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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We can help them develop an inner compass so they can discover their own creativity, self-motivation and emotional intelligence needed for learning and living.


When I was a teacher in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York in the seventies, I found a way to use music as tool for self-discovery and self-expression.

I used to play a lot of music in my classroom. It started as a way to help calm students' nerves when they returned to class after lunch. I played Billy Joel songs -- not the favorites of Latino and African-American kids. It relaxed me, and eventually the class.

Music to soothe the soul was great, but eventually school administrators started wondering what the aim of the lesson was.

So I asked the children to put their heads down on the desks, close their eyes and write about whatever they experienced inside themselves while the music played. After the tune stopped, I asked them to take a few seconds of "think time" before they wrote about their experiences. Many things can spin around the mind and imagination in an instant. I wanted them to pause and recall these creative, surreal, absurd, wild and sometimes sane inner worlds.

The Contemplation Writing Project, as I came to call it, uses an innovative form of writing called "Music Writing" to develop intra- and interpersonal communication skills (EI), creative self-expression (journal or therapeutic writing), thinking, character education, identity and values clarification in young people through music, writing, discussion and self-assessments.

The project is easy to implement from elementary school (second grade up) through secondary in public, charter, private, parochial and alternative schools, as well as in correctional facilities, and before- and after-school programs. Here are a couple of exercises from the Contemplation Writing Project. Please share any ideas or similar projects you've done in the comments section of this blog.

Exercise One: The Counting Technique

Start with the "Counting Technique" to introduce inner experience:

"I want you to close your eyes and silently count backwards -- by ones -- from fifty to one. Take your time and don't rush. When you finish, open your eyes and write whatever happened inside yourself while counting. There are no right or wrong answers in the assignment."

My instructions about what to write were vague because I wanted them to discover and describe experience without my help. If they asked about the length of the writing, I said: "Just write whatever you can remember." The average length varied from one to a few paragraphs.

Note: Before trying the technique in class, I practiced it myself to appreciate what the students were experiencing, describing and writing.

In a typical lesson, kids counted backwards, wrote about their inner experiences, and I checked their responses and discussed them with the class the next day. Here is a sampling of a fourth grade class' first responses to this inner journey exercise:

  • "When I was counting backwards I saw little numbers passing by and saying hello. My feet fell asleep. I started to move like jellybeans. Every time I would count, the numbers would just disappear. I also saw stars that made me dizzy. At first I felt scared, but now I don't."
  • "When I was counting I thought about my watch. It is my good luck charm. And I felt sad and I don't know why. But when I counted numbers 33 and 32, it made me think of my parents because that is their age. And when I was up to 20 I felt very happy, but I don't know why. When I hit number 1, I felt like crying because I missed my best friend."
  • "I thought about life. I thought about how tough it is like people dying and doing drugs. It was like a bad dream. I heard ambulances and sirens. Life isn't that easy to live. A lot of hardships happen. Life is complicated."

Be prepared for (and open to) anything when introducing inner experience through counting. You will find a plethora of responses, including memories/flashbacks, present-moment events, fantasies, dreams, daydreams, feelings, thoughts, mind-pictures/images, physical/bodily reactions and stream of consciousness or "movie experiences." Read the responses out loud (anonymously) and ask basic questions to open up discussions, for example:

  • Describe the student's counting experience.
  • What feelings and thoughts did the writer experience? Why?
  • What mind-pictures did you visualize after listening to the response?
  • What does the experience make you think about? Why?
  • Did the writing trigger anything that happened inside you while counting?

Exercise Two: Music Technique

In "Music Technique," children listened to music (top ten, rock'n'roll, rap, soul, blues, jazz, classical and flute) for ten minutes and, again, wrote about whatever they experienced inside. A discussion followed either the same day or next day: their contemplations were read orally and anonymously, and probed for the triggered images, feelings, thoughts, meanings and experiences. Check out these first contemplations by the same fourth grade students:

  • "At first I saw little notes floating by because it was coming from a man who was whistling and saying 'Don't worry, be happy.' The notes just went POP and they were gone. I saw balloons saying 'Don't worry, be happy.' A man came with a pin and popped the balloons and all the letters fell on top of me. The next thing I know, I'm on a cloud and little clouds are singing oh, oh, oh, oh. I started dancing with them. After that I was back in the classroom!"
  • "I listened to the words and it took away my problems. I live with my mother in my grandmother's apartment, so I was worrying about not getting our own apartment. But when I heard the song, my mind had cleared. I thought about my brother getting married, and her family being my family and how much fun it is playing with her nephews."
  • "When I listened to the music I saw a man dancing in a funny way. Everything else was black. He was coming right after me, but he was dancing. It felt scary. The person who was singing turned me into a leprechaun. The dancing man stopped, but started again. I started dancing too. As the music kept playing everything in my mind stopped in a flash. Everything turned black again. I was just there, but the dancing guy was also there, and I woke up."

Discussion Questions

These are some basic discussion questions that will work for most contemplations:

  • Describe this writer's contemplation experience.
  • Describe the mind-pictures you visualized as the contemplation was read orally.
  • Name the feelings you got from the mind-pictures in the contemplation.
  • What thoughts and ideas came to mind after you heard the contemplation?
  • What is the writer trying to communicate (main idea or message)?
  • Name this type of contemplation experience (e.g., memory, fantasy, dream).

These exercises, as well as others in the Contemplation Writing Project, help preteens and teens to deal, first, with their lives (in and out of school), and then with other people's lives. Music becomes a vehicle to soothe them into peaceful journeys of self-discovery and self-motivation.

Indeed, it is just as important for adolescents to learn about their inner world and how it influences daily life, as it is to learn about the world in social studies.

The Contemplation Writing Project can work as a one- or multi-year project starting in second grade and going through high school. These projects can increase students' focus, boost awareness, grow study habits, jumpstart inner-motivation, instill enthusiasm, improve productive flow, stimulate artistic expression, inspire imagination, elevate mood/tone, expand the work ethic, develop higher level thinking and energize, revitalize and create a safe, caring learning environment.

This healing, relaxing and empowering form of writing, triggered by music of all kinds, lets kids get into self and others via peace, compassion, empathy and friendship. These are keys to inspiring emotional intelligence, and to developing character and values that will serve them well into adulthood.

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Comments (27) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Nini White's picture
Nini White
Founder-Developer of Kids' Own Wisdom

In real estate, one word: Location, location, location.

In education, one word: Relevance, relevance, relevance. You bring honor and inspiration to your profession.

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Dear Nini,

Thanks for your generous comment, and yes, it's all about relevance, and I'm sure the education leadership will realize that one day soon and opt out of their test-obsession and find out what's most relevant, like motivation, self-, inner-, or intrinsic motivation, however you may want to call it. When things become relevant to the children's worlds, both outside and inside, that is when they will create "Kids' Own Wisdom."



Stephanie L Eastwood's picture
Stephanie L Eastwood
Biligual PK-6 Teacher

Jeffrey, this is the first thing ever posted on Edutopia I will save and use. Thanks for taking the time to write a description and rationale that will help others try the writing activity that evolved from listening for relaxation.
The student writing excerpts you chose convinced me that counting backward from 50 is worth a try.

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks very much for your comment.

The "Counting Technique" came from one of my students who told me his brother's middle school teacher used it as a "calming" activity. When I tried the activity, I had to work hard not to get lost in the side-trips or detours that took me away from the numbers. But isn't this what the basic meditation exercises are about: to keep focus, for example, on the breath, and if you get distracted from it, just gently bring your mind back to your breath? Same thing with "counting": if you lose track of the numbers, find your way back to the last number and continue counting. I added the writing part because I wanted to know what's happening inside, and found that almost anything can happen, and also, wanted to improve their self-expression.

I can be specific about what I have done with the counting and music techniques because the project began in the 70's and continued through the 90's and into the 2000's with kids in grades 4 through 6. I have taken it to the 2nd grade as well, although with different results compared to the upper grades. The younger kids liked drawing pictures of their experiences along with their writing.

If you want more information about the projects/curricula that came out of "Music Writing," go to my web site at JeffreyPflaum.webs.com where you will find an article titled "Here and Now: Nine Meditative Writing Ideas" (Teachers & Writers Magazine), which are a bunch of quirky, absurd exercises you can try with your kids. Check that out when you have a chance.

I am currently a BAM! Street Journal Blogger at the BAM Radio Network where I have posted more information on "Contemplation/Music Writing," Emotional Intelligence, character education, and values clarification (go to www.bamradionetwork.com under "blog" and my name for the various posts).

Thanks again for your comment. It is very much appreciated.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

Laura Jane's picture

Any suggestions for music with lyrics that would be appropriate to use with second graders for visualizing?

I use music everyday in my classroom, but mostly instrumentals.

I love your articles!

Alan K. Lipton's picture
Alan K. Lipton
Blog Editor

Laura Jane, for children of that age, I'd recommend music by The Sippy Cups (http://www.thesippycups.com), kid-friendly songs by adults who know how to tap into young imaginations. (Full disclosure: these people are my friends, but I'd recommend their music even if I didn't know them.)

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Laura,

Thanks very much for your kind comment. It is greatly appreciated.

First, I like the fact that you use instrumentals for visualization--ain't nothing wrong with that. What instrumentals do you use for these periods? I might ask the kids to bring in music that they enjoy, and then you can check them out, see which you think are appropriate, and then, experiment with the different songs.

I did work with 2nd grade children, above to below average, in inner-city schools (NYCDOE). The students wrote amazing fantasies, just totally surreal imagery that they visualized while listening to ten minutes of music, from Top 40/popular to rock and classical.

The visual that comes immediately to mind is: "pizza pies taking over the world," and one student writing starting with, "I'm Doctor Madness." There's a lot more...

The lower grade children wrote mostly stories and fantasies, as opposed to upper grade students, who wrote more about everyday life, hassles with other kids, and personal/family conflicts (they also got into fantasies like the little ones).

I developed an entire curriculum for fiction/creative writing based on my experiences with the second graders. And as you well know, they are really open to their imaginations (school hasn't shut them down yet) and the musings that go inside. So you should get some phenomenal mind-pictures desrcibed in their writings, and also, ask the kids to draw (crayons, pencil, pen) what they visualized. Let them come up to the front of the room and talk about what and HOW they visualized the various mind-pictures, as well as the feelings and thoughts they triggered in their minds and imaginations.

As a discussion leader, your questions will probe and expand their writings: imagery, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. And talk about the visualization process, the ways different students picture things in their minds: HOW they do it.

I talk about an inner, third, or mind's eye that views the pictures on an imaginary TV or movie screen in the mind's magic theater.

You can check out my website, www.JeffreyPflaum.com, for articles on "Contemplation Writing" and "Here and Now: Nine Meditative Writing Ideas, sample student contemplations (sorry, only fifth and sixth grade kids), themes culled from their contemplation writings, and a whole lot of other stuff.

You can contact me for more information through the website (it's only a basic site, nothing fancy). You can also check out a local newspaper article, "Bayside man uses melody to move minds in classroom," by Phil Corso in the TIMES LEDGER/Bayside Times (Google it and you will call it up).

I am also a BAM Street Journal Blogger on the BAM Radio Network (www.bamradionetwork.com), with numerous posts and articles on "Contemplation Writing."

Finally, you should try to contact Betsy Rose (Betsy Rose Music, also on the internet), who is a very talented singer, song writer, and musician/guitarist, that goes into the schools and works with your age group, singing songs with them and trying to tap into their inner experiences. Contact Betsy and explain that I recommended her. She can be very helpful, more than me, in what you are looking for.

I hope this has been helpful, and please don't hesitate to contact me for more information about my "Contemplation Music Writing Project." I'll be glad to help.

With kind regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

Erika's picture

I am a student, and I am want to know in what method "music technique" is based on. Please.

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Erika, you're question is really a great one, in fact, no one has ever asked it. The "music technique" is original and based on my own experiences. When I came home from school, I put on music to kind of forget about the day, especially if it was not a good one. The music relaxed and helped me forget about things that happened, things that I didn't want to think about, but a funny thing happened. The events of the school day, good and bad, came back in mental image pictures, or mind-pictures, as I like to call them. The pictures in my mind triggered feelings and thoughts. Instead of fighting or trying to forget the day, the music became a peaceful way to look at myself and what happened in school. I tried out the music technique with my students: I played 10 minutes of music (all kinds, but mostly Top 40 sounds) and asked them to close their eyes and "contemplate or think carefully about what they were experiencing inside themselves. When the music ended, I asked them to take a minute of "think time" to recall and reflect on what just happened and then write about it. I read their writings or "contemplations" out loud (no names were mentioned) in a discussion period that followed and asked them questions about their writings. We all learned something about how we experienced the world inside and outside by exchanging or talking about our experiences.

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