Contemplation Writing: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs
Part 4: Categories of Student Contemplations
Parts 1, 2, and 3 of my previous BAM POSTS introduced the Contemplation Writing Project:
- Part 1 described the Counting Technique, which showed kids “inner experience” with all its side-trips into mind, imagination, and creativity.
- Part 2 presented the Music Technique, which replaced counting with music, and led students on peaceful voyages of self-discovery and self-motivation.
- Part 3 described evaluation lessons called Contemplation Comprehension and the Contemplation Questionnaire. The former asks children to treat their classmates’ contemplations like practice exercises in reading comprehension and answer questions to show they listened in class discussions, and also, understood what was going on in their own contemplations. The “reading passages” gave them a chance to demonstrate in-sights gained about EI, character, identity, behavior, communication skills, values, experience, problem solving, conflict resolution, and daily life.
Part 4 describes the various categories of contemplations, including certain subject areas and issues expressed throughout the project. These are the results I found over the years. However, when you ask children to write about whatever they experienced inside, be ready for any and everything. The results will vary from teacher to teacher, class to class, and school to school. The upcoming categories outline the diverse range of student writings and represent only a fraction of the contemplations written over a twenty-year period.
An EI project about internal education takes time to develop over the course of a school year. My goals, approaches, and strategies are something the children—and their teachers—probably have little experience doing in the classroom. In some cases, after they listened to music, I found kids looking blank and confused, and who wrote on their 4” x 6” index cards: “I couldn’t think of anything”; “Nothing happened”; or, just no response, nothing. It took several contemplation sessions (two weeks of music, contemplating, writing, and discussion) for most of the class to understand and appreciate the idea of Contemplation or Music Writing.
In the beginning discussions, students were reluctant to read or listen to me read their writing orally. This was personal stuff. But I liked that! The hesitation indicated they were quite aware of inside world goings-on and were not quick about giving them up. But the kids came to my rescue and gave me the green light to read what they had written. They were not embarrassed, shy, or afraid to listen to their contemplations read in front of the others. This procedure broke the ice and initiated the group discussion-reflection part of the project.
I read everything anonymously. At first I read a bunch of contemplations and the kids listened with no questioning by me, except for introducing them to the different kinds of experiences their friends had while the music played. After a few lessons I asked the class basic questions: What is the writing about? What images, feelings, and thoughts were communicated? What main idea, message, and/or meaning did the writer communicate? We tried to unravel variouscontemplations during our class conversations.
During our brief talks I built up a vocabulary of “experience words.” We defined words such as: thought, think, feeling, emotion, contemplation, meditation, concentration, focusing, peace, centering, awareness, in-sight, knowledge, hate, love, jealousy, pride, ambition, competition, imagine, imagination, visualize, reflect, reality, fantasy, dream, daydream, memories, reflections, self-confidence, self-knowledge, self-worth, self-trust, self-reliant, self-control, self-discipline, self-respect, and self-responsibility. Synonyms and antonyms of the words were also defined.
After listening to their classmates’ inner experiences in the discussions, students familiarized themselves with the objectives of the contemplation periods: to discover and learn about the inside world, and to contemplate and write about it. I kept repeating the instructions to write about whatever was experienced inside: “What happened inside your head? What did you experience? What is your inner life like?”
Directions: “The purpose of the contemplation periods is to focus your attention on some form of inner experience. Use your emotional and mental energies to get into it. Don’t scribble down something without thought. Push yourself by concentrating hard. Contemplation is the art of focusing closely and carefully on your present-moment experiences.”
Throughout the post-writing discussion periods, I constantly reviewed, summarized, and rehashed the above key ideas. The ability to contemplate is a cumulative process that grows over a school year. Children eventually get the message. The vocabulary list of experience words, perception, understanding, self-awareness, knowledge, and in-sights gradually build to make the classroom environment tranquil, emotionally intelligent, and sane.
Categories of Student Contemplations
Note: Some contemplation writings were so personal (for example, parents having breakdowns, and bad divorces) that children wrote on the index card: “Do not read to class.” I honored their requests, however, as they became more comfortable with the discussions, this cautionary note died out. It’s up to a teacher’s discretion whether to read a particular contemplation to the class.
Student responses were poetic. Metaphors came through the writings naturally: “My tears fall like leaves from a tree in autumn.” Comparisons were read to the class, and I quickly indicated how comparison is a more sophisticated and thoughtful way of expressing ourselves. It shows how much effort and feeling a student puts into the contemplation, something all poets and writers do when creating poems and stories.
Certain thoughts expressed were extremely perceptive and expansive in nature, for example, “I felt that I got into all the thoughts of the other children and I became real sad.” I was literally floored by answers of this type. I think the children’s openness to their inside worlds enabled them to get into higher level experiences than we give them credit for having. They handle so much and are not limited in their ability to “free” themselves internally like adults.
Contemplations were formulated as questions: “I wonder how life will be for me in thefuture?” “I can’t understand my life. What is it really like? What is happening to me?” The kids penetrated the maelstrom of experience, with all its turmoil, conflicts, problems, beauty, wonder, rapture, magic, and mystery, and tried to stop the rapid flow of consciousness, all those speeding thoughts, feelings, and images, to find out what was happening inside the mind and imagination, in the form of questions.
Asking questions in the contemplations, in my opinion, is a high level response. Not all kids come up questions; however, all you need is one response like this to focus on during your talks to prompt similar provocative responses in future contemplations. I emphasized the importance of asking questions about inner/outer experiences. Questions provide opportunities to “organize” and “structure” your worlds, to put them into perspective, and to create greater self-awareness, understanding, and appreciation. When kids asked questions in their writing, I threw this question out to the class: “Did any questions come to mind while you contemplated?”
Becoming the object was another favorite type of response. Children became anything they wanted to be: dogs, cats, mice, birds, eagles, pens, pencils, sneakers, flowers, balloons, trees, and scissors. By becoming something other than themselves, they had a chance to create experiences or fantasies through imaginative or creative thinking, certainly a form of contemplation. They made up fantasies involving the teacher, for example, where one student became a mouse and the teacher a cat. Every time the mouse came out to play and find food, the cat would try to kill or harm it. Most scenarios showed the underdog student being the victor against great odds.
Another example shows the teacher becoming a chair and all the students went to sit down on it, always squashing the poor chair. I was “brutalized” many times over and the kids had fun doing it, maybe giving them a little venting time, which defines one purpose of Contemplation Writing. Becoming-the-object reminded me of fairy tales where children got the “vicarious” thrill of defeating a giant (or adult), such Jack and the Beanstalk. These responses came closer to the end of the school year, a time where hostility to school and teachers surfaces in their contemplations.
One boy wrote only fairy-tale-like contemplations. None of his writing was realistic or dealt with present-moment, everyday situations. His experiences were reflected in short fantasies: one piece was similar to the biblical tale, Jonah and the Whale. The student found himself being “sucked up” by a giant fish. He threw pepper inside the fish, causing it to sneeze so hard that the child came flying out of the mouth.
Once I read dream contemplations, others followed with their dream experiences. One boy wrote (partial contemplation): “When I closed my eyes, I saw a dream I once had. It was me and twenty other people on a train that kept riding and riding. Suddenly, the train began going faster and faster…” Dreams are rich in imagery, emotion, and meaning. The class described the surreal landscape they visualized accompanied by the triggered feelings and any possible meaning to the dreamer. We had fun exploring the detailed world of dreams and the potential connections to everyday life.
Along with our “dream interpretations” came the study of student fantasies and fantasy worlds. With fantasy books/reading and movies so important in adolescent lives today, the children’s own fantasies inspired our discussion periods with in-depth descriptions of what these worlds looked like: (partial fantasy) “As the music played, the walls started to come in on us. We all started screaming. Finally, we were in the middle of the room. The walls stopped moving, and right above us, a bright light appeared. It was like the sun over us. We tried to look for the door, but there was no way out…” Again, from reading aloud one student fantasy, this ignited writing about fantasy worlds by the class in the future. Fantasies, like dreams, trigger incredible mind-pictures for visualization, and this made for lively discussions of the students’ fantasy worlds they viewed while the music played. At times, I asked kids to picture-storm fantasies they imagined while contemplating their inner experiences. In their earliest contemplations, students had a tendency to rehash all the fantasy movies, TV fantasy shows, and fantasy books they read, without describing their worlds. To these responses I said: “I want to know about your world, your fantasies, not the world of Harry Potter,” and they got the message.
One child always became-the-object. Nothing was reflected directly or realistically, and that was fine. Still, the contemplations were pretty exact because they showed feelings, thoughts, attitudes, and mind-pictures from her inside world, again, an objective of the EI project. I read their responses to show how we “disguise” our emotions through imaginative storytelling. But our real feelings are still projected, even though it is through an indirect, creative statement.
Not all contemplations were metaphors or fantasies. We had direct, present-moment responses as well. Examples (partial contemplations): “I felt sad today.” “I don’t want to be in school now.” “I am happy because after school I’m going roller skating.” “I felt like I was dying.” “I have a headache and I want to go home.”
Other present-moment responses were written. If I had a confrontation with a student that day, I might see the experience reflected in the contemplation. One child, who was consistently getting to me, wrote: “I can’t understand why the teacher gets so mad at me?” (This is a good example of a contemplation that asks a question, right?) I wrote him a personal note listing the reasons for my anger toward him. After that, I think he understood where I was coming from…
There were many present-moment responses concerning feelings about the music. They responded to how the music made them feel. Here are a few abbreviated writings: “The music made me feel like dancing.” “I felt I was the singer, singing the songs to the class.” “I enjoyed the music. It made me feel good for the first time today.” “I liked the words to that song.” The class could respond to the music emotionally, mentally, and psychologically. I remember playing a hit song by Peaches and Herb called “Reunited.” When the kids heard the line, “Reunited and it feels so good,” we all sang along in unison with the words. Describing present-moment music responses showed how children could get into one experience very deeply by contemplating the immediate stimulus.
Feelings from the present-moment (not related to the music) also came up in their writing (partial contemplation): “Fear is something each of us carries inside ourselves everyday of our lives. When you’re little, you’re scared of the dark. When you’re old, you’re scared of death…” This is a perfect contemplation for rapping about the potential effects of fear in children’s lives, in and out of school. I asked the class to brainstorm and picture-storm examples of fear in their lives and other people’s lives. A cross-fertilization of ideas may help out a child held back by a certain fear and deal with this difficult emotion. If kids want to expand this discussion, they can read books, fiction or non-fiction, where fear is a major theme or subject. The class dialogue is only a starting point to get young people to think about feelings that can be harmful and prevent them from succeeding.
Students wrote, what I call, “flat” present-moment contemplations. What you might call “objective” reporting, almost like a newspaper article (partial contemplation): “I got up this morning. I put on my clothes. I had juice and cereal. I took my books and went to school.” I knew the student and could not understand the emotionless response. I used this as an example to demonstrate the role of emotions, feeling the world around us, how feelings accompany our behavior, and discussed why we should try to express them in the contemplations. In my talks, I attempted to raise awareness about the connections between feelings and actions.
To get at the writer’s missing feelings, I read several similar contemplations out loud (and anonymously) with these questions: “What is missing from the contemplation? What feeling do you get after listening to these writings? How do you think the person felt? Did he or she really feel nothing at the time? What do you think?”
The students wrote contemplations about the past—memories: (partial memory) “I started to think back when I was smaller—about seven years old. I was in the bottom class (2-3). I always got everything wrong. The kids laughed at me and I got really sad. I didn’t know what to do…” I was amazed by their honesty in the memories, many of them negative. We discussed the mind-pictures stored in our memory banks, and how they seem so exact as we contemplate the past, and also, how distorted they can become over time. The imagery, feelings, thoughts, and the meanings derived from students’ memories made for intense, spirited class conversations. Discussion questions asked: “Did you take any side-trips into memories while the music played? Can you recall one now? Does the past affect our present life? Do you think about or reflect on the past at times? Why?”
Family life and family strife were common responses. I discovered that certain children would follow this train of experience in their contemplations: they became sagas or narratives of their lives. Two kids continually got into their uncles. There seemed to be lots of things happening all the time in their relationships with relatives. One student repeatedly wrote about his mother who suffered from mental illness.
The contemplations helped children see, upon reflection, and through the oral readings anddiscussions, what was going on in their families. I believe, because of their writings, they could step back, view things clearly, understand more, and gain greater in-sight to the dynamics of family life. It gave them a “handle” on their experiences in the family. They no longer felt that they were being pushed wildly down the rapids without control of what was happening. The kids saw the conflicts and how they felt toward various family members, for better or worse.
Sports, gym, and athletics are the favorite subjects and activities for most of the children in my school. However, the contests became wars: yelling, screaming, shouting, arguing, temper tantrums, and fights comprised a lot of the games. Their contemplations reflected all the bitterness, put-downs (“You suck!”), and hostilities that came out in sports.
The game of dodge ball especially triggered problems and conflicts. Through their writings and reflections, children became aware of themselves and others in action. They realized how the losers felt soar, angry, frustrated, and disappointed. They understood how these feelings caused the ensuing arguments and cursing. The class, as a whole, learned how to control themselves after losing or winning. Through in-sights into their emotional lives, they were able to improve their behavior and enjoy the games, win, lose, or draw.
Another category of responses was the children’s attempt to use humor. Certain writings seemed, to me, a little “silly” with little thought going into them. I explained the so-called dividing line between funny and not-so-funny: “Humor needs to be thought out; it’s easy to be silly, but to be funny, well, that’s harder and takes more brainstorming, picture-storming, word- storming, concentration, and contemplation.”
Here’s a somber contemplation that ends with a funny mind-picture, showing me that the student contemplated deeply, and as a result, gained in-sight to his current issues in school:
While the music played, I thought about the letter Mr. Pflaum wrote home to me this weekend. His last line really said a lot about what I’m doing in school—which isn’t very much. He wrote: “I’m an old song which can become a sad one if I keep doing what I’m doing in school.” Now I think I understand about putting more effort into all my work instead of just saying, “Well, this is easy so I’ll do it another time when I can do it quickly.” I also found out that my father went through the same exact thing I’m going through now. I said to him the next day, “If you know what happened to you, tell me before I go through that phase of life.” I realized that I have to get my butt back on course before I end up working as the guy in the zoo who picks up after the elephants.
And then again you have lines from contemplations that just cracked me up, for example, when one boy teased a friend by calling his sneakers “Burger Kings.” I visualized the mind-picture instantly: my inner eye scoped a boy with a pair of “Burger Kings” on and looking at his feet, at two huge burgers with lettuce, tomato, maybe a little bacon, pickles, and mayo on two round, soft buns, as he walks down the street. You can imagine the rest of this scenario…
Music, contemplation, reflection, writing, and discussion will improve, expand, and change your students’ EIQ and the classroom atmosphere. This is a simple internal education project that will change your inside/outside world, the classroom world, and the students’ worlds. Your kids, like mine, will not forget Contemplation Writing because, after a year of contemplating, this skill and process is imprinted in them. You will start something that they can take with them for life.
For more information, articles, and supporting documents about The Contemplation Writing Project, please contact the author at: email@example.com.