Contemplation Writing: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs
Part 2: The Music Technique
In Part 1 of the Contemplation Writing Project students practice the “Counting Technique” for a two-week period so they can begin to understand and appreciate “inner experience.” Now, instead of counting, I use music to trigger mind-pictures/images, feelings, thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Contemplation periods are conducted every other day (two or three times a week) for thirty minutes: ten minutes for listening, ten for writing, and ten for discussion of responses. These times can be reduced to a total of twenty minutes for music, writing, and discussion. The project’s long-range purpose, beyond the music, relaxing, contemplating, and writing, is to expand students’ self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-understanding.
Introducing the “Music Technique”: “Today we’re going to try something different. Instead of counting backwards, we’re going to use music to find out what’s happening inside of you. For the next ten minutes I will play music. Relax, put your head down on the desk (if you like), close your eyes, and listen to the music. Find out what’s happening in your inside world while you listen. When the music stops, take a minute to review whatever went on inside. Next, write about what you recall. Your writing can describe mind-pictures, memories, fantasies, dreams, feelings, thoughts, ideas, everyday events, and any experiences that come back to you. The length of your contemplation writing should be a paragraph or more.”
Special rules for the music period: “No talking or singing along while the music plays. Don’t tap or drum to the beat of the music. Try not to make eye contact with your friends, because it will distract you from yourself.”
The first two weeks of the music technique move kids further along in the act of contemplation. They are still learning how to look inside themselves and contemplate their experience. It takes eight practice periods for children to understand the aims and procedures of the contemplation session. Prior to playing the music, reiterate to students: “What are you experiencing inside? What did you imagine, think, and/or feel?” There are no discussions in the beginning practice periods.
Music: I picked rhythm and blues, rap, soul, Latin, jazz, folk, rock and roll, classical, Native American flute, and African music. When I started the project in the Seventies, I used audio-cassette tapes and a boom box, and many times handed out blank tapes for the kids to prerecord music for the contemplation periods with this instruction: “Pretend you’re the DJ and put together a concert. Choose songs you know everyone will like. Arrange a good mix on your tape. Vary the music. Use fast and slow, vocals and instrumentals. We want the music to be a relaxing and enjoyable background for our experiencing.” The students selected mostly popular, top ten sounds, and wrote some of their most powerful works during these sessions. Note: Teachers must practice the music/counting techniques before introducing them to the class.
Listening to music helps kids get into themselves. They chill out while looking at their inside worlds. Music leads them to the idea that you can enjoy yourself in thought, and can confront yourself and life in a calm, clear, and peaceful way. Music gives a positive lift to contemplation, reflection, thinking, and visualization. The children liked the music technique because it soothed them into inner experiences, which were not always pleasant.
Discussion: After students become accustomed to the music periods, add discussions, which can follow immediately after the music and writing, or come the next day when the contemplations have been reviewed. Depending on the schedule and time, add one or two ten to fifteen-minute discussions per week. It is important to keep up the continuity, so the key is to have at least one conversation about their writing per week.
Discussion format and questions: Five to ten contemplations are read out loud (anonymously, otherwise there will be distractions). Basic discussion questions can be applied to most student contemplations:
- What mind-pictures do you visualize as I read the contemplation aloud?
- What feelings are triggered from the mind-pictures or contemplation?
- What thoughts and ideas come to mind after listening to the contemplation?
- What is the writer trying to communicate in the contemplation?
The basic questions lead to more specific and creative questioning (examples to be given in the upcoming contemplations). The “mind-picture” question encourages kids to visualize another student’s contemplation in their minds. In so doing, children learn to visualize a wider range of inner experiences than they themselves had, and at the same time, it may tune them into similar experiences they had and possibly forgotten while contemplating. Discussion sessions are a cross-fertilization of ideas, events, and meanings amongst the students.
Vocabulary of “Experience Words”: Vocabulary lessons evolved naturally during the discussion periods where I defined, described, clarified, and expanded on the meanings of key words that became a foundation for future lessons: thought, thinking, experience, idea, feeling, emotion, meditation, contemplate, concentrate, centering, focusing, reflection, visualize, insight, hate, love, jealousy, envy, pride, ambition, ambitious, competition, competitive, imagine, image, mind-picture, reality, fantasy, illusion, delusion, daydream, dream, nightmare, sensitivity, insensitive, self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-understanding, self-image, self-motivation, self-discovery, self-control, self-communication, communication, relationship, inside world, outside world, mindfulness.
Contemplation Writing Results: The upcoming student contemplations are followed by discussion questions, and, in certain examples, there are descriptions of illustrations drawn on the board. The writing comes from a fifth grade class that was below average academically. The length requirement in this early stage when I first started the project was one to ten sentences, which increased over the years. Music for these contemplations came from “Top Twenty” songs familiar to the students and written in 1981.
- I imagined being a window and the children threw rocks at me. One day they put rubber windows on me, and when the children threw rocks, they bounced back and hit them. Then they stopped bothering me.
Discussion questions: Mind-pictures? Feelings? Thoughts? Main idea?
Extension: Do you like how the writer communicates the experience? Why or why not?
Side-Note: Sound a little like the bullying problem in the schools today?
- The sky is beautiful night or day. At night I see the stars and the moon glow. In the day I see the sun shining brightly and the clouds floating in the sky. The sky is always beautiful, even when it rains or snows.
Creative questioning: Close your eyes and picture the sky at night and describe it. Do the same for daytime skies. Describe a sunset and the feelings you might experience at this time. Repeat for sunrise. What thoughts come into your mind as you imagine the pictures?
- I don’t want to do contemplation. I want to play seven-up. Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! I have to do contemplation. Put your head on the desk and dream. Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! I want to play seven-up.
Discussion questions: What feelings are expressed? What’s the problem? Is the problem or conflict resolved? Why or why not?
Vocabulary word: Define “conflict.” Give examples.
Extension: Did you ever find yourself caught between wanting to play and having to do work? How did you feel? How did you resolve the conflict?
Illustration of student contemplation: Draw a boy sitting on top of a fence and looking to both sides, not knowing which to jump to, the contemplation or seven-up side. Thoughts are drawn in little circles (“bubbles”) coming from his head indicating internal conflict. Questions for class: How will the boy feel if he stays on the fence without jumping to either side? How can he resolve the conflict? (Answer: Make a decision, that is, accept the reality of work.)
- This afternoon I was playing jump rope and I always made out. I said to myself: “I am a loser. I try and try but I always lose.”
Discussion questions: Mind-pictures? What feelings does the rope jumper express? What does she think about herself at the end? Can she change her feelings? How can “I am a loser” be changed into something more positive? Is the person hopeless?
Illustration: I draw a picture of the mind’s eye looking at the image of a person jumping rope on an imaginary TV screen in her head. The picture is surrounded with negative feelings and the words “I am a loser.” I draw a second illustration of the girl jumping rope in the future and ask the class: “What will happen now? Describe her inside and outside worlds.” I sketched in some thought bubbles to show the continuing conflict, with or without resolution.
- I thought I was a lion. Every time somebody passed through the jungle, I would growl at them and they would get scared. Once a little boy came by and I scratched his face. He got very frightened and started to cry.
Discussion: I used the four basic discussion questions, as well as: Who do you think the lion is growling at or angry with, the little boy or itself? Explain your answer.
- I felt like a rabbit as I walked through the woods. I saw wild animals in the forest. Oneday I was alone and I spotted a wild animal. I hopped in my hole and never came out.
Discussion questions: What feeling keeps the rabbit in the hole? What does the writing express about fear and living one’s life? Do you think the rabbit can stay in the hole forever? Why or why not? What feeling(s) might drive the rabbit out of the hole?
Extension: How can fear have a strong effect on reading? Test-taking? Sports? Friendships? Learning something new? If you are scared of something, is there anything you can do to change your feeling?
Illustration: I draw the rabbit stuck in a hole with the word fear printed on its body. Also written on it are the other feelings coming into play (such as confusion, hunger, anger, and frustration). In a thought bubble, the conflict of facing the fear and leaving, versus avoiding the fear and remaining, are written in. I also diagram the problem of fear in sports, reading, and test taking.
- I felt like asleep, you know, soaking in a hot tub of bubble bath—ahhhhhhh, I could fall into it right now.
Discussion questions: Describe the images you see. What feelings do they trigger? What thoughts come to mind?
Extension: What does the experience tell us about contemplation? How can it have a strong effect on your feelings?
Illustration: I draw this experience showing the inner or mind’s eye looking at an imaginary TV screen with the person sitting in a hot tub. (You can also ask the children to draw a quick pencil sketch of the writing.)
Vocabulary word: I define peace by putting synonyms on the board: quiet, calm, still, tranquil, placid, untroubled, serene. Ask the class: What do you visualize if you say, “I feel peaceful”?
It takes time and practice for students to master the four basic discussion questions. The mind’s eye needs training to see the mental imagery clearly and in detail. Kids will experience feelings they never felt before—and that’s a good thing. Throughout the year build up a vocabulary that names, defines, and describes a wide spectrum of feelings, their different degrees of intensity, as well as words describing various real and surreal experiences. The “thoughts” question can be difficult early on because it requires children to be exceptionally quick and spontaneous enough to catch fast-moving ideas triggered by the writing. Encourage kids to say whatever comes to mind, and reassure them that there are no right or wrong answers. Student responses to the “main idea” question, where critical and creative thinking are involved, will improve over time.
During the early discussions I demonstrated how a mind-picture forms using three little experiments, because the concept of mental imagery is crucial to contemplation writing, and, in fact, to many forms of writing:
- Ask the children to stare at a lit candle (or some other brightly lit object if there is an issue of fire safety) for thirty seconds.
- Next, say: “Close your eyes for ten seconds.” Ask questions: What just happened inside your mind? How did you see the lit candle if your eyes were closed? What happened to your experience of staring at the candle? What did it become?
- Ask the children to stare at the American flag for at least thirty seconds. Spread the flag out (or tape it up against the board for easy viewing) in front of the classroom.
- On the back wall of the room, about eight or ten feet high, draw a black “X” big enough so the entire class can see it from wherever they’re sitting. As soon as they finish focusing on the flag, ask them to: “Focus your eyes on the black “X” on the wall.” Question: What do you see? (Answer: The American flag on the back wall. Hopefully that will be the majority’s response.) Call it an optical illusion or a visual after-effect. The mind-picture remains for a little while after concentrating on it for a half a minute.
- Another mind-picture exercise is to ask them to close their eyes and describe their room, breakfast, pet, school lunch, or bicycle. A key question is: How were you able to look at and describe these things if your eyes were closed and the objects were not even present? Have the children describe the process of looking inside, recalling for example, their breakfast, and how they visualized it.
In more recent years I changed the length requirement from one to ten sentences to writing one hundred or more words. I wanted detailed descriptions and to prod my students to see, think, feel, and concentrate more during contemplation. The resulting pieces showed improvement in their depth and descriptions. The following contemplations are samples written by average to above-average fourth to sixth grade students. (The work has been corrected for basic errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.) Note: Pretend you’re reading the contemplations out loud to your class. Mentally think of questions you might ask students to probe for their insights into the writings. Use the four basic questions plus extension/optional and more creative questions in your hypothetical discussion.
- I feel curious, just waiting for the words to come on. I like listening to music because it puts a picture inside my mind. What I see right now is a hot, tasty pizza and I’m eating and eating. It’s all finished! Now I’m going somewhere and it looks like a pool or a beach. The music is following me wherever I go. I’m jumping into the water and it is a whole new scene. The scenes keep changing, and now, the music is gone, and I’m regular.
- I felt like I was in bed. And all of a sudden, I fell, fell into the bed. I screamed and screamed. It was like falling into space. It was pretty, but it frightened me because I didn’t know where I was. It was like a fairy tale. I skipped in a beautiful meadow and the sun was going down. As I looked at it, I felt joy coming through my eyes at that moment. The sun glared at me. It sparkled like the stars, the sky was blue like the eyes of joy, and the birds whistled at me. Then, everything changed. A huge wind came and blew and blew. I tried to grab on to a fence, but the wind was too strong for me. I flew with the wild wind and started to spin and spin. Then, I was in class. I wish I could be there again.
- What should I be? I don’t know. Should I be like my cousin, uncle, aunt, or father? I have choices. It’s just that I’ll never be like my cousin. I’ll never play as good as him. For example, one day we went outside, and he threw a couple of balls to me. I dropped some. I caught some. But I always dropped one when my friends came. Even Jason saw that I wouldn’t dare try and catch one of his real high pop flies. It’s like in class, when the teacher calls on me, I just stay in shock. I get confused and I just don’t know what to do. So I get it wrong. It’s not that I’m dumb. It’s not that I’m absent-minded. Even when I speak it’s like having a nervous breakdown. I guess it’s just that I think I’m going to reply wrong or get embarrassed. Why was I born with this fear of speaking? I can’t say what I really want to say. I can’t be anything if I always speak with fear.
- It was all red with only one window. It was this classroom, with a man dressed in all green, and who disappeared every time he went near the window. There was no door, no chalkboard, no nothing, just one window with a strange man. Outside the window it was all foggy with no one, no cars, no buildings, no nothing.
Questions for teachers: What questions did you create mentally as you read through the contemplations? What did you see, think, feel, and experience while reading them? What mind-pictures, thoughts, ideas, feelings, experiences, and meanings were triggered in your mind and imagination? What did you visualize? Did you take any side-trips or journeys unrelated to the contemplations? Did any of the contemplations strike a nerve?
If you are going to experiment with Contemplation Writing, practice the Music and Counting Techniques before using them with the kids. Keep in mind that inner experiences will vary (greatly) from class to class and student to student, so expect anything from your class. Sometimes, in this non-directive approach to writing, there will be children who are clueless (and understandably so) about what to write. Once discussions start and you read their contemplations out loud, students may realize things they had gotten into while listening to the music, but chose to write about something else. Class discussions, the cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences, are crucial to the success of Contemplation Writing. How well kids tune into their inside worlds and the experiences of their classmates will make all the difference in the project.
For more information about “Contemplation Writing” and its practical applications:
Contact the author at email@example.com for his program titled “Experiences, Reflections, and Insights,” an Impact II Mini-Grant received from the NYCDOE. There is an article titled, “Here and Now: Nine Meditative Writing Ideas,” published by Teachers & Writers Magazine, which is an offshoot of Contemplation Writing. Also, Contemplation Writing was a precursor for poetry writing. An article published by New York Newsday titled, “Making Life a Matter of Meter” by David Bornstein, describes how the kids’ creativity was opened up through this dynamic form of writing and led to poetry writing. A culmination of the project was reading my students’ contemplations juxtaposed with their poetry titled, “There’s a Soul Arising in My Mind,” on the public radio show, Poetry-In-The-Morning, sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative based in New York City (available from the author upon request).
Stay tuned for Part 3 of “Contemplation Writing: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs.”