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Jessica Balick Goodman, Owen Pruit, Henry Balick Goodman, Olivia Merryman, Molly Pruit and Ethan Pound are given instructions before their improv skit.
Jessica Balick Goodman, Owen Pruit, Henry Balick Goodman, Olivia Merryman, Molly Pruit and Ethan Pound are given instructions before their improv skit. (Submitted photo by Lyssa Balick)

After finishing 22nd out of 22 teams in state-wide competition last year, a team of home-schooled students did more than one better this year.

The team of four Catonsville kids and two from Sykesville placed 10th last week at the Destination Imagination global finals, an international improv competition, finishing ahead of some 90 other teams from around the world.

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Competitions involve challenges such as acting out a two-minute skit incorporating details and a setting announced on the spot by the judges, in addition other improvised tasks, such as building a tower as high as they can using only a piece of paper or building a weight-bearing boat out of provided materials.

"It's pretty amazing," said Jessica Balick Goodman, 14, a team captain and member of the improv team for three years.

She and three other Catonsville-area home-schooled students, Olivia Merryman, 14, Ethan Pound, 13, and Jessica's brother, Henry Balick Goodman, 12, along with Sykesville siblings Molly Pruit and Owen Pruit, both 12, make up Insert Sandwich There, an improv team that competes in the Destination Imagination program.

Destination Imagination is an international program for kids that uses a series of challenges and competitions to encourage children to explore unique approaches to learning.

The challenges range from technical, scientific and structural learning to fine arts, service and improvisational learning, according to the organization's website.

Throughout the school year, competitions held at the local and state levels lead up to the global finals, held this year in Knoxville, Tenn. More than 8,000 students journeyed from 17 countries to compete in the final round, according to DI's website.

For Insert Sandwich There though, it's always been about the improv.

The kids are all part of a co-op of home-schoolers from around the area, said Lyssa Balick, mother of Jessica and Henry and one of the team's coaches. One day every week, they gather together with the co-op's other 200 members for joint lessons. For about an hour and 15 minutes on each co-op lesson day, the team of six would break away to meet and prepare for competition by discussing things like building off of each other's ideas and making sure each skit has a beginning, middle and an end.

As competition drew nearer, Balik said, she and fellow coach Kirsten Merryman, mother of Olivia, would give the team situations similar to those they would face in the competition and allow the team to perform mock skits for practice.

Beginning in the late fall, the kids, along with coaches Balick and Merryman, began to prepare for regional-level competition.

For the past four years, the co-op has sent a team to compete at various levels, Balick said.

At the first competition of this year, which was held in February, the team finished in first place out of eight teams, Balick said.

In April, they placed third out of 20 at the statewide competition, advancing them for the first time ever to the final, international round, she said.

For Ethan Pound, now in his second year on the team, it was shocking to advance out of regional competition.

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"We were very surprised," he said of this year's success.

But when the team qualified for the international competition, nerves gave way to excitement.

The team's preparation made him feel as ready as he could feel in the one month between the April state competition and the May global finals

"I was counting down the days leading up to it," he said.

Balik Goodman has been competing on the team for three years, but this year has been extra special, she said.

When the team found out at the state competition that they had made it to the top round, it took a moment to sink in, she said. "When they called us, we all just stood there for a second," she said. "Then we stood up and started screaming."

Despite their success, the team did not lose sight of its main objective, Balick said.

"We don't focus on winning," she said. "We just focus on having a good time and teamwork."

And there are other benefits as well, Balick said. Not only do the kids get to meet students from around the country and around the world, but they improve as learners and problem solvers along the way. And even though it is a competition, things like positive feedback provided by the judges after each challenge help to build the kids' confidence in their own abilities.

"It doesn't matter if you get first place or last place, because you're here and you're getting this experience," she said she and Merryman told the kids ahead of the international competition. "This is just an amazing thing for kids."

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