CLAYTON, CA — If competing in Odyssey of the Mind wasn’t challenging enough for elementary students, try throwing a 100-year global pandemic into the mix.
Then when they are finally able to be together, tell them they have just six weeks to prepare their presentation for the competition judges.
No problem for the six-member team from Mt. Diablo Elementary in Clayton, which qualified for Worlds after finishing in the top three at both the regional and state levels in their division.
When competition wrapped up for the year in May, the team had achieved 32nd place out of 73 teams from around the globe.
Key to their success
Fun is a key component of Odyssey’s group problem solving activity. Other skills students develop along the way include learning, developing, and employing social skills, teamwork, resource management, designing and making, and critical thinking.
All such skills blossomed for the six Clayton youngers, and unparalleled success and pride resulted for them.
Pushing mental creativity
The group of Avica Bennett, Keira Caldwell, Julia Dent, Emma Forrester, Charlotte King and Hannah Laverick, with the support and encouragement of Renee Culp, achieved what no other team from the school had managed to do even under normal circumstances – when students can work side-by-side for the entire school year.
When everything else shut down, Culp was overjoyed that Odyssey chose not to follow suit.
“It was something to look forward to. Being at home and sheltering in place and distance learning, Odyssey gave them an outlet for creativity,” said Culp, who serves as a K-8 substitute teacher at the school and an advisor to various teams at the elementary, middle school and high school levels.
The experience is not like school and it’s not homework. It’s more of a mental exercise in which one is asked to think outside the box.
“There is no right or wrong answer,” said Culp. “That’s what is so good about it – life is not black and white.”
An experienced group
Culp said it was valuable that the team included many members from the prior year, especially when dealing with obstacles and adversity brought on by COVID-19.
“They knew what they had to do and they were able to adapt quickly,” she said. “They persevered.”
Culp saw an excitement growing among the team when they knew they had something great.
“Then it started to click.”
The problem facing the team was to develop a cliffhanger “ending “ putting a superhero character in a perilous situation caused by the adversary character. For the eventual 8-minute skit, the girls voted to set their story in an Old Folks home with two elderly sisters. The 87-year old was the Superhero, and 85-year old sibling would be the adversary.
Still holding a grudge when her sister took her cookies away as child, the younger sister tried harming her sister by pushing her outside during a blizzard, switching her pills, and cheating at a bingo game. The elder stopped her sister’s evil plans by putting on the Super Socks which gives her the ability to move at lightning speed. In the end, the sisters make up.
Cardboard and rubber bands
With spending limited to $125, backdrops and props for the skit were made from cardboard, sheets, fabric, paint, tarps, cotton balls, PVC pipes, and rubber bands. Rubber loom bands were looped together to look like knitting squares for the knitting circle scene. Flour to mimic grey hair and makeup further helped transform members into the elderly characters.
After finishing second at regionals, their attitude turned to “We want to make it better.”
Ten-year-old Charlotte of Clayton saw the experience as a way to express one’s creative side with writing and building and to “bond with the team.”
“It is fun to be part of your team and figuring stuff out,” she said.
The girls started writing the script via Zoom in November, put it in high gear building backdrops and props in January, and filming for the first competition in February.
“They hunkered down, and they were not going to let anything get in their way,” said Culp.
“Time, COVID or weather – nothing was going to stop them.’’
Julia, 11, of Clayton, veteran of the squad, is moving on to 6th grade. She hopes to continue Odyssey as a chance to meet new kids. She also recalls how the stress level went down as they moved through the competition and team members gained the creative skills needed to answer questions during the “Spontaneous” part of the competition.
The art of compromise
With this group, Culp said the team members recognized when someone else’s idea was better for the good of the presentation.
Charlotte said Odyssey helped the team break free from being afraid to try things. They felt comfortable sharing ideas, even if they might be wrong.
“You won’t be wrong as long as you have tried your best and given your best effort,” she said.
For Clayton resident Avica, 10, it all wouldn’t have mattered if they were not having fun while doing it.
“I had awesome teammates who made it fun,” she said.
In fact, fun is among Culp’s top 10 rules for Odyssey.