Bulgaria: A Year in Summary

So it’s been about two months since I arrived back in the United States, which means I’ve had plenty of time to reflect back on my year in Bulgaria. The idea of summing up the most transformational year of my life in a single blog post seems absurd, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I tried to boil down my thoughts into a few key takeaways, which proved to be pretty challenging.

BG mug

Coffee mug from my 8A and 9A classes…fitting for my year in conclusion post

Diversity produces the best learning experiences.

My time in Bulgaria kicked off with the Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI). This two-week set of intensive courses covered a variety of topics including but not limited to politics, international relations, business, economics, law, education, science, and culture. The expense of this conference was not covered by my grant, so I had to think long and hard about whether it was worth going on my own dime. Ultimately, I decided that the allure of what sounded like an invigorating learning experience outweighed the cost, which turned out to be the right decision.

Photo

FISI friends take a break from class for a hike

While the content itself was interesting, what really made the experience worthwhile was the diversity of my classmates. Despite having attended an undergraduate university that boasts diversity, this learning experience was unlike any I had previously encountered: PhD students from Bulgaria sat next to members of disaster response teams from Pakistan; Businessmen from India debated with business students from the University of Michigan; Linguists from the U.S. not surprisingly viewed conflicts differently than Russian graduate students. The result was passionate, dynamic, and sometimes even a little heated discussion about topics like Ethnic Tensions in the European Union and International Conflict Resolution.

FISI friends 2

Last day of week 1 classes

Too often we view conflict as a bad thing. We’re taught to believe that conflict breeds animosity, and so it should be avoided at all costs. Especially after this experience, I tend to believe that quite the opposite is true. Conflict and diversity of thought can lead to a more thorough analysis of a complex situation, and if involved parties can remain focused and level-headed, it can be quite constructive. There were times when I felt compelled to step in and defend the United States and others when I found myself questioning previously held beliefs. Ultimately, these were two of the most eye-opening weeks of my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

FISI friends 1

FISI farewell party

Friendship comes in unexpected places.

For a whole year, my social life revolved almost entirely around my eccentric 60-year old neighbor whose English vocabulary was limited to “Deep Purple” and “Let it Be.” And I loved it. From the moment Krassy walked into my life (in his underwear, interestingly enough), he has treated me like family. Many of my fondest memories from Bulgaria involve Krassy: making rakia together, learning how to cook banitsa, road tripping to Serbia, and so many more. But I think the thing I’ll miss most is just daily life with Krassy. Whether we were eating dinner, practicing Bulgarian, watching a soccer game, or just aimlessly putzing around town, there was never a dull moment.

Buds

Simply put, my relationship with Krassy and Nadia was a big part of what made life in Silistra so enjoyable. Their generosity and friendship played a huge role in shaping my view of Bulgarian hospitality. What frightens me about that is that I was close to not pursuing this friendship at all. Early on, I was concerned about letting my social life revolve around someone that seemed different in every way possible. In fact, I even remember ignoring the doorbell a couple of times to avoid joining Krassy for dinner. People are wired to seek out people who are similar. While that can be easy and comfortable, it can also be incredibly limiting. I learned that friendship comes in many forms, and that sometimes the most rewarding friendships can come in the least expected places.

My second family

Challenge the status quo.

Many of you followed along or even participated in my 10A class’s fundraising campaign to build a school in Ghana with Pencils of Promise. Fortunately, the project was wildly successful, and my students significantly surpassed our $25,000 goal. Getting there wasn’t easy though. Had my class not been willing to challenge their preconceived notions about what is and isn’t possible in Bulgaria, this never would have happened. I applaud my students’ willingness to take a chance on accomplishing something big in an environment where there isn’t a culture of volunteerism and there’s a lingering “communist hangover” effect that sometimes thwarts progress.

DSCN2668

10A – The class that built a school

For those who have been following our story, check out my latest update on the school build. We’re almost finished!

Get out of your comfort zone.

I’ve told many of you about the note my dad has on his desk reminding him to get out of his comfort zone. That’s something I have tried to incorporate into my own life as well, and it was a big motivator as I considered moving to Bulgaria. Over the past year, the best example I have of this came back in March. As someone who doesn’t love public speaking, I experienced a mixture of excitement and dread when an e-mail hit my inbox asking if I’d be willing to present at the annual Berlin Fulbright Seminar. My knee-jerk reaction was to reject the offer; it was just an e-mail after all, and saying “no” would be easy.

But I decided to sleep on it, and when I woke up the next morning, my attitude had changed. I knew that the discomfort I experienced when I pictured myself in front of 250 people wasn’t a good reason to avoid the situation entirely. In fact, that was exactly the reason I should be seeking it out.

Was I nervous leading up to the seminar? Absolutely.

Did I spend way too much time preparing and rehearsing? No doubt about it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Presenting at annual Berlin Fulbright Seminar

But the presentation went well, and the enjoyment I had presenting and participating in the panel discussion following it far outweighed the slight anxiousness. I am a firm believer that the best way to grow and learn is by doing the things that make you uncomfortable.

Think from others’ perspectives.

Growing up in the United States, it’s easy to view America as the greatest force for good in the world. We see ourselves as global peacekeepers, promoters of freedom, and good samaritans. But what we often don’t realize is that much of the rest of the world doesn’t see us that way. In fact, there were times during my year abroad when even I started thinking that maybe America’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

I remember going to a concert in Silistra one of my first nights there, and meeting a couple of Bulgarians my age. “Friends!,” I had thought as I tried to use my Bulgarian (quite limited at the time) to strike up a conversation. After a few minutes, they wanted to introduce me to another friend of theirs who happened to be Russian. That sounded great, so I introduced myself to their third friend. However, as soon as he found out I was American, things changed quickly. He got aggressive and started shouting at me for reasons I didn’t understand. His friends and I tried to talk him down, but it was clear that he had some ingrained distaste for Americans, and my insistence that I was a decent human being wasn’t going to change that; I went home baffled, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

Perhaps I had been a bit naive, but this was an eye-opener for me–not everyone loves Americans. And in fact, many people have quite a strong distaste for us. I recently stumbled along the below map, which shows the most common responses by country to the question: “which country do you see as the greatest threat to world peace?”

Greatest threat to world peace

Greatest threat to world peace

Prior to living abroad, I think I would have found this map surprising. That’s why I think the Fulbright mission to “enhance mutual understanding” is so vital, especially in the world today. It’s our responsibility to advocate for America to do the right thing, and be the global force for peace that we claim to be. When we see things like the current Syrian refugee crisis, we ought to be vocal about making sure America does its part. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be stepping up in a big way to help the millions of families being displaced by war and devastation. Not doing so will only further tarnish a reputation that’s already damaged in many parts of the world.

Laugh at yourself.

As a bit of a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes. Usually, I think that’s a good thing because it causes me to be intentional and thorough, but I had to take a different approach in Bulgaria. While trying to learn a new language and culture, you’re bound to make mistakes; I made many. Perhaps my favorite mistake came during one of my many cross-country journeys from Silistra to Sofia. With 20 minutes left of our bus’s coffee break in Ruse, I decided to strike up conversation with a shopkeeper. Things went well as I explained my background, profession, and reason for moving to Bulgaria (he was shocked by the last one). But when I told him that I knew two other Americans living and teaching in his hometown (what’s up Nora and Anthony!), he burst out laughing.

“Аз знам две други учители че живеят в Русе. Момичето има руса коса и се казва Нора и момчето се казва Антони. Той има картофи коса,” I repeated emphatically, trying to improve my pronunciation that I assumed he was laughing at. Here’s what I thought I said: “I know two other teachers who live here in Ruse. The girl has blonde hair and is named Nora, and the boy is named Anthony. He has brown hair.” Unfortunately, instead of saying кафява (kafyava), the word for brown, I used картофи (kartofi), the word for potatoes. “He has potato hair,” I had said. I wish this had been the sole mistake I made, but instead, it was one of dozens I made in that day alone. I learned early on that getting comfortable with making mistakes is essential for language acquisition, and learning in general. Fear of messing up and looking silly can cause one to avoid taking chances, which stifles learning. As I start business school, I’m trying to more fully embrace this mindset, as I expect there are many more mistakes to come as I grapple with new information.

The potential of (Bulgarian) youth.

When I first arrived in Bulgaria, I expected the English level of my students to be quite low. I thought I’d be up in front of the classroom teaching very basic vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure. What I found instead was a group of highly intelligent, capable, and passionate students whose English abilities far surpassed my expectations. I remember introducing myself during the first week of school, and explaining that I had previously been working for Target, a big retailer in the U.S. A bright-eyed senior sitting in the front row shot his hand up in the air, and before waiting for me to call on him belted out in perfect English: “What were the annual revenues of Target last year?”

Just like that, my previous lesson plans were out the window. My students were capable of having very mature, intellectual discussions about topics that really matter. Some of my favorite lesson topics that my students seemed to enjoy too were: crowdsourcing, literacy rates, and the Nobel Peace Prize.

The creativity of my students was further demonstrated in our Speech & Debate club. Debating complex topics like how to thwart the spread of ISIS, how to reduce the gender pay gap, and how to decrease social inequality is hard enough in your first language…my students were doing it in their second or sometimes third! These kids are impressive!

Kaloyan prepping

Kaloyan from my Speech & Debate team hard at work!

My takeaway is that despite the many problems that exist in Bulgarian education, young people can and will thrive when given the chance. I have trouble imagining that this isn’t the case in other parts of the world too. Education can unlock potential, and I’m frustrated by the fact that so many people don’t have access to the basic resources needed to learn. I’m thrilled that my 10A class was able to help tackle a small part of that problem in Ghana, but the fact remains that 250 Million children lack basic reading, writing, and math skills. Improved education is one of several avenues I will be exploring in business school as I seek to play a role in helping alleviate global poverty.


The above takeaways are just a few of the thoughts that flooded my mind as I drove away from Silistra for the last time (on this trip at least). Looking for any excuse to further delay my departure, I pulled to the side of the road to soak in the beauty of Bulgaria one more time. While enjoying the vibrant yellow of Bulgarian sunflowers, I reflected on what had really made my experience so worthwhile: the people. And with that, I want to take a minute to say Thank You to the many people who made this past year possible and awesome.

DSCN2830

DSCN2832

First and foremost, thank you to my family, friends, and Lindsey for encouraging me to take advantage of this opportunity. Your support meant the world to me, and helped me get the most out of my time in Bulgaria.

Secondly, I want to thank Valentin and Alex, my friends from FISI who entertained my nonstop questions about all things Bulgaria. Your patience and willingness to share taught me so much about politics, history, sports (Само Левски!), and culture. I value our friendship, and look forward to future meetings!

Alex, me, Valentin

Alex, me, Valentin

Thank you Iliana, Rada, and the rest of the Bulgarian Fulbright team for being there for me and my peers throughout the year. I greatly appreciate your commitment to making our time in Bulgaria as comfortable and productive as possible.

Next, I want to thank the Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School Community. I felt at home at Peyo on day one, and really appreciate you welcoming me with open arms. An extra special thanks to Principal Atanasova and English teaching partners Kremena, Ani, Margarita, and Valentin. Working with each of you was an absolute pleasure, and I learned so much about how to be a better teacher. Valentin, thank you for your mentorship that extended beyond the classroom. I would have been lost in Silistra without your guidance.

DSCN2804

Peyo Yavorov English Department

Students of Peyo Yavorov–you are what made my time in Bulgaria so special. While I didn’t advertise this blog at school, I know several of you tracked it down, and have been following along. Your engagement both inside and outside the classroom motivated me to be a better teacher. You have such bright futures, and I can’t wait to hear about the many great things you go on to accomplish. Please continue reaching out to me from time to time to let me know how things are going!

DSCN2795

Some of my 8th and 9th graders on the last day of school!

Thank you to the many generous donors who helped my 10A class learn what it means to accomplish something monumental. Your commitment to the project (either financially or by helping spread the word) instilled a new sense of what’s possible in the minds of young people, which can be very powerful. I think my students say it better than I can.

A big shout out to the other Bulgarian Fulbrighters! It was a pleasure getting to know each of you over the past year. Our weekend getaways kept me sane, and I wish you the greatest of success in the future–keep in touch!

Bulgaria ETA friends

And last but not least, thank you, the readers, for your interest in and engagement with this blog. I appreciated your comments, e-mails, calls, and conversations. My goal for this blog was to help fulfill the Fulbright mission to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” My hope is that with nearly 10,000 views from 69 different countries, this blog has generated at least some interest and discussion about Bulgaria.


For those of you interested in continuing to learn about Bulgaria, I highly recommend following my successor McKinley’s blog. He is living in my same apartment teaching many of the same students, and seems to be off to a great start! Most importantly, he’s already met Krassy, which guarantees another year of entertainment!

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:

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.32.21 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.34.05 PM

What is your guess?

===============================================================================================

Make your guess before scrolling down!

===============================================================================================

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.34.52 PM

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).

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.46.36 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 5.08.29 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.47.17 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.47.55 PM

big screen

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.49.53 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.48.43 PM

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.

panel

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!

Me Adam

Michael, Adam

me stpehen

Michael, Stephen on Silistra ferryboat

Fulbright Wrap-up Seminar

A strange feeling overcame me as I walked up to the Vitosha Park Hotel in Sofia on Wednesday. My last stay here had been for our Fulbright orientation almost nine months ago, and the familiar setting caused memories from my first few weeks in Bulgaria to come flooding back.

Recalling my initial interactions with the other English teachers in my group was fun. I remember the enthusiasm everyone exuded as we eagerly learned about each other’s interests and backgrounds. At our wrap-up seminar this week, those conversations were replaced by talk of future plans and the imminent, tearful goodbyes that awaited us in cities that just a few months before we had struggled to even pronounce.

Thursday and Friday were busy. Instead of the Bulgarian language classes, mock lesson-planning sessions, and cultural overviews that had comprised orientation, we would each attempt the impossible:  summarize our Fulbright experience in a short, fifteen-minute presentation.

my speech

My speech

Listening

Engaged audience

I really enjoyed hearing my peers share the many things they learned this year about Bulgaria, about teaching, and about themselves. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one who viewed our time here as a truly transformative experience. I’ll share more about my personal takeaways from the program closer to my departure date (school doesn’t end until June 30th), but I did want to highlight some of the awesome work my fellow ETAs have been doing in Bulgaria. A few things that stood out to me:

  • Mary helped empower girls at her school by leading a Women’s Club in Varna
  • Chris recently worked with his students in Pernik to clean public parks, so they could be more fully enjoyed
  • Anna has launched a volunteering initiative to provide much-needed support and education in Bulgarian refugee camps
  • Athena, Ettie, Alex, and Sarah are leaving behind what I think is one of the most impactful organizations in Bulgaria—BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournaments); this group has taught thousands of Bulgarian kids important lessons about confidence, hard-work, sportsmanship, and critical thinking, and promises to reach thousands more in the future
  • Chase has shared his passion for lacrosse by starting a team in Burgas and promoting the sport all over Bulgaria

I want to elaborate a bit more on Chase’s efforts because on Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to watch his team—the Burgas Titans—take on the Sofia Ninjas (currently the only other lacrosse team in the country). I’ve admired the work Chase has been doing all year, and was thrilled to learn I’d be in Sofia for one of their matches.

My friend Caleb and I took a cab to what we expected would be a relaxing afternoon of watching lacrosse. After about two minutes as spectators, that thought was shattered. Following the injury of one of his players, Chase ran over to us.

“Do you guys want to play?”

Despite having never played lacrosse and not being familiar with the rules, Caleb and I both eagerly accepted the offer. We quickly threw on the extra uniforms Chase had on hand, and became Burgas Titans for the next hour or so.

Action 3

I only had the chance to ask two of the thirty or so questions I had about lacrosse before being thrust into action. As a defender, it was my responsibility to mark an opposing attacker, and thwart their efforts to score. Unfortunately, that becomes pretty hard to do when you’ve never held a lacrosse stick. Even though more than just a couple goals were scored on my watch, I had an absolute blast. We lost 10-14, but it was a big improvement from the last time the teams competed (the Ninjas had won that match convincingly with a final score of 24-3).

Action 4Action 2 Action 1 ball hand It was really fun to see Chase in his element too. It became very clear to me that spreading lacrosse, a historically Native American sport, is a great way to fulfill the Fulbright’s mission to “enhance mutual understanding.” In addition to teaching about a sport with American roots, Chase is instilling important values about sportsmanship, teamwork, leadership, and community.

Exasperated Chase

Coach Philpot considers making some strategy changes

Inside the huddle

Inside the huddle

Here are a few thing that stood out to me from my experience on Saturday:

  • Sportsmanship – Chase sets a great example for his team by loudly cheering for every goal scored, even if it was scored by the opposition; he also led the group in cheers to rally our goalie after an injury and to congratulate the Ninjas on their victory
shaking hands

Shaking hands after the game

  • Teamwork – Individual and team feedback was delivered constantly to talk about how teammates could work together better and function as a unit; although he’s very skilled, Chase has committed to not shooting, preferring to set his team up for scoring opportunities instead
  • Leadership – Chase challenged his older, more experienced players to lead and help coach the younger, more inexperienced ones
  • Community – It was very apparent that Chase has successfully created a strong lacrosse community:  parents beamed as their children ran off the field at the end of the game, the rival teams solidified plans to go bowling after the game, and locals sat along the sidelines, intrigued by such an unusual sport
Locals

Locals gather to watch this strange, new sport

Team Photo

Burgas Titans (left) and Sofia Ninjas (Right)

Titans–thanks for letting me play with you on Saturday! Your energy and enthusiasm were infections, and I had a great time learning about lacrosse.

On Friday night, we had our wrap-up dinner and celebration at Tavan Restaurant. While I hope to see my Fulbright friends again soon, I realize this weekend was probably the last time we’ll all be together as a group. I’m excited to stay in touch and hear about the many great things they will most assuredly accomplish in the future!

Fulbright peers

Fellow Fulbrighters

Iliana and Blaine

Me, Blaine (ETA, Razgrad), and Iliana (ETA Program Officer)

Venue outdoor

Dinner venue

View

Balcony View 1

View 2

Balcony View 2

Some fulbrighters

Fulbright friends

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:

SS1

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 10.35.11 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 10.35.21 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 10.35.29 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 10.35.40 PM

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!

DSCN2129

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

DSCN2128

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

DSCN2127

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

DSCN2124

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.

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!

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.

Journey to Silistra!

Journey to Silistra!

11 hours!?! I was shocked when my mentor Valentin told me how long it had taken him to reach Sofia. Bulgaria is a small country (roughly the size of Tennessee), so I hadn’t expected such a long journey to reach my new town. Now I was starting to understand why the Fulbright Commissioners had expressed some concern about placing an ETA all the way out in Silistra.

Anticipating the long trip, Valentin and I got an early start on the last day of orientation. We made our way to Sofia’s central train station, purchased our tickets, and stocked up on snacks for the day. As I lugged my huge duffel bags around, I realized once again how terrible a job I did packing…luggage with wheels would have been smart. I was surprised by how little information was available at bus and train stations. Valentin had to run from place to place to figure out when our train departed, which cart we were supposed to sit in, and what track we’d be on. I’ve noticed this several times in Bulgaria. Schedules are out of date or simply unavailable, and changes/cancellations happen frequently with little to no communication. It’s no wonder Bulgarians have such a “go with the flow” mentality!

The train was pretty slow moving. Most of the rail tracks are in poor condition, which prevents the old Soviet trains from moving at their top speeds (not that their top speed would be anything to write home about). Though the train ride was long, I was glad we did it. After having spent the last month in a nice resort or downtown hotels, I felt like I was seeing the real Bulgaria for the first time.

DSCN0619

Train ride to Silistra

Following a couple of train changes, we arrived in the small town where Valentin’s wife and daughter would be picking us up. The final 2 hours of our journey by car were pleasant, as I got to know Valentin and his family better.

After almost 12 straight hours of travel, we arrived at my apartment. It was dark out, but I could tell the building was newer than some of the communist-style block apartments across the street. We carried my luggage up the 4 flights of steps to my apartment. I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to collapse in my new bed. Valentin pulled out my apartment key, and unlocked the top of two bolt locks. He moved down to the second, but the key wouldn’t fit. He tried the other two keys on my key ring. No luck. He passed the keys to me to try. No luck. His wife and daughter tried. No luck. It appeared we were missing one of the keys to get into my apartment. A couple of phone calls later, and we realized that the key we needed was with my landlord’s brother in a town almost an hour away!

Fortunately, we all found the situation pretty humorous, and decided to grab pizza at a nearby restaurant to pass the time until my key arrived. An hour and a half later, I was finally in my apartment (pictures to come in a later post), and asleep within minutes. I couldn’t wait to start exploring my new home town the next morning!