The Romeo Observer
Program helps encourage creative thinking in students
Six-week program known as `Odyssey of the Mind'
by CHRIS GRAY
Observer Staff Writer
Second-grader Mackenzie Reiss crouches on the floor of the art room, crawling and roaring as her classmates laugh and giggle.
"You're a tiger!" one shouts, but Reiss shakes her head. After a few more tries, one student finally yells "a bear!"
She stands up and congratulates the student before running to a table full of pipe cleaners labeled "woods," preparing to create a bear.
Normally, all this excitement and crawling around would not fit in a typical lesson plan, but Reiss is one of many Washington Elementary students who is learning to exercise her creativity during the six-week program "Odyssey of the Mind."
The program is offered during lunch and recess hours to second- and third-graders, with parents acting as coaches to students as they are encouraged to think outside the box with questions and projects.
The program was first started in 1978 by a New Jersey professor to help students learn, at a young age, skills they can use their whole lives, like cooperation and respect for other's ideas. At Washington Elementary, the program is coordinated by Barby Knepper, mother and volunteer.
Normally, the international education program is involved in a regional or state competition, but she decided to make it a fun time for students instead.
"We may do something where it's boys versus girls, but we don't keep points or make team T-shirts," she said. "Anytime you take time to learn their name and listen to what they say, they seem happy with that."
Knepper is a volunteer coordinator for the program. She decided to take the unpaid position after the past coordinator moved on. She was a volunteer coach last year with one of her own children.
Parents had to sign their children up at the beginning of the month, but due to the increased popularity, Knepper accepted some last-minute registrations. Parents also donate their time to help run the activities.
"We never had a child (who didn't) want to participate," she said.
Given the program is all about creativity and freedom, she likes starting by asking students an open-ended question, such as finishing the statement "I feel happy when . . ."
"It inspires verbal creativity, though it can at times be inappropriate," she said. "Usually they say things I never expect them to say, but that is exactly what we're looking for."
As students munch on their lunches, they eagerly wait their turn to answer a question.
"I want you to tell me what you are bigger than," Knepper said. "I would say, I'm bigger than a piece of corn."
The second-graders giggle before they take turns answering.
"I'm bigger than his straw," exclaims Matthew Hutnick, pointing to his friend's straw.
Others give creative responses, claiming they are bigger than a chocolate chip, a mouse, a sibling, or their pet hamster.
Once they finish their responses, materials are provided for a hands-on project. This can vary from simply building whatever a student desires out of marshmallows and toothpicks to projects that are designed to teach.
"There is really no right or wrong way for them to do these projects," she said. "It's stuff they normally don't get to do in school. It's for fun, not necessarily for learning."
During the Feb. 25 session, second-graders played charades, getting the other to guess what animal they were. Afterwards, they would head to tables full of pipe cleaners, labeled with the appropriate habitat the animal lived in, and construct that very animal.
Grace Konnie just finished making an owl, and flapped her arms to show she was a bird. She said she enjoyed coming to the art room during lunch.
"I think it's very fun," she said. "I like it because I like making crafts, and we make a lot of crafts in here."
When the third-graders came in, they also answered questions before moving to three stations. One station showed students how to make kazoos out of straws, while another had pairs hold one crayon and draw a picture together.
"I was just trying to figure out what we were drawing," said Maggie McGuire, showing off a rabbit-like drawing.
At the end of the program in April, students will put their best creative thinking forward to construct a protective structure around an egg to protect it when dropped.
"I like it, the kids seem to enjoy themselves," said Heidi Kormos, a first-time volunteer. "It opens their mind to creative things, and it helps them stay out of the cold."
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