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Your Schools: Office visit proves student innovation flourishes here

Late on a Thursday afternoon recently, I had a most enjoyable visit from six "Improv Monks!"

The "monks" are 5th grade students from across our district who recently competed in the state competition for Destination ImagiNation (D.I.) The students carried with them a letter to me that proudly announced, "Marshalling all of our teamwork, problem solving, and creative energy, our team competed and finished in the top two of all the other regional winners from across the state of Wisconsin!"

The monks were eager to tell me about the privilege and honor they felt because their state placement in D.I. competition earned for them a trip to Global D.I. Competition in Knoxville, Tenn., in May. Talk about Wildcat pride!

What is Destination ImagiNation, you ask? D.I. is an international program dedicated to teaching students how to be world-class innovators and critical thinkers. It is based on the premise that there is more than one way to solve any problem.

Each year, Destination ImagiNation creates new "problems" for students to solve, problems that focus on structural, technical, theatrical, improvisational and service-learning challenges. Teams choose a problem, work on it outside of school day for most of the school year, and then present their solutions in regional, state, and, if they rise to the top as our River Falls team did, at a final global competition.

As the team's central challenge, members chose a technical/theatrical problem called "D.I.-Bot." The team had to write a skit about how technology affects our world and a character whose life is transformed by technology.

The group actually had to make a working robot and integrate the robot into the story. The kids made their own set, costumes and props. They had to incorporate challenges into scene changes and "side trips," which are creations intended to show off the students' interests, skills, strengths and talents.

All along the way, the kids, NOT parents, had to do the work: The ideas, the problem solving, the budgeting, the construction, everything!

Parents, however, are also involved in coaching teams without solving the team's problems. Parents were part of the monks' visit to my office, giving directions for and proudly watching as their children demonstrated for me and other Central Office employees an improv challenge to create a bridge made up of everyday materials (straws, toothpicks, an envelope, clay, a ruler, blocks of wood, and sticky labels) in just a few minutes in order to roll a ball over as long a distance as possible.

Parents play another role, as well, namely that of fund-raising. Strictly speaking, D.I. is not a River Falls School District program, after having been cut from the budget several years ago. Parents volunteer their own time, but the costs of materials, registrations, and travel have been paid by parents.

However, the costs of the global experience in Tennessee are quite expensive, $600 per student for registration and room and board at the University of Tennessee dorms. The district is paying to send two of the students, so parents are seeking funding support from others to help cover costs of the other four students. If any business or citizen is willing to help with the expenses of the trip to the national competition for our six creative-thinking, teamwork-building, and problem-solving D.I. 5th graders, donations can be made to an account set up at First National Bank of River Falls.

Why does all of this matter? I think it matters because our world desperately needs innovators and critical thinkers to solve the enormous problems facing our world in the 21st century. That's really what our new strategic plan's mission statement directs us to do: "Ensure the development of every student's unique potential in order to excel as responsible, productive, global citizens."

What I witnessed in my office when the monks came to visit was that with Destination ImagiNation, students are learning to solve engaging, open-ended challenges, learning to never give up, practicing being organized, setting high personal goals, and working as team to manage conflicts in proactive and positive ways. That sounds like the essence of education (and our strategic plan) to me.