Contemplation Writing: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs
As an inner-city elementary school teacher for thirty-four years (retired from the NYCDOE in 2002), I have had extreme positive results in the areas of Emotional Intelligence, character education, values clarification, concentration/focusing/centering, writing, reading, thinking, creativity, poetry, and vocabulary expansion/appreciation. My education project, which uses an original form of writing called “Contemplation Writing,” develops intra- and interpersonal communication skills and creative self-expression (personal, journal, memoir, or therapeutic writing) through music (from rock/pop/top ten to classical), writing, discussion, and self-assessments.
Students learn to write about their experiences and ultimately, to understand and appreciate them. The kids create greater openness and sensitivity to themselves, others, and the world, and also, show gains in their writing and reading abilities. In a typical lesson, children listen to music for ten minutes and write about whatever they experienced inside themselves during that time. A discussion follows where their contemplations are read orally (and anonymously) and probed for the triggered images, feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Self-evaluations come two times a year where students have opportunities to assess progress in EI and academic ability.
Contemplation or Music Writing (as I now call it) becomes a vehicle to soothe kids on peaceful journeys of self-discovery and self-motivation. The student-centered project, whose motto is “Get into it, and get it out,” demonstrates in an organic manner what I believe are the prerequisite skills related to learning and living: experiencing, seeing, contemplating, reflecting, perceiving, thinking, analyzing, synthesizing, concentrating, imagining, creating, feeling, listening, and communicating. By teaching about these processes in connection with writing, my students not only improved academically, but also developed self-motivation, -understanding,
-control, -knowledge, -awareness, -discipline, -reliance, -confidence, -efficacy, -respect, and
My project is not a patchwork effort like many short-term, crisis prevention programs used in the schools to plug up societal problems. Music Writing can be used as a one- or multi-year project starting in the second grade and going through sixth grade (through high school). My purpose is to teach young people about EI and how it can lead to a better life through thinking, meta-cognition, feeling, communicating, choosing/choices/decision-making, and problem solving. It allows them to explore knowledge about themselves, including intra- and interpersonal conflicts, hassles, problems, and negative emotions.
Music Writing attempts to: increase focus (inner/outer), boost awareness, grow study habits, instill enthusiasm, improve productive flow, stimulate artistic expression and creativity, inspire imagination, elevate mood, crank up alertness, expand the work ethic, develop higher level thinking, energize, revitalize, and, at the same time, create a calm, safe, caring, and bully-free classroom and learning environment. This personal or memoir form of writing triggered by music helps kids get into self and others via empathy, cooperation, communication, and friendship skills, all keys to EI, character education, and values clarification.
I use two basic methods to instruct the class about inner experience and how to write about it:
(1) The “counting technique” introduces students to the idea of “inner experience.”
(2) Following this, the “music technique” takes children further into inner experience. The music technique begins after several practice sessions with counting and continues for the rest of the year.
Instructions for the Counting Technique:
Close your eyes and count backwards silently by ones from 50 to 1. Take your time and don’t rush. When you finish, open your eyes and write what just happened inside yourself. There are no right or wrong answers.
Instructions on what to write about are purposely vague and left open because you want the children to discover and describe their experience without any help or prompting. You don’t want to plant anything in their heads about what they are supposed to experience. If they ask about the length of the writing, say: “Just write whatever you can remember.” The length can vary from a few lines to a paragraph to one side of a paper. You should practice the counting technique yourself to have an idea of where your children are coming from in their own written responses.
Count twice a week for one week with no discussion; the kids just count and write. In the second week, have one or two discussion periods for fifteen minutes apiece. Ask questions about the responses and illustrate/sketch common experiences. Your discussion questions should aim at:
(1) making sure everyone understands the pieces read aloud. Use a lead question asking kids to think about what happened in another student’s counting experience.
(2) having children express orally the experiences they forgot and did not write down on paper. By practicing the technique yourself, you will realize how difficult it is to recall everything that occurs while counting. Listening to classmates often triggers students to remember mind-pictures they have forgotten. A typical question you can use to elicit such responses is: “Did anyone else have a similar experience?”
(3) developing students’ awareness of their inside worlds and creativity. Each work you read out loud and discuss provides more knowledge about what makes up inner experience.
Read the kids’ counting experiences (no names, please) in a dramatic voice to heighten interest. Expect some hesitancy in the early discussions because they probably haven’t talked about inner experiences in front of a large group. Participation will increase as more writings are read and the children relax.
Sample Contemplation Experiences by 5th Grade Students (with Discussion Questions plus Descriptions of Teacher Drawings) after Counting Backwards:
- I saw myself running next to the numbers. I went up and down hills. Then I stopped at number one and I fell into space.
Review the experience: What happened as the writer counted back? Describe what you pictured. What would you call this type of experience? Did anyone imagine a fantasy or story?
- I pictured when I had a little dog. It was so cute that I gave it milk and my doll clothes. He wanted a girl for a friend so I found one for him. My mother made me give up the dog because a man wanted him. I gave the dog to the man. I loved my dog.
Review the experience: What happened to the writer while counting backwards? Did anyone else lose track counting because a memory or something else interfered with it? What happened to you? Describe your experience.
Draw a diagram: One real eye looks outward, while an inner/mind’s eye looks inside at an imaginary TV screen inside the head. The screen shows numbers being counted until a memory intercepts it. Many experiences can interfere with counting; that shows you how difficult it is to keep your inner concentration/focus on the numbers and counting.
- I felt my body relax and I didn’t want to open my eyes. I wanted to be relaxed forever, but my neck started to hurt and my body felt heavier and heavier.
Discussion questions: Keep them the same as the previous writings/contemplations. Describe this writer’s experience. What happened to the numbers? Why did he lose “sight” of them?
Defining experiences: This is a “physical or bodily reaction.” It was a “side-effect” to inner experience. At times, children will experience headaches, pounding hearts, and dizziness.
- I saw a light flash at me. I saw a frog jumping around. I watched fish jumping up and down. The wall was falling inside my mind. The floor moved around. I saw a boat crash into another boat. The boat was melting. My body was falling. I saw myself.
Questions: Can you describe the student’s experience? What type of experience would you call it? Did anyone else experience crazy, silly, goofy things happening one-after-the-other while counting? Give an example.
Diagrams/Definitions: Illustrate the piece by roughly sketching the mind-pictures on the TV screen in the mind. Show the inner eye looking at the different images. Call this a “movie” experience (stream-of-pictures) because many images came one after another in rapid succession.
- I felt angry, mean, terrible, mad, and worst of all, I was really happy.
Discussion questions: What doesn’t make sense in this writer’s experience? Why? How many of you experienced different feelings while counting? Can you name or describe some feelings you had? Why did you feel this way? Did anyone become confused while counting? Did anyone skip numbers while counting? Why do you think this happened?
- All I see is black.
Teacher notes: Variations of this response were: “Nothing.” “I didn’t think about anything.” “I didn’t feel anything.”
Discussion questions: What is meant by this response? Did anyone else just see black? Why does someone see black? (Accept most reasonable answers. Maybe the student didn’t understand the instructions. He was scared doing something new, or got confused, and finished counting quickly.)
Illustrate the experience: On the imaginary TV screen inside the head, write the number “50,” and then draw a long, spiraling arrow to the number “1.” Darken in the screen with diagonal lines to “block out” all experience.
These “black out” experiences will change after students practice counting back two or three times. Also, as they listen to and discuss the writings of others, the kids will become familiar with their own inner experience. They learn to relax and not rush the experience of counting.
After four counting sessions children will get the idea of seeing inside themselves. Funny things will start happening. All sorts of images and short side journeys occur in between the numbers.
Check out these sample writings from the counting technique. Think about the discussion questions you might ask your class for the following:
- I saw waves going backwards. I saw a man eating spaghetti and meatballs upside-down. I saw myself taking a bath upside-down. I felt relaxed. I felt good.
- I felt like a turtle going very slow. Every number I said was like the step the turtle took. It looked like I would never reach number one.
- I felt as if all my feelings came out of me. My heart felt tired. When I was getting up to six, it was hard for me. I couldn’t pass number six. It was like a nightmare. Everything was dark. My head felt like it passed an earthquake. I mean I have a headache.
- I felt like I was getting smaller and smaller. My hands were flapping up and down. I saw myself flying in the air and the birds were calling me.
- My mind pictured the numbers. I was counting and thinking about the numbers. I got some feelings I never had before.
- While counting back, I thought about the time my cousins, my brother, and I were playing in the hall. My grandmother came out with a broom and we all got away except my cousin Diana. My grandmother started to hit her and everyone laughed. All this happened a long time ago, but I just remembered it now. It was like doing it all over again.
- I felt like it was personal. I saw a picture of a man on a horse. It was the dream I had last night. I felt sleepy, too.
- I saw the numbers that I was counting and felt like I was in space. I started shaking. I felt like I was floating around without a rocket. I felt a little scared.
Teacher notes: Keep in mind when I first started using the counting technique, I was “easy” on the length, so I let them write one-, two-, and three-sentence responses. And, as you can see, in most cases, less is more. When we completed the counting technique, and I was satisfied that the kids understood and appreciated “inner experience,” we moved on to the “music technique,” which will come in Part 2 of this blog/post article.
Interested in learning more about "Contemplation Writing" or "Music Writing"? Check out my interview on the radio show, "Pure Imagination" (Progressive Radio Network), with two amazing teenage hosts, Rachel Trachtenburg and Julia Cumming from the band, Supercute, who will appear on an upcoming MTV series. The link for the show (7/13/12) is: http://prn.fm/2012/07/14/pure-imagination-071312. You can Google Pure Imagination - 07/13/12 | Progressive Radio Network as well to find the show.
Julianna Lyddon interviewed me about the Contemplation Music Writing Project on the radio show "Connect With Julianna" (Toginet Radio Network). Choose the following links to take you to the podcast page and download it onto your computer, iPad, iPhone, etc.: http://bit.ly/iTFbk7. You can also go to iTunes and download it for free and then play the show this way: http://bit.ly/t5FA0W. OR, go to Connect with Creative Educator, Jeffrey Pflaum 07-06-2012 and download the podcast.
For more information about “Contemplation Writing” and Mindfulness Programs check out the following:
- Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for the complete “Contemplation Writing” article published by Teachers & Writers Magazine/NYC. Also, there is a piece on Contemplation Writing titled “’Contemplation’ strikes emotional chords with kids” (New York Teacher) available from the author.
- Teachers & Writers Collaborative/Magazine at www.twc.org for books/articles on writing, creativity, poetry, reading, and imagination.
- Dr. Amy Saltzman’s web site, www.stillquietplace.com, where you can find her excellent article titled “Mindfulness: A Guide for Teachers” (also search on Google under “What is Mindfulness”).
- Check out the author's web site at www.JeffreyPflaum.com for articles, sample student contemplations, and other documentation about the project.
- Linda Lantieri's web site, www.lindalantieri.org, for her "Inner Resilience Program."
- CASEL, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, www.casle.org, for more information about the different EI/SEL programs across the country.