School build project FAQs!

So it’s been about three weeks since I first shared the news about 10A’s school build project. Since that time, our team has accomplished much of our preparation, and I’m SO excited to unveil our initiative shortly. In the meantime, many of you have reached out with questions about our campaign, so I wanted to dedicate a blog post to addressing some frequently asked questions:


Final preparations as we approach launch day!

Why did you start this challenge?

I issued this challenge to my students for two main reasons (more elaborate explanation here):

  1. To instill values about the importance of philanthropy in a country that often overlooks the needs of less fortunate people both in Bulgaria and abroad.
  2. To teach my students that they can accomplish something BIG if they work hard and put their mind to it. This will directly challenge the lingering Bulgarian pessimism that prevents many big things from happening.

Where do you expect the money to come from?

At a high level, the money for our school will come from two sets of initiatives:

  1. Local initiatives to raise money here in Bulgaria. Our fundraising team is working on multiple events that will target members of our local community, while our marketing team is working with local press and newspapers to raise awareness for our cause.
  2. International crowdfunding efforts (YOU!). We have set up a fundraising page through Pencils of Promise that allows for easy, tax-deductible donations on a credit or debit card. This is your chance to have a big impact! The link will be shared at the time of launch.

How can I help?

You can help in two BIG ways, each of which is important.

  1. Spread the word. Share our story on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. “Liking,” “Retweeting,” “Reblogging,” and “Sharing” are all extremely helpful as we aim to reach as many people as possible.
  2. Consider making a donation. Your financial support will not only help teach my students learn the aforementioned lessons, but it will help build a school for children that lack basic resources for an education. Even if you don’t feel you can make a significant contribution, donate $10 to show your support and help spread the word!

Where will the school be built?

The school will be built in either Ghana, Laos, or Guatemala–the three countries in which Pencils of Promise (PoP) currently operates. PoP field team members visit specific sites to evaluate the need for a new school.

Why aren’t you building the school in Bulgaria?

This is probably one of the most common questions I’ve received, and it’s something I went back and forth on as well. Here are the reasons we are not building the school in Bulgaria:

  1. I thought our campaign would benefit from the structure and credibility of a major organization like Pencils of Promise (PoP). They currently only operate in Laos, Guatemala, and Ghana. I also will be leaving Bulgaria in July, and need an organization to oversee the actual construction of the school.
  2. I liked the idea of helping my students develop a more global perspective by making them think about tough living conditions outside of Bulgaria. I want my students to learn that there are people who need help in the world, and that it’s important to lend a hand even if someone has a completely different background/language/country/race/etc. Many of my personal most eye-opening and enriching volunteer experiences have taken place outside of the US even though there are certainly people struggling in the States too.
  3. We did a lesson on literacy rates, and were struck at the huge discrepancies that existed between Bulgaria’s 98.4% and the rates in Guatemala (83.4%), Laos (73%), and Ghana (71.5%).

Why Pencils of Promise?

  1. My students feel connected to the PoP story and organization. We have read excerpts from the book and watched interviews with the founder Adam Braun. They believe in what the organization stands for, and are excited to support a cause they understand.
  2. PoP is incredibly transparent with their financials giving me (and donors!) the ability to know exactly where our money is going. Many non-profits lack this financial transparency which I think can be a problem. I worried about who would handle the money and execute the project here in Bulgaria, as there are big problems with corruption. PoP has a tried and true method and great track record.
  3. The site has a simple, clean fundraising page and allows 100% of donations to go directly towards the construction of a school. It’s also tax-deductible!

What role are your students playing?

My students are divided into four teams, each of which has an important set of responsibilities. You can read more about their specific goals and accomplishments here.

When will the campaign start?

Our campaign launches on Monday, 3/30! We appreciate your support!

Did I miss anything? Feel free to post additional questions in the comments section below!

Skype Q & A: Kindergarten class learns about Bulgaria!

Recently, most of my posts (and time) have been dedicated towards the fundraising project I’m working on with 10A. But today, I wanted to take a short timeout from project updates to tell you about a cool experience I had this week. Elizabeth Noell, my former neighbor and family friend, teaches kindergarten at Sedge Garden Elementary School near the the town I grew up in. On Tuesday afternoon, I had the opportunity to Skype with her class (and a group of 3rd graders that joined us) about my experience in Bulgaria.

After giving a brief introduction, I was asked a number of questions ranging from “What foods do you eat in Bulgaria?” to “What do you miss most about North Carolina?” My Mom and sister Emily had joined for the conversation (you can see them in the back below), so in answer to the latter question, I had fun joking with the students that the thing I missed most about North Carolina was BBQ!

Q and A Skype

Students were eager to ask questions and learn about Bulgaria!

During the next 30 minutes, I shared many things I hoped the students would find interesting. Check out this local news piece by FOX Channel 8 WGHP for some highlights of our session!

  • How to spell Bulgaria – I gave the students the opportunity to try first; hilarity ensued (B-U-L-I-G-E-I-R-E-A).
  • Where Bulgaria is located on a map – I was pleased they knew it was in Europe, because some of the adults I spoke to before leaving hadn’t managed to get that far.
  • The approximate population in Bulgaria – Initial guesses from the students anchored around 25,000, so there was an element of surprise when I told them it was closer to 7 million!
  • Popular dishes in Bulgaria – I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I’m hopeful my growling stomach didn’t come through on the Skype call as I described shopska salad, sarmi, and banitsa. I didn’t think this was the right audience to tell about rakia!
  • Popular jobs in Bulgaria – I talked about some of the big industries in Bulgaria like sunflowers and rose oils. I also explained that there are many people in Bulgaria who want to work, but don’t have the opportunity. It’s hard to have an elementary conversation about unemployment, but I think I managed to express that it’s indeed a big problem here.
  • Technology in the classroom – I gave a dual answer to a question about what technologies are available at my school. While I wanted to highlight the amazing technology we have at our school thanks to the America for Bulgaria Foundation (smartboards, tablets, laptops, speakers, etc.), I also wanted to emphasize that many schools are alarmingly under-resourced. I challenged the students to think about how their learning experience would be much more challenging without technology, and shared that as the reality for many Bulgarian students.
  • What my students are like – I liked this question because it gave me the opportunity to brag about my AMAZING kids. The kindergarteners and third graders were impressed when I told them that most of my students know 3 or 4 different languages and are exceptionally bright and creative.
  • What sports are popular in Bulgaria – It was fun to talk about the different meanings of “football” in America and Bulgaria (and the rest of the world, for that matter). I also shared that volleyball is an incredibly popular sport here and that my students dominate me when I train with our school team. I was also thrilled to get a question about my own favorite sports team, because it gave me the chance to gloat about Duke’s win over UNC on Saturday night. In fact, I might miss that more than the BBQ. I managed to wake up at 4 a.m. for both Duke/UNC games this year. For the most recent one, that meant watching curled up on a bean bag in my freezing cold hotel lobby while snow dropped in buckets outside. I was sharing a hotel room with my school’s bus driver Nikolai (I spent the weekend in Pazardzhik for a BEST Speech & Debate tournament with my students–more on that later), and believe it or not, he didn’t seem particularly interested in waking up for the game. The receptionist was beyond puzzled as she watched me set up shop for the game. “Do you ever sleep?” she asked me in Bulgarian.

The students’ enthusiasm and curiosity was so infectious that I was legitimately sad when the session came to an end. After the interview, it dawned on me that there aren’t many better ways to fulfill the Fulbright mission to “enhance mutual understanding” than by instilling a genuine curiosity about foreign countries, languages, and cultures in a group of young people. Hopefully, something I said planted a seed of interest that will grow into a strong desire to learn about people from other backgrounds all over the world. We need more of that.

A big thanks to Elizabeth Noell and her class for inviting me to speak!

Quick Progress Check

The flu hit Silistra this week. And it hit hard. On a typical day, 10A has twenty six students. Today, we had seven. Just walking around school, It was clear that other classes hadn’t fared much better. I’ve been fortunate to stay healthy so far, but three of my English teaching colleagues at school have been absent. That means I’m on substitute duty this week.

Luckily, before getting steamrolled by the flu, 10A made a lot of progress on our school build project. In my last blog post, I walked you through the objectives and responsibilities of our four teams. In just a couple of classes, we’ve made considerable progress against our goals. Here’s a quick look at the accomplishments of each team:

Fundraising team

  • Set up our fundraising page on the Pencils of Promise website (link will be shared at launch)
  • Wrote an introductory paragraph to our page
  • Set up bios complete with photos and fun facts for every student

Incentives team

  • Created a list of incentives and dollar/leva (Bulgarian currency) thresholds so we can appropriately thank our donors, both locally and through our online fundraising page
  • Created special group incentives for key milestones in our campaign ($1K, $5K, $10K, $25K)

Production team

  • Written and edited YouTube video script
  • Cast the roles of video
  • Took pictures and recorded audio for first few scenes of video…and it looks GREAT!

Marketing team

  • Created Instagram, Facebook, Twitter accounts
  • Created campaign slogan
  • Working on strategy to communicate directly with donors (you will hear more from this group soon!)

While we accomplished a lot last week, student absences are definitely proving to be a big hurdle. The small group of us who have remained healthy continue pushing forward, but we are certainly missing the help of the rest of our team. The initial plan was to launch our fundraising page on Monday, March 23rd, though depending on when my students get healthy, we may need to reevaluate. I head to Berlin for 9 days on Friday, and while I know my kids will continue checking things off our list, I’m a little wary of scheduling the launch for the day after I return. I’ll certainly keep this group updated with where we land.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some photos from our video shoot. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’m not going to share too much, but I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with so far!

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I would love to answer any questions you have about this project! New readers can get an overview here, and everyone feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!

From Values to Action

There’s no turning back now! With word out about my students’ efforts to raise $25,000 to build a school through the Pencils of Promise organization, we’re moving full steam ahead. Fortunately, 10A’s excitement is at an all-time high; but excitement alone can’t build a school!

Production team doing some brainstorming! (Christian in back, Desislava, Christian, Dorotea, Preslava)

Production team doing some brainstorming! (Christian in back, Desislava, Christian, Dorotea, Preslava)

As the leader of this project, I aim to give my students the structure, organization, and direction they need to be successful, while at the same time, giving them the ownership and creative liberties to feel invested and be the reason for the project’s success. That last part is really important to me. While I am certainly working hard to spread the word about this initiative in my own networks, my goal is to give students the opportunity to interact directly with potential donators (in America, Bulgaria, and all over the world). Over the course of the next few weeks, you will start to hear more directly from my students via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (account details coming soon), so GET EXCITED! In addition to creating all the content for our fundraising campaign and sharing it over social media, they are also spearheading local Bulgarian fundraising events that will help us both engage the community and reach our goal.

Now in an effort to provide my students with a framework that sets them up for success, I wanted to ensure that my students and I were all aligned on three things: our mission, our strategy for accomplishing that mission, and the values we’d need to embrace to be successful. We started with the below:


Once aligned on our mission and strategy, I split the class into four teams (students were able to rank their preferences after hearing each team’s responsibilities). Every team is crucial to our success, and I made sure to let the students know how important their roles are.

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Much of our class time over the next few weeks will be dedicated to group work, as each team strives to execute against its strategy. The group aspect of this project is incredibly important because it embraces a fundamentally different teaching methodology than is typically used in Bulgaria. The education system here is generally somewhat archaic, which means there is a lot of lecturing and very little opportunity for peer learning and collaboration. Working together in groups to accomplish something important will help my students develop interpersonal, teamwork, and leadership skills. Check out the teams hard at work!


Marketing team making big things happen! (Maria, Sesil, Mariella, Denitsa, Raya, Kaloyan, Veronica)


Fundraising team kicking butt! (Ivana, Krisiyana, Daniella, Ioana)


My brilliant Incentives team! (Mecho, Meli, Victoria, Inna, Miriyana, Shermin, and Dayana)


Organized chaos

With this project on my mind 24/7, sometimes I forget that life goes on outside the classroom as well! I had a busy weekend. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Friday morning to catch the 5 o’clock bus to Sofia. After celebrating the amazing career of Doctor Julia Stefanova Friday evening (she is stepping down after 23 years at the helm of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission), I caught another bus to Smolyan, a town in south-central Bulgaria near the border with Greece. After skiing with friends and Fulbright colleagues Caleb and Chase on Sunday, I spent twelve and a half hours on three different busses to get back to Silistra late last night. In total, that’s 24 hours of bus time from Friday to Monday…yikes!

Skiing at Pamporovo (Chase, Caleb, Caleb's student Ivo, me)

Skiing at Pamporovo (Chase, Caleb, Caleb’s student Ivo, me)

With so much free time, I had the opportunity to read From Values to Action, a book written by Kellogg professor and former Baxter CEO Harry Kraemer. In it, Kraemer outlines four key principles that are essential for creating and leading values-based organizations: self-reflection, balance and perspective, true self-confidence, and genuine humility. Many of the book’s lessons resonated with me. In fact, I couldn’t help but make constant comparisons to my experiences working for Target (both as a manager and as an analyst, or “in the cube” as Kraemer calls it). But Kraemer maintains that these principles have wide usages, and “are not solely for CEOs, managers, or leaders who have many people reporting to them” (p. 8). Reflecting on the read (there was plenty of bus time for that too…), it dawned on me that several concepts in the book related to what we are working towards in our school build project and how we intend to accomplish it:

From Values to Action: “We could operate as a team only if we had an overarching purpose or objective around which the entire team could be brought together. Without a broader sense of purpose and direction, a team would run the risk of disintegrating into individual players going off in separate directions” (p. 145).

  • Reflection: Establishing our mission statement was a good place to start! Though our mission to “work together as a team to raise the $25,000 needed to build a school through the Pencils of Promise organization” is simple, it ensures alignment towards a common goal. I hope this will help my team put aside personal beliefs if they contradict or detract from our goal.

From Values to Action: “To build, motivate, and engage your team members will require that they be as passionate about achieving an objective as you are: (p. 139).

  • Reflection: In my last post, you read about how important philanthropy and volunteerism are to me. For the past few months, I’ve been working hard to instill those values in my students as well, and it’s been fun to see some of that hard work pay off! After studying the problems that exist within education (poor literacy rates, resource inadequacies, and lack of physical school buildings) and their ability to do something about it (crowdfunding, spreading awareness, etc.), my students have more passion than they know what to do with! To keep our motivation high, we start each class with a video to remind ourselves of our purpose. Check out our most recent one below. (My personal favorite line: “We believe that where you start in life shouldn’t dictate where you finish”)

From Values to Action: “With balance, you are genuinely interested in other people’s input and feedback as you make the final decision. In fact, you may discover that their recommendations are better than your initial approach. You want them to challenge you and each other as they explore how best to accomplish the team’s objectives” (p. 139).

  • I’ve tried to teach my students that it’s okay to disagree with me (or any teacher for that matter). Constructive debate and diverse perspectives lead to better, more well thought out decisions. Not to mention, we have completely different backgrounds and ranges of experiences, so it’s only natural that we see things differently! Sometimes in Bulgaria students are too comfortable assuming the teacher is always right. One thing I value about the American education system is that it emphasizes critical thinking and encourages individuals to draw their own conclusions as long as they can support them. This project is no different. I brought a few ideas to the table when I initially challenged my students to raise $25,000, but I also encouraged my students to complement or challenge those ideas with their own.

If you’re an aspiring leader, I highly recommend reading From Values to ActionThe key lessons apply to leaders in any sort of organization. I hope that reading it towards the beginning of this project can help me be the best teacher possible as I guide my students through the execution phases of our project.