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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

Gretchen's picture
Ninth and Tenth Grade English teacher in Indianapolis, IN

I want to thank you for posting your blog about "Music Writing." I have been researching ways to motivate reluctant learners and I think your lessons will really help my students. I am trying to find new ways to engage capable students who are just not motivated to work. I am curious if you have any further suggestions on how to motivate capable unmotivated ninth and tenth grade students? I look forward to using your lesson plans in class and hopefully motivating a few young minds!

Renee Scott-Femenella's picture
Renee Scott-Femenella
Principal/Twin Rivers Unified School District

Thank you so much. We use music for a calming technique at my school, often after recess or lunch as you shared. i love how you added the writing component. i have sketched in art exercises to music but writing will open and express another world.

Marisol's picture

I want to thank Jeffrey Pflaumm for using these creative writting techniques with my fifth grade class. I believe my class was the first class to do these creative thinking and creative writting. This was very helpful to us, this taught us to express our thoughts and inner feelings on paper. I believe for some students it is kind of difficult to express your felings verbally, so writting it down on paper made it alot easier to express everything we were feeling at that time. I know it was for me. I do recommend this technique to all those that are willing to use it.

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Renee,

Thanks very much for sharing my blog post with your staff. That is greatly appreciated. The Contemplation Writing Project has been in existence since the Seventies and ran through the Nineties with extreme positive success. 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 students, Marisol, who commented on the piece and how my organic form of writing helped her. 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 of "Music" or "Contemplation" Writing.

With kind regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Renee,

Yes, the writing component opened up new inner/outer worlds to the kids, who had a very mature awareness (beyond their age) in the fifth and sixth grade, but needed a way to channel it so it would help them in their everyday and school lives. I did, in fact, ask students to "draw their contemplations" as an experiment, and the results were good. However, I was looking more at the writing component, to improve self-expression and self-awareness. When I experimented with second grade children, they drew some incredible illustrations to accompany their written contemplations! I remember when I first walked into my school, P.S. 16K, I opened up the closet and saw basal readers titled "Into New Worlds," and I think this was an omen for my teaching life and my students' classroom lives from 1975 until the present day. I am going to forward more information in a separate email (attachments) that your teaching staff will appreciate. Your teachers can also contact me at my gmail address (see bio/profile page) for articles, sample student contemplations, and other supporting documents that will help them implement the project. Any questions that they or you may have, I will gladly answer.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Pflaum

Jeffrey Pflaum's picture

Hi Gretchen,

Thanks a lot for your response to the "Music Writing" post. I have worked with this form of writing from grade two through six. I have not used it with beginning high school students, but I believe it will work on this level, especially with the music aspect, to develop intrinsic motivation, to make them come alive, or really, for them to learn how to motivate themselves by connecting with their inner lives, creative selves, and creativity. For me, if you can direct their attention to their (self) awareness, to see themselves in the mirror, to reflect, it would create the open-mindedness that will let in new perspectives, and, a new attitude. I will send you more information (lessons) in another email (with attachments) about Music Writing with the practical applications that grew out of it.


Jeffrey Pflaum

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