Ken’s Book is Here!!!

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It took some days before I collected the books brought by my Aunt from New York because it was whirlwind two weeks starting Abot Tala in our own space.  They were waiting days for me to take the box and when I opened Ken Danford’s book, I of course, automatically searched for the page where it mentions Abot Tala:

As of Fall 2018, it appears the next center joining Liberated Learners sometime in 2018-2019 will be Abot Tala in Manila, Philippines.  This group hosted me for a visit in July 2018 which I summarized in a blog post on our Liberated Learners site.  I am encouraged that this project is proceeding carefully and optimistically.

Right after that, I proceeded to read the whole chapter called “The Hard Parts” because it’s difficult starting up, struggling with one thing after another, putting out fires, tending the flame but enjoying the process nonetheless.   Before Ken started North Star, he had tons to complain about teaching in public school.  Things “shifted dramatically” for him at North Star because he “had very little to complain about in terms of students” and his workday.  He looked forward going to the center he created, and enjoyed his time there with the kids, free from the limiting structures of regular school.  However, he faced a different set of challenges: “money, the public image and public understanding of North Star, and hard cases of teens and families.”

In Abot Tala’s case, the current hurdles are marketing, manpower and the special cases that make us want to dial a friend and ask for higher expert advice.   I can’t wait to read the whole book to search for clues that could guide us and firm up our tentative steps.

Ken Danford was inspired to create North Star in 1995 when somebody gave him a copy of Grace Llewellyn’s seminal book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook which he read in one sitting and was, in his own words, “mesmerized.”  A year after, Ken quit his teaching job and opened North Star with Josh Hornick.  In 2016, they invited Grace Llewellyn herself to speak at North Star’s 20th year celebration.  Grace was then moved to initiate her own Liberated Learner Center patterned on North Star which was inspired by her very own book twenty years prior.   Life coming into full circle!

About Ken’s first book, Learning is Natural, School is Optional, Grace wrote:

If all that this book accomplished was to paint a vision for how self-directed learning could become accessible to all kids who find school soul-crushing, that alone would be a huge contribution to our desperate public discourse on education.  Learning via the pursuit of one’s joys is a privilege available to few — mostly to those whose parents unearth both the courage and the resourcefulness needed.   The miracles of unschooling have typically been individual miracles concerning individual families and individual kids.  So even just nudging our collective consciousness to imagine how we could do better — that in itself would be quite something.

The amazing thing is, Ken and his friend Josh did their own imagining for a few months in 1996, then they promptly got on the practicalities.  They quit their middle school teaching jobs and opened a radically new kind of center.

For over 20 years, North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens has been making joyful, inspired, consent-based learning possible for every youth in the vicinity who wants to try it (and, of course, whose parents are willing to give it a chance).  Ken and his team have accrued an astounding body of stories and wisdom, from nitty-gritty to existential to unexpected and uplifting.   In person, Ken is a delightful human — funny, sincere, blunt, generous and understated.  I’m thrilled to find that reading his book is just like listening to him talk.

If you want to get your own copy, check it out on Amazon.

 

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Reminiscing when Ken was in Manila — his first time in the Philippines and he went down a ravine at Gopala Learning Haven, visited Payatas, met the team of Blended Learning Center, was interviewed on radio, delivered a talk at Fully Booked and helped give birth to Abot Tala.

A big, big thank you to Ken for writing his book.  A big, big thank you to my Ninang Lin for bringing the books to me.  All the books I am able to give away about self-directed learning is through the great generosity of Ninang Lin.

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Video List

We wanted to show Calista Santillan’s video in Fully Booked before Ken Danford began his talk but technical limitations prevented us so we hope, for those who are interested in seeing something like North Star happen here in Manila, please do watch this video and hear what teens think of that possibility.  Calista was tasked to interview young people who were asked to watch Ken Danford’s TEDx talk and a video about North Star.  She then went above and beyond splicing meaningful sharings and made a powerful opening statement.

Ken got so excited after watching Calista’s video that he emailed it to his family and North Star colleagues in the States as he proudly said, Look at what this teenager in Manila made!

Interview with Filipino Students about North Star – Video by Calista

If you want to know more about North Star and efforts to make something like it come to life in the Philippines, watch these videos.  Join Abot Tala on Facebook, too!  Read about it on this blog.

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David Ferro of DWIZ Interviews Ken Danford

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David Ferro Interview with Joei Villarama

Videos on YouTube and Vimeo are worth catching if you want to immerse yourself in the rather radical world of North Star.  How does it look like and what do members say about it?

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A Day in the Life of North Star

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A Teen Looks Back on Life Without School: “I Could Have Spent the Last Six Years Fighting”

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From the Bottom of My Brain: A Valley Gives Day Crumpet

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This is Your Life: Choose Your Own Adventure

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North Star Slice

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About North Star 2015-2016

We leave you with these words from teenagers interviewed by Calista on whether something like North Star would work in the Philippines.

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And of course, don’t forget the videos that inspired people (including the Abot Tala team) and in different degrees, sparked action in various places around the world:

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School is Optional: TEDx Talk by Ken Danford

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Teacher Liberation: TEDx Talk by Joel Hammon

Check out: https://abottala.com/

 

Launching a Game-Changer

Tinky wrote to Ken, “We’ve been waiting for years for a game-changer and a ceiling-breaker like you and North Star.”  It seems in the Philippines, we’ve been waiting long for alternatives to mainstream school but in countries like the US, options like North Star and other self-directed schools and centers have been existing for decades.  Yes, there are progressive schools here but beyond progressive, there are much fewer options.  The homeschooling and unschooling community has been growing in the country but what about options for kids who are stuck, miserable in school or for families who want to homeschool but would prefer an option outside home to allow both parents to continue working?

Ken Danford was a history teacher in public school for ten years when he got disillusioned with the system, was handed by serendipity Grace Llewellyn’s classic, Teenager Liberation Handbook and proceeded to create North Star.  At first, he toyed around with the idea of a school but that would be subjecting the students to the same problem of being forced to go somewhere to get society’s concept of education.  In North Star, there is no coercion.  It is not a school and it does not give certificates, grades or report cards.

What does it do then?  It offers a way out for students who wish to take control of their lives, what they learn and how they learn.  It uses homeschooling as a tool since members are registered with the State as homeschoolers which then allows them the flexibility and freedom to create their path, which they can with or without North Star.

Like a club or a community center, North Star is a space and a community where teens are free to join activities and hang out with friends.  If they choose to, they can attend classes or workshops or get connected to internship and other opportunities.  Every week, the members meet with an adult mentor-adviser who helps them map out a plan and checks in on their progress.  The parents also play an important role and are much involved in the process.

In his talk at Fully Booked last July 14, Ken shared this letter from Sebrina:

Hi, my name is Sebrina and I am looking forward to joining North Star. Throughout my 10th grade year at Smith Voc, I was thinking about alternative ways to learning. I decided officially on February 25th that I wanted to be home schooled. My parents support me and want the best for me, they stood right by me and supported my decision to be home schooled. I am very interested in the psychology class and hope to develop ways to support those around me and help people. I would like to spend my time learning in the classes that I choose to be in, and some time for me to socialize and work on other schooling. I feel like North Star will play an important role at this time in my life because I think that learning at my own pace, and being welcomed and supported will give me time to heal and be happier. I see myself participating in the North Star Community by being a nice person and attending the community meetings if they are on a day that I will be at North Star. At the end of the year, when I decided if this has been a good year, I will have decided by looking back on how I was treated by my peers and on how much I enjoyed the classes. The thing that is hardest for me in life is socializing, I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere and want to feel like I am part of the community. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to write this letter and I am excited to join North Star.

North Star has been running for over twenty years and its alumni have went on to University and have successful careers of their own.  Because of this positive track record, Ken has reached out to others who want to initiate a center based on the North Star model.  Now, there are twelve centers in the USA and one in Canada, all members of the Liberated Learners network.  Ken’s purpose for coming to Manila is to assist our team in launching Abot Tala.

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Many people are excited about the concept of Abot Tala finally here in Manila.  However, it’s one thing to express interest and another thing to actually join it or to support the dream so it becomes reality.  Some people think this is crazy and it seems too risky given the conservative nature of Filipinos who still want the name school together with the name university.  But the greater risk for the risk-taker is not to take the risk at all, to stay safe and not question the status quo.

It’s been crazy raining since Ken Danford left Philippine shores, like the skies are crying that our champion of self-directed education has gone.  The weather cooperated so well the whole time Ken was here from July 8 to 18, pouring only when we were indoors and a few times slightly when we were outdoors.  This granted Ken the ability to hit all the meetings and presentations without missing a beat.  Now, the team has to buckle down and hit the ground running.  Our work has only started.

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Hindi lang pang Taho Boy, pang Abot Tala pa!!!

If you want to be part of this game-changer in education, email me at: entirelyofpossibility@yahoo.com.ph

If you want to read more about Abot Tala:

If You Build It Will They Come

Who Wants to Flip It

So Extreme You Might Fall Off the Spectrum

The Non-School

Payatas

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What are the chances of sitting in a cafe in Payatas and sharing a table with a player from the Philippine women’s football national team who competed in Russia at the Street Child World Cup 2018 kicking off the recently concluded global FIFA shindig?  Well, the chances are quite considerable if the particular cafe you’re visiting is the one started by Roy Moore who began volunteering in a drop-in center in Payatas ten years ago.

A British lad who looks more like he could be part of a music band, Roy is the soccer coach to hundreds of children in Payatas.  He set up the Fairplay For All Foundation which runs the Payatas Sports Center and the Fairplay School and Cafe.  Kids in the football and school program get to eat the nutritious, vegetarian fare from the cafe ran by mothers from the neighborhood and in the future, Roy hopes to build dormitories for those who are constantly at risk from abuse and neglect.  Roy has made Payatas his home and lives in the community he has committed his life to.

Coming from America, Ken has never been to a place like Payatas, what used to be the biggest open dumpsite in the Philippines where people make a living out of garbage, where people thought they would lose their livelihood when it was declared closed because it was environmentally hazardous located near the La Mesa Dam, a huge water reservoir.  In the year 2000, hundreds of people died and thousands were left homeless when the mountain of trash collapsed.  Now, that mound is dressed up, spruced up in a pretty, attractive layer of greenery, erasing from the Google satellite map what was an embarrassment inadequately addressed by a nation.  Exploring on foot, on the fringes of the fancy green dress, one can still see the layers of garbage coyly peeking out.  There are a number of NGOs in the area dreaming of breaking the cycle of poverty, one of which is Fairplay.

Ken and I got connected to Fairplay through the RadEd Unconference last June where Mon Armena gave a talk about democratic education since he worked as a teacher at the Fairplay School.  No, democratic in this case does not refer to the corrupted term that it has become and the ludicrous sham it connotes when talking politics.  Wikipedia defines it as such:

Democratic education is an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of instruction. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust. Democratic education is often specifically emancipatory, with the students’ voices being equal to the teacher’s.

Since Ken Danford started a radical alternative to traditional school, the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens and was visiting Manila for a week and a half, he might as well check out brother-sister-cousin schools and learning centers that widen the range of education options.  On a bright yellow wall at Fairplay School, these words are written: “Malaya tayong gawin ang gusto natin” (“We are free to do what we want”), but the rest of the sentence is covered by a white board but based on the words at the end, one can guess the second part: “Huwag lang tayo makadistorbo o makaabala sa iba.” (“As long as we don’t bother anyone else.”)

We went up to the second floor and saw a class conducted in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  You didn’t have the extreme crowd common in public schools and on one side, some kids were playing with educational games on computers.  Roy explained that even in this community, the kids can be categorized in three levels:  1) children whose families can afford to send them to public school and pay fees for uniforms, books, trips, etc.; 2) children whose families can send them to pubic school only if they have some subsidy for those expenses; and finally, 3) children who don’t have family with the ability or interest to send them anywhere. Fairplay Academy helps the children in the third group.

After visiting the school, Roy toured us, through narrow, muddy alleys, around the dump site where, despite the closure, the trash sorting industry continues in full force with separated garbage ending up in places like China.  He shows us the ingenuity of people making new mattresses out of discarded ones.

After the tour, I felt how superficial it is to relate the education alternative we were proposing to put up in Manila based on the North Star model to Roy’s democratic school in Payatas.  Yes, the learning models are similarly self-directed and libertarian in approach.  However, Fairplay Foundation is involved in programs of education, livelihood, nutrition and sports as a way of helping people out of poverty.   Roy hopes the kids whose lives are impacted by the programs, grow up and go out into the world but more importantly, come back to make a difference in their home, Payatas.

 

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Fairplay is a group of people who believe that when we provide opportunities to the poorest among us, they will flourish, excel, and innovate. We believe that it is unfair for a child’s opportunities and future to be determined by where they were born. We also believe it is possible to change that path and ultimately create a better world.

At Fairplay we look to solve the problem, to break the vicious cycle. In its place we create better problems and a new virtuous cycle. In the slums, this cannot be done in any single area alone. The best education is undermined by chronic malnourishment and a lack of access to livelihood, the best nourishment is undermined by a lack of livelihood and lack of quality education, and all areas of life intersect and undermine one another. This is what we mean by leveling the playing field. To turn a cycle from vicious to virtuous, we need every aspect of the field to be raised together.

This is why we run the Fairplay School, the Fairplay Café, and the Payatas Sports Center; as means towards leveling the playing field. We have shown remarkable progress and the kids we work with have shown that when given the opportunity they can become some of the best in the entire country at what they do. Whether that’s some of our girls being called up for the National Youth Football Team, affordable and healthy food from the Café, or completely illiterate teenagers learning to read and write and excel academically, there is much that can be accomplished together.

Who We Are: Fairplay’s Core Values

  • We love to Learn
  • We care
  • We improve: we make ourselves and our surroundings better than they were before

At Fairplay we love to learn. We love to explore new things and gain deeper knowledge where we already are. We care about the people around us and about our community. And we always want to improve the situation and make sure with everything we do things are better this week than they were last. We want to see progress.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to level the playing field. This means creating a safe environment for the families we work with, to develop holistic and sustainable projects in education, sports, and nutrition. Our mission is to empower the community by ensuring they are part of the decision-making process and organisation of each project, in order to identify the root cause of the problem and break the cycle of poverty for good.

Vision

Our vision is to build a community that is happy and strives to learn and develop. We seek to build innovative, creative, and long-term solutions through community dialogue and management in each of our projects. This means the students are part of running the Fairplay School, our local mothers run the Fairplay Café, and our older players are trained to coach younger age groups.

In short, through genuine community involvement and participation we can repair mindsets, build a loving community geared towards innovation and sustainable projects for the good of the whole.

Our Dream

As the Fairplay School, Payatas Sports Center, and our social business continue to grow we are looking at the possibility of expanding the three projects by locating them in the same place. The projects will combine to create the Fairplay Academy.

Here we can build dormitories for students at the Fairplay School so the hard-core cases are assured a safe and loving environment to live. During this time we can work with the families to help support them with mindset intervention and other psychological support and economic support through our social business so when the home has healed the student can return to them and stay in the Fairplay School as a day student. How long this takes will differ with every family.

The Fairplay Café and other social business will also have a larger and more permanent base and the futsal courts will move to the rooftop. The Fairplay Academy will be the final version of our work in Payatas and with a dedicated researcher proving the benefits, developments, and improving our work by showing which areas are working best and what needs to change, we can have a thriving learning community that can be scaled and replicated in other communities. At the Fairplay Academy we can therefore hold workshops, seminars, and more for other NGOs in the community and further afield for us all to learn from each other.

 

 

11 Whirlwind Days

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What a ride!  Eleven days with Ken Danford in Manila!

The first day after arriving from the US was full enough with a trip to Gopala Learning Haven in Cavite to meet up with Laksmi followed by a meeting with the mentors.  The succeeding days were equally full with visits to the Metrobank Foundation in Makati, Blended Learning Center in Cubao, One School in Makati, Fairplay Academy & Cafe in Payatas, the future site of Sinag Art Cafe near Baclaran and Global Homeschool at Ayala 30th Mall, Pasig.  There was video taping with Atticus King and his dynamic team at Ignition, Manila Times interview by Edwin Sallan and the RX 93.1 Monster Radio interview made utterly fun and memorable by Raffy Reyes.  May dropped by for lunch bringing what became Ken’s favorite mango tart while Vince and Donna volunteered to help prepare for Ken’s big talk at Fully Booked.  The next day, Ken made a presentation at the Del Monte Corporation organized by TED Fellow Xavier Alpasa.  Because of Asha, we spontaneously hopped onto a taxi to catch the tail end of the Ignite Conference in Makati while the last day before Ken’s flight was reserved for Abot Tala’s Board of Trustees.  One more meeting was luckily scheduled without much advanced notice, rounding off a truly maximized, hectic but balanced week.

It amazed me how tireless Ken is in sharing stories and experiences about North Star and the Liberated Learners, while Manila’s gridlock traffic flabbergasted him.

 

Ken in Manila

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Months of planning, preparing and promoting and the day finally arrives — Ken lands in Manila!  Just on his second day on his first Asian trip and we’ve done quite a round of important meetings, from a dinner with advocates of alternative education to a visit to Gopala Learning Haven in Silang, Cavite including a muddy hike down a ravine, and on to a marathon discussion with potential full time and part time mentor-staff of Abot Tala.  A storm was declared but it veered away from our path so we were able to keep to the full itinerary, allowing us to make all the connections needed to get this dream of self-directed education for teens off the ground.

Check out: https://abottala.com/

The Non-School

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Clicking and copy-pasting the YouTube video hundreds of time, I failed to notice until today the interesting commentary below Ken Danford’s TEDx talk, School is Optional.  There are a lot of praises for North Star and Ken changing lives and saving the love of education.  Some of the comments date from four years ago and somebody quipped, “Five years later and the lie of ‘you have to go to school’ is still being perpetuated.” Even if it is perpetuated, at least there are options around that question the status quo and could be center-based (e.g. North Star, PLC and other Liberated Learners centers), school-based (e.g. Free Schools, Agile Learning Centers) or home-based (e.g. homeschooling and unschooling).

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Go down further the comments about the video and there’s an interesting conversation about the cost of going to North Star with critic and defenders exchanging opposing opinions online.

 

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Those fees are from four years ago and you can see the updated fees on the North Star website.  When  you translate the amount into Philippine pesos, it even becomes more staggering.  It’s more expensive than good quality private schools here and climbing up towards the stratosphere of International School fees, but that’s an unfair comparison because the economies of the two countries are different.  Average salaries, teacher salaries, cost of living, cost of education are poles apart.

We’re trying to jump start something like North Star and PLC here in the Philippines but the question is, who will pay an amount equivalent to the tuition fee of a private school in Manila for, as the critic said with derision, a “non-school.”  True, it is a “non-school” or the anti-thesis of a school or an “un-school” but that’s looking at it from the point of view society’s conscripted, perhaps corrupted definition of school.  The other way of looking at it is this: it’s even more of what a school should be or look like if we lived in an ideal world and respected the freedom of each being, regardless of age.

One on one tutorials and personalized education understandably cost more than mass, factory-style education.  Some parents understand this clearly.  For some parents, the cost won’t matter but for many, the cost will still be a clincher.  But the inevitable reality is that things cost – space to rent, salaries to pay monthly, utilities and other operational expenses.  North Star doesn’t turn away anyone who wants to be member and to continue doing this, they have fund raising activities and donors.

If You Build It Will They Come?

Do we build it first in the hopes that people will come like the baseball players in the Field of Dreams?  Or is too risky a suicidal venture?

Do we wait till we have a good number of families who believe in this?  How do we even find those families?

The non-school, the mock-school, the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school school — call it what you want but even Sir Ken Robinson himself was impressed with North Star writing about it in his book, Creative Schools.  Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity” has been viewed fifteen million times but still, one discouraging remark goes, “Almost 10 years since this video was posted and unfortunately nothing has changed.”

Maybe change is too slow, too unnoticeable, too one-at-a-time to make an impact but lives anyway, are always bigger and more complex than YouTube comments.

 

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In his book, Creative School, here’s what Ken Robinson wrote about North Star and his tukayo, Ken Danford:

North Star is a center (Ken and his colleagues are very conscious about not calling it a school, because it is not accredited as one) that helps teenagers discover a passion for learning that has either been derailed or tamped down in a major way.  While it is not a regular “school,” it serves very effectively  as one for many. “North Star is principally for teenagers who are in school and miserable, who don’t want to go.  Some are getting straight A’s.  Some of them have hobbies.  Some of them don’t know up from down and have all kinds of problems.

“There’s a thing about letting people be — about letting them choose for themselves — that’s so profound.  There was no way to get that when we were teaching.  What do you want to do and what do you want from me to help you?  They don’t know yet, so they have to try everything to figure it out.  That might include saying no to everything and emptying out their lives and seeing what happens if they do nothing for a while.  It’s glorious fun.”

While it might sound as though North Star is fast-tracking dropouts, the opposite is true.  Most North Star participants go on to college, including MIT, Brown, Smith, UCLA and Columbia, among others.  Participation in North Star is often seen as an asset by admissions directors, because North Star kids have a history of being self-directed and intellectually curious.

Ken and North Star understand that learning comes in a wide variety of shapes and size, that kids can’t all be taught the same way, and that when students are taught in a way that best fits the way they learn and what interests them the most, they can make enormous leaps.  While it is an unconventional model, its success suggests a need for all schools to think in new ways about the way they serve students.