Hi everyone, I hope you are safe, well and looking forward to some well deserved sunshine. I meant to write a reflection about my journey at Learn With Us Summer Camp just before the beginning of the current academic year. As you can guess, I am not a quick writer. Instead, I decided to take my time to reflect a bit more before sharing with you how I ended up setting up the YouTube channel in the first place, and what I have learned from it.
The Puppet Show that Never Happened
Durham, 13th June 2020.
Laidlaw Schools Trust (LST): “Your application was successful, and we wonder whether you’d like to teach some Italian to our pupils aged 9-11 years old”.
Me: “Of course! I’d be delighted!”
I was at the beginning of my volunteering journey at LST, and I still did not have any idea what summer 2020 would look like. The excitement was unbearable. For the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic I was in a position of being of use and finally making a little difference. I had never done what I was about to do. Teaching was definitely out of my comfort zone, and whilst I was keeping it a secret, I felt a little inadequate to the task. I had a great purpose but not solid ideas and strategies to make it happen.
The only thing I was sure about is that I wanted to engage students in a way that differed from the conventional PowerPoint-based lessons. I wanted to bring puppets to life and set up a puppet show to teach them Italian. My initial plan was to help them create their own puppet so that they could engage in imaginative play and in dialogues during our virtual classes. I started looking at online tutorials on how to build your own foam puppet and created a project proposal including the project budgeting and all the logistic detail of how we would have delivered the puppets to the pupils.
I was happy and my mind was filled with dreams of delivering a positive impact in the lives of children who missed so much schooling during spring 2020 and would not have access to educational activities during the summer otherwise. The idea of writing the scripts for the puppet shows, creating the scenery, and recording the video with my strong Italian accent was scary, but I felt the fear and did it anyway (as Susan Jeffers would say). I was ready to take on the challenges and learn.
A few days later my main point of contact got in touch telling me that it was a great idea but three weeks would have not been enough to set it up. I was suddenly back on PowerPoint again. I did not know yet, but this is how the Learn with Us Summer Camp began.
Three Lessons I Have Learned
1. If You Are Truly Excited About Helping Others and Creating Something New, Say Yes and Do It Even If You Still Do Not Know How.
If we are not ready to deal with doing something which may lead to failure, we would very quickly end up shutting down and wait for 'safer' opportunities while our talent dissipates. If you also feel a strong desire to offer all you can to somehow contribute to those around you, then if you wait until the safe opportunity you will probably end up waiting forever. The right opportunity is any time you find out a new problem, any time you discover that someone around you is suffering, it is when you witness injustice and start wishing that things were different. There are so many opportunities for change, for a better world, for growth but none of them is safe. Leadership is about being brave and embracing the inevitable challenges of our ambitions.
After the beginning of the pandemic, when children started missing school, what I really wanted to do was to offer some of my spare time to help them stay motivated and engaged with learning. Coming back to school after a summer away from intellectual stimulation is tough. Children in less privileged circumstances fall behind, and this is unfair. The lockdown has made this achievement gap even bigger, and even though had no idea how to record my own voice on a PowerPoint file I was committed to coming up with something.
The idea of failing was terrible, this was the education of children, so the stakes were high, but I tried to gain more trust in my ability to handle whatever was coming my way. It may seem a paradox, but I did so by embracing discipline and encouraging myself to take more risks. I started getting firmly into the habit of maintaining a creative flow and messing around with PowerPoint as much as I could to become better at it, seeking that fabled ‘eureka’ moment. My first step was looking at existing online free templates to inspire me to create my own format. I ended up on fppt.com and luckily found two interesting slides on the theme of education: STEAM education.
How many letters do we have in the word STEAM?
How many in the word LEARN?
I knew I had the foundation of my format in my hands. I did not know what name to give to the lessons but I needed something with the word 'learn' in it. Hmm, here we go: Learn Italiano with Mentor G. Sweet. I was ready to move on to the next task. Once the name was set, I was able to customise the template, create an avatar of myself, and finalise what would have been the visual format and branding of the course. Below you can see how I transformed the STEAM template into the final visual format for the YouTube channel.
I was thrilled and felt proud. I was heading in the right direction. I could feel the joy of succeeding even if the fear was still there. Curious. Pleasure, confidence, and fear all at once?! So perhaps confidence is about changing your relationship with fear, rather than taking away the fear? Hmm, next task!!
I wanted to give my lessons a strong identity and a colourful touch so that the kids would have enjoyed it. At least, I needed to create an original animated intro and outro. Again, I did not know how. I could feel the fear again, but I cracked on. I had never used any video tools or animation software before, but I remembered about the animation technique that Disney used before computer animation began. In brief, with this technique, animators drew sequences of animation by drawing each frame separately by hand, with enough frames to get across the key positions of an action. By presenting each of these frames in sequence very quickly the drawings are brought to life as in the GIF below showing the little man walking. Because this was all I knew about transforming static images into animated videos, I applied the same logic to my STEAM PowerPoints template. It took me ages, but it did the job.
It was not perfect, but it was something to get started with. I was so excited about it and truly believed in what I was doing but at each stage I had to face my fears and insecurities, and fight them all at the same time. The fear to be imperfect, judged, to make mistakes in front of others, to let others down, to mess everything up publicly. I have learned to fell those fears without letting them govern my choices. I have accepted that I am imperfect, that we can make mistakes in front of others - if we apologise and learn from it. In a way, the creation process has been like a long mindfulness session: a constant non-judgmental acknowledgement of whatever was there: thoughts, words, emotions. I was present and tried to stay with them rather than trying to change them in any way. Feel it, name it, and keep moving forward.
2. Growing Is Great but It Comes With Costs: Grow Wisely.
At that point, I started normalising the discomfort of being immersed in something new. I was feeling brave and started planning my first ever video lesson: the Italian alphabet! The positive feedback from the pupils and teachers was very encouraging and spurred me on to do more: "How can I make a larger impact?". I was working really hard to produce a single lesson per week, and alone I couldn't have gone very far. I reached out with a post in the hope that others would join me, and so they did. Very quickly the mission got larger and more complex. We had five new brilliant mentors willing to create weekly lessons on a variety of subjects: Harry Potter, Science, Chinese Culture, World News, and Psychology! I was amazed, and I could not be more excited. This was no longer an Italian course but was rather an e-learning summer camp!
It was time to find more volunteers: video editors and graphic design assistants that could work on post-production so that I could step back from the creation process to focus more on leading the new dynamic, creative and dedicated team we had. By email, we reached more than 220 Durham University students to ask them to join us. The team started growing quickly again and we soon reached a total of 18 members. We were more creative and dynamic than ever before. I really wanted them to feel comfortable with their work volume, and I was committed to doing all I could to distribute work across the team effectively. As planned, more Graphic Design Assistants and Video Editors joined the team. The ratio of mentors and editors was finally 1:1 and I was certain that with the new members of staff the team’s workload was fairly divided and I would avoid anyone feeling overworked.
Of course, adding new members was a good way to ensure that the team was filled with diversity and the necessary skills to succeed. However, this came with big costs. In addition to the challenge of being in different time zones, we soon became vulnerable to poor internal communications and fragmentation. The workload was increasing rather than decreasing, and I could perceive the stress in the voice of everyone I was talking to – including myself. The structure in place was not optimally designed, we were finding it hard to achieve deadlines, I was still heavily involved in many steps of the lesson production and there was a waste of resources due to the number of communications that the latter team expansion had caused. It was chaos and I had to fix it as soon as possible.
I started walking backwards and forwards in front of my window, asking questions to critically engage with how I was leading: Why is this not working? What are we missing? I really started reflecting on the strategies and structure I put into place, and I soon realised that I was asking the wrong questions. The reason why there was more work to do than ever before was not because we were missing something, we simply had too much. I had recruited too many volunteers without taking into account that there was not a sufficiently robust structure in place to hold such a big team together. Moreover, once I started doing deeper quality checks I realised that the new Video Editors were using a software that did not allow them to save the videos at a high quality - which forced us to redo all their editing again. I, therefore, had to reduce the number of editors and bring it back to a total of three. It was a hard decision to take and a very difficult conversation to have, but it worked and the entire team benefitted from it. The structure was more stable and working effectively, everyone was respecting the deadlines and the stress disappeared. Could I have prevented it? Well, yes, but at that time I did not know that adding more people to the team comes with big costs, and that you have to be able to sustain those costs to avoid ending up doing more harm than good. So, grow wisely.
3. Do Not Be Afraid to Ask for Help. Alone, We Cannot Go Very Far.
Wise growth requires you to ask for help. I have always seen myself as someone that can handle a substantial amount of challenges and stress on his own. Who can work the entire day until late at night in order to get the 'right' amount of work done. Who does not give up in the face of obstacles, and believes that if we work hard enough and long enough there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. However, what I have learned is that leadership is not about being a super-human, able to work 16 hours per day to get things done close to perfection. It is about asking for help, and connecting with others on a genuine level, through the same important mission you are all working towards. You do not have to have all the answers or be an expert in every single little thing you do. I was so impressed to see how willing people were to help. All I had to do was ask for it and be willing to show my vulnerabilities and limitations rather than pretending that they do not exist.
I did so, and together, across ten weeks, we developed and delivered 40 educational videos, collected over 3500 views, and recorded over 210 hours of lesson watched!
Alone and without their help, I would have not gone so far, even near to it. We did this together, asking for help any time we had to because we knew that there was nothing wrong with saying 'I'm struggling with this, I do not know how to do that, I need help'. When I say 'together' I genuinely mean everyone involved: those working on the ground, those behind the scenes, and those who were not heavily involved in the project but helped us grow and succeed in so many different ways. I would like to thank all our incredible sixteen volunteers, without whom nothing would have been possible: Virtual Mentors, Video Editors, Content Curators, Graphic Design Assistants, Publicity Officers, Coordinators, Administrators, Special Guests and Communications Managers. They have worked so hard and been my strongest source of inspiration throughout the summer. Thanks to this incredible Laidlaw Scholars Network, which allowed us to get connected in the first place. Tom and Tom, the two primary teachers from LST that helped us create the weekly lessons, have endlessly volunteered even if they were on their annual leave. Phil has always been there ready to help us any time we needed to, even when she was on the move in her summer holidays. Nikol did everything she could to support the initiative, helping us to connect to the primary schools and recruit as many volunteers as possible. Susanna supported this project in many ways since the first time I talked about the summer camp on this platform, after which so many scholars reached out. Sandra, from the Department of Psychology at Durham University, helped us by sharing an email for recruitment with all the second-year students in the department, after which two new volunteers joined us. Andrew did everything possible to significantly increase the visibility of our recruitment; after his posts on Twitter, we had the honour of having a member of staff joining us to teach psychology. Suzanne, her warm personality and wise guidance have been a precious gift; she helped us so much, in so many ways that I would need to use way too many words. Adelle and Lucy have helped us reach as many parents and children as possible, beyond the families linked with the schools we were in partnership with. Mark wrote an article about the summer camp, and thanks to Jo it ended up in the local press!
Even when asking for help, creating something you really believe in, dealing with the fears and personal insecurities along the way, and with the mistakes you make and risks you take, can be a strong source of stress. If you asked me how I managed it, my answer would be: I have indulged in the warmth of my loved ones. My friends and family have definitely been part of the summer camp. They shared tips, suggestions, feedback, and provided me with empathetic encouragement week after week. I particularly want to thank those friends I was living with during the lockdown and summer: Rachel, Yuru, and Anu, for making sure I took some downtime. Thanks for our 'international dinners' with way too much food, for the movie nights, the workouts, Yoga, and the never-ending watermelons!
Feeling connected in a warm and genuine manner with my closest loved ones has really been the most crucial part of my summer camp experience. If the distance, whether geographical or social, did not allow us to hug or see each other in the eyes, a video call would have been the same. Finally, I want to thank my partner, for having been so patient with me and my mistakes, for cooking basically every single meal since the beginning of the summer camp, for proofreading my daily (many) emails, video descriptions, scripts, and posts (including this present one), and for very kindly offering me the orange chocolate that he really likes during my most difficult evenings. Without his and everyone else’s help, the summer camp would have never happened.
My heartfelt thanks go out to each of you.