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!

Bulgarian Elections and Arms Disposal

Because the primary purpose of this blog is to enhance mutual understanding, I feel compelled to share top Bulgarian news stories from time to time. I’m going to keep this post short, but I wanted to call your attention to two things: tomorrow is election day in Bulgaria and yesterday was a national day of mourning.

  1. Bulgarian politics have been quite unstable recently, and tomorrow marks Bulgaria’s third election in only two years. For the last couple months, the country has been run by a caretaker government after President Rosen Plevneliev dissolved the previous government one year into its four-year term. The new government will have an uphill battle as Bulgaria faces several major challenges: a struggling economy, a recent bank run (I described this in a bit more detail in a previous post), and political corruption. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the newly appointed government will be “so fragmented that it will be unable to form a stable cabinet.” Many people I’ve talked to have expressed frustration over the political situation in Bulgaria. Politics and an unwillingness to compromise seem to prevent anything from getting accomplished (sound familiar?). Thank you Valentin for another great summary of the upcoming election. One quote seems to capture the opinion I’ve heard from students, colleagues, and other locals: “The politicians are ruining our towns and our villages, we are being buried in corruption.” Also, “Bulgarians can be forgiven for pessimism as they vote on Sunday in an election that few believe will deliver them from corruption, stagnation and geopolitical crunch – caught between their new overlords in the EU and their old one in Moscow.” I’m curious to see how tomorrow’s elections play out, and I hope that Bulgaria can find political stability to create a foundation for meaningful economic progress.
  2. Yesterday was a national day of mourning in Bulgaria following a deadly blast in Gorni Lom, a city located about 90 miles outside of Sofia. The blast is yet another unfortunate reminder of a very dangerous industry in Bulgaria–“the dismantling of obsolete munitions.” Despite the danger, Bulgarians have continued this line of work, expressing that they have no other option for employment. The Montana region where the blast occurred has a 21% unemployment rate, and workers at the plant were making about $154/month.

Other Bulgarian Fulbrighters and friends from Bulgaria, I’d love to hear your observations and opinions here!

Sofia–Bulgaria’s beautiful capital

After the nonstop stimulation of FISI, I headed back to Sofia where I looked forward to a week of rest and relaxation before my official Fulbright orientation started. However, for those of you who know me best, you know that “taking it easy” has never really been my style. Not surprisingly, my week of relaxation turned into a power nap, and then I was right back at it, soaking in everything Bulgaria’s capital has to offer. Sofia has such a rich and interesting history that this post can hardly do it justice, but I’ll try to hit some of the highlights. Any Bulgarian readers, feel free to correct or interject in the comments section!

DSCN0277Bulgarian Court of Justice

A big part of why I came to Bulgaria is because of its location. Situated on Turkey’s northwestern border, Bulgaria is essentially a crossroads of Eastern and Western civilizations. You feel this right away in Sofia as domed churches contrast Ottoman-era mosques. What started centuries ago as a Thracian civilization has since been conquered by the Roman empire, ruled by Byzantium, subjugated by the Ottoman Empire, and absorbed by the Eastern Bloc. What remains is a fascinating history and a complex mix of people, religion, architecture, and cuisine.

DSCN0281Statue of Sveta Sofia (city is named after her)

I wanted to share a few observations and things I’ve learned about Sofia from taking a couple tours, exploring the city with friends, and doing some hiking.

  • Sofia (formally known as Serdica) is one of the oldest cities in Europe. While I’m having trouble finding an exact date, I’m seeing several sources that document inhabitants more than 7,000 years ago. Remnants of older civilizations can be found underneath existing buildings and streets, resulting in a layered feel to the city.

DSCN0290Remnants of the Roman Empire underneath the streets of Sofia

  • There seems to be a great deal of religious tolerance here. Standing in the center of Sofia’s main square, you can see a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox church, and a Catholic cathedral, all coexisting peacefully. To further substantiate this observation, Bulgaria was the only WWII Axis country that refused to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. People here still seem proud of that, and should be!

DSCN0286Banya Bashi Mosque

  • One of the most impressive buildings in town is certainly the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Saint Alexander Nevsky was a Russian Prince). It was built to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Ruso-Turkish War in the 1870s.


Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

  • You can still feel the Soviet influence in the city’s architecture. Large, communist-style buildings still line some of the main streets, though the Bulgarian flag now flies overhead.


Former Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters

  • One of Bulgaria’s key historical figures was Boris III, a former Tsar of Bulgaria from 1918-1943. An anarchist group attempted to assassinate Boris by killing a Bulgarian general, and detonating explosives at that general’s funeral (Boris was expected to attend). While almost 200 people were killed, Boris escaped unscathed. But how…? He was late. Bulgarians are sometimes notorious for being a bit late, and point to this as a good indication to why that’s not always a bad thing!
  • One of Sofia’s prettiest outdoor areas is the City Garden, located in central Sofia. Ivan Vazov National Theatre, named after one of Bulgaria’s most famous poets, writers, and playwrights, overlooks the park.


Ivan Vazov National Theatre

  • At ~2,300 meters, Mount Vitosha overlooks Sofia. I had the opportunity to hike it earlier this week with my friends Valentin and Marta. We took a bus partway up the mountain, and then hiked to the summit. At the top, we celebrated with a beer and some leshta (леща), a traditional Bulgarian soup.
  • At the base of Mount Vitosha is Vitosha Boulevard. It’s one of the more touristy parts of the city, and there always seems to be a lot of activity. Outdoor restaurants, bars, and shops line the street on both sides.

Note: I am extremely thankful to my friends Valentin and Alex for being phenomenal tour guides and hosts all week.

Here are some additional pictures of Sofia to enjoy:

DSCN0279Lion in front of Court of Justice

DSCN0298Flowers in City Garden


Guards in front of President’s Palace


Shop owners often live above Bulgarian “Basement Shops”


Beautification project aims to decorate Sofia’s electrical boxes

Feel free to leave any questions you have about Sofia in the comments box!

My official Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship training started today. It’s been great meeting the other people in my group, and I’m especially looking forward to some more Bulgarian lessons. I spent a couple of days last week in Macedonia, so my goal is to share that experience with you soon!

My journey begins

Well folks, it’s finally here. Departure day. It’s been almost 4 months since I first received my grant confirmation in April. Since then, I’ve left my job with Target, run more errands than I can count, traveled for several fun vacations and wedding celebrations, and said numerous goodbyes to coworkers, friends, and family. With so much going on, those 4 months flew by, and it’s hard to imagine that today is actually here. The first leg of my journey is behind me, and I’m sitting in Chicago awaiting my flight across the pond. I fly from here to Warsaw, Poland where I’ll connect to Sofia, Bulgaria.

DSCN0182Before: Clothes laid out to pack


After: Fit ~60% of what was laid out in first picture

It’s hard to articulate how I feel right now. I’m excited, sad, eager, and anxious, all at the same time. I know the anxiety will subside once I arrive and am forced to be sharp as I navigate a new country. I’ll spend my first night at a hotel in Sofia very close to the airport. On Sunday, a shuttle will take me to Pravets where I will participate in the Fulbright International Summer Institute (unfortunately nicknamed FISI) for two weeks. I’ll share more specific information about my classes and the experience in a later post.


Visa and Flight path: MSP –> ORD –> WAW –> SOF

As a parting thought, when I was at the airport in Minneapolis, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the news story on the TV at my gate: U.S. begins airstrikes in Iraq. For me, it was yet another reminder of why the Fulbright’s mission to enhance mutual understanding is so important. With unrest in Ukraine and rockets in Gaza, the need for reciprocal awareness and tolerance between nations, ethnicities, religions, and people is abundantly clear. Learning about your neighbors and seeking to understand their motivations can go a long way, and ultimately help prevent or resolve conflict. As a cultural ambassador, I’m excited to play a small part in fostering this way of thinking.

Thanks to everyone for your texts, calls, e-mails, facebook messages, and blog posts. Each one energizes me and instills more confidence that I can make a real impact on the world.