WINSLOW — The life of an elementary school student is filled with constant instruction and direction from adults — whether it be parents, guardians or teachers.
Perhaps that’s what makes Odyssey of the Mind so attractive for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at St. John Catholic School. The after-school program forces the students to think for themselves, be spontaneous, extroverted and imaginative, with very little adult interjection. But most of the 18 students participating in Odyssey at St. John say their favorite part about the extracurricular is creating and building things, writing and performing songs and being with their friends.
“I like creating and seeing how we can make up something different because all the plays can be very different,” said Emma Farnham, a fourth-grader at St. John.
In its second year at St. John after about a decade-long hiatus, the Odyssey program is gaining popularity in the halls of the school, as well as success at large. The 18 students — 17 of whom attend St. John — were divided into three teams, with all three teams making it to the state-wide competition last Saturday. At the tournament, which was held at Thomas College, one team finished in fourth place of six teams in its division, another in third place and one team finished first, earning a trip to the Odyssey World Competition in Iowa in May.
“We were really excited when we won at states,” said Dorothy Anne Giroux-Pare, a fifth-grader. “We weren’t expecting first place. We were happy, but our other two teams were really happy for us too.”
Odyssey is an international educational program that provides students in kindergarten through 12th grade opportunities for creative problem-solving. There are more than 60 participating schools in Maine, and more than 800 students from kindergarten to grade 12 participate statewide in about 120 teams.
Teams of up to seven students take part in a range of activities, including building mechanical devices and interpreting literary classics.
The students work for weeks, and sometimes months to solve problems related to five things: vehicles, technical issues, literary classics, building a structure and performing.
The St. John team is one of 31 teams representing Maine and one of 10 in its age group, according to Elise Copeland, co-director of Maine Odyssey of the Mind.
Teams across the state are given a choice of several prompts to create a scene around that involved construction, costume making, singing and acting. A price limit is set on buying supplies, and recycling old materials is recommended. It’s thinking outside of the box, while using old cardboard boxes, PVC pipes, duct tape and any other useful materials.
“If a team gets to a competition and one part is broken, all the other teams there will try and help and search for something that can make it work,” said Michelle Giroux-Pare, Dorothy Anne’s mother and coach of the team that’s heading to Iowa. “I love the collaboration.”
The prompt from the first-place team from St. John’s was “It’s How We Rule,” and the objective involved recreating a king’s court from history while making their own royal court set in an original kingdom from a different place and time. The made-up royal court had to include a leader, a minstrel that performed using a team-created instrument and a jester that makes fun of the leader. The performance had to include puppets and was judged on humor. The spending limit was $125.
The group recreated Queen Elizabeth’s rule in a snow world, where Aidan Warme, a fourth-grader played its leader, King Olaf. The group had to make costumes for its characters, create usable instruments, make up a song and several jokes and perform it all in front of judges.
“What do you get when you mix King Olaf and a vampire?” said Dorothy Ann. “Frostbite.”
The scene was performed well enough to earn the trip to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, where teams from 32 states and 17 countries will compete from May 28-31. While meals and lodging is taken care of — competitors and family will stay on Iowa State’s campus and be fed by the university — traveling costs will be about $1,000 per competitor, which includes a parent each. Fundraising efforts will begin shortly, according to Giroux-Pare.
Giroux-Pare is familiar with Odyssey — her son’s team made it to the world competition 10 years earlier. The after-school program’s interest fizzled shortly after the success a decade ago.
Last year, when her daughter Dorothy Anne was in fourth grade, Giroux Pare gaged the interest of other parents to see if enough kids wanted to be involved.
“We asked around to see how many kids would be interested last year,” said Jen Kelly, another parent and coach. “We had enough for two teams last year and when we started it up this year, we had enough for three.”
Of the 29 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at St. John, 17 of them participate in Odyssey. The team also includes a former St. John student, sixth-grader Nate Kinney, who attends Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland
“After we finished last year, we performed it for the school and at that time we had a lot of kids saying that it looks like fun,” Giroux-Pare said. “When we came back for this year, we were surprised with how many kids were interested. Happy, but surprised.”
The ways of thinking that Odyssey encourages is a vital growing tool for elementary-aged children, according to Claudette Massey, principal at St. John’s in Winslow.
“I think sometimes as adults and as parents, we want to give our kids answers,” Massey said. “This is where you can’t do that and I like the independence it creates. They start thinking outside the box, and most of the time it’s so easy for them no too. It’s easier sometimes for us to give them answers or instructions. This is where the kids are in charge.”
In the brief period since Odyssey has been reintroduced at the school, Massey said she has noticed a change in some of the shyer students participating.
“When you see them perform, you see the difference,” she said. “I’ve noticed it in the classroom also. It gives them another way of thinking.”
Copeland believes that change is rooted in the ownership the students have for their creation.
“They own what they’re doing, so they’re comfortable with it,” she said. “It’s like being asked to read Shakespeare, that’s someone else’s work, so they may not know how to present it. Because the kids wrote it and own it, it’s so familiar to them that if someone forgets a line, it doesn’t matter because they can fix it.”
At a small school like St. John, there are few opportunities for interscholastic competition. Students have a bevy of extracurricular clubs, including chess club and Scrabble club, but only a math team and Odyssey allow for competition between other schools.
“As a parent, you thought there was a couple things lacking,” Kelly said. “With events like this, at states we saw a lot of the same teams, and it was competitive but supportive.”
The success of St. John’s program, in just its second year, is rare, according to Copeland, who has been a coach since 1997 and co-director for five years.
“First- and second-year teams typically don’t qualify for worlds,” she said. “It just requires a great deal of discipline and referring back to the problem. They’re just a disciplined group. Even the other (St. John) teams did well for second-year teams.”