On Turning 9


Yesterday, Joshua turned nine.  I wished it wasn’t a holiday and I could just do the shortcut birthday celebration of bringing a cake to his classroom, but it was the second Monday in a row that was declared no school.  So we had to do an almost impromptu celebration which gave me all sorts of mixed feelings inside — vowing this is the last party of this kind because it’s too much work at the same time realizing that he’s nine and the kiddie party would soon transition away from loot bags and games with prizes.  He’s a big boy with a mind of his own.  He knows what level of festivity he wants.  Mommy has to step back and let him decide.

A day before his birthday, Joshua attended the party of their neighbor and playmate, Kianna.  He loved winning the newspaper dance and making slime, but for his own party he whispered to teacher Hazel that he didn’t want games.  When we did do a quickie set of games because there were prizes that Joshua had chosen (super bargain fidget spinners), Joshua was happy.  I wouldn’t have been able to pull off his party without the enormous loving help of Hazel.

Joshua, Jimmy and I cleaned up after the party and when they were tucked in bed, I went down to gaze at the baby and toddler photos of Joshua on the wall. (He didn’t want to have any naked baby photos displayed.)  I felt like the sentimental momma who will soon prepare for the kids’ launch into succeeding phases of increasing independence and the baby-toddler-kiddie phase would just be memorialized in photos and our hearts.  But they cannot be re-captured nor re-lived.

This guy’s up next but I have a few more years to go with this one.

P.S.  It’s two days after the party and I haven’t taken down the baby and toddler photos.  I keep staring at them thinking, where’s that baby gone?  They morph into different beings with no memory of when they were babies and you just have pictures to prove they were this small once.  And they’ll morph again into teenagers and all you can do is hug them tighter hoping to reach the baby hidden inside.


Owie and Joei: Giving Back a Dropped Poem


If you love TED Talks as I do and have come across author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Your Elusive Creative Genius, there is a favorite image of mine that she tells in gorgeous, gorgeous detail:

I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.

It’s the image of a muse coming to an artist and if the artist is ready and willing to be the conduit for the piece of art, whether music or poetry or even a business concept, then the piece of work comes to this world through that artist.  By artist, I mean the broadest sense of the word in that we are all artists creating something out of our lives.  If the person refuses the muse’s offer for one reason or another saying “I’m too busy,” or “Go away, not now!” then the muse has to find another and perch on another’s shoulder and whisper the art piece.

That’s how I felt when I met Owie.  I felt that I had picked up somebody else’s poem and I was handing the poem to somebody it was originally meant for.   The muse had gone to her, courted her and she accepted but along the way around February, just about the same time I picked it up, she said, “Pass.”  And I took the baton and ran with it knowing I may not be the person to do this but I’m sure going to find whomever it’s meant for.

Sure enough, through the uncanny, serendipity-inducing power of social media, I found Owie.  She had been dreaming of something like Abot Tala since last December and contacted friends who are likely to be on-board this crazy alternative education idea.  Then in February, she stopped the project and forgot about it for some time because of other pressing matters.

In February of this year, I started my first online conversation with Ken Danford.  The concept of an alternative school had been brewing in my mind and coagulating in my heart for two years since I was teaching in a university in China.  My Chinese partner, fellow university teacher and alternative education advocate, Donna and I have been dreaming of putting up an alternative school in China and the Philippines but I always thought it would be farther down the road after I’ve attended a few more conferences on democratic education and garnered a PhD.  But then events transpired that led me to where I am including meeting Owie in a cafe.

Reading Owie’s blog this morning about the first Abot Tala parent-teen orientation made me feel that I had really passed the baton.  Here you are, run!   I’d still be running alongside her and maybe we’d be passing the baton to each other or we’re actually holding two batons — one is the operations baton and the other finding the resources to realize the vision.

Still, it’s the gorgeous image of the muse alighting on an unlikely and a likely person and it doesn’t matter what degree of unlikely because people who heed the call, no matter the doubts, hope courage sees them through.


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All the Love in China


In a parallel universe, if we hadn’t left China to live in the Philippines, how will our lives be?  Perhaps a tad more idyllic, simpler, a tad less dramatic but still with it’s own cinematic potential.  Certainly more economical.

Jason, Joshua and Jimmy had a month and a week in China and I followed them after and stayed for ten days, just enough time to reunite with the family and enjoy meals, the bath house and a short getaway together.

I was gone from China for almost ten months and what I missed the most is the excellent park life.  This is the party place, happening hang-out where the Chinese congregate instead of bars in the west.  The new fangled gimmick that wasn’t there before I left is the portable, strike anywhere, pop-up karaoke using cellphones on stands.   Instant KTV!  I wish they had English songs I could sing to and embarrass my family with.

The unbeatable food — where else can you get this sumptuous bowl of ribs for an amount you will never ever get elsewhere?

We had a holiday within a holiday in the grasslands of Bashang, Inner Mongolia, one of Jason’s favorite spots in China where we were re-united with a great friend, Xiao Ya Juan who’s living her dream life amongst flowers, trees and blue skies.  Joshua and Jimmy had a blast playing counterstrike war with weapons that spewed out these tiny bullets that expanded when placed in water.

From Bashang, we headed straight to Jixian to meet up with family and relish what I will always miss in China – the outdoor barbecue during summer.

Then it was back to Dagang where the time is much, much too short saying hello and goodbye at the same time.

I leave you with shots of the perfect office for me and for Joshua:



Continuing the Dialogue


I forgot to comment on another important aspect that Ken touched upon on his article about his visit to Manila:

There are some significant cultural differences that this team faces in the Philippines. On a practical level, there is no system of community colleges, which have become a central resource for our members. I have not yet learned how Filipino homeschoolers might get an early head start on college the way that we promote in the United States. Also, The Philippines do not have a system of public libraries, a favorite and essential resource for many of us here. These two cultural institutions, community colleges and public libraries, are so central to our daily work that it takes a few minutes to contemplate how to proceed without them.

In his talks in Manila, Ken would always mention the system of community colleges, libraries and volunteering that make North Star and Liberated Learners centers in America doable, feasible and attractive.  This thought always ran in my head, “Well we don’t have those.  Tough luck.  Third world woes.”

If we offered the same center here in the Philippines, we would have to work with the existing context of a poorly developed social infrastructure.  We don’t have community colleges.  It’s not possible for high school students to get a head start and get college credits.  We don’t have a healthy system of public libraries.  Volunteer work is also not common practice although there are a lot of NGOs some of which work with volunteers.

That only means the work of Abot Tala would be more challenging but since we have existed without those structures mentioned by Ken, it also may be just fine.  No point wishful thinking.  You don’t know what you’re missing if you never had it anyway.

I’ve always been excited as I’m sure fellow bibliophile, Tinky is too, to set up a library within Abot Tala.  And even if we don’t have community colleges, I always thought the way Liberated Learners treated their members is as if they’re adults in college and offered classes much the same way in universities.  They can choose from a wider variety than the usual high school curriculum.

But what if there was a way to connect with universities and see if they would be open to taking high schoolers?  Would colleges balk and laugh at the idea?  Would there be a few who would embrace it?   Would it mean more work and hassle for them so no thank you, Ma’am?   We’ve asked the universe for many seemingly impossible requests for Abot Tala to come to fruition, it won’t hurt to ask for more mountains to be moved.

The attraction of community colleges is it’s affordability; some of them are even tuition-free.  Talk about first world country envy, Germany has a number of universities that are for free.  In the Philippines, there are so-called diploma mills where the quality of education may be questionable. The fight for affordable, quality education in this day and age, should not be as difficult as it was years ago since the world wide web has made more options available to many.  However, the quest for more accessibility and more opportunities will most likely remain constant.


Blog vs. Blog


After a whirlwind trip to Manila and settling back to the comforts of the United States, Ken Danford was finally able to write about his experience in the Liberated Learners blog.   I was so happy to read a comprehensive take on the journey and hastily typed my corrections and opinion.  Ken suggested I can just put them on the comments section of the Abot Tala page, so here they are.  (Ken’s quotes are in the blocks with the green line.)

Approximately 15% of the student population attends private schools, mostly traditional Catholic schools or otherwise fairly rigid college-prep oriented schools. There are essentially no options for people seeking progressive, student-centered schools. Abot Tala is currently considering a tuition that is comparable to low-to-moderately priced private schools.

Correction:  There are essentially A FEW options for people seeking progressive, student-centered schools. Abot Tala is currently considering a tuition that is comparable to MODERATELY priced private schools.   It’s moderate if you compare it to the astronomical fees of International Schools but it’s more expensive if you compare it to the low-priced private schools.  So moderate may really be the word we’re after.

Abot Tala faces many familiar challenges that we have encountered in the United States and Canada. First, homeschooling is perceived to be a parent-led, school-at-home model. Most people, including most teens, do not find this idea appealing.

The people who homeschool in the Philippines are mostly doing fine — parents and kids are enjoying the process but there is a usually rocky start where people make adjustments.  Ken agreed in his email message, “Yes, I know the homeschoolers are happy!  I meant that parent-directed homeschooling does not appeal to many people now in conventional schools.  Most school kids and parents do not find the idea of leaving school to start a parent-taught homeschooling process to be appealing.”  That’s why Abot Tala could address that issue.  As a mother who tried homeschooling for a year and did not like it and felt like I tortured and traumatized my kids, I was always looking for progressive or self-directed alternatives like those in the States.  Since there are fewer options here in the Philippines, why not create the option yourself?

From a larger perspective, Manila seems to lack much of a middle-class. It appeared to me that there is a relatively small socioeconomic elite group, which corresponds to those that can afford private school for their children. The people who use public school seem to have little disposable income, and appear to have many pressing basic needs such as housing, health, nutrition, sanitation, and transportation. We might argue that education for children might be a critical first step to addressing these other problems, but I’m not sure that’s true, and I know it’s not particularly convincing. It’s hard to know where to start when so many basic systems we take for granted aren’t in place. For people living in shanties, it seems a bit off the mark to debate the merits of self-directed learning vs. traditional school attendance.

SPOT ON!  I have no illusions that Abot Tala can serve the poorest of the poor although someday, I would like to tackle the issue of how the personalized approach promoted by North Star, Liberated Learners and other alternatives can be scaled up and applied to a public school system like the Philippines.  I’ve seen the same principles applied in some chartered public schools in America and in Israel, the government funds democratic schools.  Check out also these efforts in India and listen to TED Talk about how to fix a broken education system without any more money.  So it IS possible.  Whether it’s possible in a country ran much like hell by so-called leaders, I do not know.

For people who live in shanties and low-income areas, education through the traditional system is their ray of hope to escape poverty.  Hardworking parents take enormous pride that their children finish school and some of those who do so are able to lead better lives and help their family rise above their economic status.  Millions of OFW workers are willing to sacrifice being together with their family just so their children can go to school and eventually have their own career and profession.  It’s not appropriate to present an alternative like Abot Tala in the face of unbelievable poverty where the traditional school route is still one of the few viable ways out.

There was always something tugging in my heart knowing that Abot Tala may not be able to address the issue of poverty and education in my country.  However, it does offer an option for those who are questioning the system itself and how appropriate it is for their own family and offspring.

I also reminded Ken, you forgot to mention the people from the RadEd Unconference who are natural libertarians.  Ken emailed me:

They are awesome.  My Facebook is flooded with their posts!  I haven’t forgotten them, but I wasn’t sure how to include them, either.  Hello to Jestoni and Kimmi and others.

Just as an update, Jestoni who is one of main organizers of RadEd opened a coffee shop-restaurant called the Radtown Resistance — eat, play, resist!   On August 25, they are holding a RadEd picnic in UP Sunken Garden.  Unfortunately, it coincides with an Abot Tala meeting that has been arranged since two weeks ago.  Hmmmm.  How can I be in two places at one time?  Beam me up Scotty or maybe I could offer to give Joel Hammon’s Teacher Liberation Handbook to anyone who attends the meeting and is contemplating setting up his or her own alternative school slash learning center.

Photos of unschoolers and homeschoolers in Manila


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