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."
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.