“I honestly believe that I was born a teacher,” says Amy Ahola. “My earliest aspirations were to be a ballerina – I still walk on my tip toes most of the time. However from a very young age I knew that I wanted to teach. I was drawn to the opportunity to help other people, and the ability to continually learn and grow.”
As an early childhood educator and owner of Child Central Station, a home group daycare, “I have some of our most precious resources in my care on a daily basis,” says Ahola. “I have the opportunity to focus on the development of the whole child, not only working with the children but also by sharing what I know and observing with parents and others that work in the field.” Ahola provides a rigorous hands-on, play-based emergent curriculum with a child-centered philosophy. “We run with their interests, integrating as many learning experiences as possible into the day,” says Ahola. Children in her care “get muddy, wet, and full of paint on a regular basis!”
Ahola is also a trainer and a blogger – both on her own blog and on sites like the “Pre K +K Sharing” blog – talking about her thoughts on everything from mixed-age learning environments to creating an outdoor classroom. Ahola is also an avid pinner on Pinterest, where she creates inspiration boards for parents and teachers alike.
“There are so many things I love about this field, but what I think drew me to it the most is how eclectic it is,” says Ahola. “One minute we can be observing butterflies and delving into the life sciences, and a half an hour later we might be sculpting or pounding nails, building with Legos, ‘digging to China’ or swinging high into the air. There is never a dull moment and there are always opportunities to learn and grow.”
Today, Ahola shares her thoughts on social media and its use in education, and what she thinks is the most important learning tool a child should have (hint: it’s doesn’t have a screen). Enjoy!
Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?
I have been fortunate to have so many wonderful teachers both in and outside of the classroom. However, there are two people who I really think have influenced my current style of teaching more so than some of the others.
The first one is my high school chemistry teacher. It used to drive me crazy when a question was asked and his response was another question. In our schooling system, we are always looking for the answer. He made sure that it wasn’t just about finding an answer, but it was more about thinking, and questioning what you thought you knew. At times it was frustrating, because in so many other subject areas it was all about regurgitation of information. He really made all of his students think, and he focused not only on the subject matter, but also on the importance of understanding our learning, and questioning everything. It is clear now that it was never really about just having the right answer, but making sure to ask all of the questions, and to never stop questioning. It was about spending more time and focus on the process than it ever was about the product. The other thing that I remember about being in his classroom is that the doors were almost always open. He arrived early to the school, he stayed late, and his classroom was always open at lunchtime. If you needed help, he was always there. He wanted everyone to succeed.
The other “teacher” I am going to share about never taught me in a classroom. I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend a week-long leadership program during the summer after completing the 8th grade. This was a strength-based prevention program and focused on peer helping and covered a wide array of topic areas. The sessions included large group presentations and small group meetings to process and practice the skills that were being presented. I learned so much about myself and gained skills in areas that are relevant still today especially in the area of effective communication, active listening, and action plans. As a facilitator, the teacher modeled individual centered communication yet involved the whole group. He was very good at bringing out the strengths of each group member and encouraging each person to step out of their comfort zone to try new skills in order to continue to learn and grow.
Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education. What has changed as a result of your work?
As a trainer, consultant, and blogger I have had the opportunity to share what has worked for me with others. I have shared our classroom transformation and have seen the transformation of other environments happen after I passed along our changes and the sources of my inspiration. It is amazing to see photos and talk to others in the field as they discuss the changes they have implemented after attending a training session or reading my blog.
I’m young — I’ve only been on this earth for 35 years. I think it is difficult to really know what kind of impact you have as an individual. You only really know of the impact when it is shared with you. I am often pleasantly surprised to hear of how I have inspired others. I think that our influence and inspiration is often reciprocal, but trying to determine exactly how much impact or how we have impacted others is rather difficult to measure or determine, especially because in this field, our primary contact is working with young children.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
In my early childhood classroom, the amount of technology we use varies based upon the ages and development of the children I have enrolled. In the main area of our home/classroom you will not find a computer, you will not find a television. I think that children spend far too much time in front of a screen and that while they are in my care, we can provide developmentally appropriate explorations that do not involve screens MOST of the time. However, I do like to provide the children with the opportunity to document their work. I use digital cameras and video cameras to capture moments and activities. We have thousands of photos of Lego creations and block towers, or just of anything that they want to have a photo of. I have a touch screen laptop with a stylus that some of the older children like to use to practice writing or drawing in the paint program. I also use the laptop to capture voice recordings with audacity. Some of the children love to sing their own songs in our “recording studio” or to tell stories with the digital voice recorder. We use technology to help document their learning.
I also like to use apps on my smart phone to make my job easier. There are a couple of apps out there that I have found to be quite helpful. For example, I like to use the Teacher Notes app to record and sort my anecdotal notes. With the connection to Dropbox, I can use my smart phone to capture notes and then access that information from my computer later. It is like creating a digital portfolio for the children in my care. I also like the Tending Tots app as it gives me an opportunity to connect parents to a child’s profile and to share daily feedings and care with parents (I especially like this option for parents of infants). A final app I’ll share that I really enjoy using is Time Station. We use it to log children, staff, and volunteers in and out of our program.
For my consulting and training, I tend to utilize social networking and my blog. What I love about blogging is that it provides me an avenue to share a glimpse of what happens in our world with others. However, I have found that blogging is more for me than it is for anyone else. When I blog, I have an opportunity to really reflect upon what we are doing, what we might have done previously and how to move forward. I have also found sites like Facebook and Pinterest to be very beneficial. Through Facebook I have had the opportunity to inspire and be inspired by other professionals all around the globe. One of my personal heroes in the field (that I have never actually met- she lives in Australia) once remarked, “It’s like we are living the same/similar life on different continents.” It provides an avenue to share information, vent, ask questions and continuously learn and grow. I know that I am inspired and inspire others on a daily basis by connecting with hundreds of other people in the field that I would have never had the opportunity to connect with previously.
In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?
Hands down, social media is the most exciting innovation in education today. With the use of networking sites, I have all of the experts who are working in the field at my fingertips. I belong to a number of groups on Facebook, Google Plus, and use collaborative Pinterest boards on a daily basis. As a home-based childcare provider, sometimes it is hard to stay connected to the “adult” world. I have found so much inspiration from others in the field, and a strong willingness to share, collaborate, and really have an opportunity to advance each other and our field.
Is there a 21st century skill that you are most passionate about? Why?
I don’t think that there is a single skill trait that you can remove from the others, because skills are not independent of each other. However, I am extremely drawn to creativity. I have the opportunity to foster creativity with children every day, to recognize it, provide opportunities for growth and encourage greater exploration. However, in order to foster continued creativity with young children it requires innovation, collaboration, communication, problem solving, and creative thinking! None of the skills are independent of the others.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I would give them some sort of journal. There are so many tools that we can use to support children and educators, but I think one of the most important things that we can do is to reflect. As an educator and as a human being, taking the time to record and reflect has given me perspective, allowed me to process confusing times, and to find new direction. A journal is also something that is individual, there are no rules – anything goes. If a person chooses to doodle or draw, write, record, etc., the space is to use any way they choose.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
I don’t think as a country or region that there are a lot of things I can speak positively about. I think that there are smaller efforts worthy of talking about, but when it comes to public policy in education I am concerned.
I am torn when it comes to the fact that early childhood education is now in the limelight. I know it is important for us to be considering the first few years of life, but at the same time I am concerned that with all of the focus, the end results of this attention will not be positive. I see many states, including here in Michigan, pushing forward with quality standards and quality improvement programs. However, there is little evidence to support the reliability or validity of some of the assessments being used. I have a lot of concerns in regard to the illusion of quality that they promote. Quality cannot be measured on a checklist, and adding new programs that don’t really promote higher quality or better learning environments for children causes additional stress for teachers and administrators, is an epic waste of tax payer money, and doesn’t help our children.
Zooming in to look at individual programs provides much more reprieve from the state of the big picture. Outdoor classrooms, mixed-age groupings, looping, forest schools, problem-based learning, are all examples that show promise.
How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?
I don’t think there is one single easy answer to this question. I am not confident that anyone can really answer this question adequately, because I don’t think there are any easy answers. However, I think there are a lot of things that could be looked at and done differently.
I think in our culture, we spend far too much time racing. We want fast food, fast music, fast television, and we want fast results. I think as a culture we spend so much time focusing on a quick fix and not enough time considering the long term. When we look at education as a race, it also implies that there are winners and losers. If we are truly to make a greater impact on the necessary changes in education, it cannot be a race. It cannot be a competition; we all need to be in this together, we need to enjoy the process, and we need to be in it for the long haul.
We expend so much of our energy concentrating on the end product that we forget that it is not the product that is important, but the process that means so much more. For example we spend a lot of time measuring test results and trying to standardize when in reality, we need to focus more on creating a love of learning. We have to remember that grades are just grades and often do not measure a change in knowledge or true learning. We have to remember what works for one child or one community may be totally different from what will work for another. So much of our education and upbringing is culturally based and we need to remember this when working with children. We need to spend less time looking at the answers and more time asking questions. Children are born curious; we need to foster that curiosity rather than stifle it. We need to be more child-centered.
We need to spend less time comparing ourselves to others and find out what works for us. What works in one region or country may flop in another.
We need to spend more time actively engaged. Children were not built to spend so much time sitting. We need to remove the idea that learning only takes place in a classroom. Our buildings are too sterile, too confining. We need to spend more time outside and to take advantage of our local area and culture.
We really need to look at what we know about child development, and stop asking children who are not cognitively ready to deal with abstract concepts to do math without their fingers. We need to bring toys back into our classrooms. We need longer recesses and time not just to eat, but also to have a conversation at lunchtime! We need to involve children in the decision-making, respecting them as key stakeholders in the process. As adults, we need to relinquish the thought that we are the ones to impart knowledge upon children. We need to recognize children as equal partners in the journey we call education and allow them to guide our actions.
We also need to make sure that those making decisions and implementing standards and requirements are held to those same standards. When programs are created with a top-down approach, the decision makers often miss the mark, as they do not have the day-to-day subject matter expertise necessary to make the best decisions for our children. We need to have more stakeholders involved in higher up decision-making processes.
We need to make sure that our schools and teachers have the resources that they need in order to do their jobs effectively. Large class sizes and continued budget cuts are not the answer, yet many schools are continually faced with a lack of resources. This tends to cause many districts to eliminate programs that are crucial to the development of the whole child.
I see a lot of potential for problem-based learning and mixed-age classrooms, in addition to the efforts happening for outdoor classrooms and forest schools. We need education to be relevant to each individual child and provide continued opportunity for learning explorations.
We have a lot of work to do if we are going to provide a better future for upcoming generations. We need to stop talking about “thinking outside the box.” We need to look at the box, think inside of it. We need to think outside of it, under it, on top of it, and then we need to get rid of the box and think some more. We need to ask others what they think about the box, and collaborate with each other to come up with the best direction. Then we need to stop thinking and talking about it, and actually get out there and do something about it. Nothing is going to change by just talking about it, we need to take action.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
I think the biggest obstacle to “quality” is the lack of clarity in what real quality is. The problem lies in the fact that the things that tend to matter most in terms of quality are hard to quantify. All of us know quality when we see it, but it is hard to define and is not always transferable across cultures. We spend a lot of time in our culture trying to measure and quantify outcomes that are often meaningless in the big picture of life and success because most of the things that really matter can’t be measured. I think that educating parents, other providers, and decision makers to understand the importance of play, of hands-on exploration, active engagement, and true connections with another human being are vital to keeping real quality alive.
I’m fortunate to run my own home-based business. I am required to follow the rules and regulations of the state, but I am not limited by obstacles faced by those having to answer to various agencies and organizations.
How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I think that it is important that we continue to ask questions. We cannot take the standards and programs being implemented at national and state levels as an end-all, be-all. We are the experts in our field. We have to continue to question everything, and to hold decision makers liable for their actions and the long-term impact of those actions. We need to reach out to others, share our stories and to take action when programs and policies are being implemented that go against our beliefs and what is best for young children.
About Amy Ahola
Amy Ahola is the owner/operator of Child Central Station, family home daycare and educational toy store in Marquette, Michigan. She has been running her own business since 2005. Prior to that time, Amy worked in a childcare center and public school. In addition to her childcare business, Amy also provides educational training sessions through the Great Start Regional Child Care Resource Center, 4C of the UP. Amy earned a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Northern Michigan University and will soon graduate with an M.S. in Training, Development, and Performance Improvement. For more information about any of her programs, please visit Child Central Station or Find her on Facebook.
- Birthplace: Hancock, Michigan (Although, I grew up in Houghton, Michigan. We don’t have a hospital there.)
- Current residence: Marquette, Michigan
- Education: M.S. Psychology – Training Development and Human Performance Improvement; B.S. Psychology – Graduate Prep; I also hold two Master’s Level Certificates: Facilitating Training and Performance Improvement.
- Website I check every day: Facebook, Pinterest
- Person who inspires me most: My 10-year old son, Dane. He is brilliant, creative, funny, and he never ceases to amaze me.
- Favorite childhood memory: I don’t have a “favorite” memory from my childhood, but the memories that flood to my mind when asked this question all circle around spending time with extended family, mostly of time spent with my cousins. I grew up on a small hobby farm right next door to my grandparents. Our house was small and always under construction, but it was a gathering place. It was not uncommon to have all kinds of “extras” around. I am the oldest of five children and my parents come from larger families. I have fond memories of building forts, hunting for tadpoles/frogs, playing flashlight tag, and camping out in tents in the front yard. I also remember spending many Saturday mornings at my grandparents’ house helping to make pasty (a pocketed meat pie made with beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabaga). Making pasty was, and still is, a family ordeal. I remember spinning the handle on the old manual meat grinder and sound of the rolling pin, rolling out the dough for the crusts.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I love to travel! As a family, we have fully embraced the concept that the world is our classroom. We love to explore new places and learn as we go. We will be spending Memorial Day weekend in Wisconsin Dells and then travelling to Denmark to visit family in Aabenraa for about three weeks. I’ll also be travelling quite a bit this spring to train and speak at early childhood conferences and workshops. Grand Rapids, Michigan for the MiAEYC; Escanaba, Michigan for the UPECC; in addition to a couple of trips to Illinois to work with early childhood educators there.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? This morning – I tend to laugh quite frequently. One of the things I admire most about my husband is his ability to continue to make me laugh.
- Favorite book: What Are You So Grumpy About? By Tom Lichtenheld and My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss.
- Favorite music: “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” no wait…“Tony Chestnut” (The Learning Station) no wait…“The Mexican Hat Dance” no wait…“We’ve Been Waiting for You to Come to This Place” (Bev Bos and Michael Leeman) no wait…ABBA! No, wait!!! Didn’t I tell you that I’m not good at choosing favorites! I listen primarily to children’s music, but I enjoy a wide range of other music, too. It depends on my mood and my company.
- What is the best advice you have ever received? “Slap af pige, Slap af!” I wrote this out in proper Danish, although when it was told to me, and when it makes the most sense is when it is annunciated in Sønderjyske (the dialect of Danish spoken in the southern part of Jutland near the German border). My husband’s grandmother (momo) reminded me of the importance of letting things go, “relax girl, relax!” I think too often we spend time thinking about and worrying about things that we cannot control. Remembering to relax and to let go of those things really helps me to keep perspective and to focus on the things where I can really make a difference.
- Your favorite quote or motto: “According to all known laws of aviation, there’s no way a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to lift its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway – because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.” ~The Bee Movie.
I love this quote, primarily because I think that far too often we tend to focus too much upon what other people, society, our culture expects of us. That tends to create limitations, and if we are truly to continue to progress, we have to understand that nothing is impossible!