Leuca’s Imagination Chapter Debut

What. A. Year.

About a year ago this week (OK last month… I’m late) I was attending my first ever Google Hangout with the wonderful Alice Lin (then) from Imagination Foundation and a few fellow Chapter Leaders. I was so excited, I just couldn’t believe my luck.

Having moved from London UK to Puglia Italy in 2012, I spent a while trying to figure out how to bring more creativity and manual activities to our tiny primary school in Santa Maria di Leuca. Then, tipped off by our friend Nick Corston from UK education charity STEAM Co., the school took part in its first ever Global Cardboard Challenge (October 2014).

Sfida Mondiale del Cartone 2014 — Scuola Primaria di Leuca, Italy

I discovered the wonderful world of Caine’s Arcade and the Imagination Foundation, and immediately fell in love with all that they do. Simultaneously whilst volunteering to set up STEAM Co., I was introduced to so many fascinating and extraordinary people, all sharing their amazing skills and talents to teach kids through play. I was hooked.

This lead me to apply on behalf of the Scuola Primaria di Leuca and was absolutely ecstatic when we were selected to join the 2015–2016 Imagination Chapters Programme, the first and only Chapter in Italy. What a game changer! The privilege, the honour, the great pride to be part of this wonderful community of truly inspiring people, sharing ideas, supporting each other, constantly offering a wealth of resources and smiles.

Imagination Chapters gave us the perfect opportunity, the ideal structure, amazing materials, guidance and the courage to create a place the kids could own: where they can let loose and get their hands dirty, try out new things and discover all the awesomeness that our world has to offer . Total creative freedom without the stress of performing for grades.

First ever Fun Fridays meet 18 September 2015: making notebooks

So on Friday 18 September 2015 our adventure began as we held our first ever Fun Fridays meet. Since then we’ve spent most Friday afternoons having lots of fun doing something none of us had ever tried before. We picnic together first (school days here are from 8:15am to 1:15pm so kids don’t normally lunch together), and then we build and play.

And what a year it’s been: Cardboard Challenge, Hour of Code, Inventors Challenge and Earth Day Cardboard Challenge were our structural themes as we tried all sorts of activities from engineering plastic bottle balloon-powered cars through building Halloween and Christmas decorations, to discovering a variety of technologies. With a consistent thread through it all: the great beauty of Leuca and the importance of using our resources sustainably.

Engineering plastic bottle balloon-powered cars
Attempting a bit of chemistry — Gas Balloon Ghosts — Halloween 2015

Of course the real challenge is that I’m not a teacher. I have no training whatsoever in education and my personal knowledge is at best a little shaky. My skill set mainly covers brand, sponsorship and event management, so a mix of strategic planning, logistics and production — useful in many ways but not necessarily in getting 20 Italian primary school kids to listen to anything you say. So my whistling skills come in handy.

Then there’s the fact that none of the kids or parents speak English. So everything has to be translated through my dodgy Italian. I suspect that at least 30% of what I say goes way over their heads. It also means we’ve been a little limited for inspirational material and exchanges with other Imagination Chapters.

Some cultural traits can also be crippling sometimes. School is so serious here and kids worry about getting things wrong. The expression ‘fare brutta figura’ (to make a bad impression) is regularly used by teachers and parents to keep kids in line, putting fear rather than fun in much of what they do. The expression is banned from our Fun Fridays meets but it’s taken a while to change this ‘can’t do’ mentality.

Makedo & SparkFun generous gifts

But despite these setbacks, I’m proud to say we’ve managed to do some pretty cool things and to grow and gel well together as a group. The team at Imagination Foundation and fellow Chapter leaders have been tremendous in supporting all that we do, offering endless inspiration and constant encouragement. We were also blessed by the great generosity of Makedo and SparkFun, who sent us wonderful tools to build and create with, an absolute hit with all the group.

A totally unexpected outcome was the brilliant exchange between Steve Auslander’s Chapter in Indiana and our Fun Fridays Club in Leuca. We loved their Inventors Challenge idea so much that we ordered Super Grabbers for our whole Chapter, purchase order and all. The kids over in America did a fantastic job and sent 20 beautifully crafted Super Grabbers over to our Fun Fridays Chapter, at the most southern tip of the Italian heel. A wonderful event in our year and a lovely relationship to build on.

Our Thank You to the Indiana Imagination Chapter for our great Super Grabbers

And as if all this wasn’t enough already, Christmas was to come early (again!) through the Science at Play Project with Google.

Google Making & Science Meets Fun Fridays Imagination Chapter

The primary school in Leuca has no computers, trained teachers or any other resources for technology lessons. Although most kids have either a smartphone or tablet at home, they’d not yet had the opportunity to explore anything other than games or videos. So it was great to have a dab at Stop Motion, coding, Ozobots, SparkFun and squishy circuits, albeit at very beginners level.

Ozobot-ing, SparkFun-ing

So imagine my bewilderment when Imagination Foundation leader Mike McGalliard approached the Leuca Chapter to take part in the Google Science project. So very lucky to be chosen with only two other chapters — LA and Cape Town — and offered the privilege to become a Google Trusted Tester (cool title!) and play with the new Science Journal app. And in order to do this, we received boxes of amazing goodies including cell phones, sensors, circuit boards and a generous collection of tools and building materials. All of which is ours to keep, meaning not only does Fun Fridays have some wonderful new kit to experiment with, our school now has enough devices to offer regular technology lessons as part of the programme. Result.

And as if all that wasn’t enough still, they also sent us the production team from heaven, the wonderful Elizabeth Yng-Wong and Jerry Henry, who descended on Santa Maria di Leuca and gave the Fun Fridays kids and their families the experience of a lifetime. We spent days filming the children building the wind spinners, testing the app in various environments — at the park, on a boat, at the lighthouse — and we all did interviews for the mini documentary.

Sadly all did not run as smoothly as planned. After spending all year trying to teach the kids that it’s OK to fail, the irony wasn’t lost as I struggled with the technology for the wind spinner activity. I’d sailed through SparkFun the previous week so thought it would be fine. However, despite many late hours trying to figure it out, searching online forums, restarting, re-failing, I lost the battle with Arduino. Unable to get it all working for the filming, I felt terribly guilty we’d been chosen — the wild card — and that I’d messed it up. Thinking of all these other Chapter leaders who would’ve worked it out and made a much better job of it. Not my finest moment.

Welcome lunch with Elizabeth and Jerry

But I parked aside my bruised ego and battled on, greatly thanks to the kind support and words of wisdom from fellow leader Steve Sherman and the team at Imagination Foundation, as well as the great patience of our lovely film producer Elizabeth and ‘King of Drones’ Jerry — whom I proceeded to ply with fresh seafood and local delicacies to help forget my shortfalls.

Thankfully they are absolute pros and the video they produced — Episode 4 of the Science at Play series — is simply wonderful. It shows off the Fun Fridays crew in the best possible light and gives the great beauty of Leuca a staring role . So proud and grateful for this amazing collaboration.

So it didn’t go as swiftly as planned. So we won’t see any RPM readings for the wind spinner activity (just yet); so my presentation skills are pretty basic compared to awesome fellow Chapter leaders Christina and Steve. Still, what a terrific time we all had. The experience gave the Leuca kids such a boost of confidence, great pride in themselves and in their bellissima Leuca; and for all of us, fond memories and a very special friendship with Elizabeth and Jerry. I don’t think there could’ve been a greater grand finale to our first year as an Imagination Chapter.

And hopefully, we’ve still managed to provide some fun ways to test the Science Journal app and to demonstrate that even with limited techie and educational savvy, you can still get kids excited about science and the world we live in.

Onwards and Upwards

It’s been so rewarding to watch the Fun Fridays kids grow throughout the year, see them develop problem solving skills, collaborate with each other and get excited about what they can do.

Fun Fridays Mums — a lovely bunch

For me, it’s also been a great journey: recycling my professional skills, discovering a zillion cool new things, trying stuff out of my comfort zone and realising that I can actually manage most. I’ve also been overwhelmed by the fantastic support from the Fun Fridays mums — without them, none of this would’ve been possible. Same goes for my dear husband Jez who puts up with my total inability to throw anything away, my stashing cardboard all over the place and regularly invading our home with the loony latin lot.

There’s no doubt that my own kids — Lily and Hooper — were the reason I started Fun Fridays in the first place. I wanted them to get a break from homework (handed out in excessive quantity in Italy) but mostly, a chance to get together with other kids to build and play. I wouldn’t have faired so well without all their help — correcting my awful Italian, helping every week, putting up with their embarrassing mum.

My Superstars

The tricky part is that with nearly 20 kids in the group, my own have often been the ones neglected as I tried to answer 10 questions or cries for help at once. So I need to work on that. Arm myself with basic teaching methods to better organise our meets, find a permanent meeting place so I’m not carrying a shed-full there and back every week, and try to find some help on funding (a bit ambitious in south Italy!).

So lots to do but very much looking forward to another year of creative play, of exchanging with fellow leaders and their Chapters and creating a whole lotta crazy, cool and wonderful stuff.

Auguri! Best wishes to everyone starting this new school year and from the bottom of our hearts, Grazie Mille! to the Imagination Foundation for all that you do.

Love from Leuca

Long Live Imagination Chapters