A first-grader, dressed in a blue, floor-length, shimmering evening gown and pearls, announces: “I’m a fish.” And Michelle Dreyfuss, her Odyssey of the Mind coach, smiles and says, “That’s wonderful.” For 12 years, Dreyfuss has coached teams of school-age children to compete in the annual creative-thinking competition held across the United States; it teaches students to explore many possibilities, how to brainstorm, work in a team, and, most importantly, that there is no wrong answer.
Mt. Lebanon students of all ages have participated in the program over the 25 years of its existence. There are four levels of competition: primary, for kindergarteners, first- and second-graders; division one, for grades three, four and five; division two, for grades six, seven and eight; and division three for high school students. The teams comprise between five and seven students and the commitment level is high: students meet and practice weekly for months before the regional competition on March 7. If division one, two or three students win regionally, a competition held in Moon, they can advance to the state level, and if they’re really talented, the final competition. The world competition is a four-day event held at the end of May at Michigan State University.
Out of the 96 teams of all levels at the regional competition this year, 16 teams were from Mt. Lebanon schools (both public and St. Bernard School). Four of them earned the opportunity to compete at the state level, held in Berwick, Pennsylvania in April, although only two teams could go because of scheduling conflicts.
The youngest kids participating in the primary division only participate regionally, are scored using stickers, and are all given a ribbon at the end of the day.
Odyssey of the Mind releases their five-problem sets–specifically designed to expand students’ knowledge in science, technology, engineering, art and math–for each age group in September, and groups choose which problem they want to use for competition. Some problems involve a play or drama, others are hands-on and ask the team to build something. But all of them encourage students to be creative. During the competition, teams show what they’ve worked on, be it a performance or handmade project and then compete in a spontaneous round, where they might be asked to list things that are blue or perform another task on the spot. Judges grade each team. The winners advance, but there are no losers.
In Odyssey of the Mind, no one is told “that’s wrong.” There may be better ways to do something, but there’s no incorrect answer.
Dreyfuss said her team does everything themselves instead of relying on parents. She believes Odyssey of the Mind gives students the chance to claim their work and projects, a concept she believes is rare. “It’s real ownership and decision-making.”
For girls, it’s also a chance to be a leader and be “bossy,” a role many girls shy away from in other venues. It’s a way to explore strengths and capitalize on them, instead of trying to do a little bit of everything. Knowing how to work in a team efficiently is regularly cited as a top sought-after skill in the professional world and it’s also what makes veteran teams, like Dreyfuss’ girls, who’ve competed with each other since first grade, such strong contenders in the yearly contest. They are now in seventh grade and compete in division two.
Haverhill Road resident and teacher coach Patricia Davies worked with her son Ren’s group, competing in division one, this spring. They didn’t advance to the state level but all six team members plan to participate again next year. “It’s amazing to see them start with nothing but a long-term problem and end up with a production that they’ve done entirely on their own,” she says “It’s also interesting to see how much their ability to negotiate and compromise and discuss grows with time. This year, I believe that was in part due to the personalities on the team; they just fit together well.
“It’s kind of like watching your child learn to read. A light comes on, and suddenly they are a different person than they were before. Not only did they function better as a team, but each student accepted it better this year when an idea that they came up with wasn’t embraced by the group or wouldn’t work in the story or logistically.”
“It’s rewarding as a coach to witness all these changes,” says Bernadette Hartman, a Kenforest Drive resident who’s worked with St. Bernard students for three years. She coaches two teams of seven students each, one of which competed in the primary division and the other in division one. Her division one team didn’t advance to the state competition, but “did wonderfully.”
At states this April in Berwick, kids from all divisions convened to present their solutions. Dreyfuss’ girls, competing in division two, and another team from Foster, coached by Tara Brown and Kerry McGee, came with their game faces on; like the other teams, they’d been practicing for months. Although the girls placed in the top quarter for their play, it was the end of the season for them. They weren’t invited to compete at the world competition.
Brown and McGee’s team of seven elementary school girls, six Foster students and one from Washington, beat all of the division one competition on the other hand, and tied for first place in states. The team travels to Michigan State University at the end of May to try their hand at the world competition. “Our girls are blown away to be advancing,” says McGee of Hoodridge Drive. The team tied for second place in the regional competition this past March, and it “was a huge surprise at the time.” After their unexpected regional win, McGee put a poster on the wall where the girls practice: “Worlds. Why not?” While everyone laughed at first, the inspiration paid off. McGee says, “The solution they took with them to states was phenomenal, and their win turned into a lesson on what you can accomplish if you dream really big.”
“On the surface, it is wildly creative–the more off-beat and unique your solution, the better you will do–but it forces you to focus your creativity really tightly on a goal. To score well, you have to meet very specific criteria in ways that no one is expecting. Odyssey is not just creativity for creativity’s sake. It is creativity with an endpoint, a budget, and a deadline. In my opinion, that is a very powerful way to educate kids.”