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Joei Villarama: Advocate of self-directed learning




A housewife and mother, Joei Villarama is foremost an educator. She is the president and founder of Abot Tala, a co-learning hub for young people, ages 12 to 18, who are better suited to discover for themselves their gifts and talents, set goals and dream freely with the guidance of mentors.

Today, Sunday, is the last day for bidding for 12 art pieces being auctioned online by Leon Gallery for the benefit of Abot Tala. Featured artists are Tessa Alindogan, Monica E. Castillo, Arlene Villaver, Rellie Liwag and Jane.

Joei attended grade and high school at St. Theresa’s College. She acquired part of her secondary education from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High when her dad, Willie Villarama, was a scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. A classmate in theater was Matt Damon, and together they appeared in Lysistrata.

“He was so talented back then and you could see he was a star,” recalls Joei, whom we interviewed online to learn more about Abot Tala.

No, Joei is not one of those scions (her mother is an Ilusorio, as in Baguio Country Club) who, feeling they have the aptitude or passion for a field, plunges into the scene and, as soon as they have acquired some experience and wake up to the reality of how far their talents would bring them, would move on to their next adventure.

A Communications Arts major from the Ateneo de Manila University, this one is a dedicated mentor, although it has only been six years since she considered this a vocation. She also took up Architecture at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and University of Santo Tomas. She went to the University of the Philippines for her Masters in Community Development. Her background has certainly enriched her outlook in life, as she has since realized the value of holistic education especially for quite a large number of young people who are not comfortable with the usual formal learning structures. Joei, for a long time, taught English at the Foreign Studies University in Dagang, China.

Joei’s sister, Mariel, the concert pianist, is a dear friend of mine. One time, her father, Willie, called me up to thank me for featuring Mariel and shared as well the good news about Joei’s involvement in education.

Joei and Abot Tala deserve our support because education is what this world needs to be able to advance forward in the right way. And with the new normal imposing on us a freer lifestyle, to put it in a rather paradoxical way, Joei may well be advocating what our young people need today.
Here’s Joei Villarama for you.

LEARNING beyond grades.

and non-traditional

Daily Tribune (DT): How did you come across this new approach to learning?

Joei Villarama (JV): My students at the Tianjin Foreign Studies University were telling me about their awful experience of grade school and high school where the focus was on grades and getting a high score in a national exam to be able to enter a good university and take up your preferred course. Their stories made me afraid for my own children. I thought we were going to live for a long time in China and I didn’t want them to go through that kind of education system. I started researching and discovered there were so many options around the world.

My husband and I drove from San Francisco to New York for three months and we visited 15 progressive and non-traditional schools and centers which included two which belong to the Liberated Learners network, of which Abot Tala is a part. I met Ken Danford, founder of North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens and that’s the model that we adopted in Abot Tala.

DT: Who would be your ideal learners?

JV: Abot Tala serves teenagers who have been searching for an alternative to school. They are teens who for various reasons feel school is not working for them. There are also teens who are already homeschooling or unschooling and who are looking for a community that they can be a part of and join. Those two main groups are the intended learners. For some young people, the environment in regular or traditional school is not encouraging enough and instead of thriving and loving learning, they grow to hate the system because of its one-type-fits-all curriculum and approach. Abot Tala offers them the freedom to design and pursue their unique education path with the guidance of mentors who are their cheerleaders. They have the space to pursue their interests without being judged. For teens, it’s very important to feel they have control over their lives and choices.


JOEI never imagined she would be putting up her own ‘school.’

No entrance exam

DT: How does this work? How do the students learn?

JV: Families who are considering Abot Tala for their teens set up a meeting with our executive director, Owie dela Cruz. There is no entrance exam. The only requirement is that the teen chooses to join Abot Tala out of their free will and their parents support their decision. We have a program of classes that changes every two or three months. The teens and mentors meet to discuss what classes they want and the teens vote on a list of classes. We have mentors from various fields and industries who share their expertise as actual practitioners. The mentors are free to conduct the class the best way they see fit. The key feature of Abot Tala is mentoring. Each student is paired with a mentor whom they meet every week. They discuss life, the student’s learning path, goals and dreams.

DT: How are the students evaluated? Are there grades also? Is this accredited by the Department of Education (DepEd) or is it just informal learning?

JV: The students are not formally evaluated or graded. The mentors talk about the students and how they can tailor the program for them and help them reach their goals and dreams. This is not a school and this is not DepEd-accredited. The program we offer is for those who have decided to take the homeschooling route but want a regular community where they can take classes, interact with kids their age, have mentors and teachers and have the “school” experience without the stress and baggage of a rigid curriculum and expectations of getting high grades.

Abot Tala has partnered with a homeschool provider, Gopala Learning Haven which is DepEd-accredited, but families can choose any homeschool provider they want, whether local or foreign, depending on what they feel best fits them. Some also choose to be independent without a provider and opt to take the PEP Test of DepEd. In all these cases, Abot Tala collaborates with the family regarding their specific needs.

THESE kids design their own education path with the guidance of mentors who act as cheerleaders.

For dreams to come true

DT: What is the grade or year equivalent?

JV: Students in Abot Tala are ages 12 to 18, but we have had students who are 11 and 19 years old. They’re attending Grades 7 to 12. The classes in Abot Tala are not segregated by age or grades.

DT: How did education become a passion to you? Is this new to you?

JV: Education has always been a passion to me because I loved learning but I never imagined I would be putting up my own “school” or alternative to school. The change came about because I became a mother and it made me think what kind of education I want for my children. It’s relatively new passion for me because I was in other fields before becoming a teacher in China around six years ago.

DT: What do you want to accomplish for Abot Tala? What is your vision? What are your targets?

JV: My dream for Abot Tala is that it continues to serve families who need this option for their teenage children. I wish Abot Tala could reach a point where it is sustainable and does not have to rely on donations. We hope to meet champions —- people who believe in this out-of-the-box education model —- who could support Abot Tala by sharing their resources, whether financial, physical or intellectual.

In the future, we dream of finding a place that an Abot Tala champion would let us use for a minimal amount or donate to Abot Tala. The place would have a generous indoor and outdoor area, lush with greenery, ample parking and inside, areas for lounging, hanging out, creating, dancing, theater, creating, cooking and best of all, a new home for our wide collection of books.

Our vision for Abot Tala is to see the teens empowered to make their dreams come true.

ABOT TALA students enjoy the space to pursue their interests without being judged.