

It's a little misleading to talk about books, however. Teichert's students don't rely on books and encyclopedias for information. They go to the source. The fifth-grader interested in swimming pools interviewed employees at a swimming pool company and then went to watch a pool installation. Camille Edwards conducted a student poll on favorite brands of gum to add to her information.

Reports are only one way of learning. During last fall's election, the students carefully studied Republican and Democratic platforms. They formed opinions and wrote political speeches, which Teichert later videotaped. Then they held an election and voted for the candidate based on the videotape presentation.

But, regardless of the curriculum, the day is always filled with questions. Teichert never stops asking them, challenging a student at every thought's twist and turn. She pulls her chair up by the lectern and then casually interjects question after question.

"What was the most interesting thing that you found out? What did you dislike about doing your report? Why does gum lose its flavor? What's your opinion on how to save the gorillas from extinction?"

The children obviously pay attention to their role model. When Joeclyn describes near-death experiences, a boy raises his hand. "Why couldn't it just be a dream?" he challenges.

Nathan Burgess tells how he'd like to put gorillas on a special reservation to save them from extinction. Another hand pops up. "I read gorillas don't reproduce very well in captivity. What do you think about that?"

Teichert says, "I think their interchange is more valuable than almost anything else. It challenges them, makes them think."

She didn't always want to be a teacher. Growing up in tiny town near Idaho Falls, she decided on a career as a dental hygienist. When she finished her high school graduation credits early, she worked as a teacher's aide in an elementary school. She loved it. "I saw early that not everyone can teach. I began to see teaching is an art."

Although she's never regretted shifting career goals, Teichert admits to occasionally wondering (usually when having her teeth cleaned) about how life would have been as a dental hygienist. "I think about how much money I'd be making. My hygienist only works part time but she makes more than I do."

But there are other rewards in the classroom besides the paycheck. As the bell rings, Teichert closes the class with a daily ritual, saying, "Have I told you lately?"

"Yes," the fifth-graders sing out. "We're cute and adorable."

Their teacher adds, "They're easy to love; they're good kids."