Saturday, March 12, 2005

I Still Don't Get OM

Last fall, Anna asked if she could be in "OM", Odyssey of the Mind, an "international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college."

I didn't get it. I couldn't figure out why it was neccesary to provide creative problem solving opportunities for kids. I've been telling my kids to solve their own problems since kindergarten, even if it meant that they wore weird clothes in public and that they missed some things because they forgot to write them on the calendar.

I remember hovering behind the kitchen door as Anna (then four years old)dragged her tricycle to the top of her slide and considered riding it down. I was myself calculating exactly how long I could wait before dashing out to catch her. She eventually chose to push the trike down and then slide down after it, but she did solve her own problem.

My kids have spent the day in the principal's office because I won't come to their defense when they get in trouble. They have had multiple opportunities to spend all of their money and then be broke. I stopped buying clothes for my kids in junior high when they started earning babysitting money. My teenagers still try to make their problems into my problems ("But I need to use the car....) and I am still resolute in calculating how to stand ready to catch them while providing them with the chance to solve their own problems.

But Anna really wanted to "do OM". The coach, a good friend of mine, was anxious to have her on the team. Anna's sisters and I had a hurried meeting at school the day of signup during which they said I should let her be in OM, since a lot of their friends had "done OM" and enjoyed it. I allowed myself to be swayed, on the condition that Anna's schoolwork and piano practice not suffer.

Her team met once or twice a week through the winter. I was blissfully unaware of most of what went on. They wrote a play and then lost the script on the playground and then found it and made costumes. Anna glued some balsa wood together on the kitchen table and I gave her some clothespins to use for clamps. Her coach told me that they were "getting a lot done".

So it was that Richard and I ended up driving to Traverse City East Junior High School on Saturday morning to see the OM competition. It was snowy, and it had been pretty much a March white out as I drove home at 2 am the night before. We were crunched for time and worried that we would miss their 9:30 start time. The parking lot of the school was full. There were signs for overflow parking at the school next door, but there was a long line of people parking their vans and SUVs in the firelane or cruising the lot in case a space was vacated. We aren't the sort of people who park in fire lanes; Richard dropped me off and went to park next door. The school was one of those contemporary mouse maze designs with minimal signage and lots of circular hallways. The OM people had put up maps, but this was a younger generation of parents and the print was too small for my 47 year old eyes. I walked around the whole school and then circled the room twice before I found it. The team was in there, waiting for the judges to give them the go ahead. They waited a long time, long enough for Richard to make it back from parking the car.

The room was a half a a gym with bleachers pulled out and a loud ventilation system. Anna's team had chosen to solve the Crazy Columns problem, in which they presented a play that featured the testing and ultimate crushing of some balsa wood structures that they had built. They performed the play, they crushed their structure, the judges talked to them, Anna gave me a hug, and then the team left the room to go watch something else. Richard and I were kind of left there, wondering what to do next. We watched another team from our school, this time performing in a classroom where the parents stood at one end of the room and the judges sat at the other so we were watching the kids' backs. They did a play with a communications theme. Some of the more purposeful parents did an impromtu school cheer as the kids walked in. The kids ignored them.

Our kid was ignoring us, too. The school was crammed full of parents standing around while their kids ignored them. The parking lot was crammed full of illegally (and dangerously) parked cars, cars that had been parked by parents who were frantic to get to this venue where they were now being ignored by their kids. On the one hand this was good: kids were supposed to be doing their own stuff and not leaning on their parents. On the other hand I wondered what these parents were doing here. They needed to "get a life." This is the same generation of parents who forgot to stop the war, the same generation who are standing there with their thumbs in their ears as our public school system is being systematically dismantled, the same generation who can plow $30,000 into a "safe" car, but who can't hang up and drive the speed limit. Somehow being supportive parents was getting in the way of being responsible adults.

We left. On the way home we debated what to do about next year. Homework and piano practice has been suffering, but I'm not sure that they wouldn't have suffered even without OM.

Anna came home later; her team won 2nd place and is going to state final competition next month. Her idea of why they won was almost the opposite of her coach's story. Oh well. State finals is at Grand Valley State University; she is looking forward to staying in a motel with a pool. I will have to work so Richard will take her down. Maybe after that he can explain this OM stuff to me.


Kris said...

As a parent (and team manager) of two kids involved in Destination Imagination - another creative problem solving program - I can tell you that for many, many kids, what they get out of CPS is the opportunity to do it their way. It sounds as though you give your kids plenty of CPS at home, but I've experienced a number of parents who absolutely *cannot* step away and give their kids the room to test out their ideas. CPS is a learning experience for the parents, too!

As to why kids like it? Where else do they have the freedom to glue, glitter, paint and tape to their hearts content? Or completely disassemble a bicycle and reassemble it into a functioning sound element, all in the name of learning? ;-)

Have fun at state!

Anonymous said...

I can't ever recall being denied the freedom to glue, glitter, paint and tape to my hearts content. I recall making all kinds of things out of popsicle sticks and hot glue. Bridges, forts and whatever else I could've imagined with such odd and durable construction material.

I consiquently never understood what enthused people so much about O.M. It has always seemd to me that is rather a supplement of what should be taught in school. For example the building and testing of balsa wood structures would seem to make a good science or more specificaly physics lab. The creation of a play seems like it would lend it self to an english or drama class. Although it is true that the teachers might forget to let the students come up with their own way to write a play. I know teachers at my local high school believe that essays can only have one basic structure and order.

Although, these forms do hold power in proven technique, when should teachers allow students the creative control of their assignments is my question. It is careful balance between teaching someone to accomplish a task using examples and developing an answer for themselves, and accomplishing a task the way they were taught to.