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Students' Odyssey was teacher's odyssey, too

By Katherine Dyer

As Sandi Carson reflects on the past few years, she keeps thinking about the phrase, “those moments you treasure in your heart.” She's experienced quite a few of these treasured moments lately.

Carson has been a Crestview Elementary School art teacher for 28 years, but for the past three years, she's used her free time molding and coaching six students — including her son, Josh — into a competitive Odyssey of the Mind team.

“We spent many long hours — on weekends and after school,” Carson says. She's concluded one thing in particular: “Hard work really does pay off in so many ways.”

For more than 25 years, the Odyssey of the Mind program has helped students learn creative problem-solving methods and develop team-building skills while having fun in the process. Teams are presented challenges — some technical, some artistic — that, over several weeks, they must work through. Then they present their solutions to a battery of OotM judges.

In May 2009, the Crestview team won the gold medal at the Odyssey of the Mind World Championship Finals in Ames, Iowa, for its lassoing, spitting armadillo robot and accompanying Texas-themed skit. It was the team's culminating accomplishment before the students parted ways for middle school. However, in January, the team's members were back together before the South Carolina House of Representatives, where they were honored with a resolution.

The students were recognized for their “incredible World Championship win at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals.” They were offered good fortune in future endeavors, and then, Carson says, they received a standing ovation.

“I think what made us a world-class team was teamwork all around,” she explains. “But it's not just the teamwork of the team: It's the parents and coaches.”

The goal in Odyssey of the Mind is complete student innovation, so Carson was not allowed to instruct the team in its problem-solving, even though she served as co-coach.

Her work, she explains, involved keeping the team on track — driving the students to weekend competitions for practice, coordinating sessions with “experts” and professionals, forcing the students to shoot a few hoops when they were fidgety and distracted.

But she says it was worth all the effort because of the unique opportunities the program offers — and not just the problem-solving elements. Carson says that even the world championship event itself — an OotM Olympics of sorts — was an incredibly beneficial life experience. Not only did the Crestview students parade around the stadium during opening and closing ceremonies and take the stage to receive their trophy amid hundreds of high-fives; they also exchanged gifts and spent time with a “sister” team from China.

“It was like there was no language barrier,” Carson says. “Just to stand there and watch these kids from two totally different cultures just be children and play — it was beautiful.”

And though the disbanding of the Crestview team was bittersweet for Carson, she's still using her treasured Odyssey memories to benefit her art students.

“The experience has made me very tuned in to recognizing creativity and promoting creativity,” she explains. “Being able to think outside the box, being creative, is a skill that needs to be promoted in this next generation.”

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