Did you fall for that clickbait headline? If so, you should have joined the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants’ Media Literacy Seminar in Sofia from November 1-4, 2018. OK, so those “foreigners” were American English Teaching Assistants, but they were quite a swarm: 32 from Bulgaria, plus 43 of their counterparts teaching in high schools and universities in Romania, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. And on the evening of November 1, traffic in the city did get shut down on the way to a wonderful reception hosted at the residence of the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Eric Rubin – but as far as we know those protests downtown were not aimed at our two boisterous busloads of Fulbrighters! Ambassador Rubin and his wife Nicole graciously welcomed our hungry participants after this adventure; as the main sponsor of the ETA program in Bulgaria, America for Bulgaria Foundation President Nancy Schiller also greeted the group.
On Friday morning, the seminar opened with a welcome address by Deborah Guido, Fulbright Branch Chief for Europe from the US Department of State, as well as greetings from Angela Rodel, ED of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission. World Press Institute fellow Ivan Georgiev, an investigative reporter and news anchor for bTV, the largest private Bulgarian television network delivered the keynote speech: a fascinating if unnerving overview of the media environment in Southeastern Europe, which ended with a stunning excerpt from his own documentary film about press freedom in Turkey. Over the next day and a half, ETAs worked intensively with Newseum Vice President for Education Barbara MacCormack, who led hands-on workshops in “Judging Fact, Fiction, and Everything in-between: Teaching Media Literacy,” “Who’s Afraid of Fake News? Responding to Misleading Media,” and “Fighting Fake News: How to Help Your Students Outsmart Trolls and Troublemakers.” They also got an inside look at the power of small local media with US Embassy lecturer Ed Kemmick, a long-time editor and reporter, during his talk “Understanding the Media: An Inside Look at how the News Is Gathered, Produced and Reported, and How Your Students Can Be Part of the Worldwide Journalism Revolution.” The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, who have partnered with Fulbright and the America for Bulgaria Foundation to create a set of lessons for Bulgarian ETAs to use in class as well as for extracurricular journalism clubs, also presented their materials and elicited feedback from the Bulgarian ETAs, many of whom had already begun implementing the lessons with their students. Besides having a lot of fun, ETAs also came away from these workshops with practical tasks they can immediately put to use in their classrooms.
After intensive media-related work on Friday and Saturday morning, on Saturday afternoon ETAs chose between various parallel sessions addressing ESL and other topics. RELO Jen McArthur once again came to Sofia and delivered excellent workshops on teaching speaking, encouraging critical thinking and how to lead discussions on controversial topics. Current US Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria, Tim Van Slyke, who teaches ESL at Plovdiv University, also led two sessions introducing online teaching resources and tips for working with multi-level classrooms. Courtney Moffett-Bateau, the coordinator for the European Fulbright Diversity Initiative and a former ETA in Germany, offered a very thoughtful session on Diversity and Tolerance Issues in which grantees could share and reflect on the ways their home and host countries differ and how to respond to expressions of intolerance in a culturally sensitive manner.
One part of the fake news headline is true, however – the ETAs did dance on the government’s dime, but we can assure you it was worth every penny! On Friday evening, Bulgarian dancer extraordinaire, Petar Iliev, offered an extremely high-energy workshop. In a mere sixty minutes ETAs who had never before tried Bulgarian folk dancing had mastered the Kukuneshko horo and were swinging and twirling their partners like pros in Dzhinovsko. Well, perhaps not like pros, but much fun was had by all – and after stumbling around and sweating together for an hour, any ice that remained had definitely been broken!
Other cultural activities included an introduction to BEST – the Bulgarian English-language Speech Tournaments, a program founded and run largely by ETAs in Bulgaria. BEST alumna Marieta Milusheva wowed the crowd with her original oratory about “Bulgarian Optimists and Where to Find Them” while BEST leadership explained the program and invited their colleagues in surrounding countries to help recruit students to take part in the Balkan Voices competition in March 2019 at the American University in Bulgaria. While our guests were enjoying BEST, the Bulgarian ETAs had a chance to discuss teen psychology challenges with psychologist Anna Joukivskaia.
On Sunday morning, seminar participants chose between a walking tour of Sofia, a “royal tour” of Sofia with Fulbright alumnus Eric Halsey, and bread-making. During the latter, Bread House Sofia leaders taught ETAs how to make traditional Bulgarian bread, while also encouraging them to “knead” on a topic: what is something you would like to do more often in your life and what steps could you take today to do so? Participants drew pictures in flour, decorated their bread according to this theme, shared their hopes and plans – and even burst into song! Eating the bread is supposed to help make these dreams come true, so we look forward to hearing about all the creative initiatives the ETAs have embarked on after this workshop.
Fulbright Bulgaria would like to thank the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US State Department for sponsoring this incredible opportunity for our ETAs. We are also grateful for support from the US Embassy in Bulgaria, the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the European Association of Journalists in Bulgaria, and all the other partners who helped make this event possible. Fulbright ETAs in Southeastern Europe are now equipped to teach their students to consume media critically and to fight trolls and troublemakers – which is big news, not fake news!
By Angela Rodel