Partners for Media Education in Bulgaria: A Seminar for Schools, Alumni Educators, and Parents

by Dessislava Ognianova

According to a 2018 Open Society Institute report, Bulgaria ranked poorly on the European Commission media literacy ranking system. This low score is attributed to a decreased trust in the media and the inability to think critically. In the last year, digital media literacy has been formally infused into the curriculum, however, educators have not been historically trained on how to integrate this skill into the classroom. To add insult to injury, parents are not aware of how to manage the influence of new media on their children. While Bulgarian students enjoy an unprecedented level of access to media and social networking at a very young age, it has become increasingly challenging to teach them how to interpret news and think critically about the information presented within various multi-media platforms.

The Alumni TIES seminar in October 2018 on the theme of “Alumni Educators in Action: Media Literacy and Critical Thinking in the Digital Age,” inspired a community project, funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State, that connects parents, international exchange alumni educators, and schools in Bulgaria to increase children’s knowledge and skills in media literacy. The main goal of the project is to engage teachers, parents, educators, and experts in the development of media education by providing relevant strategies to increase critical thinking and digital literacy for youth in Bulgaria. Our team of international exchange alumni educators started the seminar planning in March 2019 with a series of project activities. These project activities include participant selection, a needs assessment, meetings with speakers and journalists, logistics, Facebook group administration, a visit to the American College and American Corner, and a list of presentations, speakers, and discussions for a two-day training.

Seminar participants meet journalists at the American Corner in Sofia.

The Partners for Media Education seminar took place in Sofia from May 10–11, 2019 and brought together teachers, parents, and alumni educator representatives of eight schools from five Bulgarian cities consisting of Sofia, Razlog, Popovo, Stara Zagora and Burgas. The project’s follow up and dissemination phase was implemented through the following three stages: 1) create a website with resources and presentations by the project team; 2) present the seminar resources by the teachers and alumni educators at their schools and launch media literacy trainings with students; and 3) parent-teacher engagement in events and projects to garner incentives for promoting media and critical literacy in local communities. The implementation of the project was supported by the U.S. Embassy, in collaboration with experts and institutions involved in media education programs.

The two-day training provided an opportunity for interactive sessions with representatives of organizations engaged in promoting media literacy and critical thinking. Organizations such as, Coalition for Media Literacy, Centre for Creative Training, Association of European Journalists, Teach for Bulgaria, BEST Foundation, Fulbright, Parents Association, and eTwinning, supported our projects efforts through the seminar. Our special guests, Drake Weisert, Counselor for Public Affairs of the U.S. Embassy and professor Jennifer Mahon of the University of Nevada, Reno gave opening speeches and emphasized the importance of leadership and community engagement in education for developing students’ key competencies in today’s digital age. These speeches and interactive sessions were motivating, an effective way to begin the first day of the seminar.

After those presentations concluded, educators and parents visited the American College in Sofia. They were introduced to innovative ways of integrating critical thinking and digital literacy into the classroom by using digital tools such as Fakebook, StoryboardThat, Mind Maps, Comics, and Google map projects. The college teachers presented their students’ creative social studies projects and described the procedures for critical analysis of media sources, highlighting the benefits of applying MLA standards in writing. Thereafter, participants were introduced to the basics of internet safety followed by a session on cyber security and media literacy for parents facilitated by experts from the U.S. Embassy and Amatas.

“Partners for Media Education” participants visit the American College in Sofia to share best practices in developing media literacy curricula.

After a productive first day of learning about media literacy practices, the second seminar day began with an open dialogue discussing the topic of the reliability of information sources with Bulgarian journalists from bTV, Bulgarian National Radio, and the weekly “Capital” at the American Corner. Moreover, this seminar offered a number of learning opportunities through panel discussions and activities on topics such as: “Benefits of Being Media Literate in the Digital Age,” Cool Media Platform for Students’ Articles, Reports, Podcasts and Interviews,”“Partnership and Community Engagement for Designing Media and Digital Literacy Projects,”and“European Initiatives for Promoting Media Literacy”. There was a session facilitated by a Fulbright teaching assistant, who provided an overview of the Bulgarian English-language speech tournament and highlighted the importance of promoting critical thinking through classroom debates. After the session, the project lead, Rositsa Vasileva presented to teachers, exchange alumni, and parents about online resources for developing students’ critical literacy skills.

“Partners for Media Education” participants and seminar presenters

The seminar concluded with closing remarks delivered by Angela Rodel, executive director of the Bulgarian Fulbright commission, followed by an award ceremony where participants received certificates and enjoyed a closing reception. The event was broadcasted by Bulgarian National Radio, who promoted and featured the seminar with a series of interviews and press releases. Since our seminar took place in early Spring, we look forward to sharing more about its long-term impact on the community in the future, so please stay tuned for more!

Partners for Media Education is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.