Mind games: Students score big in brain-teasing competition
By Alexandra Fenwick
Published April 12 2007
NORWALK - The solutions to the problems facing the seventh- and eighth-graders were anything but basic. But two award-winning Odyssey of the Mind teams from Roton Middle School were up to the task.
The students yesterday performed for family and friends the eight-minute skits they came up with to meet the criteria for the international competition that tests creative problem solving.
Entrants can choose from five different challenges. This year, two of Roton's three teams, plus another group of students at Rowayton Elementary School, won top honors in their divisions at the state competition last month. They won the right to compete at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals at Michigan State University in May. In all, 10 Norwalk teams entered the competition this year.
Roton students' answer to the first challenge, "The Large and Small of It," won a gold medal at the state competition in New Haven. The problem involved the tale of a lost sailor who becomes the ruler of the Triangle of Bermuda, but only after winning a dance contest to save him from punishment for breaking local laws.
The team was required to put together a performance that incorporated smaller versions of large stage backdrops and made one character appear to change dramatically in size.
Eighth-grader Sam Massey, playing the sailor on a quest to find the meaning of life, helped write the script with teammate and seventh-grader Dana Bradley, who played his challenger in the dance-off.
Their team includes two new members this year, but they are veterans of four Odyssey of the Mind world competitions. They said the camaraderie is what keeps them coming back.
"It's been kind of a tradition for the past four years, and our team's like a family now," Dana said.
Anything goes at the Odyssey of the Mind competition, said the Roton teams' adviser, Jody Bishop-Pullan. Besides teamwork, students also learn that a problem has more than one solution.
"They learn to look at problems in different ways," Bishop-Pullan said. "I'm so proud of them when I see what they start with and what they come up with here."
Bishop-Pullan, who is also the chairwoman of the Norwalk Board of Education, has been coaching teams for 15 of the 16 years Norwalk schools have competed. She has taken teams to the world finals seven times. Her husband, John Pullan, co-coached this year's gold-medal-winning Roton team with the help of Brien McMahon High School junior Marianna Cordovano.
"She has made it come alive, because it has exploded in recent years," said Marianna's mother, Sally Cordovano, of Bishop-Pullan's influence. Cordovano is co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization Council. Her daughter, Carly, is a member of Roton's silver-medal-winning team.
That team's performance, "I'm Only Thinking of You," told the story of a talking pack of cigarettes determined to increase its popularity by persuading convenience store customers to try smoking by playing on their insecurities. The team had to develop a scenario in which a self-centered character takes advantage of others, only to have his true nature revealed at the end.
Martha Todd advised the silver-medal winners, along with Abby VanGeldern, a junior at Brien McMahon High School. Todd, whose daughter Emily was on the team, said the students' performances have become more sophisticated.
Students said the performances evolved greatly from the original scripts and sometimes involve split-second improvisation in case of technical difficulties.
"It changes a lot before the final performance," seventh-grader Emma Stein said.
As they hone their routines in the weeks before the world competition, the students - and their advisers - said they are excited but nervous.
"I'm really scared," seventh-grader Lily Allen said.
But if Odyssey of the Mind has taught them any lesson, it may best be summed up by what Sam Massey's character concludes at the end of his performance: "I've found the meaning of life, and that is to try to get by in situations where on yourself you must rely."
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