In Awe of Grass and Other Realities

A blog by our Founder, Joei Villarama

Touching the grass has a higher wow factor after two years of lockdown staying at home for the most part. Hanging out, jamming, playing games, cooking pasta with three types of sauces, going to the playground, invading the music room and making it our own for an hour, doing improv, more hanging out — that’s how Self-Directed Monday at BGC transpired with music and movement, laughter and stories.

Abot Tala used to have its own space in Taguig but switched online when the pandemic happened. Wouldn’t it be great to have our own space again? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that vision of a homey, cozy, collab space come true? While waiting for the universe to conspire to deliver that request coupled with preparation and hard work, of course, the Abot Tala team has devised ways to make face-to-face possible, feasible, doable, realizable. Every month, there are three regular spots for meet-up each week in BGC, QC and Laguna. The fourth SDL Monday is reserved for virtual gatherings so they can also spend time with teens and mentors who are outside Metro Manila.

We also have a bucket list of venues to tick off one at a time:

  1. Gopala Learning Haven in Silang Cavite
  2. Pinto Museum in Antipolo
  3. Crystal Beach in Zambales
  4. Historical sites
  5. Museums
  6. Farms
  7. Galleries and artists’ studios
  8. Makerspaces, STEAM labs and fab labs

This pandemic has made us realize how precious it is being able to gather and to freely go outdoors. We never expected these to be taken away from us, but it has given this renewed sense of awe for the little things like grass and sharing a meal.

Emo Over Space

Emotion welled up in our founder after seeing these photos posted by Abot Tala mentor, Joyce Buen.

Some of the furniture came from the Abot Tala center in Tres Palmas, Taguig which we closed down months after the pandemic started in March 2020.  All the furniture was stored at the Gopala Learning Haven in Silang, Cavite thanks to board member, Laksmi Maluya.  Everything else had to be demolished.

The arrangement at Joyce’s brought to mind the memories when Abot Tala looked like this:

Now, the length of Abot Tala’s existence online exceeds the number of months it existed offline.   Missing face-to-face interactions is a stark reality we live with. However, even if virtual meetings are through Zoom and Gather Town, the relationships are as real as it gets.  

Joyce thought of getting some of the items so mentees can hang out in her place in Nuvali.  We’ve always dreamed of having a physical space again for Abot Tala and we don’t know when that will happen.  We continue to pray for this dream to come true.  Meanwhile, we can meet up in various places in and out of Metro Manila several times a month.  This March 2022, we had a much-awaited, much desired, much-longed-for two-day back-to-back meet-up in a home that felt so “Abot Tala” in Teacher’s Village and at the University of the Philippines. 

Of course, Abot Tala Executive Director, Owie dela Cruz can only be so ecstatic about it:

“It finally happened!!! After 2 years of spending time, doing life together online and well, being online friends, we all got to meet each other IRL!!! Oh my goodness! What a feeling! It was soooooooooo much fun! This isn’t even everyone in Abot Tala! It was just about a third of it! We have yet to meet our teens from the South soon!

“I’m glad I made an effort to step back several times to just watch everyone and bask at the moment. May the memories I took in my mind last forever.”

From Mentor Icia Encinas:

“The last two days were such a blast. I needed some time to reflect and recuperate from spending so much energy yesterday. All I know is that my body may be very exhausted but my heart is definitely so full. I got to give see the Abot Tala teens, parents, and mentors all come together in a nonvirtual space and it was amazing.

“It was such a joy to really hang out and just spend time with the people in this community. There are moments when we, as teachers, feel exhaustion, and sometimes demotivation, or we may sometimes get so lost in our own thoughts thinking we’re not making a difference in our students’ lives. But there are moments like yesterday, wherein I am affirmed in my decision that this is what I love doing. This is where I’m meant to teach, this is the community I’ve embraced.

“I cannot even begin to tell you how much love and dedication we put into building relationships with our teens.

“It’s never just the lesson plan, it’s never just the subject. It really goes beyond and is definitely so much more than that. And I would gladly do it over and over again.”

We’ll definitely have more of these meet-ups! 

Love Times Three

This February was a month full of love with three events: 1)  Valentine’s Day celebration of the teens’  love for their furry babies and friends, 2) North Star Alumni over the age of 30 sharing where they are now, 3) Meeting education dreamer and builder, Chris Balme online.  

What a parade of talents it was celebrating the day of hearts with Abot Tala’s “significant others” – our pets.  The Love Pawever fundraiser was organized totally by the teens themselves for the benefit of animals affected by Typhoon Odette and for the Abot Tala High Clubs!

With wonderful music, hosts, improvisation, more music, pet fashion show and more, this proudly teen-led activity was able to reach their target of raising P26,150 for two causes.   They originally expected and targeted much lower than that but was pleasantly surprised and grateful for the immense support of family and friends.

The Animal Welfare Club of Abot Tala High partnered with Lara’s Ark, an animal shelter and sanctuary sharing the joy of rescues. The mentor-led clubs like the Musician’s Circle and Debate Club will also be happily helped by this brave and admirable initiative.

Here’s the link to the show: Love Pawever

More than twenty years ago, Ken Danford started North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Massachusetts. It is the model for Liberated Learner centers including Abot Tala.  Many people are curious what happens to self-directed learners and this video event gives us a glimpse into the lives of people who went through North Star.

Alison Snieckus of Princeton Learning Cooperative picked out these points from the what the alumni shared:

  • All of the panelists commented on how being a homeschooler during their teen years is an important part of their identity and that it serves them well in their adult life.
  • They all talked about having fun, describing the specifics of the particular fun with laughter and glee, and then Ellen summed it up eloquently: having had fun in her teenage years is something she deeply values, and, sadly for our world, it comes up as a unique experience among her adult friends.
  • Kiva describes her experience in Ken’s psychology and social issues classes. The stories are so great, I don’t want to give it away with too much detail. My high-level takeaways written in educationalese: non-coercive classes that include gentle encouragement have more impact than we teachers imagine, and the flexibility of our model such that we can create just the right opportunities for kids stays with them.
  • Ellen, with all of her wisdom and 20+ years of experience with SDE, talks about falling into the “what about math” trap, and then describes how she pulls herself out. It’s priceless, literally!

Abot Tala is turning three this April 1, 2022.  Some years from today, Abot Tala will come up with a video like this featuring those who have been part of the community and have gone on to the adult phase of their lives. And it would be wonderful hearing from them, what they’ve been up to and how their dreams have evolved.

Watch the alumni of North Star here:

Thanks to Abot Tala Mom, Jean Decena, our founder, Joei Villarama, met Chris Balme recently.   Jean posted about Chris’ upcoming book, “Finding the Magic in Middle School” which Joei saw and immediately found more information about Chris online:

“Chris is an education dreamer and builder, driven by a belief that we all have far more potential than we realize. Chris has built and led educational organizations, from a national non-profit serving youth in disadvantaged communities, to a laboratory school in San Francisco working to create and share new educational methods based on developmental science. Chris also writes, speaks, and trains on education topics.”

Chris is the founder of Argonaut where students get the “safe space to discover their strengths, explore their identity, and find ways to contribute to the world.”  He’s the co-founder of a new model for middle school called Millenium School and of a non-profit called Spark which “use workplace experiences, mentoring and guided support to help students explore careers and build skills.”

Chris and Joei talked about the challenges of putting visions into reality and making innovative education sustainable.  There are similar experiences and common realizations along the journey that it’s just so wonderful to be sharing the time and space with someone going through the pains and joys of giving birth to and nurturing dreams till they can stand on their own and fly.

Chris Balme and Joei Villarama

From Our Founder: Happy Mentoring Day!

I never knew there was an International Mentoring Day and that it falls on January 17.  There must be day for each thing under the sun.

How did this mentoring day start? In honor of Muhammad Ali, the world celebrates the power of mentoring and how it contributes to creating a better world.  Muhammad Ali served as a mentor to many throughout his life and that influence continues today.

In a blog about this day, Eli Wolf and Mary Hums wrote, “Mentoring teaches us to lift each other up, creating powerful positive long-lasting relationships along the way. Mentoring reinforces the benefits of enhancing the lives of all people, and can be especially uplifting for individuals who are isolated, excluded or at the margins.”

Abot Tala is an alternative to mainstream school which seeks to give young people more control over their education through the help of mentors and a supportive community. Abot Tala is part of Liberated Learners, a network of self-directed learning centers.

Following are notes from one of the yearly conferences of Liberated Learners:

  • Relationship, building trust, being part of the community is the most important element in supporting teens in what they want to do.
  • Mentoring is the service that parents value most.
  • Freedom comes with great responsibility. Teens aren’t ready to take on that responsibility and need help with it through mentoring
  • Mentoring allows to have quick feedback from members regarding their social relationships and learning at the center (e.g. if someone is making them sad, if they don’t like one of their one-on-one learning sessions, etc.)
  • Being a mentor sometimes means repeating the same thing multiple times over many sessions before a teen considers it.
  • Teens feel valued when asked about the things they do that interests them (e.g. “why did you like that movie?” “what do you like about that game?” etc.)
  • Through mentoring we can help teens to have more agency in their lives.
  • Mentoring indirectly builds trust with the parents and the whole family.
  • For teens who say they will do X number of things and then don’t follow through, it’s a good idea to talk after a month or so during mentoring and say “Hey, so we have this action item here and it’s been four/five weeks and you’ve been saying you were going to do it but perhaps there’s something holding you back? Perhaps there’s something getting in the way. Let’s analyze . . . “
  • Some kids need spontaneity and flexibility, others need structure. The “superpower” of the model is that it allows for both.

At Abot Tala, we asked the teens what they like most about their mentoring sessions and here’s what they sent in. I’m also sharing a post from the International Mentoring Day FB page. 

To all the mentors, thank you for doing what you do, for your effort and dedication to connect and nurture relationships, to support unique individuals in unique ways.

Phil and the Giving Heroes

Phil, among others, is the Giving Hero of this story, but Phil is also the one who introduced us to Junver of the Giving Hero.

Phil Smithson hatched this idea of running 60km for Abot Tala.  Then he set about figuring out how to do the fundraising campaign using Facebook.   During this process, he remembered the person he knows who created a crowdfunding platform for Philippine NGOs.

Giving Hero makes online donations seamless, simple and secure for NGOs and donors.  Junver Arcayna is one of the founders and he set up the website for Phil’s fundraiser for Abot Tala. Originally, the plan was for Phil to run 60km but in the course of preparing, he injured his knee so he decided to do a 160km bike ride instead. 

Phil is the founder of the On-Off Group which helps organizations use design thinking and user experience design to develop innovative products, services and programs. The workshops that Phil and his group conduct help organizations level-up and be more concerned with their stakeholders, become better listeners, build long-lasting relationships and encourage suspending judgement.  

Phil’s mission is to equip people with an entrepreneurial and problem-solving mindset.  It’s quite fitting that he joined the board of Abot Tala to be part of re-envisioning education by redefining what school could be through self-directed and interest-led learning.

Junver’s journey at the Giving hero started when he moved from working at Coca-Cola to Real Life Foundation, a non-profit that gives scholarships to underprivileged but deserving students. He then started Cent to Change which aimed to make clean water accessible to disadvantaged communities.  They served families in Baseco, Tondo where they learned the challenges of running a non-profit. With a team of passionate individuals, Junver made it their mission to build tech solutions for non-profits so non-profits can excel at what they do best — solving society’s problems such child mortality, deforestation among many others.

We at Abot Tala are truly grateful for Phil for initiating this effort, for Junver for creating the Giving Hero, and for Leo Lallana for biking together with Phil from Manila to Tagaytay.  Imagine braving the traffic, noise, heat, dust and dirt – all for a cause!

There is another Giving Hero that we at Abot Tala would like to thank, and that is Yana who made this amazing video that captures Phil’s ride and the campaign.  Yana is a teen member of Abot Tala High and she’s always happy to share her editing skills by teaching others who want to learn.  She leads the club where teens want to enhance their video making capabilities.

And what about the fundraiser results?

We’re so grateful for everyone who has made this fundraiser a success.   The target was P70,000 and as of the fourth of November, 51% of the goal has been raised which is P35,998.   However, there is another Giving Hero that connects the dots perfectly taking the pot up to P85,998 and that is Mitsch Tapia. 

Mitsch saw Phil’s post about the run and got in touch with Abot Tala founder, Joei Villarama. Apparently, Mitsch has known about this alternative to mainstream school from a few years back. She has always dreamed of being involved in the cause of education. As the former head of Globe’s Education, Strategy and Innovation team, Mitsch said, “We know that informing or transforming education in the country cannot be done by one sector.  We need to collaborate.”

Because of her dream to transform education, Mitsch has been raising funds for the moment she finds the program that she believes in and throw her support behind.  After a series of talks with Joei and Executive Director Owie dela Cruz, Mitsch decided that she wants to be involved in helping the Abot Tala community of self-directed learners continue to thrive.   

We’re proud and happy to say that Mitsch is now part of the Board and has lined up a number of exciting plans for 2022 and beyond. She is passionate about advocating for SDE and raising funds so options like Abot Tala is always available for families who see the need for something different for their children.

Thank you, Phil, Junver, Leo, Yana, Mitsch and to all who donated to the bike ride fundraiser for Abot Tala.  Your effort and contribution will go a long way towards giving young people more freedom to direct their unique life and learning paths.   

If you are inspired and moved to donate to this cause, please visit Abot Tala’s Giving Hero website: