Updated: Franklin Middle School Team Competes In ‘Odyssey Of The Mind’ World Championship

UPDATE: The Franklin Middle School team placed 17th of the 50 teams competing.


By Emily Russoniello
Special to the FR&A

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The Franklin Middle School Odyssey of the Mind team.
Photo: Emily Russoniello

In the basement of the Hillsborough Reformed Church, six local students in grades 5 through 8 are dressing up as dairy products.  It’s not a taping of the next “got milk?” commercial, although that phrase will come up.  Rather, they are costuming themselves as an unconventional royal court that was borne completely from their imaginations.

“They” are the Franklin Middle School Odyssey of the Mind team, and right now they are preparing for the World Finals.  Now through May 31, this team of six middle schoolers and their two coaches are at Iowa State University to present their solution to a problem they have been working on since September.  It’s serious business, too.  At this level they will be competing against 54 other teams from approximately 25 countries.

If you are unfamiliar with Odyssey of the Mind, it’s a program with roots in New Jersey that is based on the simple concept that creativity can be taught.  In an era where success in education is measured almost solely in standardized test scores, Odyssey of the Mind develops a very important skill:  thinking outside the box.  The rules are strict.

Teams must have between five and seven members, and the makeup of the team must remain the same throughout the entire year. If a team member leaves, they cannot be replaced.  No one is allowed to work on the problem but the team (teams are penalized for violating this rule). In addition, each problem has a list of requirements that must be met for the problem to be “solved”.  Within this framework, however, teams can do anything that they dream up.

This year’s problem required the team to choose an actual royal court from a specified time period, as well as create a fictional royal court that can exist in a real place or one the team makes up.  The rulers of the courts must issue decrees that change the behavior of the inhabitants.  There must be two puppets and a “peoplet” (a human dressed as a puppet). There must be a jester character who makes fun of the ruler, and the team must build a musical instrument and use it to accompany a team-written song.  The team then writes a skit that must be performed in eight minutes and includes all the elements laid out in the five pages of rules.

The year begins with the team familiarizing themselves with the problem, researching when necessary, and brainstorming ideas which become a rough outline.  That develops into a script. The team assigns the roles, and costume, scenery and prop construction begins.  There are budget restrictions as well; many items make creative use of recyclables or found objects.  Then they rehearse and rehearse, modifying as necessary and making sure they have included all their requirements and stay under their eight minute time limit.

The process just described is called the “Long-Term Problem”, but it is only one aspect of competition.  The second is “Spontaneous”, and it measures how quickly a team can think on their feet.  In Spontaneous, the team is brought into a room – no coaches or spectators allowed – and given a problem that must be solved on the spot.  They have no prior knowledge as to what the problem will be.  Sometimes it involves wordplay (Name a type of tree, you have one minute to think and three minutes to take turns responding) and sometimes it’s a physical task (You have six minutes to build a bridge between two tables out of toothpicks, paper clips, mini marshmallows and mailing labels.  At the end of your six minutes, place pennies on the center until the bridge collapses.  You will be given 5 points for each penny your bridge holds and 1 to 20 points for teamwork.)  Part of each meeting is devoted to Spontaneous practice, learning strategies and doing problem after problem.

The team’s first chance to showcase their “solution” came in early March at the Regional Tournament, and the Franklin Middle School team (consisting of 8th graders Madison Whiting, Charm Nicholas and Alex Fung, seventh graders Kit Russoniello, Shreya Patel and Dhruvil Markana and fifth grader Andrew Russoniello) performed well, taking second place.  The top three teams in each region (NJ is divided into a northern and southern region)  move on to the NJ State Tournament.  Now it’s back to the drawing board, and the team analyzes the score sheet: “What worked? What didn’t?  How can we improve our score?”

The revised performance at the State Tournament in mid-April went well, and the rest of the day passed with agonizing slowness waiting for the awards ceremony.  Finally, all the teams were sitting together on the gym floor, a giant mass of creative minds waiting impatiently, hoping against hope to claim the first or second place prize that will earn them a spot at the World Finals.

The second and third place teams are announced first, and if your team hasn’t been called, waiting for the announcement of your Problem and Division is something akin to torture.

Now the seven team members and two coaches sit together on the gym floor, holding hands, eyes squeezed shut, listening for the name of the first place winner.  Odyssey of the Mind is a serious commitment, and hundreds of hours have been logged since the beginning of the school year, waiting for this moment.  They’ve come whisker close to qualifying several times, but the evening always ultimately ended in disappointment.  This year, however….”In first place….Franklin Middle School!”  A second of stunned silence is followed by screams of joy as the team jumps up to claim their trophy, laughing and hugging.

The month that follows is a whirlwind, travel plans are arranged and a second round of revising begins.  Unfortunately, one of the team members is not making the trip to Iowa and the team adjusts their script…just another day in the life of Odyssey of the Mind, and a practical use of the the skills the team has learned throughout the course of the year.  Additionally, due to school budget cuts, the team is entirely responsible for the cost of the trip.  Amid the extra practices, fundraisers are planned; several local businesses help out by holding “restaurant nights”.  The team would like to thank Five Guys Burgers and Super Sundaes in Hillsborough, and Let’s Yo! in Somerset for donating portions of their profits to the team.  Independent consultants Donna McDonough of Premier Designs Jewelry, Sharon Osenenko of Dove Chocolate Discoveries and Amy Keane of Thirty-One Gifts donated their commissions at a Vendor Event.  Team members sold pies from Griggstown Farms and hosted a Spaghetti Dinner at the Hillsborough Reformed Church, whose congregation has supported the team all year long.  Many thanks also to family and friends who made personal donations.  If you are interested in helping the team meet their fundraising goals, or wish to become a team sponsor, please contact coach Emily Russoniello at eustacem2@hotmail.com.

For more information on the Odyssey of the Mind program, including next year’s problem synopses, see www.odysseyofthemind.com or www.njootm.com.

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