Crazy Project


Joshua, Jimmy and I had a blast seeing The Greatest Showman yesterday, singing along in the movie house and upon returning home, we searched YouTube videos to continue belting the tunes and find which parts of the fictionalized depiction was real and not.  There are a lot of negative reviews and low ratings but it made me think how the critics may be like the bespectacled pundit in the movie itself who could not derive joy from something many people drew delight.  All in the spirit of fun, plus the message hit me in the heart.

One of the film’s anthem probably resonates with most dreamers (unless it’s too cheesy for them):

They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy
They can say, they can say I’ve lost my mind
I don’t care, I don’t care, so call me crazy
We can live in a world that we design

‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

You see there’s a crazy project I’m involved with that embodies a vision of the world that may not sit well with many out there.  The project’s unofficial kick-off fell exactly on Valentine’s day, a gift to myself via an online hour-long conversation with Ken Danford, founder of North Star self-directed center for teens and Liberated Learners which “supports the creation of centers based on the North Star model that promote living and learning without school.”

There are young people in my own family whom I know would benefit from this kind of radical alternative but even opening the topic to their parents who are my close relatives is something that I wouldn’t dare do so why am I even contemplating such a thing for total strangers?  Because I know there are families who are more open-minded than some and who would welcome this type of “inclusive club” for their children.

Although I have listened to Ken Danford’s TEDx Talk, School is Optional, it was Joel Hammon’s TEDx Talk, Teacher Liberation that prompted me to email the two of them about the possibility of setting up a place like North Star here in the Philippines.  I was scared and excited at the same time — scared knowing how ludicrous and impossible it would sound to some, and excited because this is staking your life on something you believe in.





Following are centers across North America that Liberated Learners have helped set up.  What will the one in the Philippines look like? 


Read more about North Star and the Princeton Learning Cooperative:

Helping Teens Thrive Without School

Tigers, Humans and SDE








Who Wants to Go Ad Astra?


Carl got me obsessed with his object of obsession – Elon Musk’s Ad Astra.  It’s contagious this disease of wanting to create an ideal school for your kids but what if you don’t have the resources of somebody who sends people to outer space, builds solar power roof tiles and the sexiest electric cars?  You refine your dream in your spare time hoping for a synchronicity that will bring people the magnitude of Alibaba’s Jack Ma to your doorsteps.

Yes, I could totally pitch this idea of an alternative school to Jack Ma and jointly study how it could be scaled up in China.  Right now, it doesn’t seem scale-able, expandable because it’s like a micro-school.  This is the conceptual schedule:

9:00 – 10:00 am – study tutorial (one teacher for every 5 students)

10:00 – 11:00 am – free play and personal project time

11:00 – 12:00 nn – study tutorial

12:00 – 1:00 pm  lunch

1:00 – 1:45 pm – optional classes to choose from or study tutorial

1:45 – 2:30 pm – free play and personal project time

2:30 – 3:15 pm – optional classes to choose from or study tutorial

3:15 – 3:30 pm – group meeting (one teacher for every 5 students)

The teacher to student ratio is low – one teacher for every five students so that would make this endeavor costly and probably more expensive than the typical private school. If you have near-unlimited resources like Elon Musk, you can experiment and push the ratio as low as you want but what if you’re dreaming of a system that is accessible to anyone regardless of income or nationality?

The model I’ve come across that has a highly personalized, one-on-one tutorial style mixed with loads of free time is the North Star Self-Directed Learning Center for Teens.  I could ask Ken Danford how the concept could be applied to the elementary level where learning the rudimentary skills of reading, writing and math would still play an important part.  Grade schoolers can study reading, writing and math through topics and books that personally interest each child.  High schoolers could break out of the box more having acquired the basics.  It would be a school with no grade levels, no grades (in terms of A, B, C, 100%), no tests but it could help prepare for tests voluntarily chosen by the students themselves such as those in preparation for college.

The limitations of this model is the cost.  Factor in you’d want resources and facilities such as library, garden, playground, laboratory, workshop, space for arts and sports and it would be wonderful located by both beach and mountain or even right in the city but in an unused lot with lots of trees, then the cost can be astronomical.  Might as well send your child to a good International School or a progressive private school since they’ve got economic viability down pat.  If you want something more affordable, there’s always homeschooling.

But Ad Astra calls.

Maybe we could run it first as a two-week camp for homeschoolers?

Maybe we could study how micro-schools operate?

Maybe homeschooling parents can take turns as volunteer teachers?

The Agile Learning Center which started in New York and adapted in other states and countries might be an interesting model to pitch especially to a visionary techie like Jack Ma.  It would be good to see a version of this in China or the Philippines.  It would also be interesting to study how democratic schools were scaled up in Israel, entering the public sphere and acquiring government funding.

In Cavite, Philippines, there’s the Gopala Learning Haven for homeschoolers and learners of all ages in a farm setting.  Maybe they could try mixing academics and play.

In Dagang Youtian, Tianjin, China, two mothers, Susan and Rita dream of appropriating land for children to grow vegetables and transform it into a children’s playground like what this man in China did for his daughter.  He sold his house in the city, rented 110 acres of wasteland and built a fairy tale home with garden.  Susan and Rita are eyeing a piece of land that can be used by their kids and other people’s children as a way to reconnect with nature during the weekends.

Ad Astra – Elon Musk’s School

Elon Musk builds alternative un-school

Children build their own three-story playground

Dangerous playgrounds of the 1900s

Story about the man who sold his house in the city, rented and transformed wasteland into a fairly tale home and garden

The photos here don’t have anything to do with this blog entry’s topic but I missed posting these pictures.  Anyway, a place like this could be a good site for that kind of imaginary school. This area is near the Great Wall in Tianjin but then most people in that town would be sending their kids to traditional school.  The location would play a key role in that there is a concentrated number of families who share similar ideas or have overlapping visions. Or it could be a pop-up school that is not location-dependent — like the Hero’s Journey Camp but re-conceptualized with more academic bent and content.

Possibilities, always possibilities.

Ad Astra, by the way, is Latin for “To the stars.”




Football and School Updates


Joshua is truly the happiest when he’s either on the field playing football or snowboarding on the mountain slopes.  So when we finally found the football club he can join here in Dagang, it was such an exciting celebration for him that he can have his fill of football twice a week.   His foot was hurt on Saturday during the 3 pm session and his coach said it’s because his shoes were new, but Joshua still insisted on playing Sunday.  He already had one class Sunday at 8:30 in the morning but when 10:00 rolled by, he saw his friends come in the converted warehouse and joined their class so he had a total of three hours playing football that day.  I thought it was too much but if he’s fine and joyful about it, then it’s okay.

Jimmy decided not to enroll in football class because he said he liked the Futbol Fanatics in Manila better.  Whenever we’re back in the Philippines, we try to fit in as much football practice as we can.   For the age group of Jimmy that Saturday in Dagang, they only had practice exercises and no game so Jimmy didn’t like it and ever decisive, he made it explicitly known to the coach and me.  The coach thought Jimmy’s body is built for football so maybe when he’s older and more mature, he could try joining again.  I didn’t enroll Jimmy in football and had to find other things for him to do.  This Sunday, Jimmy went to the big playground in the mall with his best friend, Yang Jia Yi where they let ’em rip and roar.

It’s not a surprise both Joshua and Jimmy don’t enjoy Chinese school so I try to compensate by making sure their weekends are packed with fun, with some studying on the side.  They both think school time is too long and play time is too short.  We sneak in some extra playground time after picking up Jimmy in class but that is limited because the kindergarten guard rings the bell exactly fifteen minutes after five, reminding everyone to go home.  We also have playtime at the park after dinner.

I wish Joshua and Jimmy can attend a school which strikes a better balance between academics and play but we’d have to go back to the Philippines for that most probably. Anyway, it’s good to experience challenging and difficult things to spur the growth process.  I just hope we make a transition to a better school system soon.

Anyway, I see the good effects school has on Joshua.  He is more responsible and considerate.  He takes his study time more seriously than when we were homeschooling. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t take studying for granted anymore since he sees his classmates and playmates seriously doing their homework.  Daily classroom dynamics make him more aware of the importance of preparing for school.  Even when I work with Joshua now on his English studies, he has improved his sense of interest, focus and attention.  He packs his bag for school by himself and overall, the training is quite good for him.   It’s like an extended camp only there’s too much time sitting on the chair.   I wish it could be more interactive and physically more engaging for them but what could I do?  We’re in China.

I still wish I could be Elon Musk who built the Ad Astra School for his kids.  I have this picture in my mind of what would fit Joshua and Jimmy.   The school would be structured this way:  one hour academic tutorials sandwiched between free play time.  It will be one hour of study time with only three to five other students, followed by an hour of free play and the whole day alternates between study and free time.  The free time is the Sudbury – Democratic School part while the study time is more of a tailored-fit tutorial.   The teachers only handle three to five students at a time and they can switch among the groups of students.  There will be an abundance of resources – board games, chess, computers, 3-D printer, Lego sets, robotics, wooden blocks, and complete facilities – laboratory, swimming pool, football field, swings, slides, a giant trampoline . . . . . Oh and it’s near the mountain and the sea so they can trek up the mountain and play on the beach. . . . . Okay, okay, I’m shooting for the moon but you get the point.  There is a Filipino saying that goes, “Libre namang mangarap” (Dreaming is for free).   Who knows what the universe can conspire?

My school concept sounds far-fetched but there is a Standford study that shows, “School recess offers benefits to student well-being.”   The study shows “that recess is a profoundly important part of the school day. Well-organized recess programs engage students in meaningful play and prepare them to learn once back in the classroom.”

And that’s what I kept telling Joshua — I loved going to school when I was young because of recess during which time I got to play with my friends.  However, in China, they don’t have recess because people don’t take snacks between meals so their break time is really too short.  Filipinos need their merienda.  How I wish I had the power to turn my Elon Musk-Ad Astra dream come true. Imagine recess period not just fifteen minutes long but a full hour!

Here’s to longer recess in the future!

(And no, please do not take the photos above to mean that my son is a supporter of the madman currently sitting in Malacanang.  Jimmy just happened to pose that way without any prompting or deliberate reference.) 






Our Community Library is Open!


Yesterday, Sunday, September 17, 2017, our community library opened it’s doors.   Dreamed up by Susan and me over a year ago while waiting for our sons in the kindergarten yard, we can’t believe it has become a reality merely a month after we had just come back from living and traveling elsewhere — a case of the universe conspiring.

It started with a nearly empty room of tables.  We met twice in the room to conceptualize and plan the launch.  The first batch of books came from four contributing families.  The stools came from a neighboring room and furniture was added from our storage space. Signs were made by the art teacher and her students.

I thought that we needed to raise funds and amass book donations first but it rolled-out faster that I expected because my partners were more proactive about the whole thing. Why wait for books to fill up the shelves?  Open the library even at its bare state, and let the people come with their books.  To be a member, all you need to do is bring at least five books and then you can borrow three books at a time.

“If you build it, they will come,” the quote from the movie Field of Dreams goes and the people came bringing their bags of books.  Never underestimate the power of four determined mothers who love books and who don’t want their children to lose out on the opportunity of having their own library.  Chinese schools and towns don’t automatically come with a library.  There is a public one in Dagang Oilfield but as one local said, the books are too old and the place is not at all inviting.  There are a couple of commercial libraries but you need to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use those.  In this case, all you need is to contribute your own books and you’re welcome to borrow from the library.

A community library could be a shot in the arm and it doesn’t have to operate every day. We are starting out with Sundays, 3:00 to 5:00 pm, hoping that the more volunteers step up, the more opening periods we can have.  It’s a regular community activity that brings people together, an impetus for sharing resources and in the future, the space can be for anything the users and volunteers imagine it could be.

The pioneer mothers envisioned the library to be managed by children – a library for children, by children.  It’s called Four Leaf Clover after the four founding families. The kids themselves thought of the name, explaining that in the future, the four can grow into five, six, seven, onward.  On the launch day, the children delivered the explanation about how the library is used, while two moms manned the laptops, recording the book titles.

Outside the library, there’s room for noisier activities co-opted by kids who dart in and out.  It’s a good thing the Yunke Club has the facilities where their unlimited energy can be expended.  Jimmy and Yang Jia Yi spread out pages of Plants vs. Zombies on the play mat while Joshua turns the Spiderman bag into a football hurtling through the corridor. They find an unused ping pong room downstairs and balls fire away.

Next week, when things have settled down, we’ll have a quieter, calmer library and it’s okay even if it’s not.  It’s what people want it to be.

And to Susan who’s beaming with giddy happiness and who couldn’t believe all this was real that morning she woke up, we got to work on the vegetable garden-farm-playground next.


Finally Football; At Last Art


Finally found the place where Joshua and Jimmy can play football with other kids and with coaches who ensure they improve their ball-kicking and defending skills.  What a pleasant surprise, too that it’s an indoor place perfect for summer and winter days.  I thought that it would be difficult to find something like the Futbol Fanatics that Joshua and Jimmy attend in Manila but they had it here, too and the program is just as fun and training just as serious.  Goes to show that you only have to keep trying and looking.

When we arrived in Dagang Youtian more than three years ago, I looked for an art class for the kids but was disappointed that it was the coloring-in type and wasn’t at all creative.  I thought maybe that’s how limited and restrictive they are in small towns in China because the bigger cities like Tianjin had the “real” type of art class where freedom reigns.  My friend introduced me to an art teacher recently and I was happy to find what I was looking for all along but her class schedule didn’t jive with Joshua and Jimmy’s. Then our neighbor showed us her son’s works on the wall and it was amazing.  Yang Jia Yi is Jimmy’s favorite playmate and yesterday, Jimmy joined his art class and enjoyed making donut-inter-galactic inspired art with clay.

Why is this article filed under the category, Projects?  Because I didn’t want to create a separate category for parenting or kids related projects.  Anyway, it’s a Mom Inc. Project – my feeling soccer-mom, feeling drive-kids-to-extra-curricular-activities, seek-and-you-shall-find, problem-solving project.



Library Hopes


When I was single and I could spend as much as I wanted on books and way before I had my own kids, I collected children’s books because I love the illustrations and the words were a big bonus.  I collected books in general and dreamed of having my own library cafe like almost every book lover I know.

I read English books to Joshua and Jimmy every night but I always wished that somebody could read to them in Chinese consistently, regularly every night.  Literacy expert, Timothy Shanahan wrote:

Reading to kids exposes them to richer vocabulary than they usually hear from the adults who speak to them, and can have positive impacts on their language, intelligence, and later literacy achievement.

My friend, Susan, introduced me to a membership kids library here in Dagang and I immediately registered Joshua and Jimmy there where a teacher can read to them in Chinese books to their hearts desire.   A number of books are translations from original English, French and German books.  Because I’m so stoked about the illustrations, I’m just sharing them here:

My friend, Susan and I hope we can organize a library or book exchange events for children that won’t cost money for kids to join.  The membership library comes with a monthly fee but we envision a place where kids can go and pay only 1 RMB per use that will go to supporting the child who manages the facility for the day.  It’s a library for kids managed by kids.  The other alternative to host events such as book exchanges, film showing, theater play and other ideas most welcome.

Susan met with a group of children who have been joining the weekend activities she has been organizing this past summer.  She asked them how they would design a library for and run by children.  Because there were four children (one of whom was not able to attend the meeting), they named the library Four Leaf Clover thinking that there would be more leaves in the future.  They discussed how to get books for the library by bringing their own books and asking friends and strangers to bring their own books as well. They also discussed what penalty should be given to those who destroy or ruin the books. The launch of the “library” will be this coming Sunday.  There are no books and no shelves — only a bare room with tables and a projector.  It will start off as an activity where kids can bring their books and then take it from there.  Who knows where it will lead us all.


This germ of an idea started last year in June – July when Susan and I would be meeting outside the kindergarten after picking up our kids from class and they’d be playing for a while before heading home.  The moms would congregate and chat while the children ran around like whirling dervishes.  But the seeds of the library idea have been lurking inside Susan and I way before last year.  We both harbored the same dream waiting for another passing ship to meet up and see what could be done to realize it.


This is not connected to the library idea and I was thinking of developing a blog entry about it but just putting it here to be shared:

Why I’m a Public School Teacher but a Private School Parent