If Not Those, What is It Then?

True, it could be perplexing.  If it’s not a school, not a homeschool provider, not an after-school program, not a co-op, what is it then?  What is Abot Tala?

It is like a school since it offers classes but unlike school, there are no grades, report cards, certificates.  Unlike the typical gradeschool and highschool, you can choose the classes to attend based on your interest and curiosity.   Unlike school, there is no curriculum except the one you make yourself together with your mentor.

Abot Tala operates during school hours from 9am to 3pm so it’s definitely not for those looking for after-school activities.  It’s not a homeschool co-op since there is a permanent venue.  It’s not a homeschool provider either, but we do have a partner who is precisely that.  Laksmi Maluya of the Gopala Learning Haven has been serving homeschooling families for many years.  We have partnered with her so that she can take care of the DepEd requirement side of the equation while Abot Tala can focus on providing the space and environment where young people can be themselves and thrive.

So if we have clarified what we’re not, what are we then?  Three main things:

  1. Mentorship
  2. Personalized learning
  3. Collaborative learning

Every week, each member meets with his or her mentor.  Meetings are used to help keep the teen on track on what they want to do in life, to reflect on choices made and actions taken, to offer opportunities that fit with their goals, to discuss issues that come up, and to challenge them to look at how their choices match up with the dreams they have for themselves.   Oprah Winfrey has a beautiful description of a mentor:

A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.  A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come.  A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view.

Learning is personalized.  The teen can choose what to study and how to go about it whether it is solo or in a small group, through one-on-one tutorial or through classes.  Abot Tala aims to build a community of learners who help each other move forward through their unique paths and journeys.   We hope to connect young people to learning opportunities within and outside the center’s walls, through internships, workshops and by linking up with people who could be role models in the field they are interested in.

Abot Tala is part of the Liberated Learners network with centers across America based on the North Star model.  More than twenty years ago, Ken Danford started the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.  Back then, he was a disillusioned teacher who did not want to continue playing the role of what seemed to be a prison warden in school.  Since then, the Liberated Learners has helped other communities launch their own version of North Star.

While Abot Tala is based on the North Star model, Ken has always emphasized that each center adapt the model to the specific needs and characteristics of the community.  Thus, each center is even named differently and it’s not like a McDonald’s franchise where everything is copied lock, stock and barrel.

Ken has a favorite analogy to explain the North Star concept to people:  it’s like a YMCA but for academics.  Nobody forces you to swim or take up a sport at the YMCA.  You come on your own volition.


Recommended for further reading:


The Teacher Liberation Handbook: How to Leave School and Create a Place Where You and Young People Can Thrive is for teachers who love working with kids, but hate working within the confines of traditional schools. If you’ve ever dreamed of starting your own school, but felt it was impossible, creating a self-directed learning center instead might be the answer. No mind-numbing standards, no marathon grading sessions, working with young people who want what you have to offer. The Teacher Liberation Handbook provides the information you need to make this dream a reality: stories of educators who left teaching, details of the educational and organizational model, a description of the growing network of self-directed learning centers, frequently asked questions and concerns. Use The Teacher Liberation Handbook to improve your life and the lives of young people in your community.

Check out this video about Abot Tala as well:  Personalized Learning Collaborative for Teens

The Hero’s Team

We were teaching at the same university when we met and who knew those casual conversations in the cafeteria would later evolve into the Hero’s Journey.  When Donna and I organized the first camp in 2017, we envisioned that it would eventually lead us to establishing alternative schools in the Philippines and China.  We also dreamed of making the camp as global as possible and we are truly grateful for finding partners who believe in the same thing.

Carl and Samantha run Level Up, an English learning center with several branches in Tianjin.  Like Donna and me, they are passionate about non-traditional forms of education.  We all love art, theater, the outdoors and we want kids to discover and enjoy the world.  We want them not to be limited by classroom walls and to feel free to explore and express themselves.  Practicing a second language is just a by-product.  The real meat is in the shared journey.  They get to practice English in fun, natural and organic settings rather than imposed and structured set-ups.

Carl is very much into science, drones, National Geographic, children’s book illustration, music and improvisation.  He taught kids about MPAs – Marine Protected Areas and flew drones on this trip that captured the elegance of Prado Farms, Casa San Miguel, surfing and the tropical rainforest.

Last year, the teacher who accompanied the kids from Level Up was Zena and this year, it’s Annie.  Both of them take care of the kids conscientiously and they take great pictures to boot.  Parents back in China feel fangxin (no need to worry) knowing their kids are in good hands.

Taj joined Hero’s Journey as the shadowplay workshop facilitator but he had other talents to share this year aside from that.  He spearheaded picking up stuff from the beach gingerly placed in improvised brown envelopes, brought out in Casa San Miguel to be transformed into artworks which Donna, the psychology professor, then proceeded to analyze each child’s personality and character based on their creations.  She just whispered the information to me.

What I love about seeing these artworks is how unique every child is, how each one is marvelously, stupendously one-of-a-kind.  Taj also taught the kids printmaking using the styrofoam covers of the packed meals we brought to the beach the day before.  As soon as somebody finished eating our baon of menudo, rice and lumpiang Shanghai, Taj would cut off the clean cover and collect them in a bag.  Who knew the texture of styrofoam had its own beauty, quite different from its bad reputation as a common pollutant.  Taj also facilitated silkscreen printing on t-shirts.  The kids who wanted to, designed their names that were emblazoned on shirts they brought along for the trip.

For more than twenty years, I’ve been visiting Casa San Miguel and didn’t know that my two favorite paintings were done by Taj — these red and black ones that remind me of The Cure.   The one on the right hangs on the theater where we hold the improvised shadowplay performances.

Carl calls Marc — Marc Gyver.  Marc joined us this year to lead the jungle survival course.  He was a last-minute replacement because we got locked out of JEST camp since a whole school booked it on the date we wanted. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we got to meet Marc and his team, one of whom trains dolphins.  Marc specializes in organizing outdoor adventures.  He chose a gorgeous trail for us at Pamulaklakin and gave each kid a modern day equivalent of a flintstone (Yabadabadoo!) for producing sparks that can be used to start a fire.  Marc got the kids scrambling for dried twigs and leaves, and cooking rice, tinola and sinigang using bamboo.  Maybe we’ll try more Bear Grylls-type of activities with him next year, like how to convert your pee into drinking water.  Nah.

Hero’s Journey won’t be possible without the intrepid, fun-and-laughter inducing camp counselors headed by Camile.  Francis is the expert campfire ghost story teller who made the kids scream in fear.  (You won’t know that English is not their mother tongue.) Dan is the hang-out magnet — kids just want to hang out with him.  Maebel gets the kids addicted to sungka — a Filipino game played on a wooden board with small sea shells.  I learn a lot about parenting from Camile.  She could figure out my kids more than I could with her decade-long experience as summer camp director.  I’ve been a parent one year shy of a decade but I still feel clueless and inept a lot of times.

What I love about Camile and her team is how they prioritize safety.   They are like security guards on heightened alert in water, in public places, anywhere in general but more so in those two categories.  They have a pulse and heart for kids and kids hen she bu de when it comes to saying goodbye to them.  What does hen she bu de mean?  Is that a female chicken?  Nope.  It’s pronounced something like hun shuh boo duh.  It’s that feeling of not wanting to separate when it’s time to leave.


thank you

Find out how Hero’s Journey got it’s name:

Why Hero’s Journey

Hero’s Journey Version 4.0


A possible lost passport couldn’t stop the Hero’s Journey, nor could an extra-long bureaucratic nightmare of a process at the airport.  Fourteen kids and three teachers from China arrived in Manila last week, tired but relieved, ready to take on the adventure.  Despite the usual setbacks, these proverbial flies in the soup won’t matter since everyone is bound to have a great time!

This is our fourth Hero’s Journey – an English immersion program for kids coming from China.  They soak in an English environment with five camp counselors from the Philippines, having loads of fun outdoors, trying Filipino food, doing art, improvisation, shadow play, National Geographic lessons, island hopping and this year, we added a jungle survival course.

We have three favorite places for our troopers – Prado Farms in Lubao, Pampanga, Casa San Miguel and Crystal Beach, both in Zambales.  Prado Farms and Casa San Miguel are brain children of creative geniuses and artists, Reimon Gutierrez and Coke Bolipata respectively.  In Prado Farms, ordinary objects take on extraordinary form while in Casa San Miguel, music and architecture are evolving works in progress.  In Crystal Beach, “glamping” is the word.   Their glamp tent comes with light, electric fan and you don’t have to worry about charging your devices.  When you come out to greet the morning or brush your teeth, the sea and sky are your infinite windows.

But as in any camp, more than the place, it’s the relationship built among the kids and facilitators.  We celebrate nature but at the same time, it’s an excuse for bonding – trekking through a forest, crossing a river, cooking your own food in bamboo, waiting for the boat to fetch us from an island, assisting young swimmers reach the platform a considerable distance from the shore.  Sunsets, surfing, building sand castles, movie by the beach, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, boodle fight — naturally fun stuff are balanced with output — printing using recycled styrofoam covers from the packed lunch eaten on the island the day before, silkscreen printing your own shirt, creating artwork from found objects on the beach, weaving spontaneously a story with puppets presented as a shadowplay, learning about Marine Protected Areas from a teacher working towards his National Geographic certification.  You can imagine how full a week can be but there’s room for free time, quiet contemplation, making friends, playing, laughing and horsing around with the counselors and kids doing what they do best being kids.

Often, school takes out the fun in childhood and we need to give it back to them.  A week may not be enough but it’s enough to remind us and re-fill ourselves.

We look forward to the next Hero’s Journey.  For the next one, we want to try what has always been at the back of our minds, brewing at the back burner — a camp with kids from abroad together with local kids.  Watch out for that!

At Prado Farms, you can grab a bike and explore to your heart’s content.

At Casa San Miguel, you can step inside the mind of an artist and celebrate art yourself.

At Capones Island, you are loved by the sea, salt, sand and sky.

At Crystal Beach, you can surf and glamp.

At Pamulaklakin Trail in Subic, the kids learned how to start a fire and cooked their own food using bamboo.

At Camayan Beach, master the art of R & R.