Casting Our Nets into the Sky

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The first logo I designed for Abot Tala two years ago had this latin adage: Ad Astra Per Aspera meaning “to the stars through difficulties.”  Through hardships to the stars.  That’s exactly what we are all going through. We have these lofty dreams and ours was a vision for freedom for young people to direct their education and life path with the help and guidance of mentors. We’re still reaching for those bright things in the infinite dark sky and we are still going through rough, rougher and roughest waters, the roughest of which may be this period of uncertainty and waiting.

We refuse to believe that this is the end. Instead we forge on, hoping against hope that stars can be held in the palm of our hands until we throw them back out into the night, only to catch them again and again. They may slip through the holes of our net but these are never impossibilities.

Eight years ago, it was discovered that I was pregnant and had cancer at the same time. Against all odds, despite having chemotherapy while pregnant, my baby was born healthy. He is now 7 years old, a naughty, creative, hyperactive, smart, joyful, malambing boy. This picture makes me think of the dreams we have that are seemingly impossible, that make us want to give up but I remember clearly not wanting to give up this baby. Why is it easy for us to give up other dreams especially if it is our personal dream? I think the dream we can’t give up on, the dream that keeps us going despite the hardships and difficulties are the dreams for our children.  For those who don’t have biological children, it may be something else, a legacy that we hope continues past our physical time on earth.

Abot Tala is like my child but there are times when I want to give up.  I can never do that with my real children.  I know of parents who have given up on their children and children who have given up on their parents.  The tragedy is heartbreaking and I can never imagine it happening to me but it has happened to people close to me.

So what is this business of giving up or wanting to give up on a dream?  When circumstances force us to fold up, do we fold up or fight to keep open?  There will be people who will always be on the side of encouragement and there will be the naysayers who think it’s losing battle.  However, you don’t hear this only outside; the voices are right inside your head swinging like a pendulum or a hatchet about to cut either the rope that holds you captive or slice your body in half.

Since Abot Tala is for teens ages 12 to 18, it is where my own kids could go to should they wish to in the future.  They are only 7 and 10 now so it won’t be after a few more years till they’re eligible to join.  We don’t know if Abot Tala would still be alive by then because we don’t even know if we’ll be able to survive this crippling debacle.

In August last year, we opened Abot Tala Junior which ran for two months before closing it down since it was a threat to the sustainability of the original center for teens.  The program for younger kids ages 7 to 11 was much more complex and we did not have the space nor the staff fit for it.  It was a crushing blow to realize we had to close shop so quickly but it was a painful amputation that had to be done.

The center chugged along while never meeting our target numbers but we all believed it was only a matter of time and we’d reach the tipping point.  Most people may favor the traditional school system but there were outliers, out-of-the-box thinkers and families  who needed this option for their teens.  To counter our bloody red FS, we came up with a fundraising program that we were about to launch when, COVID reared it’s blood-thirsty head.  A crown of thorns descended on a few that soon exploded exponentially.

We were in the process of  starting a fundraiser with the country’s premiere auction house, Leon Gallery.  The country’s equivalent of Sotheby’s was generous enough to support Abot Tala but then who would think about auctioning art work or antiques now unless the funds go to our frontliners in the medical field?  Who would think of sponsoring teens who need an alternative to school, who need an option to following a rigid curriculum when all schools have closed down?

We sit with uncertainty as long and as peaceful as we can because there is little choice but to ride this out.  Abot Tala is offering summer classes but apart from that, we wait with bated breath and sinking budget.

Another thing I was looking forward to is a fragment of another dream.  My 10 year old son, Joshua and I are avid fans of Shark Tank and it’s been my dream to pitch on that popular U.S. TV Program of 11 seasons.  Tinky, one of our Abot Tala board of trustees messaged me about John Aguilar, host and producer of the Filipino version of Shark Tank.  Thanks to serendipity, I ended up attending a talk for start-ups where John and his wife, Monica talked about their experiences and stories as an entrepreneurial couple.  I was able to ambush John after and gave an instant elevator pitch about Abot Tala.

I submitted the online application form and requirements some weeks before the lockdown and a few weeks into the quarantine, got word that Abot Tala is invited to do an online pre-pitch when things go back to normal.  Nobody knows when that will be.

The biggest challenge for me to take on in Abot Tala is approaching people I know for help and support.  It’s easier for me to approach total strangers so I kept attending event after event and now, the possibility of appearing on the Final Pitch gives me that boost to go on with a potential resolution in the horizon.  Imagine if we get a big investor who believes in what Abot Tala stands for and offers full support.

It seems naive to expect a miracle.  A miraculous save.  A rescue swooping from the sky.  A superhero with cape waving in the wind.

But there is too, the preparation for when a miracle should occur.

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And not to forget, the other miracle in my life: Joshua who was born when I was 38 and my family was thinking I’d never marry nor have kids.  Proof miracles do happen.  They can even happen every day, often undetected.

Wanting to Defy the Odds

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Maybe we shouldn’t have started this.  Maybe we should’ve given up earlier.  Maybe we should’ve sought enough funding first.  Even if odds were stacked against us, we bulldozed our way to the starting line and ran away with it until we sputtered, and chutzpah, courage and good intentions were not enough fuel to last a long marathon.

When somebody tells you to stop this madness, when somebody tells you, “You can’t be doing this for your children,” you continue to believe in your heart otherwise.  Yes, one of my reasons for starting a “school” is for my kids but my kids are not yet of age to attend high school.  Somebody close to me said, that is the wrong reason to do something where you gamble a considerable amount of capital.  Another friend told me, “You cannot mix family and business that way.”  However, I know of moms who started schools for precisely the same reason.  They wanted to create a more positive learning environment for their children.  It so happened that they went on to become successful.  One school grew from a garage at home to a school with many buildings.  One stay-at-home mom parlayed her small school into one that spanned kinder to college. Another mom started out the same time as me and was able to secure angel investment.

So please don’t tell me this is wrong.

“Maybe it’s not the time for this.  The Filipinos are not ready for something as revolutionary as this,” somebody countered in deep pity at the hardships and birthing pains we were going through.  Tell that to the families who are served by this alternative to traditional school.  Tell that to the families who have been looking for a community as open and accepting as this.  Tell that to the young people who have benefited from finding joy in learning with peers and mentors.

I still refuse to believe in my heart that this is a mistake, that we are better off not having risked so much only to stand at the edge of the abyss.  The abyss before us is the invisible enemy many worldwide are facing.  It is the unseen, microscopic ball of crown that silently invades bodies and threatens economies.

If our country was agile and rich enough to declare all businesses can be rent-free, tax-free and food would be subsidized during this period, then a small operation like ours could stand a chance at survival. Our hospitals are heaving under the weight of this pandemic and salaried employees across industries are shaking with insecurity.  People who need a ride to work find themselves stranded, luckily or unluckily depending on how much they like their job.  In the first place, except for medical personnel and skeletal crews, everyone should just simply stay at home.

How do businesses, tiny, medium and big, propose to surf this unfortunate tsunami?  How creative and resourceful you must be to contemplate solutions to address this conundrum.  I may not be there yet.  Give me time to think and brainstorm with my partners in this endeavor.  I am stumped at the moment but I shall regain my composure in a while.

My heart cannot bear to write the descriptions for these photos so I shall let the pictures from January to March 2020 speak for themselves.  Since school has been canceled, Abot Tala has been holding classes online.  I’m happy to say the students who were choosing to attend very few classes before are now joining more.  Perhaps we have to thank the community quarantine for pushing people against the boredom wall enough for them to retaliate with a vengeance and seek engagement any way it appears.

We may be looking at online operations to pass this hurdle, though we still have the responsibility to honor our lease contract, pay for utilities, internet, salaries and taxes.  In a few days, April will roll by and our good government does not recognize companies in the red and what was already red will become even bloodier.  Scarred and bloodied from war, we have to be grateful for staying alive, complete with the ability to dance as crazy as John Travolta.

Dance like nobody is watching.

Christmas at Our Second Home

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These past three months at Abot Tala were capped off by a sumptuous Christmas spread, baking pandesal and cookies using the new oven, the block presentation of photos, artworks, videos wacky fun and waxing nostalgic, videoke and games, people in pajamas — all making this feel like one cozy house party.

This is a second home already aside from being the place where teens can learn what they’re interested in: fencing, improvisation, cooking, filmmaking, 3D printing, coding, sign language while still taking up the usual subjects in school, albeit taught not in the usual way.  Second homes like first homes and any home for that matter are all about the people, relationships and our shared, flawed, precious, perfect, imperfect humanity.  Homes and communities are works in progress with room for continuous growth and improvement but enough, blessed and grateful the way we are right now.

I love the personalized mugs created by Owie for each of the mentors and trustees.  We had mugs in the house but I desired a mug for my scattered pens that kept hiding under piles of papers and moving places on their own (I swear it was here but where did it go?).  I thought of buying how silly was that since there were plenty of cups in the house.  It just didn’t feel right to use the same vessel for coffee and tea for writing tools.  Now, Owie unknowingly solved my problem plus gave me a compelling visual to keep imagining and re-imagining the future, and a powerful reminder that no matter how lost you get, you will always be found.

Moments from the past few months include, among the everyday activities in the center, two field trips — one impromptu and another semi-spontaneous brought about by the feeling that “Hey, we should do this more often.”

Meanwhile at the Teens’

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In the past few months, the teens at Abot Tala celebrated the Chilean and Brazilian way with food galore, the Pinoy way via a karaoke party, Star Wars via fencing, shot a short film in a farm location, let their imagination run away to the max via Dungeons and Dragons, studied sign language, shared what they learned with their families through the block presentation, spent time jamming, chatting and chillaxing.  Nobody can take away the laughter, stories and memories except perhaps, if we let them.

 

 

The Day’s Take-Away

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Last year, we all wore purple for Laksmi.  This year, Laksmi was still in purple but she also wore the teen-designed Abot Tala t-shirt along four other costumes, changing several times like Superman swooshing in and out of a telephone booth.

Somebody asked what’s the best take-away from the Philippine Homeschool Convention 2019 and there are just so many to mention.  One is the realization that despite so many different styles of homeschooling, we are all united in our desire to improve ourselves, to encourage, support and learn from one another.  It’s always inspiring to hear veteran homeschoolers and unschoolers share their stories and these are just some of my notes from the plenary and break-out sessions:

Dawn Fung, a leader-organizer of the homeschooling community in Singapore learned that she had to sacrifice her vision of trophy children.  Donna Simpao said that her kids appreciated the focus on being a good person first and only after could they become a good student.  Marla Taviano and her unschooling family moved from America to Cambodia where they built libraries and an adventure-filled life.  Kay Ang emphasized experiences over material things and encouraged parents to take their kids to work.  Aileen Santos advises parents to take on a coaching mindset while her 20-year old daughter, Fudge recounted how she developed self-discipline and initiative as a homeschooler and how she learned not to please everyone.  Dawn Fung had a sizable audience break up into groups, brainstorm about their dream homeschool co-op, after which each group leader pitched the ideas back to the crowd.

A great shout-out of thanks to the organizers of the convention and much appreciation for the team of teens and mentors headed by Owie who made the Abot Tala booth a reality.

 

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Juniors Welcome

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Abot Tala was originally intended for young people ages 12 to 18, but after opening this April 2019, we realized it was too good not to share the experience to kids from 6 to 11 years old.  Thus, Abot Tala Junior was formed with its separate space and a complete team of mentor-teachers eager to redefine school for the 21st-century learner.  As an interest-led learning center, Abot Tala Junior seeks to celebrate and honor each child’s innate curiosity, what they are naturally drawn to and their unique way of seeing the world.

The program focuses on:

  • The child as a whole person – nourishing their body, heart, mind
  • Providing a caring, supportive, and nurturing environment where kids are respected and seen as interesting individuals
  • Designing a space where each kid achieves and feels good at their own level (no competition, just enjoyment on their own personal progress)
  • Training them to develop basic tools of education: questioning, self-expression, exploration, discovery, stories.
  • Forming the 21st century skills: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration
  • Integrated learning – English, Math, Science, History, Social studies, Entrepreneurship, Care for Environment and other topics integrated into activities that are interactive and engaging
  • Interest-led and personalized – following the child’s interests and where that could lead them

 

METHODS

1. Inquiry-based learning

Children will be provided with opportunities to ask questions, investigate, and figure out the answers to their inquiries. This will help them know their interests.

2. Project-based learning

Children are going to delve into exploring real-world problem, thinking of solutions, and creating one relevant project.

3. Personal and group goal setting

Teachers collaborate with the kids, especially when it comes to planning of the activities and setting of expectations. This will help build a sense of community where everyone looks after one another, solves problems, and learn together.

4. A buffet of topics and activities 

They will be presented with a menu of stimulating topics and activities to see what will generate interest and spark curiosity.

5. Teachers as facilitators and models

The teachers will learn beside the kids, collaborate with them, and guide them in pursuing their interests. They are also responsible for developing in themselves the same things that they want the children to learn.

 

There are two sets of age groups: those who are 6, 7, 8 years old and those ages 9, 10, 11.  There are two full-time teacher-facilitators and from time to time, guest teachers will come to give special pop-up classes.  There is a limit of 5 to 6 kids per age group.

Just like Abot Tala for Teens, Abot Tala Junior is not a school.  The children who join this program are either homeschooling already or intend to homeschool.  Abot Tala Junior is an alternative to mainstream school.  If the children want to transition to regular school, they need to take the PEP Test at DepEd or get a homeschool provider or support.

Abot Tala Junior runs Monday to Thursday from 9am to 3pm.  Families can choose to join once, twice, thrice or four times a week.  We accept children at any point of the year.

Following are quotes that inspire us:

“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” -Leo F. Buscaglia

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” -Mr. Rogers

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” -Carl Jung

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” -Plato

“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Kahlil Gibran

That last quote keeps me dreaming of an open green space nearby where children could freely run and play on the grass, under the trees and sky.  Oh, if we could find a place like Gopala Learning Haven in Silang, Cavite but here in Manila!   Looking forward to the Juniors’ field trip there one of these days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Junior is Here!

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We thought it would take another year before we could open Abot Tala for younger kids.  It took us more than a year (14 months) to give birth to Abot Tala for teens so we surmised we needed time for the junior’s gestation period.  However, circumstances conspired to bring us to where we are now: ready to open the doors of Abot Tala for children 6 to 11 years old!

We ran a two-week experiment last June to see if the kids and teens could co-exist in one place and we concluded that if we had a much bigger space, it could be done.  But since the space for teens was limited as it was, a separate area for kids was necessary.  We also had to quickly assemble a team like Avengers and it was no easy feat.  Things eluded us.  There were moments when we thought this dream was impossible to pull off this year and we could just wait till next year or when the universe grants us the consenting environment.   Surprisingly, it did and tomorrow, August 12, we expand the age group and the physical space.

Abot Tala for teens promotes self-directed learning while Abot Tala for the kids is interest-led.  Activities cater to all multiple intelligences and learning styles.  The teacher follows the interests of the children while giving ample importance to basic academic skills.

Just like Abot Tala for Teens, Abot Tala Junior is not a school.  The children who join us are either homeschooling already or intend to homeschool.  Abot Tala Junior is an alternative to mainstream school.  If the children want to transition to regular school or go to university in the future, they can opt to take the PEP Test at DepEd and/or get a homeschool provider.

Families can choose whether their kids attend Abot Tala Junior once, twice, thrice or four times a week.  There are no grades, report cards or certificates.  Every two or three months, there will be a presentation of the children’s works.  To learn more about this program, visit https://abottala.com/junior/

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