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Glenview Elementary Odyssey of the Mind group to compete in world finals

on April 14, 2011

Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes and the Wicked Witch of the West find themselves transported to a mysterious cave studded with stalactites and stalagmites.  Quixote is convinced he is inside the mouth of a dragon he’s battled through Pamplona and Paris, and the Wicked Witch is his beloved Dulcenea. But Holmes argues convincingly that the stalactites and stalagmites are not the teeth of a dragon and the Witch melts away, a victim of water dripping from the cave’s ceiling.

This is not a fever-induced dream. It’s not the plot to the newest literary mash-up a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It is the fantastical narrative created by one of Glenview Elementary School’s Odyssey of the Mind teams, the final scene of an eight-minute play that won the group a chance to compete at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in College Park, Md. next month.

The eight-minute imaginative play is not merely fancy. It was a vehicle for the children to engage in a variety of creative problem-solving activities, said Ana Demorest, one of three parents who coached the group. Over the course of six months, the team built props and sewed costumes, did research on characters and places, and wrote the play.

“It plays to the strengths of each different kid,” said Laura Miller, a co-coach, “and it builds on weaknesses to work past them.”

One third-grader, Miller said, was less outgoing than some of the others on the team, but was able to dig into the research side of the process. But everyone has to be in the play, and Miller said the research gave the student the chance to become more comfortable with the performance side.

The team used basic engineering concepts to build a dragon with moving wings and mouth.  Although some of the structure of the play is dictated by the challenge, the group had to decide on characters, build a story and write the lines.

“They had to make the story more than just one thing after another,” said Miller. In the process, she said, they learned to bring a long-term project to fruition and navigate creative differences. For example, there was a fierce competition to have Sherlock Holmes or the Wicked Witch be the main character, but Don Quixote won out and the others became secondary characters as a compromise. They also had to put the whole thing together on a shoestring budget, so they used recycled materials — Quixote’s armor is made of Capri Sun juice pouches sewn together.

Odyssey of the Mind is a team-based creative problem-solving competition.  Participants range from kindergarten to college students, and compete with other groups according to age. Created in 1978, the program aims to promote creativity, teamwork, and self-respect. It has grown since then to an international competition, with more than 160 teams in the East Bay and San Francisco alone.

A competition consists of two challenges. The first is a long-term project that is presented in eight minutes at competition. Each group picks from one of five categories for the long-term project component. The Glenview group chose the option that involved creating a three-scene original play that used a classical literary figure as a tour-guide, with incorrect assumptions that are creatively corrected over the course of the play. Other options included designing and building vehicles powered by mousetraps, designing and developing a marketing plan for an unnecessarily complex device that completes an everyday task, building a hinged structure using only balsa wood and glue, and creating a humorous performance focused on character change that includes silly characters, song and dance, and a surprise ending.

In the second part of the competition, the team must complete spontaneous problems. The problems might require improvisational verbal responses, solving a problem using their hands, or a combination of verbal and hands-on skills. Scoring is based on the number of answers a group is able to present, with creative answers garnering additional points.

At a recent practice, the coaches presented the group with a found object—a broken jump rope—and asked to come up with imaginative suggestions for what the object could be. After a minute to think of responses, the group passed the jump rope around the table shouting answers. The first round of answers would have earned less points, the coaches said, because they were relatively straightforward—a whip, a lasso, a jump rope, spaghetti. After the obvious responses were taken up, the kids got creative. One fashioned the rope into a four-leaf clover. Another wrapped it up into two circles and used it as a compact to check her make-up.

Odyssey of the Mind is kid-driven. Miller and Demorest said the coaches’ role is to oversee the project, keep the kids focused and make snacks.  “They really just made sure we didn’t cut our fingers off with the power-tools,” said 4th grader Sophia McHugh.

Using power-tools and X-acto-knives to build the props for their play was a favorite of the kids. (They also agreed the snacks were pretty great.) But it was also the chance to be creative and work on a team project that they found exciting.

“I like that you can be as creative as you want and as wacky as you want,” said 5th grader Mia Matsuno.

At the finals, the Glenview group will compete with groups from around the world. Groups regularly compete from nearly 30 countries.

“It’s really international,” said Miller, showing a pin she got from a group from Kazakhstan. This is the third time a Glenview group has made it to the world finals. She got the pin in 2008 when one of her sons went to finals.

The group is raising funds to pay for the trip.  They will be holding a bake sales and car washes and Miller is hand-sewing made-to-order purses made of recycled Capri Sun juice pouches.  They also have a PayPal button on their website,

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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