How do you give up control?

Something interesting happened at school this week. Back at the beginning of September, Andrew Campbell introduced me (through Twitter) to another Kindergarten teacher, Kara Fowlie. Kara shared this wonderful activity that she did with her class: they hung different kitchen materials on the fence to make an outdoor music area.


Our students love music, so we were very excited to give this a try. My partner brought in all of her old pots and pans from home. I went to Dollarama and purchased a ton of different kitchen materials that would create different sounds (from plastic items to metal ones), a couple of closet racks for the fence, and almost a thousand zip ties. (We weren’t sure if we could leave these closet organizers up permanently on the fence, so we wanted to be able to take them down and replace them each day.) This was going to be fabulous!

Yesterday, we went outside early to hang the items with the students and create this musical space together. We pulled out our large container of items, and the students gathered around my partner as she showed them how to hang the items on the fence. There was just one problem: they weren’t interested in hanging them on the fence.

  • The students wanted to move around with the items.
  • They wanted to use the materials together … not individually with sticks as we had planned. 
  • They wanted to wear the items … using them creatively as they did so. 
  • Some of the students didn’t even want to use these items for music. They saw other uses for them, and quickly used them to create a slide game and to “make a pizza” outside.

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At the time when this happened yesterday, I almost felt a bit disappointed: we had a plan. Maybe we could have forced students to go with our plan. Maybe they would have liked it. That’s when we started to wonder though, why do the items need to hung on the fence? Yesterday, the students were still meaningfully exploring The Arts and their interests. They were collaborating and problem solving. We may have a thousand unused zip ties, but maybe they can be used in another way this year: in Visual Arts or measurement to name just a couple of thoughts. 

As I think back on yesterday, I realize that as teachers, we like “control.” Over the past couple of years, I’ve become better at giving up control, but when I have an idea — a great plan — it is a struggle for me when things change. I try to talk myself through what really matters and why, and often that means letting go and making changes to my original plan. This isn’t always easy, but it is valuable. How do you give up “control?” What are the benefits and/or drawbacks in doing so? I’ve been questioned before about “children needing to learn how to follow instructions,” and that we’re “creating future problems for students because we expect less.” I wonder though, am I “expecting less?” Who’s to say that my idea is better than theirs? I’m not so sure that it isWhat do you think, and what would you do?


8 thoughts on “How do you give up control?

  1. Hi Aviva,
    A great activity – my wondering is about why you sound disappointed that the activity didn’t go the way you expected. You knew your students liked music and you provided them with open ended materials to allow them to explore this. The materials were so open ended, it allowed your students to also engage with them in other creative and thoughtful ways (I know you have several little play dough chefs, so it is not a stretch to think they would use the kitchen materials for creative play). You will, I am quite sure, find other opportunities though the year to faciitate learning using the other material you had. In my experience, I usually have far more success with plan #931 than I do with plan #1….maybe you are tying your idea of control with predictable success in the first try. So, is predictable always a measure of success? Is success in the first try always the best success?

    • Thanks for the comment, Kristi! I must say that you never fail to ask the hard questions, and these ones have me thinking. You’re right: I should have anticipated the creative use of these materials and there’s nothing wrong with the wonderful ways that the students did use these items. In fact, it was terrific that they could march, sing, and play all at the same time. Maybe I got a bit caught up in the beauty of the other display. I’ve seen this musical display before, and I always think that it looks so inviting. Our students are constantly singing and making music on the fence outside (with their hands and sticks), so I really believed this extension would be perfect. There was a part of me that initially wanted to keep showing the students how to tie the materials onto the fence, but then I watched them take them off one by one, and I realized that they really did have better ideas.

      Your last couple of questions have me thinking even more. As teachers, I think that we like meeting with success. If we do so on the first try, then do we ever consider other options? I wonder if it’s “first try success” that maybe prevents people from taking chances/risks and exploring other possibilities. It was when I taught Grade 5, and first started exploring inquiry in the classroom, that I realized (thanks to you) the value in the thousands of attempts that it takes to maybe “get it right.” Your comment here reminded me of that. And now, I’m kind of excited about the other “931 plans” that we may try to use the other materials. Thanks for that!


  2. Aviva,

    You are being a great model of flexibility and learning for your students. I think that you should share that process with your students (If you have a group sharing time in your classroom that is). Tell them about how your plan “failed” but that the results were even more amazing. I think that while it didn’t go as you and your partner had planned, it did go exactly as it needed to for your students. I also think you will get loads of mileage out of the materials and likely more creative play and learning than if they were tied to the fence where interaction would have been more limited. If you wanted to test that theory you could always mount some items and leave some for “free” use and see what gets more action. You may just be surprised again by the results.

    Thanks for sharing your learning process and for always being willing to take risks.


    • Thanks for the comment, Sarah! That’s a great point about the discussion. Based on the student needs at this point in the year, we tend to have these reflection conversations with small groups. Maybe I could even have them a couple of times with different groups of children. I like this idea!

      I also like your idea of tying some items to the fence and seeing what happens. It could almost be like a mini-inquiry for me. I will say that on Monday, we tried to tie some on, but students kept pulling them down to use in another way. Maybe that was them speaking their preference as well.

      While the activity didn’t go as planned, I was so impressed with the student creativity, thinking, collaboration, and Artistic experimentation. That did make it a success! 🙂


  3. What a lovely suggestion from Sarah – yes, do an “I used to think, but now I think” aloud for your class… I always think of Serge Pascucci’c class which learned to weave by learning what didn’t work, and looking critically at it. When plans for a material go astray, it can be “bad” (one student dumps a bag of flour that others had intended for their play dough, etc) but even then the kids can be the problem solvers. But this kind of use, not aimless (I’ve heard teachers talk about how students throw or use as weapons the same cones that my class seems to love for stacking, or creative play)… What creativity! I would love to know what your students would say if you told them of your plans, your disappointment, and your surprise.
    I use the “I used to think” prompt often. I also think this is a case of “you inspired me…” which is another favourite in my class. You may remember from last year how you gave us the gift of that phrase. It lives on. 😊

    • Thanks for the comment, Laurel! I’m so glad that you mentioned this post by Serge. I remember it and love it! As I said to Sarah, my students still benefit from some more small group versus large group reflection, but this would be a great conversation to have … even with multiple small groups.

      The students definitely did inspire me, and I do remember this wonderful discussion from last year. Thanks for the reminder of this as well!


    • Laurel,

      I love the “I used to think….but now I think” conversation. I am totally scooping this! I also love the “you inspire me…” I do say this to students a lot. Students love that are an inspiration.


      • I agree, Sarah! I must say too that both you and Laurel inspire me. Thanks for sharing ideas both here and on Twitter. It’s amazing how much we can learn from each other!


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