It’s Finished!

Just a few short months since my students and I wrapped up our fundraising project, I’m happy to report that our Pencils of Promise School in Ghana has been completed! Thanks to the hard work of my Bulgarian high school students and the generosity of over 300 donors, eighty students and ten teachers have a brand new school in Ghana’s Volta region!

And now for the first time, I present to you the Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School!

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The photos of the children were taken during the school “inauguration day.” My understanding is that the students will be moving into the school very soon (if they haven’t already). The final touch on the school will be a dedication plaque written by my students that reads: “Dedicated to ordinary people who can make an extraordinary difference. -10A Class, Silistra, Bulgaria”

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A huge thanks to all our generous donors from the US, Bulgaria, and around the world–this is your school too! I’ll post a picture of the dedication plaque when I receive it, and hope to get some photos of the students in action!

In case you missed it, here’s a short video directly from my students expressing their thanks!

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Curious how this all started? Check out the initial challenge I issued my students back in February. The blog has progress updates every step of the way!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

School Update #2

I was thrilled to receive an update from Pencils of Promise showing the progress on our school build project in Ghana! You can see in the pictures below that lots of work has been completed since my last update. I had fun sharing the pictures with my students on Facebook, and am excited that they’re finally seeing the results of all their effort.IMG-20150818-WA0003 IMG-20150818-WA0004 IMG-20150818-WA0005

I’d expect an update in the not-too-distant future letting us know the school has been completed, and I’ll be sure to post another update at that time. Thanks again for everyone who supported the project with your donations or by spreading the word! I just noticed yesterday that a couple more company match donations trickled in recently, putting our grand total at $28,780.

Pencils of Promise: School Update!

Many of you followed my 10A class’s fundraising campaign to raise $25,000 in 25 school days with the goal of building a school in partnership with Pencils of Promise. At the conclusion of that campaign, we had raised $28,501, which we pledged towards building a school in Adaklu Torda, a community located in Ghana’s Volta region.

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In case you missed it last time, below you will find a couple images of the current learning environment in Adaklu Torda. According to Hannah, one of my contacts from Pencils of Promise: “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.”

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I’m excited to report that some great progress has been made! A representative from Pencils of Promise recently sent me the below two sets of pictures of our school. The first three photos show the school’s foundation while the second three show that some significant progress has been made on the frame and structure as well! One thing that I love about this organization is that they select communities that are “deeply committed to their children’s education,” and are willing to demonstrate that commitment by contributing 20% of the build efforts through labor and materials. That’s right, community members not only collect materials, they also actually help build the school. This is a great way to instill a sense of community pride and ownership.

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Starting to look like a school!

Looking good!

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Soon to be: Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School

Thank you to the many readers who donated money and/or helped spread the word about this project! Thanks to you and the hard work of my 10A class, 78 students and 10 teachers in Ghana will have a place to learn and teach. I will share more pictures and updates as I receive them!

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.

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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.

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

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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!
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That’s a lot of books!

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Passing out the books

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

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Christian and Miriyana show off their new books

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Mariella receiving her book, pencil, and bracelet

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Raiya with her new book

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Vicky excited for a new read!

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Inna with her new book, pencil, and bracelet

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Deni reaches for her new book

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

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Ivana is all smiles…per usual!

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Sesi with some new reading material

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Maria cheesin’

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Mecho checking out his new book

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Meli showing off The Promise of a Pencil

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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!

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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.

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10A Group shot!

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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.
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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!
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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.

A Letter to Adam Braun: Founder, Pencils of Promise

First and foremost, I’m excited to announce that on Monday evening, my class achieved and then quickly surpassed our $25,000 fundraising goal. As you can imagine, the mood in class on Tuesday was celebratory to say the least! Throughout the day, students from 10A and other classes came up to celebrate our success. Upon walking into 6th period with 10A, we all erupted into a booming applause; it seems my students were tracking our progress every bit as closely as I was. I feel quite certain I wasn’t the only one to get goosebumps, and I chuckled when one of my students sitting in the front row yelled: “Let’s build another one!”

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Even though we have achieved our goal, we will continue pushing until our May 1st deadline, knowing that additional donations will go towards teacher trainings and student scholarships. That means that it’s not too late to donate!

As we now start researching Laos, Guatemala, and Ghana to decide where we want our school to be built, my attention has shifted towards a new goal: connecting with Adam Braun, Founder of Pencils of Promise, and the person who inspired this entire project. Last night, I sent him the below letter via e-mail in hopes that he might be willing to engage with my class directly. He’s an incredibly busy man, but I hope to hear back from him and work something out!

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Dear Adam,

This letter is an invitation. It’s an invitation to visit Bulgaria and meet a miraculous group of students who have accomplished a feat that many thought impossible.

My name is Michael Pelehach. A few months ago, I read The Promise of a Pencil, and was moved by your story. Like you, I quit my comfortable job in corporate America in search of something more meaningful. That pursuit led me to Bulgaria, where I’m currently teaching English at a foreign language high school on a Fulbright Grant.

After reading your book and researching your organization, I was motivated to take action. I had been searching for a way to teach my students about empathy and empowerment. You see, Bulgarian society places almost no emphasis on volunteerism and many people here suffer from a sort of pessimism or “communist hangover” effect that often impedes progress. What looks to you or me like an opportunity looks to many Bulgarians like an insurmountable barrier. I wanted to challenge that notion.

Reading your book sparked an idea: What better way to teach my students that they were capable of achieving significant, positive change than by challenging them to accomplish something monumental like building a school?

Unbeknownst to my students, I spent the next couple months teaching lessons I knew would be crucial to our success. We studied education inadequacies to develop empathy for children around the world who lack the tools and resources needed to learn; we learned about crowdsourcing and how online communities can rally around shared goals to accomplish something big; we discussed the power of story-telling to generate interest and compassion for a cause; and finally, we looked at examples of individuals or small groups making a big difference.

Once these lessons sunk in, I showed my students this video, officially challenging them to raise $25,000 to build a school with Pencils of Promise. While I was supremely confident in my students’ abilities, I was nervous about how they would respond to the challenge. I was asking them to take a big leap of faith by going after something unheard of in Bulgaria. But my concern quickly vanished as twenty-six wide-eyed 10th graders stared back at me, their faces painted with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement. Several of us were dabbing wet eyes, touched by the emotional moment; the energy we all felt suggested that determination would overpower skepticism.

The next few months were exhilarating! We broke into four teams (fundraising, incentives, production, and marketing) to ensure every component of our project had the necessary level of attention. My students worked quickly to set up a personalized fundraising page, film a YouTube video to tell our story and raise awareness, plan local fundraising events, and create social media platforms.

Since launching our $25K in 25 School Days on March 30th, we’ve experienced extraordinary success! Media outlets in both Bulgaria and the United States picked up on our story, Bulgarian celebrities responded to my students’ requests for help by contributing money and spreading the word, the local community showed up en masse to our charity concert, all while donations steadily poured in from around the world.

Our campaign ends this Friday, May 1st, and I’m happy to report that we’ve raised $26,150 so far, breaking all sorts of rules and cultural norms along the way. As a teacher, I’m so proud of my students’ hard work, determination, compassion for others, and willingness to challenge the status quo; this truly is a extraordinary group of students.

I would like to formally invite you to visit our school—Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School—in Silistra, Bulgaria and meet the students who willed this project to happen. My apartment has a vacant guest room that you would be more than welcome to use during your stay; otherwise, there are several comfortable hotels in town. In addition to welcoming you to our school, I would be thrilled to show you around the country I have grown to love since moving here in August. I assure you it has an interesting history, fascinating culture, and wonderful people.

One thing that you and I share is a love of travel and adventure. The inspiration and exhilaration you found in India, Vietnam, and Guatemala, I found in Peru, China, and South Africa.  Like you, I have also found the relationships in my life that cross borders and cultures to be some of the most fulfilling; your Joel, Lanoy, Sam, and Cornelio, are my Dulia, Alison, Valentin, and Krasimir. People are what make travel worthwhile, and I’m eager to introduce you to the students, colleagues, neighbors, and friends who have made my time here in Bulgaria so special and made this project a reality.

I will be in Bulgaria until early July, and I encourage you to consider accepting this invitation. Not only will you certainly have an enriching experience, but you will also inspire youth to accomplish big things.

I look forward to your reply, and would love to discuss details about your potential visit.

Regards,

Michael Pelehach

English Teacher – Silistra, Bulgaria

Best Day Ever?

I’ve been fortunate to have a tremendous amount of support here in Bulgaria–from an incredibly helpful Fulbright staff, to a teacher mentor determined to make me feel at home, to a hilarious neighbor who has adopted me as his own son, to eager and welcoming students, to a steady stream of visitors from the states, and to enthusiastic Fulbright peers happy to discuss the many highs and occasional low of our experiences. All in all, that’s helped me avoid feeling much in the way of homesickness. This past weekend was a bit of an exception. It marked my five year Duke reunion in Durham, and I was thousands of miles away.

My Gmail inbox filled up with Duke friends coordinating hotel and transportation arrangements. My Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with pictures from events on campus that I longed to be a part of (BEER PONG IN CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM…ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!). Groups of friends sent pictures that I should have been in. My jealousy only grew as I thought back to the Duke Community that I love so much.

Senior housemates minus me

Senior housemates minus me

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to stop feeling sorry for myself, because Tuesday night just might have been the best night ever. It was the night of my students’ charity concert and for many reasons, it’s a night I will never forget.

In the days and weeks leading up to the show, we broke a lot of rules. Typically when my school organizes an event like this, it is several weeks or even months in the making. Scripts are carefully written and edited, performers rehearse multiple times, marketing efforts start early, venues are booked well in advance, and directors, sound technicians, and lighting experts are contacted ahead of time.

We didn’t do any of that. Three of my students in 10A wrote our script the week before the show. Being well-rehearsed was out of the question as our set list wasn’t even finalized until a few days ago. We lucked into a director after our first choice refused to work with us because we were getting such a late start. The only reason we had lights was the individual efforts of one of my amazing ninth graders and her connections with a local theater. Our marketing effort could best be described as a last-minute scramble, and our first full rehearsal ended an hour before the show started. But when you set out to accomplish big things and give yourself an aggressive deadline ($25K in 25 school days), sometimes moving quickly is more important than being perfect…somehow my students figured out a way to do both!

I loved the idea that we were breaking the rules. Since arriving in Bulgaria, I’ve constantly heard “this is not possible” or “this is not the way.” We were trying to prove that, as the saying goes, when there’s a will, there’s a way. That also meant that a lot was on the line; and we were behind.

To be honest, when the curtains opened last night, I didn’t know what to expect. Things had been moving quickly in the days leading up to the show (they had to), and I wasn’t exactly sure how it would go. It wasn’t that I doubted my students or their abilities; I just knew how fast we had been moving!

But then, the next couple of hours happened…and they were truly magical. 10A and some key support partners had stepped up to the plate, and the result was brilliant. Unfortunately, our photographer and videographer need a few days to process content from the show, so I’m going to save the play-by-play for my next post. That being said, I want to share some of the highlights as they are moments that moved me greatly and that I will never forget.

In no particular order…

  • Going into the show, our hope was to raise 900 leva ($497). We were thrilled to exceed our goal, raising 967 leva (~$532), which was a huge success! Even more exciting for the campaign is that we had two donors willing to match our charity concert fundraising efforts. Becky and Roger Tuuk, extremely generous friends of my family from back when we lived in Michigan, posted a $500 match, and an anonymous donor opted to match the entire $532 amount. For those keeping score at home, that’s over $1,500 in one night!
  • A few minutes before the show started, a couple of ladies I had never met came up to me and presented me with a rose. “This is from the mothers of 10A,” they said. “Thank you for what you’re doing for our children.”
From the mothers of 10A

From the mothers of 10A

  • The performances of my students were fantastic. There are so many good stories here, and I promise to elaborate more once I have the photos and videos to do them a bit more justice. In the meantime, I included a few pictures below to whet your appetite. Suffice it to say that I’m unbelievably proud of all the performers and the amazing acts they put on.
Youngsters

Some youngsters joined us for the show, and they definitely stole the hearts of the audience. I was amazed by their voices and stage presence!

Desi dance group

Dancing group

Meli Mecho

Two of my stud musicians from 10A

One of my 8th graders KILLED IT with his beat boxing

One of my 8th graders KILLED IT with his beat boxing

  • As an additional motivator, I agreed to sing a karaoke song at the concert if we raised 300 leva on top of ticket sales in a box labelled “Embarrass Michael.” A few acts into the show, some of my students passed me a note letting me know that the box had 420 leva in it (later updated to 484 leva), and my fate was sealed in the form of Frozen’s “Let it Go.” In my three and a half minutes of fame, I made just about every mistake possible: I forgot the words, I was out of tune, and I’m pretty sure my voice cracked at least once in an ambitious pursuit of the high notes. Needless to say the crowd loved it. My students unexpectedly rushed on stage to sing and dance along and the song ended in a huge group hug. It felt magical in ways that I’m sure not even Elsa has experienced.
Let it go

The Elsa wig I made just before the show left something to be desired.

Let it go - support

Happy to have some support on stage!

Group hug

  • The concert ended with a big group singing of Michael Jackson’s “We are the World.” An extremely talented vocal group, Do Re Mi, got us started, but inevitably all the performers once again flocked to the stage to sing along. There was so much joy and energy in the room!
  • After the show, I joined about 10 of my students at the local pizza joint. As I devoured a large pizza (pre-show prep had caused me to skip a couple of meals), we celebrated the progress we’d made towards our fundraising goal and hypothesized where our school might one day be located and how the kids would benefit. It was fun to hear my students admit that when I first issued the challenge, they were excited, but didn’t believe that it was possible (that’s actually reason I wanted to do this project in the first place). With over $21K raised, it’s safe to say that nobody feels that way anymore!
  • Krassy rang my doorbell shortly before I left for the show, and gave me 4 leva–the price of two tickets–even though he and his wife Nadia could not attend. Shortly after that, he came back with dinner, knowing that I was busy preparing for the show and might not have time to eat. I’m going to miss that man so much.

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  • Many of my teacher colleagues and the principal from Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School came out to support the cause! Regardless of whether they came to see me humiliated or to help build a school, I was extremely appreciative of their attendance. I was especially moved when the school’s chemistry teacher–a favorite of many students–thanked me for challenging our students to tackle something monumental and pursuing such a worthy cause.

In conclusion, despite feeling down about missing out on time with many of my best friends at my reunion, Tuesday night solidified that I was exactly where I was supposed to be this week.

Wooooooah, we’re halfway there!!

I was in a pretty good mood when I left school yesterday. That kind of good mood when you can’t help but smile even though nobody else is around. The warm sun encouraged me to shed my jacket and what I’m told are colorful blossoms (yup, still colorblind) were starting to bud on the trees in our schoolyard. Normally I would walk home on such a beautiful day, but I was eager to get home and out on my porch overlooking the Danube River as quickly as possible. Looking at the pictures below, can you blame me?

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Afternoon view from my balcony

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Sunset from my balcony

I made small talk with my taxi driver, never passing up on the opportunity to practice my Bulgarian. As if he sensed my good mood, he rolled down the windows, cranked up the music, and insisted on serenading me in Russian. He actually had a fantastic voice, and I expressed my frustration that I didn’t know the words to sing along. I think he was enjoying himself too because what is normally a three minute taxi ride took closer to ten as we crawled along at less than half the speed limit. My driver didn’t seem to care that cars were honking and passing him, as he slowed down even more every couple of blocks to wave at a friend.

While climbing the eight flights of stairs to my apartment, I reflected on the day. Today was special because it marked the halfway point of 10A’s fundraising campaign. The reason for my good mood was that we had already passed the halfway point of our $25,000 goal, and appeared right on track to raise the entire amount to build a school in partnership with Pencils of Promise. As I write this today, we have raised $14,571 with donations from 171 different contributors. I’ve been especially pleased with the number of Bulgarian contributions, as members of the community seem inspired by my students and supportive of our cause. Engaging the local community was one of my personal goals for this project, so watching that come to life has been especially rewarding.

In class today, we continued planning our big fundraising concert scheduled for next Tuesday, 4/21. This event is important because it will give my students the opportunity to use their talents to directly impact our campaign. It will include a combination of band performances, ballet, folk singing, rapping, and if we raise enough money, I’ve even offered to embarrass myself in front of the entire audience.

Tomorrow afternoon, we are holding a press conference at the school to give an update about our project, announce our concert, and answer questions from the media. I’ll give a brief overview of what we are aiming to accomplish while my students translate my words into Bulgarian. After that, I’m excited to watch my students in action as they’ll be the ones responding to questions from the dozen or so media outlets we have invited. We are hopeful that the press conference will both increase the attendance at Tuesday’s concert and add even more fuel to the media engine that’s been helping spread our cause here in Bulgaria. I’ve included a couple of examples below in case you want to practice your Bulgarian!

And finally…an exciting update! Starting NOW (11 a.m. EST on Thursday, 4/16), an anonymous donor will be matching the next $1,000 worth of donations. That means your donation will essentially double–$50 turns into $100! But don’t wait, because this opportunity will expire in exactly 48 hours!

A HUGE thank you to the many blog followers who have already contributed. Your support has played a big role in helping inspire a generation of Bulgarian youngsters that monumental change is possible if you work hard and have a vision. Not to mention…YOU ARE HELPING BUILD A SCHOOL FOR KIDS WHO DON’T HAVE ONE!

LAUNCH DAY!

Written yesterday, 3/31.

After almost 6 weeks of preparation, my class launched our campaign to raise $25,000 in 25 School Days (3/30 – 5/1) through the Pencils of Promise organization. Regardless of how much money we make (though I’m confident it will be BIG), watching my students come together to create something impactful and that we are proud of has been such a joy. In previous posts, I expressed my desire to teach my students that they have the capacity to make a mark on the world, and though we still have a long way to go in the campaign, I’m already starting to see signs of that happening. Each of our four working groups (Marketing, Production, Incentives, and Fundraising) can already boast a long list of accomplishments and optimism is high. A more specific example came in the form of a Facebook message from Mariella that was like music to my ears (notice her flawless English).

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Mission Accomplished!

When I walked into class today–day two of our campaign–students were already gathering around the computer to pull up our fundraising page. The borderline obsessive page refreshers were eager to show their classmates the most recent couple of donations that had come in that morning. I smiled contentedly as they quickly decided who would respond with a punctual “thank you” post. Before the bell had rung to indicate the start of class, our generous donors had already been thanked. If you haven’t already, you can check out our fundraising page and YouTube video here: https://fundraise.pencilsofpromise.org/buildthemaschool

As I write this, our fundraising balance reads $3,272 which represents 13% of our goal! While we’ve jumped out to a quick start, the students are far from sitting back on their heels and getting comfortable.

Day 2 Campaign Selfie!

Day 2 Campaign Selfie!

  • Our fundraising team is planning local events including a talent show and potentially a pie booth. This will be incredibly important as we aim to engage the local community! We have also had a couple of donors match local fundraising efforts. Let me know if you’d be interested in joining that group!
  • A member of our production team has recorded a Bulgarian/English rap video about the importance of education and is working on editing the video. I’m so excited to see the final product and share it with those of you following our story.
  • The incentives team just completed a “donation thermometer” to hang in front of our school so that everyone is aware of the progress we are making. They are also making handwritten Thank You cards for local donors.
Build them a School Thermometer!

Thermometer to share our progress! Excited about the $2,907 at the time we snapped the photo!

  • And last but not least, the marketing team is posting blog updates on our fundraising page, contacting local media outlets, and helping us tell the story through social media (Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; entering your e-mail when you make a donation will also alert you to my class’s blog updates). I also just found out that a representative from bTV, a national news outlet in Bulgaria will be coming to our class tomorrow to do a story on our project. Last but not least, Adam Braun–founder of Pencils of Promise–has now acknowledged our specific campaign twice! That’s caused lots of excitement in class!
Recognition from PoP Founder Adam Braun

Recognition from PoP Founder Adam Braun

As much fun as I’m having being a part of this campaign, it’s unfortunate that I’ll likely end up in jail afterwards for not filing my taxes. Speaking of which…I’m outta here! But before I go, here’s something to leave you with. We watched this video in class and discussed the meaning of the word “promise” as more than just a commitment, but as a an indication of future excellence…something that we all possess.

**Note: If you are interested in making a larger donation ($500 or greater) to this campaign, please send me an e-mail at michael.j.pelehach@gmail.com to talk about matching opportunities**