Odyssey of the Mind

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I recently finished coaching my first Odyssey of the Mind team.

Odyssey of the Mind is a creativity competition. Every year in August/September, the organizing body releases a set (around 5 or 6) of “long-term” problems. Some of these problems are more STEM-focused, like creating a vehicle within specific parameters, and others stress storytelling or dramaturgic challenges, like putting together a short informational play.

Small teams of students within varying age levels form to choose and tackle one of these problems for several months. In the spring (March/April), regional, state, and eventually world tournaments are held to give teams a chance to not only exhibit their long-term problem solutions, but also compete in on-the-spot “spontaneous problem” challenges.

A number of homeschoolers around Alexandria expressed interest in taking part, so we met to see who could commit and how. We decided to opt to go with Odyssey of the Mind rather than Destination Imagination because several parents already had extensive experience and history with OM. It’s my understanding that the two competitions are virtually identical — that DI is a splinter initiative resulting from a past disagreement about the publishing rights and for-profit nature of OM’s umbrella organization, Creative Competitions Inc.

The “Alexandria Homeschoolers” ended up registering with Odyssey of the Mind and forming three teams. Several families near us had younger kids, so we ended up tackling the Primary challenge, which is non-competitive, and helped take the edge off of our expectations and anxieties.

Parents are prohibited from being directly involved in problem-solving. The kids themselves are supposed to choose the problem and decide how they want to solve it. Parents may lend encouragement, supplies, and instruction/supervision of skills, but they really aren’t supposed to make suggestions or determine the direction of solutions.

This led to a lot of raised eyebrows, especially from myself. Our long-term problem this year was entitled “Stir the Pot”: we were to create a comedic skit where an object comes to life and gets transformed. Our group decided they wanted a fossilized toilet paper to turn into a T-rex/Triceratops hybrid who then is urged by the sun to steal the Mona Lisa, which in turn comes to life and knocks out his teeth, turning them into small dinosaurs, and… well, that was just the final version. Previous drafts and ideas were just as weird and nonsensical.

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Coaching started out with some well-intentioned discussions about teamwork and brainstorming, but it quickly devolved into herding cats and urging some cohesiveness.

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But it was well worth it. It was fantastic that Biggie was able to develop relationships with his team because of our regular meetings and collaborations. It was great that they felt the freedom to follow their wacky ideas into fruition. It was good to emphasize the need for understanding, protocol, revision, and practice.

And it was nice that the judges were so kind and supportive, giving specific positive feedback to our performance and noticing little details in our efforts. It was fun, and I’m looking forward to doing it, or something like it, again next year.

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