Celebrating Success and a Personal Message from Adam Braun

I was running a little late on Tuesday morning. Instead of my normal, relaxing routine sipping coffee and watching The Daily Show, I was scrambling to pack my things for school and get out the front door. While jamming my things in my backpack with one hand, I dialed Vasko–my favorite taxi driver who I call in a pinch–with the other.

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he said in Bulgarian.

Normally, I only bring a backpack or small bag to school, but today I was also lugging a big cardboard box and my weekend duffel bag. Today’s lesson with 10A was going to be a special one, but I needed some extra baggage to make it happen. These were the reasons for my frantic call to Vasko more so than the hot weather or the fact that I was running a bit late.

Before the end of the school year, I wanted to have another lesson with 10A to both reemphasize the lessons we had learned from our fundraising efforts and celebrate our success. We started the lesson by watching a short interview with Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, pausing after each key point to discuss.


An attentive 10A

Next, I asked the question: “What did you learn from this project?” I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear students bring up things like “Empathy,” “Teamwork,” “Thinking big,” and “Believing in the impossible and in ourselves,” all without any prompting from me. Since this lesson, I have also had the tremendous pleasure of reading their essays detailing the personal growth they experienced during the project. I hope to get permission from them to share some of these essays, because they are incredibly moving, and indicate maturity and growth on multiple levels.


Great list of lessons learned

After that, things got really fun. A couple days before, I had received an e-mail from Pencils of Promise unveiling the specific community where our school will be constructed. I hadn’t told the class yet because I wanted it to be a surprise. I was excited to learn that the $28,451 we raised would go towards building Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School in Ghana. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail I received that I shared with 10A:

“Kindergarten students [here] currently do not have a classroom of their own. The students attend classes under a tree and this makes the learning process very difficult. When the build is complete, there will be a 3 unit classroom that will replace the tree where the the kindergarten students currently learn. The community is friendly and the students are eager to learn. As a direct result of your support, Pencils of Promise now has the capacity to change the community and build a school for these students.”
Along with the e-mail were two pictures of the location where our school was to be built. It was exciting to see the actual setting for our school and the faces of the kids we would be helping.
Ghana Pic 2

The future home of Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School

Ghana Pic 1

The future home of Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School (2)

After a fun conversation speculating how life would change for these students once our school was built, it was time to share the contents of the bags I had brought to school. First of all, Brittany, our partner from Pencils of Promise, had generously sent a package with a pencil and bracelet for every student. Additionally, I gave every student a copy of The Promise of a Pencil each with a short message expressing how proud of them I was. This was the same book my grandparents gave me that inspired the entire project. The kids were all smiles as they came up one by one to receive their gifts!

That’s a lot of books!


Passing out the books


Krisiyana already read my copy, but now she has one of her own!      


Christian and Miriyana show off their new books


Mariella receiving her book, pencil, and bracelet


Raiya with her new book


Vicky excited for a new read!


Inna with her new book, pencil, and bracelet


Deni reaches for her new book


Koko will have to return my copy now that he has his own!


Ivana is all smiles…per usual!


Sesi with some new reading material


Maria cheesin’


Mecho checking out his new book


Meli showing off The Promise of a Pencil


Of course my partner in crime Kremena gets a book too!

Now with five minutes left in class, I had one last surprise up my sleeve. You might recall from a previous post that I wrote an e-mail to Adam Braun telling him more about my class and the amazing work they had done. Despite being incredibly busy, Adam took the time to send 10A a personalized video thanking my students for their fundraising efforts!


The fact that Adam took the time to recognize our work demonstrates the type of leader he is, and is part of why I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I had every intention of filming my students’ reaction to the video, but I was caught up in the moment as much as the kids were. I managed to whip out the video camera partway through, and was able to catch a few moments of them taking in Adam’s message.


10A Group shot!


Showing off some PoP swag

Pencils of Promise – Silistra Fundraiser

In a previous post, I told you a little about the variety show my students organized in pursuit of our $25,000 fundraising goal with Pencils of Promise. With our campaign completed (successfully!) and the school year winding down, I finally managed to carve out some time to elaborate a bit more on the event. Fortunately, we had a photographer and videographer, so you can relive it yourself! To quiet the crowd and get things started, we played a fun, uplifting Bulgarian music video. To be honest, I don’t know the backstory behind it at all, but it was catchy and served its purpose.

  • The first concert act was Svilena, one of my exceptionally talented 9th grade students. I ran across a video of Svilena on Facebook one of my first weeks of school, and was amazed that such a young girl could have such a powerful voice. She displayed her incredible range in a performance of “Hallelujah.” Unfortunately, the first installment from our videographer was truncated after only four minutes, so only the beginning of Svilena’s performance was captured.
  • Dorotea and Koko were cut out as well, but they did an awesome job welcoming everyone to the event and explaining our project; we watched a video about Pencils of Promise that they dubbed over in Bulgarian and showed the video my students made.
Koko Dortea concert

Koko and Dorotea. Both brilliant.

  • Yoana read some well wishes sent by the mayor who was unable to attend the event. He did, however, make a generous 50 leva donation a couple of days after the show!
  • Every high school teacher has encountered the occasional uninterested, “checked-out” student. During my first few weeks teaching, that was my impression of Christian. He routinely fell asleep in class and didn’t seem to show much initiative. That’s what makes the transformation I witnessed this year so miraculous, and one of my favorite stories from my experience here in Bulgaria. During a lesson on ISIS, Christian’s curiosity and interests were piqued. While I usually struggled to get him involved, this particular lesson, I struggled (albeit, not very hard) to make him stop talking so others had a chance to participate. That was a turning point for Christian, and there was no turning back. Since that class, Christian has not only been much more active in our lessons, but he has gone above and beyond outside the classroom too. He joined my debate team and competed in a national tournament (one of the debate topics was about military action against ISIS) and started taking theatre classes to explore his interest in performing. Seeing that transformation underway, I was not the least bit surprised when Christian stepped up to the plate in a big way during our fundraising project. He shared his passion for what we were trying to accomplish by volunteering (along with fellow 10A classmate Krisiyana) to Skype with potential donors, securing a $250 donation along the way. Additionally, to help promote our fundraiser he wrote a rap song with verses in English and Bulgarian to spread the word about our cause. Unfortunately, the video cut out his live performance.

  • The first dance performance was a group called Лиденс. One of the 10A students, Desi, is a member of this dance group. The colorful costumes and upbeat music made for an awesome act!
Great act!

Great act!

  • 3:35 – Christian and Veronica did a great job elaborating on our vision in a section they called “Philosohpy of Life.” These two had such great stage presence, and I was really proud!
  • 6:18 – Denitsa and Iliyan are the singer and lead guitarist of a local band named Blood Sugar (influenced by the name of a famous CD by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of my favorite bands). I’ve gone to see their band perform 3 or 4 times, and they always put on a great show. Tonight, they performed “Standing Next to Me” by The Last Shadow Puppets.
  • 9:13 – The next dance group included four girls from 10A (twins Raiya and Denitsa, Miriyana, and Maria). They immediately had the audience clapping along to their dance interpretation of “I Want Candy.”
  • 11:58 – Dorotea introduced Mert (stage name “Floppy”) who gave what in my impression was one of the most entertaining performances of the night, which is quite impressive for an 8th grader. His beatboxing act had the audience on the edge of their seats. You don’t want to miss this one, especially once the harmonica comes out at 13:18.
Killin' it

Killin’ it

  • 14:54 – The next singer is a bit of a mini-celebrity in Bulgaria. Introduced by Yoana, Christina was a contestant on Bulgaria’s version of The Voice, and has one of the most unique voices I’ve ever heard. On this particular night, she performed “One and Only” by Adele.

  • After Christina finished up her performance, Veronica and Christian continue working through the script written by 10A students!
  • 1:22 – Krisiyana is my 10A student who first read The Promise of a Pencil. I thought it was awesome that it was one of only two books she had decided to read in English (the other being Harry Potter). Her dance group, Axel, performed an interesting piece at 1:22. Enjoy it!
  • 5:17 – Meli and Mecho, introduced by Dorotea, are the other half of Blood Sugar, the band I mentioned earlier. These two are both in 10A, and I rarely see one without the other. They are incredibly close friends and both a joy to teach. They also have an infectious energy that brings out the best in those around them. This act was no exception as they performed “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars. I’ve had this song stuck in my head ever since!
  • 8:57 – Desi from the first dance group goes solo. You can check out her captivating performance starting at 8:57.
  • 11: 12 – As I mentioned in my last post, my students pulled off this charity concert pretty last minute. As a result, I didn’t even know the full set list when the show started. That’s why I was surprised when 8 adorable kids walked out on stage to sing. The young Do Re Mi group put on a great show starting at 11:12.
  • 14:18 – While the rest of Do Re Mi cleared the stage, two kids stayed behind and effectively stole the hearts of the audience with their duet. This was one of my favorite parts of the show. I could not believe the stage presence these two had at such a young age!
  • 17:30 – Interested in hearing some Bulgarian folk music? Fast forward to 17:30 to hear a group of students (Добруджанче) sing traditional songs. Four students from 10A were amongst the performers: Preslava, Vasilena, Dayana, and Daniela.

  • 2:21 – Once Добруджанче finished up, Christian and Veronica explain more of the history of our project and even give Kremena and me a shoutout at 3:21!
  • 3:51 – The older kids in “Do Re Mi” perform a catchy song in Bulgarian. These kids can sing!
  • 8:15 – Kremena and I take the stage with my brilliant student Koko, who translates for me. Kremena expresses gratitude to everyone who helped us with the fundraiser and the variety show as I unabashedly try to sneak a couple more peaks at the lyrics I’m trying to memorize.
  • 11:48 – I give a quick update on the project and the money we raised throughout the evening
  • 12:45 – My fate is sealed; I’m going to be embarrassed.
  • 14:20 – I explain why things are going to get ugly
  • 15:04 – My costume goes on; I put wig together about 10 minutes before leaving for the show; I think it was a good last minute touch.
Oh geez...

Oh geez…

  • 15:56 – The crowd starts waving their hands!
  • 16:16 – 10A students come out unplanned
  • 16:45 – Forget words for first time! Oh no…that’s a long pause!
  • 16:59 – Continue fumbling for words…
  • 17:06 – Luck out by remembering a couple of words
  • 17:13 – Thank goodness everyone knows the chorus
  • 17:56 – ufff, forget words again
  • 18:13 – WENT FOR IT…and missed
  • 18:48 – Group hug
  • 19:00 – Apologize to the crowd; I’m glad that’s over
  • 19:25 – Birthday wishes to one of the performers!

  • :14 – The last song starts: “We are the World” by Michael Jackson
  • 1:36 – Caught up in the moment, 10A comes out with all performers
  • 3:20 – Kremena joins us onstage!
  • 3:38 – Don’t leave out the youngsters from Do Re Mi; they wanted to join in on the fun!
  • 5:22 – Give flowers to our amazing director who was unbelievably helpful

Want to see more pictures from the show? Check out Mila Dragomirova’s “The World Through My Lens” blog! Mila helped us out by photographing our event free of charge. I also tutor in English at my mentor Valentin’s private language center, and she’s a great student! Thank you Mila!

I was so proud of 10A for pulling this performance together, and so pleased to see the school and community come out to support us en mass! This was one of the most memorable nights of my life, and I can’t watch these videos without breaking into a huge smile. The youth of Bulgaria have so much potential, and these kids are living proof of that obvious fact.