Berlin Fulbright Seminar

Back in March, I had the pleasure of representing Bulgaria at the 61st annual Berlin Seminar—a weeklong conference that provides Fulbright grantees from all over Europe the opportunity to network and exchange experiences from their teaching or research roles. Interacting with such a diverse group through a variety of panels, small group discussions, and informal conversations was invigorating.

While the week was jam-packed with interesting and informative events, the highlight for me was having the opportunity to share my own personal experiences in Bulgaria at the European Dimensions panel. Representatives from Spain, Turkey, Andorra, Finland, and Poland joined me in giving short presentations to ~250 European ETAs and researchers.

Going into the presentation, my goal was to provide a mix of Bulgarian geography, history, and culture while also sharing some of what I’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom. To start my speech, I presented the two questions my friends, family members, and co-workers back home had asked me when I first told them I’d be moving to Bulgaria:

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While the first question is completely fair, the second was more than just a little misinformed. But the truth is that the vast majority of Americans I told about Bulgaria had no idea where it is located. It was often confused with Bolivia, Bangladesh, or Botswana, amongst other places.

I continued poking fun at Americans’ spotty geography by flashing a blank map of Europe up on the presentation screen and asking the audience to raise their hand if they could confidently come up and identify Bulgaria (could you?). I’d guess that about 30% of the audience raised their hands (more than I expected), at which point I highlighted Bulgaria on the map.

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What is your guess?

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Make your guess before scrolling down!

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Unveiling the answer…or am I?

I waited until I saw some audience members nodding their heads and bragging to their neighbors, “I knew that,” before letting them know that it was actually Romania I had highlighted. I felt a little bad tricking my audience, but it helped prove my point that many Americans aren’t very familiar with this part of the world. And while I’m picking on some people, the truth is that I would have lumped myself right there with them not long ago. You can see Bulgaria’s real location directly below Romania on the map below (Thank you John Oliver for the inspiration on this one).

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Crossroads of East and West

The reason I wanted to start with a brief geography lesson was because understanding Bulgaria’s position at the crossroads of East and West is fundamentally important to understanding its history and culture. I elaborated on how being part of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Eastern Bloc influenced today’s Bulgaria, a young democracy combating corruption but proudly maintaining its national identity.

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The lovely Silistra

After giving an overview of my hometown Silistra, I switched gears and gave a quick overview of Bulgarian cuisine, industry, holidays, and traditions. It’s impossible to cover such a rich and interesting history in just a couple of my slides, but I did my best to hit some of the aspects of Bulgarian culture that had made an impact on me. I especially enjoyed sharing about Baba Marta, a Spring Holiday that had occurred shortly before my presentation.

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After giving a brief explanation of the Bulgarian alphabet and language, I focused on some of the lessons I had taught that seemed to work really well with my students. The whole point of the week was to exchange ideas, and I hope some of my lesson topics proved useful to my colleagues teaching in other countries.

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Finally, I talked about how enriching my life in Bulgaria outside the classroom has been. I gave lots of credit to the founders of BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournaments) for the work they’ve done to create an amazing organization that promotes critical thinking and English Language skills. I talked a little about the BEST chapter I had created at my school, but really wanted to focus on the larger impact the organization was having on the country. The audience also seemed amused when I described my peculiar, but meaningful friendship with my 60-year-old neighbor Krassy who doesn’t speak any English.

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Our presentations were followed by a short question and answer session, and I was very pleased with how interested people were in Bulgaria. Many of the questions were directed at me specifically, and I was encouraged by the audience’s desire to learn more.

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Q&A Panel

Part of what made this week so awesome was the great company! I was joined by fellow Bulgarian Fulbrighters Anna, Asher, Bobbi, Chase, Julien, and Rada. In addition to growing closer as a group, we branched out and had a fantastic time meeting colleagues from all over Europe.

Berlin Seminar crew

Asher, Chase, Michael

Chase and me

Chase, Michael

Last but not least, it was awesome to see great friend and former Minneapolis roommate Adam Root. He’s currently working in London, but we were able to link up in Berlin for a couple days before the conference started. Additionally, my close friend and PiKapp little Stephen Temple happened to be in Berlin on business the same week as the conference, so we were able to explore the city together as well. He came back to Silistra with me too, but more on that in a later post!

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Michael, Adam

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Michael, Stephen on Silistra ferryboat

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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!