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Thinking creatively, reaching beyond

  • LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Polk Elementary's Charlene Taylor and her Odyssey of the Mind team won second place in the regional Odyssey of the Mind competition and on to states last week.
    LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Polk Elementary's Charlene Taylor and her Odyssey of the Mind team won second place in the regional Odyssey of the Mind competition and on to states last week.
Published April 20. 2012 05:02PM

Education's goal is to help children accumulate knowledge, skills, customs and values. Today's educators often try do this in imaginative and creative ways.

Polk Elementary School's teachers fit that bill. Four of them, Charlene Taylor, Jeannine Saylor, Deborah Loughren and Linda Kosakowski, journeyed with several fourth grade students in an odyssey of their own as they prepared for the Odyssey of the Mind challenge.

This was the first year Polk competed in Odyssey of the Mind. The March 3 regional championship was held at Pocono Mountain West High School. Polk celebrated as two of its four teams won second place in their categories. Taylor's and Saylor's teams qualified to compete on the state level that were held on Saturday, April 14, at Pocono Mountain East High School.

Mrs. Saylor's team placed 5th and Mrs. Taylor's team placed 6th.

"Facing the toughest competition of the season, our teams saved their best performances for the state competition. Their energy, enthusiasm and commitment to work as a creative team, made us PV Proud!" says Mr. Kondisko, Polk Elementary's principal.

Odyssey of the Mind challenges students to reach beyond what is normally required using five problems titled Ooh-Motional Vehicle, Weird Science, To Be or Not To Be, You Make the Call and Odyssey Angels. This international educational program provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Team members apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. They then present their solutions to competition on the local, state, and world level. Thousands of teams from throughout the United States and from about 25 other countries participate in the program.

"We are so proud of our teams and absolutely thrilled that two of them have the opportunity to compete against teams from across the state. They have worked hard and represent the best of PV. This is a wonderful experience that they will always remember," says Joseph Kondisko, Polk Elementary principal.

There are five different problems for the students to pick from. The students write a skit that gives a solution to the problem of their choice. They build and make all of their props and come up with their costumes. They have to perform their skit in eight minutes. When they are done, they yell "Time!" to let the judges know they are finished.

Charlene Taylor's winning second place team of Kory Kearns, Zac Herna, Sydney Madiera, Alexis Shook, Dominic Tyler and Evan Fisher-Perez chose the Ooh-Motional Vehicle problem.

"Our long term problem was to create a vehicle that uses two different propulsion systems and displays human emotions. One or more people ride on the vehicle as it travels a course where it encounters three different situations that cause it to change emotion," says Taylor.

The synopsis - a boy is mean to his mother and friends. A crazy lady appears while he's sleeping and tells him he needs to learn compassion. She turns him into a Big Mouth Bed that is a vehicle. In order to turn back into a boy he needs to understand how he makes others feel and find the one who watches over him. The bed travels to different situations where creatures treat him the way he treated others. He finally understands and finds his guardian angel. The crazy lady appears and changes him back to a boy.

"It was very challenging for the students to design and build a vehicle but they did it. I couldn't help them. I could only 'coach' them. They could receive some help from their parent volunteers but they did the work. I'm very proud of them," says Taylor.

Saylor's team, the other second place winner, consists of Joey Cook, Blake Nordmeyer, Kyle Gischwend, Rocco Belotti, Kaitlyn McAdams and Maddison VanWhy. They took on the Classics problem, To Be or Not To Be.

"In this Classics problem, the team has to put a musical theater spin on one of William Shakespeare's most famous lines. Hamlet, the title character, ponders this question and realizes that the easy way out is not always the correct choice. An original 'Hamlet' character faces a team-created dilemma. Unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, the team's character takes the easy way out only to discover that it was the wrong choice. Teams incorporate a character that portrays Hamlet's conscience, a creative scene change, a creative costume change, and use of a 'trap door.' A portion of the performance includes musical theater elements," says Saylor.

"Being in the first year of Odyssey of the Mind, our goal was to present a good skit and learn about the program. After some growing pains, the kids really excelled in the program. To see the look on the kids' faces when they called Polk Elementary for second place was priceless," she says.

Saylor thinks the number one thing the students learned from this project was working together.

"We had six kids that did not work together before and they became a little family that needed to rely and trust each other totally for six months. In order to be successful, they needed to listen to ideas/opinions from all members," she says.

Kosakowksi's team of Ryan Connors, Jason Balbuena, Emily George, Jeffrey West and Luci Mesce tackled the Weird Science problem. The team had to create and present a performance about a team of scientists on an expedition to uncover the cause of mysterious events. The team had to select the location of the expedition from NASA Earth Observatory Photographs. The scientists had to collect two samples and report on their findings. The performance included a technical representation of the mysterious events, the appearance of actually traveling, and a team-created device that the scientists used on the expedition.

Mrs. Loughren's team was made up of Emily Gethen, Ethan Fisher-Perez, Mychal Kerns, Bethany Haddock, Violet Lucas and Aidan McHugh-Wood and they tackled the Odyssey Angels problem. The team had to create and present a performance where a group of students travels throughout one or more team-created places where they encounter negative situations. These "Odyssey Angels" changed what they found and turned them into positive situations. On their journey, they had to help two individuals with different problems and help save an entire community from a bad situation. One Odyssey Angel could not speak, and another had to have a special team-created power.

Mrs. Loughren, had participated in the Odyssey program as a student. She got into the program because her older brother started doing it in about 4th grade. Then her parents started coaching and it became a whole family thing. She started participating in the program itself when she was in sixth grade and followed through all the way to her senior year. When she got into Delaware Valley High School, she was on a team that kept almost all of the same seven people on it throughout the next several years.

"After spending that much time together you become a family," she says.

"Odyssey works on the premise that you can teach creativity. It's not something that can only come naturally. I'd like to think that because of this program I think 'outside' the box in most everything I do. I was always acting in the skits as well, so I definitely learned how to annunciate, speak loudly and clearly, and not be nervous in front of a large crowd of people, or if I was nervous I learned to just get through it."

The most important quality she learned from the program was how to think on her feet.

"The spontaneous aspect of the program is worth 1/3 of your final score and it is scored by how well you and your team members can work together and solve a problem within a few minutes, but we often had to think on our feet in our long term presentation as well. There were instances at competition when our vehicle broke down in the middle of the skit and we had to think of how to fix it on the spot. If somebody forgets their lines or a prop breaks, you have to think on your feet and make it seem like it was supposed to happen. I learned how to stay calm, cool, and collected when something went wrong, and at the same time 'fix' the problem," says Loughren.

When she was a senior, her team won first in state's and they competed in the World competition held in Maryland.

Three years ago, Loughren presented the Odyssey of the Mind program to her principal. Since then, Kondisko started a committee (STRIVE) which is dedicated to serving higher achieving students. After two years of planning and preparation for Odyssey, they finally got the "go" from everyone needed. The program really took off this year with the help of Kondisko and Jeannine Saylor.

"Without them, I would not have been able to organize it all myself," says Loughren.

She also believes that most, if not all of the students loved participating in this program.

"I think they all learned how to work on a team and cooperate with each other. They learn that in school, but these kids were with their team from November until March and some are still working together. When you spend that much time with a group of people, you are almost forced to learn about them and how to work with them. Even if they started the year with someone they didn't know, by this time you hear the kids talking about how they became 'a family' with their team members. They also learned what it is like to work in a budget since each problem had an allowance. I think they all found out how quickly money can fly and how to use things that don't cost anything, like recycling, trash, etc."

According to Loughren, one of the most helpful qualities they learned was how to problem solve and not give up.

The coaches aren't allowed to do any work or give them any answers. They are simply there to guide. Many of the team members found out what it was like to think of an idea, try to produce it, and many times failing at first. The coaches have to let them know that it's ok to fail and that they should keep trying because there is often more than one way to solve a problem.

"Seeing the kids struggle and struggle until they find the perfect solution is the most gratifying thing to me. Being able to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it is an outstanding quality for young minds. This program gave a much needed opportunity to a lot of kids who needed to 'stretch' their brains. When your team is at school at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning saying how glad they are that they're at Odyssey instead of at home watching TV, you know something about the program has to be working," she says.

All four Polk teams presented their skits to the student body and guests at two different school assemblies. They received enthusiastic applause.

"Odyssey of the Mind has challenged our students and brought out the best in each of them. They have learned to think creatively and work together as a team, two skills that will serve them well no matter what they do in life," says Kondisko.

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