Of Abot Tala, Trust and Taking Risks

We’ve spent many late nights these past two weeks working on our very first round table discussion/orientation materials. It’s for families who want to know more about Abot Tala, the Self-Directed Learning center we’re putting up here in Metro Manila.

Yesterday was the big day and it was interesting to see different reactions as I presented Abot Tala. The families asked really great questions and even after the event, it made me think about what we’re truly about. The concept and model are crystal clear to me, but today it hit me – we don’t present Abot Tala to convince parents to send their teens to us. Rather, we’re simply telling people who we are and what we offer. If they like what they hear because it resonates with them so well, then fantastic, it could be a potential fit! If not, then it isn’t.

The search for the first 30 teens to join us has now turned into something totally different in my head. It’s turned into some sort of compatibility quest to wait on our pioneering families to hear about us and find us. It’s exciting, really, because I have no doubt in my head that those first 30 teens and their families think outside the box. For sure they are big thinkers and risk takers.

Here’s why.

Abot Tala is patterned after the North Star Model which has been around in the States for more than 20 years. It was designed for teens who aren’t thriving in the traditional system for whatever reason. It uses homeschooling as a tool to opt out of the school system and Ken Danford, along with his co-founder, put up a physical center where teens could go to on a regular basis and learn whatever they wanted to learn from peers and mentors — because they want to and not because someone else told them to do so. The members (teens) have a voice in what they believe they need to learn (based on their interests and passion). Members get to design their own education and Abot Tala (using the North Star model) helps them do that – hence the term, Self-Directed.

So how does this work exactly? Let me give you a sneak peek into the process. It starts off with a family meeting with the teen and his/her parent/s. During that initial meeting, we find out what the teen’s current situation is, education-wise. Is he/she in school and how is it there? Are they homeschoolers? Why are they considering Abot Tala? What are they passionate about? What do they think they want to learn? What problems do they want to solve? What skill sets do they want to learn or improve on? Generally, it’s really about getting to know the teen and his/her family. At that point, I believe, the relationship starts. The teen or member, as we would call them, could give us a long list of things they want to learn and it’s up to us to find the right mentor to conduct classes based on their interests or set-up on one-on-one trainings, a tutorial or even an internship program. It could also go the opposite way where the teens says they’re not really into anything and they don’t really care about the problems of the world. They could say they’ve never really thought about it yet and honestly, they’re lost. Both situations can be expected and both situations are absolutely why Abot Tala is gonna be a game-changer in education here in  the Philippines.

What school would take you in asking you all those questions and be okay with whatever answer you give them (even if you give them nothing?). That’s the thing, Abot Tala is not a school. We don’t give grades, report cards, certificates nor is there graduation. We can throw them a graduation party if they want one or the teens can design or come up with certificates for completing something and we can always print it out for them – but that’s not the point of Abot Tala.

We don’t want teens to study and work hard because they just want to pass a subject and get high grades. We want them to work hard and  learn because they are interested and because they genuinely want to learn. The dream is to have a community of teens who are gathered in the common room talking about social issues or our country’s history – not because they’re studying for a test or because it’s a requirement but because they are genuinely interested in the Philippines and they want to find ways to contribute to make it a better country. I dream of a teen working on a book draft and turning it in with hopes that his book will actually get feedback so he could keep on improving it, until it is ready for publishing. No grades, just lots of helpful feedback and guidance from a mentor who knows what he/she is talking about. What if we measure a teen’s success not by a numerical value but by the process he/she has gone through to achieve the goal he set for himself. Wait, what if we don’t measure it at all and let the natural course of events happen? We don’t get numerical grades for all the things we do in the real world, right? Anyway, it’s a dream, I know, but it’s not an impossible dream.

Anyway, after that first meeting, if the family decides that Abot Tala is the right fit for them, then we move on to registering them as members and assigning them to a full-time mentor who’ll meet with the member for about an hour once a week, every week throughout his/her stay at Abot Tala. During those meetings the mentor will ask what the member has been up to, both at Abot Tala and outside the center. What movie has he seen lately? What book is he currently reading? Is it any good? Would he recommend it to others? Is there anything new he wants to learn? How’s that tutorial in French coming along? Is he almost done with that essay he was writing last week? How’s everyone treating him at the center? What classes is he taking up that week and does he have any appointments set at the center that week?


Yes, there are classes – both traditional and non-traditional classes, which of course are taught in ways that interest and excite not just the members but also the mentors. We can go from Chemistry in the Kitchen to 20 Movies You Need To See Before You Turn 20 to an album listening class as well as a class on how not to go broke (a.k.a. Accounting, but we’re not calling it that).  Are these classes required? How does the member know his schedule for the week or the month or what class he needs to take? See that’s what makes Abot Tala and the North Star model different – nothing is required, everything is voluntary, most especially the classes. We’ll be releasing a schedule of classes every month, based on the interests of the members, as well as the availability of mentors, guest mentors and facilitators. Once that schedule is up, along with the course details, the member is then free to choose any class he wants. It can be as little or as many as he can handle. The mentors are then given the guarantee that the members they get in their class signed up for it because they want to, therefore, they’re a bunch of eager beavers.

There may be that freedom the teens so long for to self-direct their education, but as Benjamin Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

If they sign up for a class, they have the responsibility to show up for class on time and turn in whatever their mentors ask of them, on time.

What if they don’t want to go to any class and they just want to be at the center and study on their own or with a group of peers? Will we be breathing down their necks? Nope. They have the freedom to study whatever they want to learn, however they want to learn, wherever they want to learn – except if they’ve signed up for a class or if they asked for a tutorial or mentorship session set-up for them. They have to honor their commitments and show up.

So how does one keep track of what they have learned? Well, the mentor helps build a portfolio for the member through an online program which was created for the Liberated Learners Network which we are part of. Everything he’s done at the center will be recorded and all that will be shared with the member’s parents during family meetings we will regularly set-up. From there, the parent would have a way to grade his teen’s work – IF that teen is with a homeschool provider.

Jargon alert: Homeschool providers help out homeschoolers by keeping record of their grades which parents submit either every quarter or at the end of the year. Homeschool providers are affiliated with a Dep Ed accredited brick and mortar school which usually issues the report card to the family once they are ready to enter the school system, be it senior high, university or any level for that matter.

There’s another route Abot Tala members can take – the indie unregistered homeschooler route. This is truly the no-grades, no-required subjects route. They are as free as they want to be, up until they want to enter the school system. If they see down the line that they want to go to senior high or university, then they’d have to take the Philippine Education Placement Test or the PEP Test which will be taken at the Department of Education. We have a program in place that runs for three months (right before the test) to help members prepare for the test. Once they pass, they get a piece of paper from Dep Ed that says they passed and believe it or not, universities honor it (except UP, I believe). I personally know someone who took the test and is in Ateneo right now. No records of grades whatsoever. She just needed to pass the PEP test and the university’s entrance exam. So yes, it is 100% possible.

What about the things they don’t learn at the center because they were totally self-directed? What if they totally avoided all the maths and sciences and language courses and everything they need to know to survive university? What if they did absolutely nothing but hang out at the center and play games all year round?

First off, we’re already assuming that teens won’t do what they need to do if they aren’t told what to learn and when to learn it. I think that’s the mentality we’ve all had because it’s what we experienced. From preschool to college, we’re so used to someone telling us what to do, when to do it and even how to do it. Twenty years of that, every single day during the school year and possibly even during summer break. And then all of a sudden, when we graduate from college, we’re expected to make all sorts of big decisions for ourselves. When we enter the workforce, the shock is real that no one is telling them us what to do. Unless of course, that whole system continues in the workforce, right? But who likes being told what to do? We assume that teens are a bunch of oversized kids who are not capable of making decisions for themselves. We assume they don’t want to be better people. We assume they will avoid the hard stuff because all they want to do is hangout and play with friends.

But what if we took a risk and actually trusted them? What if it works out? What if they make better decisions for themselves – better than we could ever had for them? Yes, we always say parents know best – but you know what, what if we don’t? What if we really don’t know what makes them happy and what makes them feel fulfilled? What if they do and they’re just scared to tell us? What if we allow them to fail and make wrong decisions specially during this season of their life where it’s absolutely okay for them to fail and make mistakes? What if we treat their teen years as their experimental-getting-to-know-thyself-give-me-space-allow-me-to-make-mistakes-and-I’ll-learn-from-my-mistakes season? Their career doesn’t depend on it, they don’t have a family to feed, and yes, remember, they are all under 20. They have the whole world ahead of them, right? I think it’s a cultural thing that we expect everyone to be done with college by 20 or 21 and if you enter university a bit older than everyone, you get made fun of. Why is it like that here? Who said that that was the only natural way to go through life, right?

I was just watching a video interviewing the cast of Crazy Rich Asians. Majority of the cast went to university and they took up a course (totally not related to their craft) just because their Asian parents told them to. Once they were done with medicine or law or whatever degree, they were finally free to explore comedy or acting. I wonder how different their lives as well as their craft would have been if they were allowed to pursue what they were really passionate about when they were way younger, right? They could have started working on their 10,000 hours of mastery as early as the teen years, unfortunately it seems like everyone is busy complying and doing what they need to do to “pass.” To be honest, we’re really giving them a head start in life, are we?

Abot Tala isn’t for everyone. The school system isn’t for everyone. Homeschool isn’t for everyone. That’s the beauty of all of this. There are so many different options now and it’s just a matter of finding the right fit your child.  If you think Abot Tala is the right fit for you and you can trust the model which gives your teen the freedom to make decisions about his or her own education, and well, his or her life, with your guidance and the mentor’s, then we’d love for you to get in touch with us. You can send us an email, abottala.ph@gmail.com or call us at 09152864494. We are Abot Tala on facebook and Instagram. We don’t have a physical center just yet but we’re actively looking for the right space. (If you know anyone who can help us out, please let us know) We’re hoping for the center to be in Taguig or Makati.

If you could redesign school, how would it look like for you?




Of Dreams Coming True and Turning 37

I have a story to share. It’s the kind that has given people goosebumps. It’s made some people cry and it has definitely encouraged so many to start dreaming and believing again.

I had a dream so big and so seemingly impossible. It felt like I was reaching for the stars. A voice inside me said nothing is impossible. At the same time, another voice said I was crazy for even thinking that my dream could be a reality.

Today is my 37th birthday and I am celebrating it by getting this site up and running. I needed a place to document all the wonderful, amazing events that have been happening in my life…so tadaaa! Welcome to my playground on the internet. It is definitely a dream come true, but this isn’t the dream that has made people cry out of pure awe and joy. (So read on.) *wink*

Truly, the Lord has blessed me with my heart’s desires and more. I am overwhelmed and grateful beyond words. Today I choose to celebrate all the dreams that have been coming true, one after another. Today I celebrate all the challenges I have had to go through in life to be who I am today. I want to encourage you to keep on dreaming for whatever will fill you up with joy and if you’ve stopped – start dreaming again.

Around December 2017, I came across videos and articles of alternative forms of education in the States.  I remember watching video after video about centers that offer the best of both worlds – personalized education and a community that celebrates individuality and meets up regularly.

I’ve been a homeschooling mom since 2011. My eldest was about to turn 13 when I started digging into these videos and articles. I knew he was entering a season where he needed to be around other teens more often but we both agreed that a brick and mortar school wasn’t the wisest choice if community was all we were after. I remember thinking to myself, “There must be another option out there and if there isn’t any – what if…what if WE put something up?!”

The idea kept me up at night. I’d tell my husband about that vision and I’d be giddy, excited and scared all at the same time. I told friends about this dream to put up a center where teens had a voice in what they truly wanted to learn and what they wanted to spend their time on.  Some brushed it off while others told me exactly what I needed to know to move this dream forward. What topped the list was – drumroll please – funds, and lots of it. I remember standing on the second floor of The Forum in BGC overlooking the Maybank Performing Arts Theater when my friend told me –

“You need to look for someone who believes in this vision, has lots of funds for it and is willing to invest.”

Sure. Easy. Gulp. Now where in the world is that person?

By February I stopped figuring out how this dream could become a reality. My mom started getting sick around that time and taking care of her became my priority. My heart sank at the thought of letting go of my dream but at that point, it just seemed impossible. I had so much on my plate anyway – my mom, my family, homeschool and the need to move into a new home (how that happened is another miraculous story I need to share soon!).

Until one evening in May…. I came across this post on Facebook looking for part-time or full-time mentors for a Self-Directed Learning Center here in Manila. The post definitely sounded like the centers I was researching about from December to February. I sent a message right away to the person who posted the ad. I had to find out if this is what I thought it was. If I couldn’t put up my own center, I definitely wanted to help out whoever was doing it. That same night I was able to introduce myself and exchange messages with Joei Villarama, the founder of Abot Tala Self-Directed Learning Collaborative for Teens. We had set a meeting that same week so I could learn more about it and we could somehow figure out how I could help.

As I sat down for our lunch meeting, I remember hearing that small voice again telling me to share my heart and my vision. So I did and I remember being so passionate about what I was talking about. I could feel my heart beating so fast. I was giddy. I was so excited. Joei was smiling the whole time. The she told me something so mind blowing.

She said to her it seems like I wrote a poem or a story on a piece of paper sometime December. I was working on it til February and eventually dropped that piece of paper that same month. She happened to pass by and she found that piece of paper (also in February), picked it up and decided to work on it even more, because she too loves the idea. She researched about it and did everything she possibly could to make that poem or story come to life. She even took her family worldschooling and traveled across North America to visit different centers that offer alternative education. (Read about it here)

As she was listening to my story she realized that the piece of paper belongs to me. So she said, “I’m returning that piece of paper to you with funds you need to build it. Make it happen.” She said I should be the executive director of Abot Tala. What?! I was absolutely stunned. I wasn’t sure if I heard her right either. It was nothing but surreal. She barely knew me but she trusted me right away. It was a crazy, beautiful moment. So you’d think I said yes, right? Wrong.

Right after my meeting with Joei, I went straight to a pre-planned meeting with my life mentors, Ron and Joyce Titular. Ron was my boss for a few years and he knew me very well. Even before I could tell them how scary the offer was, he said — “Don’t be scared.”

However, days later, I started to feel fear creep in. I doubted myself. I told Joei that her center would fail if she got me as her executive director. I’m sure I came up with so many reasons why I wasn’t the right person for the job. I wanted to be part of it, but I was scared. I didn’t want her to return that piece of paper to me. Finders keepers!

I became Jonah, you know, the guy in the Bible who was running away from his mission. He eventually got eaten up by a whale (or some other big fish). At one point I told Joei I’d think about it, then soon after I told her I couldn’t do it. I was definitely Jonah and I got eaten up whole by my fear!

I remember thinking that my heart screamed that it was exactly what I wanted to do but the opportunity came at the wrong time. Accepting the mission would mean changing our family’s lifestyle which was already so convenient. I’d have to leave my comfort zone of being a homeschool momma who worked only a few hours a week teaching other homeschoolers and doing all sorts of random freelance jobs. I won’t bore you with all the other excuses I came up with in my head. They all seem so trivial now that I think about it.

But you know what, Joei kept me in the loop. She’d still call me often to ask my opinion about certain things and I remember being so happy every time she called because I was still somehow part of it. Honestly, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that she trusted me enough.

Little did I know, God was just preparing my heart that whole time. He was also preparing my family for this big leap we were all about to take. Every night before I went to bed, my head would be filled with thoughts about Abot Tala. Slowly, I felt the fear just melt away and it was replaced with incredible peace especially when I did anything to help out Joei.

Dinner with like-minded people on the night Ken arrived in Manila

In July, the founder and Executive Director of North Star Self- Directed Learning Center for Teens in Massachusetts (our model for the Abot Tala center) spent over a week here in Manila. It was such a rich, learning experience and it really helped me make an informed decision (because somehow, the offer was back on the table). My husband had finished reading the book, The Teacher Liberation, which talks about how setting up a center like this works, before I even did.  He was totally impressed with this self-directed learning model for a teen center.  So much so, they invited him to be part of the board of Abot Tala. He too got to spend time with Ken and Joei and it was then that he saw me in my element.

By the time we got home from our meeting, he told me that there was no point in running away. He said this is what I am meant to do. Yes, there definitely will be changes but we just have to do what we can to make things work. We knew we were ready to take the leap – as a family. He reminded me to trust that if this is really meant to be, things will continue to fall into place. I was giddy and excited and my yes meter was at 90%.

Then this message came in from a former student who is now a good friend after she spent her gap year with me as my co-teacher.

It was just the confirmation I needed. This is definitely what I am meant to do in this season of my life. The next day, I took Ken to the airport and I got to pick his brain one last time (in person, at least). By the time we got to Terminal 1, my yes meter was at 100% and it wasn’t budging. I’m glad I was able to tell him in person that I was finally ready for this life-changing mission, not just for me but for so many. I knew that this time around, I was no longer scared. I no longer believed that the center would fail if they made me executive director. I was done running away. My heart was so ready and so were the hearts of those closest to me. That day I officially left my comfort zone and moved into my courage zone. I haven’t left since and it’s been such an amazing ride. To this day, all the puzzle pieces just keep falling into place. It’s turning out to be such a beautiful picture, guys.

So here I am. 37 years old and aside from being a wife, mom and daughter, I finally figured out what my mission in life is. I’ve graciously been placed in a position to help create a center where teens are free to learn whatever they want to learn; a place where they are free to make mistakes as they discover what they really want to do, at least in this season of their life. I am so excited to sit down and listen to teens as they share their hearts’ desires and dreams, both big and small, the same way I did when I met Joei for lunch that day.  The heart of Abot Tala is believing in people’s dreams and it’s about helping in any way we can to make those dreams a reality. I am honored to be one of those people who’ll be able to say “you can do this” the same way Joei did when she tirelessly reminded me to remember this:

Joei sent me this right after I told her that I was finally saying yes! There is so much power in telling people you believe in them. I constantly have this picture in my mind whenever I’m faced with anything challenging. Thank you for believing in me, Joei.

Thank you to everyone who continue to believe in me. It’s what keeps me going. Trust that I will forever pay it forward. Life is beautiful. God is good. Happy Birthday to me.


*This wasn’t meant to be a plug for Abot Tala. It’s just that this is the biggest dream that has turned into a reality, at least for this season of my life. However, if you are curious, you may also check out our FB page: Abot Tala.  *wink*