The Olympics of Creativity
three Chippewa Valley Odyssey of the Mind teams qualified for globals
A high-energy creative-problem solving competition, an extracurricular opportunity for imaginative students to flourish, a cardboard-and-duct tape extravaganza – however you describe it, Odyssey of the Mind (or OM, for those in the know) is the latest addition to the Chippewa Valley’s ever-expanding curriculum vitae of excellence.
Last year, a team coached by South Middle School teacher Jason Splichal traveled to what he describes as “essentially the Olympics for creative intellectuals” in Maryland, along with 856 different teams from 26 different countries. The team’s fifth place finish earned them recognition in Madison, Washington DC, and a globally televised ceremony.
And this year, three Eau Claire teams have a chance to continue the tradition. On March 17, the OM teams from Northwoods Elementary, Montessori Charter School, and Memorial High won their divisions at state, and now they’ve been invited to attend the World Finals in Ames, Iowa at the end of May.
As fifth grade Montessori Coach Kristin Walaukas notes, “Creativity is usually something people think of as something you are born with or not, [but] Odyssey of the Mind’s philosophy is that it’s something that can be taught. Through teamwork and by letting the students take the lead, by giving them tools they can use to solve problems, creativity is something that can be really fostered and developed.”
Months before the competition, each team chooses a problem that asks them to create a skit incorporating technical, research, artistic, theatrical, and other elements. For example, the Memorial team researched and then created masks in the commedia dell’arte theatrical style for their solution.
Most importantly, the solution belongs entirely to the students. “All ideas must be those of the kids,” explains Memorial parent Jill Markgraf, “not their parents, not their friends, not their coaches.”
"Faced with their own dilemma, the girls had to decide whether they would create a skit grappling with a controversial, but very relevant topic, or if they would choose something less likely to offend a judge. In the end, they took the risky option, which they believed was an important issue, and they rocked it."
Sometimes, this strict “no-interference” rule can lead to bold creative decisions. This year, the Memorial team chose a problem called “To Be or Not To Be” in which all teams must have a Hamlet-like character that faces a choice, chooses the easier path, and then realizes he or she chose wrong. The four girls comprising the Memorial team wanted to portray “a girl’s decision to confront her own sexuality in an inhospitable social climate,” said Markgraf.
Faced with their own dilemma, the girls had to decide whether they would create a skit grappling with a controversial, but very relevant topic, or if they would choose something less likely to offend a judge. In the end, they took the risky option, which they believed was an important issue, and they rocked it.
The team’s daring choice won them the highest honor in OM: the Ranatra Fusca award. Team member Alida Markgraf names the moment when she realized her team was receiving the honor as one of the best and most memorable of the year so far. “[The judge] started describing our skit and masks and we began realizing that she was talking about us. We began squealing and squeezing each others’ hands and got really excited.”
Unfortunately, the schools are only able to fund teams’ trips to the state competition. All together, it will cost the three winning Eau Claire teams about $11,000 to journey to and compete in the World Finals. The teams have already received donations from some generous individuals and local businesses, but they still have to raise nearly $7,000.
Waulakas has faith that the community will be able to pull through, and she expressed gratitude for the moral and financial support people have already provided. “Eau Claire is such an encouraging community for things like this,” she said. “The outpouring and the support have really been there from the beginning and it’s just heartwarming.”
Community members can help in a few ways. At 7pm on May 10, all three teams will be performing their skits in the library of Memorial High. Attendees are encouraged to donate a couple bucks as an admission price, but anyone who is just curious about OM is welcome to come. Also, the Eau Claire Area School District is collecting tax-deductible direct contributions. Interested donors can send a check to 500 Main St., Eau Claire, WI 54701 with “Odyssey of the Mind” in the memo field.