My Favorite Lesson

Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama, the 14th Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Mikhail Gorbachev, and Mother Teresa. What do they all have in common?

That’s the question I posed to several of my 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classes last week. “They all fought for civil rights,” one said.

Not quite what I was looking for…

“All of them are religious,” said another.

Not necessarily…

“They wanted peace.”


I explained to the class that all of these famous people had won the Nobel Peace Prize. We discussed the accomplishments of each, and why we thought they were deserving of the award. I found it interesting that more than one class was surprised that Barack Obama won the award. “Want to know who was more surprised than you are?,” I asked. “Barack Obama.”

After discussing the history of the Nobel Prize, and the categories you can win it in (Chemistry, Physics, Peace, Literature, Medicine, and Economics), I asked the class what happens when someone wins an award.

“They get a medal!”

…of course.

“They get lots of money!”


“They get fame.”

true. “And what else gets attention?,” I asked.

“Their cause!”

Right. “And that’s why I want to talk about the two winners of this year’s Nobel Prize,” I said, “because it’s important to understand their causes.” None of my classes knew the recently announced Nobel Peace Prize winners. Some students knew details about one or the other, but I was happy that this would be new information for the majority of them.

I started off giving a brief overview of Kailash Satyarthi. I explained that he started an organization called Save the Childhood Movement, and that thanks to his hard work, thousands of children had been plucked from dangerous working situations, and were given shelter, care, and hope. Child labor was a new concept for some of my students. To make it more real, I showed them a few images:

child labor 1

child labor 2

We then read the story of Santu, a 13-year-old boy who was sold into child labor by his father. After covering some new vocabulary from the article (establishment, toil, grave, exploitation, halfway house, reunite, vocational), I asked my students how it made them feel. Their responses ranged from incredibly sad to hopeful (Santu’s story has a happy ending, fortunately). I tried to make child labor come alive for my students. “How many hours are you in school each day?,” I asked.

“7 hours, maybe 8,” they responded.

“Okay, now double that. And let’s assume that instead of sitting relatively comfortably at your desk for 15 hours that you are chopping vegetables and sweeping floors. Nonstop. Oh, and don’t forget about the routine beatings you are forced to endure.”

We then talked about how Santu ended up in a much better place. He is now receiving an education, pursuing his interests, and making new friends. He wants to be a doctor so that he can “help when children like [him] are cut or burned.” Santu and 83,000 children like him have been saved thanks to the hard work of Kailash Satyarthi and the Save the Childhood Movement.  “Do you think Mr. Satyarthi is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize?,” I asked.

I was met with a resounding “YES!”

“Now can you imagine that there is someone out there who the Nobel Prize Committee felt was equally deserving of such an important award?,” I asked. The class looked back at me skeptically.

But then I told them Malala Yousafzai’s story. As a young Pakistani girl, all Malala wanted to do was attend school like a normal kid. Unfortunately, the Taliban in that region issued an edict declaring that women could not be educated. What had once been a normal walk to school suddenly became a life-threatening situation. To bring Malala’s story to life, we read three posts from her blog (I AM AFRAID, I HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL, and DO NOT WEAR COLORFUL DRESSES), which she had written under a pseudonym (great vocabulary word for the students!). The students were in awe that a man had threatened to kill her and that hearing about “another three [dead] bodies” seemed like a normal routine.


“Answer me honestly,” I asked my classes: “Would you go to school if it meant risking your life?” Most of my students said “of course not! This is my life we’re talking about here!” And as much as I value education, I would have to agree with them! I also had a few students who said they would probably risk it. Either way, I think everyone understood just how brave Malala was for pursuing an education in defiance of the Taliban.

Unfortunately, Malala’s blog attracted some negative attention, I explained. On her way home from school one afternoon in October, 2012, Malala’s bus was stopped. A couple of men asked for her by name, and when they found out who she was, they shot at her three times. One of the bullets found its mark, piercing her left temple before lodging itself into her shoulder. Two of her classmates were hit as well. Needless to say, Malala was in critical condition for quite some time, but after a long recovery, she is once again standing up for her beliefs. In fact, she has become more vocal than ever about women and children’s rights to education. We watched this video clip of highlights from her recent speech to the United Nations.

Once again, I asked my class, “Do you think Malala is deserving of this award?”

“Yes!” my class replied enthusiastically.

We proceeded to talk about characteristics shared by Nobel Prize winners and who we thought might win the award next year. I asked the class if there were any Bulgarians (past or present) who they thought were deserving of such a high honor (Ivan Vazov and Vasil Levski came up several times). And finally, I think all of my students hated me just a little when I asked them who they thought was more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize: Kailash or Malala. But there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy debate, right?

In summary, I think it’s important to talk about all the good work people are doing in the world, and be moved and inspired by the causes they support. The Nobel Prize is just one form of recognition, but the truth is that there are many people out there accomplishing amazing things that make the world a better place, most of whom will never earn a Nobel Prize. Learn about these people. Talk about these people. Share what you know with each other. And most importantly, find a cause that’s important to you and get involved!

My Best Friend in Silistra is a 60-year-old man

I’m an extrovert. I constantly seek out the company of others, and rarely prefer spending time alone. Looking back, I’ve more or less been completely surrounded by people since starting college. Duke was a nonstop social overload (that I loved) and with so many young people at Target and in Minneapolis, finding friends to socialize with was never a problem.

It’s been a different story so far in Silistra. Sure, I enjoy the daily interactions with my students and colleagues, but it’s just not the same as what I’m used to. Silistra (and much of rural Bulgaria, for that matter) lacks young adults. After graduating high school, many aspiring students decide to study and work abroad. At the very least, they opt to move to Sofia or Plovdiv where there are more opportunities for education and employment. That coupled with the language barrier has made making friends challenging.

Enter: Krasimir

I first met Krasimir (Krassy) a little over a month ago. My teacher mentor Valentin was over at my apartment helping me figure out how to get my apartment wired for the Internet. We were out in the hallway talking, and all of a sudden the door across the hall from me swung open. I looked up and was surprised to see an older man with a gray mustache and distinctive beer belly staring back at us…in nothing but his underwear. He was very inquisitive, and began asking Valentin about who I was and what problems we were having with the Internet. It was only after about 10 minutes that he finally excused himself to put on some pants. He returned quickly, however, and insisted we follow him into his apartment.

We sat around his living room table and discussed the problems we were having with the Internet setup. For whatever reason, Krassy made it his personal mission to help us, vowing that he had friends who worked for the cable company, and that he would call them right away…well, right after we joined him for a glass of whiskey. He told us a bit about his background: he has a window business, a daughter living in the UK, and a wife who works in Varna (a beautiful Bulgarian city on the Black Sea Coast). My favorite thing he said, however, was translated for me as, “I just can’t believe how many friends I have!” With his outgoing personality and affable nature, I believed him!

Now because the conversation was mostly in Bulgarian, I was pretty quiet. However, after only about an hour, I somehow made enough of an impression on Krassy that he said I was “like a son” to him, and he has treated me that way ever since.

Krassy, me, Krassy's wife Nadia

Krassy, me, Krassy’s wife Nadia

A couple times each week, Krassy rings my doorbell right around dinner time, and beckons me into his apartment. The three course meals he prepares are a welcome change to the pasta, sandwiches, and cereal I was “cooking.” At first, conversation was a little frustrating. My Bulgarian was still very limited, and Krassy doesn’t speak any English. Despite the language barrier, we actually understand each other quite well, but I have to imagine we would be quite a spectacle for any onlooker.

As a fly on the wall (and yes, there are plenty of actual flies on the wall), here are some things you would likely see:

  • Drawings. Lots of drawings. When neither of us can find the right words, we draw pictures. We just recently went through the last sheet of what started as a brand new notepad!

Bats and a little geography lesson


Krassy teaches me how to tell time and wear a funny hat??


The sound effects Krassy makes to describe a pig are hilarious

  • An intense game of charades. Body language and gesturing are essential for communication when words alone are insufficient.
  • Me writing intensely. I always bring my own notebook, and leave with a new page of Bulgarian words and phrases. Krassy always points to random objects, and tells me the word in Bulgarian. My pocket Bulgarian-English dictionary is always nearby too.
  • Me telling Krassy that I’m full and can’t possibly eat anything else.
  • Krassy subsequently serving me more and insisting that I finish it.
  • Krassy repeatedly telling me that his pet rabbit “peshoo” is in the mafia (I find this especially funny).

Peshoo leading a mafia meeting

  • Krassy chain smoking…it is the Bulgarian way, after all!
  • Krassy calling across the balcony to his neighbors who speak a bit of English when we need help translating.
  • Krassy giving me instructions on how to get over my cold: drinking one liter of tea with lemon and honey, soaking my feet in very hot salt water (still don’t understand this one), putting a heating pad on my face (“make sure you don’t go above the 1st setting!”). Oh, and a dash of rakia, of course.

Krassy’s Cold Remedy

  • Krassy explaining what’s being said on TV. His favorite shows are Serbian music television, the news, and shows about aliens or Egyptians. Every once and awhile, he turns on CNN in English, and asks several times if I can understand it…I still can, Krassy.
  • Krassy telling me that I need to get flannel pajamas like his before winter arrives.
  • Krassy insisting I talk to people on the phone when they call. I’ve spoken with his wife, mother, and friends in a mixture of Bulgarian and English. This seems to be of particular amusement to Krassy, as he always laughs hysterically in the corner.
  • Friendship. I’ll be honest, I was a bit skeptical about Krassy at first. I didn’t want my social life to revolve around my 60-year-old neighbor, and I thought the communication barrier would be insurmountable. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I now look forward to spending time with Krassy, and feel fortunate to have a neighbor so invested in my well-being.

Krassy being Krassy

I’m about to leave for Bucharest, where I will be picking up my parents and younger sisters. I can’t wait to show them around Bulgaria…and introduce them to my best friend in Silistra, of course!

Surviving Na Gosti

A great blog post I ran across about Na Gosti (As guest). Pretty accurately describes dinner with my next door neighbor!

Да сме живи и здрави...

Na Gosti - comic 1

Bulgaria is one of those countries with a hospitality culture that guidebooks and Sunday newspaper sections rave about.

This means that you will be cared for in a way that can be both warm and oppressively overbearing, welcoming and kind of weird. Spend any time here and make friends with any locals, and you will end up invited На Гости (NaGosti). The literal translation of na gosti is “as guest,” which makes gosti the rare Bulgarian word that sounds remotely like its English counterpart. Na Gosti isn’t just going over for dinner—it’s more like participating in a local folk dance, where everyone knows the steps except you. Here’s the choreography for surviving Na Gosti:

Na Gosti - comic 2

First, there are 3 things you need to know:

  1. You need to eat and drink slower than you ever thought possible, because
  2. It is your host’s duty to force-feed you, and
  3. You will…

View original post 532 more words

Speech and Debate

Fulbright grantees are expected to have an impact that extends beyond the classroom. As such, it’s common for ETAs to supplement their teaching with community service, after-school programming, athletics, or some other such activity. Before coming to Bulgaria, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I could leave a mark on Silistra. I toyed with the idea of organizing a soccer tournament to raise money for charity or starting a club at my school for students interested in pursuing a career in business. While I haven’t given up on those ideas, I was introduced to a new one this past weekend: Speech & Debate.

At ETA Orientation back in September, we were given a brief overview of The BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournament) Foundation. The group aims to “give Bulgarian learners of English a chance to practice and perfect their English speaking skills through intelligent debate and interpretive performance competitions.” Having never participated in speech or debate events, I wasn’t initially convinced this was something I wanted to pursue. However, I decided to attend training for new coaches this past weekend to learn a little more. And I’m glad I did.

After the seven hour bus ride to Sofia, I arrived at training pretty exhausted. Fortunately, the excitement of seeing friends from my ETA group (and plenty of coffee) perked me up quickly! The first few training sessions focused on the foundations of debate: how to craft a logical argument, how to support it with evidence, how to create mechanisms that accomplish a proposed solution. The real fun started, however, when we broke into teams and engaged in our first debate. The topic was medical decision-making. More specifically, I had to argue that parents should NOT have the final say in decisions regarding their children’s health. Without prior debating experience, my group and I struggled to piece together a strong argument. Fortunately, we had the help of some experienced Bulgarian high school debaters to help show us the ropes! The debate itself was invigorating, but like many of my peers, it made me a little uncomfortable. Articulating an argument and poking holes in your opposition’s isn’t easy, especially for the first time. The next morning, we had a second mock debate, in which I argued that handguns should be banned. While the process still felt new, everyone made considerable progress from just the night before.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday were spent reviewing the “Speech” portion of the program. Participants can select to compete in the following categories:

  • Poetry – students read a seven minute work of poetry with a beginning, intro, build-up, climax, resolution, and conclusion; students should take listeners on an “emotional journey”
  • Prose – students read a seven minute work of prose (fiction, nonfiction, novels, or plays) with a beginning, intro, build-up, climax, resolution, and conclusion; students should take listeners on an “emotional journey”
  • Oratory – students present a ten minute memorized original speech on a topic of interest to them
  • Duo – a pair of students present a ten minute memorized work of poetry, prose, non-fiction, fiction, dramatic scripts, or humorous scripts; creativity and gesturing/acting are encouraged

After learning about each of the different competitions, we were broken into groups, and expected to participate in a mock competition with our peers. I was assigned poetry. Now while I’m not usually overly interested in poetry, a friend recommended I present a poem that really moved me. It’s called Tamara’s Opus by Joshua Bennett, and it’s the story of a young man with a deaf older sister. As he ages, he realizes that his lack of commitment to learning sign language has prevented him from connecting with his sister Tamara in a meaningful way. Overcome with guilt, he apologizes to her, and promises to dedicate himself fully to learning her language. The lyrics are very moving, and I’d encourage you to watch Joshua Bennett himself perform it at the White House. I actually prefer this version because it is slightly extended and a bit slower, but both are great! Once again, as someone who has never really performed, I was a bit uncomfortable with the exercise, but I had way more fun than I expected.

A few things stand out to me from the weekend that together have motivated me to participate in BEST by starting and coaching a Speech & Debate team at my school:

  • This is a fantastic opportunity for my students. One thing that really struck me this weekend was the positive impact participating in speech & debate can have on high school kids (or anyone, for that matter). I watched several video testimonials from past competitors and coaches that raved about how great the experience had been. What better chance to build confidence, presentation skills, leadership, and English language skills than a competition like I’ve described above? I’d be doing my students a disservice by not giving them this great opportunity!
  • Getting out of your comfort zone is important. I’ve talked about this before: it’s not until you are slightly out of your comfort zone that real learning occurs. I experienced that going overseas for the first time despite being terrified of flying over water (I’m past that now, thank goodness!); I experienced that living in a rural Peruvian home-stay; I’ve been experiencing that as a first-time high school teacher in Bulgaria; and most recently, I experienced that while debating my peers and presenting poetry this weekend. I know coaching something I still know very little about will challenge me, but even more importantly, I know participating will challenge my students. Competing in a competition is uncomfortable enough…imagine doing it in your second or third language! These kids have guts!
  • This is a great growth experience for me personally. Okay, here’s the selfish portion. For those of you who know me well, you know I hate conflict. In fact, sometimes I’ll bend over backwards to avoid ruffling someone’s feathers. For example, I’ve agreed to take on projects at work that really weren’t my responsibility and I can’t think of the last time I voiced a restaurant preference when a group had different opinions on where to eat. Debate will push me to engage in arguments that are important, and that I might not have otherwise. I also think the experience will help me find more support for my beliefs in some of today’s hotly contested issues.
  • A dear friend of mine was incredibly involved in Speech & Debate. I usually try to avoid getting too personal in my blog, but this has been on my mind a lot recently, so I wanted to share. Coming up in just over a week is the 4 year anniversary of my friend Drew’s passing. Drew was incredibly passionate about a lot of things, but Speech & Debate was up towards the top of that list. He coached a high school debate team and always talked about how much he enjoyed it. I always respected Drew’s ability to win just about every argument he was in, and I think his role in debate had a lot to do with that. His points were well thought out, substantiated thoroughly, and articulated perfectly. Drew would have loved everything BEST stands for, and that makes me happy.
  • BEST inspires me. Not only do I feel very strongly about BEST’s mission to develop the language and leadership skills of Bulgaria’s youth, but I also find it inspiring that a group of teachers in my shoes just a few years ago started an organization that now has hundreds of participants, has been officially chartered as a non-profit organization, and has an impact on the lives of young people all over the country. Simply put, that’s just something I want to be a part of.
BEST training group

BEST training group

On the bus ride back from Sofia (that makes 28 hours of bus travel in the last two weeks, but who’s counting?) it was clear to me that this was something I wanted to pursue. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to make it happen yet, but I’m excited about trying. Since returning Sunday night, I’ve started talking it up to students, working with colleagues to schedule an information session, and putting together a power point presentation to explain speech & debate 101.

Finally, I just wanted to give a big shout out to the BEST Committee members who organized an awesome training this past weekend. I know it gave me and others the resources and confidence to keep the program moving in the right direction!

Bulgarian Elections and Arms Disposal

Because the primary purpose of this blog is to enhance mutual understanding, I feel compelled to share top Bulgarian news stories from time to time. I’m going to keep this post short, but I wanted to call your attention to two things: tomorrow is election day in Bulgaria and yesterday was a national day of mourning.

  1. Bulgarian politics have been quite unstable recently, and tomorrow marks Bulgaria’s third election in only two years. For the last couple months, the country has been run by a caretaker government after President Rosen Plevneliev dissolved the previous government one year into its four-year term. The new government will have an uphill battle as Bulgaria faces several major challenges: a struggling economy, a recent bank run (I described this in a bit more detail in a previous post), and political corruption. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the newly appointed government will be “so fragmented that it will be unable to form a stable cabinet.” Many people I’ve talked to have expressed frustration over the political situation in Bulgaria. Politics and an unwillingness to compromise seem to prevent anything from getting accomplished (sound familiar?). Thank you Valentin for another great summary of the upcoming election. One quote seems to capture the opinion I’ve heard from students, colleagues, and other locals: “The politicians are ruining our towns and our villages, we are being buried in corruption.” Also, “Bulgarians can be forgiven for pessimism as they vote on Sunday in an election that few believe will deliver them from corruption, stagnation and geopolitical crunch – caught between their new overlords in the EU and their old one in Moscow.” I’m curious to see how tomorrow’s elections play out, and I hope that Bulgaria can find political stability to create a foundation for meaningful economic progress.
  2. Yesterday was a national day of mourning in Bulgaria following a deadly blast in Gorni Lom, a city located about 90 miles outside of Sofia. The blast is yet another unfortunate reminder of a very dangerous industry in Bulgaria–“the dismantling of obsolete munitions.” Despite the danger, Bulgarians have continued this line of work, expressing that they have no other option for employment. The Montana region where the blast occurred has a 21% unemployment rate, and workers at the plant were making about $154/month.

Other Bulgarian Fulbrighters and friends from Bulgaria, I’d love to hear your observations and opinions here!

A little more on teaching…

Today marked the end of my 3rd full week of teaching, so I figured I’m about due to share more about my experiences in the classroom. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Peyo Yavorov, named after a famous Bulgarian poet, is a Foreign Language school specializing in English, German, and French. Each student selects two foreign languages, one of which is prioritized more than the other to attain a higher level of fluency. That means some of the classes I teach specialize in English while others are learning it as their secondary option. This means there is a wide range of ability!
  • At my school, the students stay in the same classroom all day. Instead, teachers move from room to room meeting with different groups of students. This allows the classes to get incredibly close because they spend all day together for 5 years (8th-12th grade). It’s fun because each class seems to have almost developed its own unique personality.
  • I teach every grade level, and meet with most classes 1-2 times per week. There are also a couple classes I only meet teach twice each month. For me, Mondays and Thursdays are quite busy with 5 and 4 classes respectively, while Tuesdays and Wednesdays are pretty light. The Fulbright mandates that we have Fridays off, which is incredibly nice for weekend trips. In fact, it’s Friday, and I’m on a bus to Sofia right now!
  • The 8th and 9th graders have tremendous amounts of energy and enthusiasm. Every question I ask is met with at least 7 or 8 hands in the air, and that doesn’t include the other 10 who belt out an answer without raising their hands. Some of the older classes have entered the “too cool for school” phase, so sometimes I have to work a little harder to get them involved.
  • My official title is “English Teaching Assistant,” which means I’m typically working with a colleague . I work with four other teachers, averaging about four classes with each of them every week. Despite the “assistant” label, my colleagues have been pretty hands off so far, and let me control the classroom (they seem to like the time to catch up on grading). I love the independence, but it’s certainly comforting to have a partner there if anything were to ever get out of hand. Working with multiple colleagues has its challenges too, because they all have their own unique style and approach to lesson planning. For instance, I meet with one of my colleagues for 30 minutes each week, and we plan content for all of our upcoming classes. Another prefers to send me her tentative plans for the week via Facebook on Sundays. Still another prefers to throw me curve balls frequently, and my entire lesson changes 10 minutes before it starts! Being a teacher in Bulgaria means spending a lot of time on your toes!

Now for a few of my favorite lessons so far:

  • My first week of introduction lessons were really fun. Because the first week of school is pretty relaxed, I decided to use the first lesson to get to know my students better, and share a little more about myself. I decided to play two truths and a lie. For those of you who don’t know how the game works, you essentially say three statements, two of which are true, and one of which is false. The rest of the group then tries to guess which statement is false. I was a little hurt that most of my students didn’t believe that I was in a YouTube video with more than 10,000 views, making me a somewhat of a minor celebrity (I’m not). Most also successfully guessed that I did not have a webbed toe, but I certainly got some of them!
  • I did one cultural lesson on the school system in America. While I was lesson planning, it dawned on me that the best representation of American schools was obviously Billy Madison. So my class watched clips from Billy Madison’s 2nd grade classroom and the Mr. Holland’s orchestra classroom from Mr. Holland’s Opus. Needless to say, they found quite a few differences in our compare and contrast exercise.
  • Who doesn’t love Aladdin? When I had the opportunity to do a lesson on describing characters, I decided to show this clip from Aladdin. The class then described the personalities and appearances of Aladdin, Abu, the magic carpet, and the genie. I also had the chance to talk briefly about Robin Williams and his amazing acting career.
  • In several of my 12th grade classes, we have been talking about job applications and interviews. This gave me the chance to show a clip from Step Brothers, one of my favorite movies. Talking about things that are NOT appropriate to do during a job interview paved the way for a great conversation about proper interview etiquette and attire. My students then came up with questions to mock interview one another and practiced good and bad interview body language in front of the entire class.

While I’ve had a lot of great classes, I’ve certainly had some challenging ones too. Just this week, for example, I had a class that was about as lively as a pile of bricks (no offense to any of the livelier bricks out there…). After the first hour, I was struggling to get them involved. I tried to be as energetic as possible, but they just weren’t having it. I decided to change things up a little during their second hour, and made everyone stand up. I asked them to complete an exercise that required moving to one side of the room or the other depending on which of two opposites they identified with more (Ex: impulsive/cautious, considerate/unfeeling, etc.). Despite getting the biggest eye roll I’ve ever received from one of my 11th grade girls (yes, I called attention to it in front of the whole class), it actually seemed to work. The second hour was slightly less painful than the first!

It’s hard to squeeze three weeks of school into one post, but in summary: I love teaching here. My students are creative, energetic (usually), passionate, and they seem to really appreciate me being there. There were times people told me I was crazy for quitting my job and moving to Bulgaria, and there were times I agreed with them. But being here and doing something that feels so purposeful is giving me the fulfillment I wasn’t finding before. It makes me feel more confident that my goal of transitioning into social enterprise, where I hope to find a similar sense of fulfillment, after this experience is the right one.

I’m curious to hear what questions you have about the schools or students in Bulgaria? I find some things are very similar to what I experienced back home, while other things are entirely different. Post any questions you have down in the comments section, and I’d be happy to answer.