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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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.

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Marisol,

It was so WON-DER-FUL to hear from you, since I thought I had lost you after we connected recently. Thanks for your comment and description of how Music Writing helped you and the kids in our class. Do you remember lunch time at P.S. 16? And do you recall listening to music after we came up from the cafeteria? (This memory for Marisol and I goes back over thirty years ago.) I think most of the readers/educators looking in on Edutopia can appreciate what you have to say about expressing feelings, and getting it down on paper, to "get into it, and get it out." Your recommendation is proof of how affective/effective "Contemplation Writing" was, and the fact that you can remember its influence on you years later, tells a lot about it. Thanks again, Marisol, and I will be sending you more in a separate email.

With kind regards,


Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Renee,

I'm re-writing my response because I want to make sure you receive my comment. My apologies for the second round.

The Contemplation Writing Project has been around since the Seventies and was extremely successful. After the kids completed a year's worth of contemplations (approximately 120), this "internal education" was imprinted in their minds and imaginations, and they could take it with them throughout their lives both in and out of school. Witness one of my ex-students, Marisol, who commented on the piece and how my organic form of writing helped her and her classmates. With Music Writing, the students taught me more than I taught them; it was truly a learning experience on both ends, and it will work in your school as well. The post is only the tip of the iceberg about Music Writing.

With kind regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

S. English's picture

his was a great article. It is great how you brought the student's life into the lessons and their experiences. This is so important as students will make a greater connection.

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi S. English,

Thanks a lot for your kind comment. I think in our rush to raise our kids' test scores, we forget about the oft-used phrase, "kids come first," which, sadly, translates to "kids come last." Let's not forget about the inner and outer lives of the students, so they will discover who they are and make the vital connections between their school lessons and life experiences.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

Michael Griffin's picture
Michael Griffin
Music educator and professional development trainer based in Hampshire, UK.

I really like Jeffrey's concept of 'Music Writing' on many levels. Some thoughts:
1. This is motivational. We all seek self-knowledge, and the search becomes an obsession during the teenage years. What differentiates us from one another is our unique set of feelings and emotions. Music is the emotional essence of an experience crystallised in tone. The most emotive of the art forms, music has a unique role in eliciting self-knowledge. Somteimes, music is clearer and more personal than the abstract nature of words.
2. The exploration of students'internal world has been relegated to a secondary importance with today's prominent school focus being science and math. These subjects are important for our learning of the external and physical world around us, but contribute zero to the internal and subjective. For example -as Einstein said -what has math to say about first love? Jeffrey's considered writing concept addresses a real need. Furthermore, Jeffrey-as-teacher acts as a conduit, enabling students to share and discuss the personal. Intrapersonal leads to interpersonal. Essential opportunities for self-expression, and the students learn to write at the same time(!)
3. I love to see teachers 'have a go' at different ideas with their classes. Someone said 'if we always do what we've always done, we always get what we've always got'. I'm sure Jeff was unsure what the outcome would be from his new idea. He tried the 'counting' exercise and then -in de Bono style - considered improving an idea that already worked pretty well. As a model for continuous improvement, this is great.
4. This has all the hallmarks of what great education is alll about, and nothing was mentioned about measurement. Why? Because when kids are truly intrinsically motivated, measurement matters less. The teacher can then 'lose' time in the activity. As Rousseau said - good lessons lose track of time -don't try to save it. How do you 'test' the ensuing discussion and personal insights? As Einstein said: not everything that counts can be counted (and not eberything that can be counted, counts).

Thanks Jeffrey, I hope your ideas continue to challenge.
Michael Griffin

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Michael,

Thanks for that great response. Music did the trick for me, that is, it elicited self-knowledge when I came home from school and wished to forget the school day. I played rock, hard rock, oldies, anything to forget everything, but the exact opposite happened. As my mind chilled, many of the images from the day in class returned. Ahhhh. Not what I wanted. Just escape, get out of my head and hang loose. When I finally calmed down, I stopped trying to fight the cyclone of pictures, feelings, and thoughts circulating in my mind, and instead, viewed them peacefully with my inner eye. A little acceptance was needed, and the courage to face and understand myself better. It really did help and from there I took my idea/process into the classroom to see if the kids can handle this method for attaining inner peace and focus.

Internal worlds, internal education as well, have not really been the focus of education, at least in the U.S. I could never understand why, because you can't have an "outer" without an "inner." And yes, the first step to any knowledge is "knowing thyself" first, and then going "outside" to others, to the world, and connecting. One of the most difficult things about "Music Writing" is the teacher-as-conduit" for the kids' experiences. The teacher has to be able to think quickly, spontaneously, "think-on-his/her-feet, to mitigate students' experiences in the form of questions that would inform, explain, describe, improve, and expand their lives in and out of school. Being a discussion leader is an art and it takes a lot of practice, awareness, and in-sight to perfect. Music Writing is about Emotional Intelligence, character education/identity, and values clarification, and at the same time, develops academic subjects such as writing/self-expression, reading (as brought out by student self-evaluations of the project), and the fundamentals skills for learning and learning how to learn (e.g., visualization, concentration, reflection, contemplation).

I experimented all the time with my classes because I realized the traditional curriculum "needed improvement." I believed my inventions could be as good or better than the Department of Education's curriculum manuals. Also, I found that most of my educational projects were validated by the research. The "counting exercise" came from one of my kids who explained how his brother's middle school teacher used it to calm down "over-excited," hyper classes. The idea of counting backwards is a focusing activity, where you keep your concentration on the numbers and nothing else. Of course, as you count back, little side-journeys/trips/digressions take place, messing up your counting. I had the latitude in my school and with my principal to experiment with different ideas, however, after 2000, education became a test-obsessed world, with not much room for creativity, motivation, imagination, and forget about the arts.

Once children are intrinsically motivated, the classroom atmosphere changes (for the better), and everyone "loses track of time" because they're "inside," where time exists on another landscape not tied to test scores, statistics, and test prepping. The measurements I used were the kids' feedback in the form of "Contemplation Questionnaires," "Contemplation Comprehension" exercises, but most of all, the real feedback coming from my ex-students, who are in their thirties and older, and tell me how much contemplation and reflection have helped them in their lives. My long-range goal was to make something I created and taught stick to their ribs, something to take with them once they left my classroom, something, in the end, they created on their own inside themselves.

Thanks, Michael, for the workout, it woke me up from an educational malaise that I'm feeling a lot these days...



Diva Taunia's picture
Diva Taunia
Voice Teacher & Educational Rap Enthusiast

I absolutely love these exercises, and in particular I love that "there are no right or wrong answers in the assignment." How absolutely liberating for a student. In fact, it makes me want to do the assignment right now - as a 40 yr old woman and educator. :)

I work for a company that combines the academic portion WITH the music portion. You can actually see quite a few videos that students and teachers have made with our songs on our YouTube channel here:


Bravo on the article and the teaching approach. Fantastic!

Dan Pelletier's picture

Thank you for the wonderful article. I found it inspiring and filled with many nuggets I can apply with my students.

I've been teaching students to write songs about books for years and I believe so strongly in this instructional approach that I resigned from my teaching position a few months ago in order to be a full-time travelling artist in residence. I recently finished a series of workshops with some 5th grade learners who wrote very impressive songs in response to Jacqueline Woodson's Locomotion.

The level of enthusiasm, engagement, participation, and thinking always blows me away.

Thanks for doing what you do!


Dan Pelletier

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Thanks Diva for your kind comment. I hear that, "I wish I had you as a teacher," and think: Why aren't there more "creative teachers" in the schools? At the same time, I hear other teachers say: "I'm not creative." Schools shut down kids' creativity (even more in our test-obsessed culture), so do the schools of education, because, in my opinion, they are not doing enough to develop teachers' creative imaginations, that self-amusement park of the mind.

The counting and music techniques are liberating, giving students the freedom to go where they choose, where they want to, and express it on a 4" x 6" index card. Yes, they do get into it, and the themes from their "contemplations" describe a very wide spectrum of internal and external experiences and worlds.

If you want to see more of "Music Writing," check out my posts on the BAM Radio Network where I am currently a BAM! Street Journal Blogger (www.bamradionetwork.com). On this web site, I use the term "Contemplation Writing" instead of "Music Writing."

I have worked on The Contemplation Writing Project for many years and am glad that it is receiving positive responses from Edutopians. I still hear from my ex-students (in their thirties) who tell me how contemplation, reflection, and visualization have been a strong factor and part of their lives.

I will look at your U-Tube presentations, and thanks again for your response.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Dan,

Thank you very much for comment. I really appreciate it.

I love your idea about writing songs about books; that's great. As a classroom teacher, I taught a lot of novels and, in retrospect, would like to have seen what songs the kids would have made up about them, from ballads to rap to rock, yes, this is a creative- and critical thinking approach and strategy.

One novel I got into, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL by Richard Bach, if you know or recall the book, had songs/sound track by Neil Diamond, plus an incredible VHS video. The lyrics from the various songs along with the video tied this best-selling novel together. I also taught poetry reading and writing, although I never asked the kids to write poems about what they had read.

The "Locomotion" song by Jacqueline Woodson, is that the Little Eva song, or am I totally off on that?

Good luck on your journey as a traveling artist in residence. Sounds good.


Jeffrey Pflaum

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