Destination ImagiNation teams from O.L. Slaton Middle School and Preston Smith Elementary School in Lubbock, as well as Levelland High School, will be among more than 900 teams from all 50 states and 30 foreign nations this week at the DI Global Finals in Knoxville, Tenn.
On the University of Tennessee campus, the West Texas teams will be at the pinnacle of competition in creative thinking, clever engineering and improvisational acting that is built on the roots of teamwork, research and academic skills.
Destination ImagiNation students think outside the box - way outside the box. At the state competition in April, the Levelland High School team improvised a solution to save sharks by portraying a band of pacifist pirates who settled the shark question, not with cannonballs or cutlasses, but with thumb-wrestling.
That helped Levelland finish third in the state and qualify for Global Finals.
Leigh Lewis, one of the Preston Smith coaches, said her team will be given an instant challenge when they go into a room with the appraisers (judges) waiting. The students will be given some everyday objects - such as a plastic spoon, some plastic straws, pipe cleaners and two mailing labels - and be asked to build something or complete a task of some sort.
Team managers, who accompany the teams into the room, are usually much more perplexed about the solution than the students, Lewis said.
"There is always a simple way to do it, and kids have a knack for figuring it out," she said.
The Preston Smith team is competing in "You're Gonna Flip," which is a theater arts challenge that involves a play in which one of the characters has to have a flip - a change of heart, Lewis said. The team also had to create a puppet - theirs is a giant head 5-feet-wide and 6-feet-tall - and, while they are on stage, they have to create a piece of visual art.
O.L. Slaton's team is called the Improvinators and compete in the improvisational challenge. All seven members are theater students who do improvisations in theater classes throughout the year, said team manager Andrea Carter, who is also a theater teacher.
"Most theater kids love improvisation. It is a chance to go off-script and be crazy and creative. It is a time to show the teachers what you have, basically," Carter said.
In their main challenge, they will be given one from a list of 10 threatened things - such as the Great Barrier Reef, giant pandas, glaciers or California condors - and one from a list of 10 stock characters - such as a wise old person, a reluctant hero or a whiz kid.
The Levelland team is doing the same challenge on the high school level, said team manager Deborah Burnett. That is how the team became pirates trying to save sharks.
An element of the challenge is a value judgement about whether the threatened object should be kept or allowed to die off, Carter said. The students have to explain why they made the judgement.
The improvisation teams have seven minutes to prepare and five minutes to perform. If they go over the five-minute limit, they lose points, she said.
To make it even more difficult, there is a note card left on the floor that has an unimpressive super-power - such as really bad breath, the ability to read super-fast or extra luck - and the super power has to be used for their value judgment.
Carter said the team had to do a lot of research about the threatened objects and about their stock characters. Burnett, who is Levelland High School's librarian, said the research element really appeals to librarians.
Karen Ray, the O.L. Slaton theater arts teacher who helps Carter with the Destination ImagiNation team, said she took a group of theater kids to New York City over spring break, and six of the seven Destination ImagiNation team members - all eighth-graders - participated in an improvisation workshop with professional actors.
"The actors couldn't believe they were only 14 years old because they were so polished. They kept saying, 'Are you sure they're not high school students?' " Ray said.
Burnett said her students also love improvisation.
"The team feels very comfortable with any kind of unpreparedness," she said, laughing. "It makes me uncomfortable, but doesn't bother them at all."
The students will leave Wednesday morning and compete on Thursday and Friday.
"They are all super-excited. None of them have been to globals before. They are also nervous about getting everything together," Carter said.
Lewis said the Preston Smith team has had a wonderful time at the end of the school year.
"They are so looking forward to Tennessee and the competition. It is a little hard to get them focused, but they're having a ball," she said.
Burnett said her team is the first Levelland team to go to Global Finals in 20 years. They are all sophomores and juniors, and in addition to the excitement about this year's competition, they are already talking about what they will be doing next year, she said.
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OUR KIDS/Two LISD teams, Levelland squad set to compete in Destination ImagiNation finals