Music Writing, Contemplation, Tweeting, and Social and Emotional Learning

Oct 23, 2015 by

Jeffrey Pflaum –

How “The Contemplation Music Writing Project” Started

I walked in the door of my attic apartment and right away put on Traffic’s song, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” sung by Steve Winwood, whose lyrics began with,

“Dr. Mister Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar
Make it snappy…”

For the first few minutes I was in dreamland, the exact remedy required for a tough day at a difficult inner city school. But a funny thing happened on the way to an escape from myself: I kept seeing myself in the “mirror” of the day’s experiences in the classroom. All that I hoped to avoid, forget, and drown out in my mind and imagination came back in droves, all the negativity and residue from a bad day at Black Rock.

But another funny thing happened: As I listened, I stopped turning away from my self and looked at the anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness that rang through my body as the music continued to play on and on and on. I reconnected and re-encountered my feelings, thoughts, and experiences, but instead of running away from my inner life, I held it up for full frontal view.

Although painful and hurting, at the end of my “Dear Mr. Fantasy” concert, I felt a cloud lifted from my being, and more important, could continue my day, life, and world after school with a new self-awareness, presence of mind, and living in the moment, the NOW, and not stuck in past of events of the school day.

The thought occurred to me that my situation, feeling bummed and blue after school, reminded me of my class coming back to the room after lunch: everyone was hyper, anxious, angry, and certainly not looking forward to working for the remainder of the afternoon, and that includes my self. Without really thinking about it, I put a tape on my boom box, a Billy Joel album, and played its title song, “The Stranger.” And for some reason, playing music, not exactly the kids’ favorite sounds helped them to calm down—amazing grace.

I asked students, before playing the song, to close their eyes and put their heads on the desks, and to think of nothing, just go blank in their minds and listen to the sounds, and to focus, concentrate on the music and the words as best as they can. By re-focusing their distracted minds and bodies, by funneling all that excess energy—mostly negative—from the “lunchroom riots”—into music, “took them out of their gloom,” put them back in the room, and “made them all happy.”

The simple act of playing 5 to 10 minutes of music evolved into an entire curriculum titled, “The
Contemplation Music Writing Project,” where students contemplated their inner experiences, and wrote about whatever happened internally and then talked about those events with classmates and teacher. The intensity and energy level of our class discussions was powerful because everyone was involved and there for a purpose: to vent and release emotions, thoughts, and experiences, and also, to help others who were sitting in the room for the same purpose.

Through “Contemplation Music Writing” we developed a level of trust, sensitivity, tolerance, openness, and honesty to the point where we could write about and express what was on and in our minds and imaginations, what made us tick, and what made us not tick, to get into it, and get it out, and feel better, more aware of self-and-others and the world, to learn to live in it and in peace.

And it worked for all my classes for many years. As you will see in the upcoming samples of the students’ writings or contemplations, they described key events, situations, and circumstances in their lives in open, free, and direct expression, not holding back for anything. To update and make this work coming from the late 70s a little more contemporary, I have presented their contemplations as potential tweets to keep up with the current world of the Internet, technology, and social media.

Even from the brief 140 character “tweets,” you will be able to get into the kids’ heads. From the music listening sessions, things evolved into another lesson, “a penny for your thoughts,” where students could write down thoughts that occurred to them during the day and fill out an index card and throw it into a Bonus Box set up in the back of the room. These little “pennies” were read orally—and anonymously—later and discussed with classmates.

More amazing is the list of themes and titles culled from the children’s contemplations and “penny thoughts” that can be used for future creative writing lessons. As a teacher, you don’t have to go to outside resources for writing prompts: you will find them right there in the kids’ writings and feed them back to the class. All the creativity, thoughts, feelings, and experiences come directly from the students’ lives and acquire a lot more meaning for the entire class.

How “The Contemplation Music Writing Project” Works

I wrote several posts on “Contemplation Music Writing,” part of The Inner Cities Poetry Arts Project for EDUCATION NEWS (see references), where you play music, from rock to classical and everything else in-between, for 10 minutes while kids close their eyes, listen to the sounds, contemplate inner experiences, and write about whatever happened in the mind and imagination during that time. This is followed up by a discussion of the students’ experiences via reading aloud their contemplations along with an inquiry technique (questions-and-answers). The contemplation period runs about 30 minutes, and can be adapted to fit into most teaching schedules. And keep in mind that my curriculum spanned the seventies through the early 2000s, miles away from the world of education, as most teachers know it today.

When I first started contemplation music writing with below-average 5th and 6th grade students in a tough inner-city school, I asked them to write 1-, 2-, or 3-sentence contemplations describing what they experienced inside themselves. In the nineties, I broke down and asked for an entire
paragraph. Both writing lengths produced significant empirical results.

But it was the shorter contemplation music writings I compiled in A BOOK OF EXPERIENCES that recently caught my attention. The shorter works sounded more like fictional and non-fictional tweets of 140 characters. Now I feel that, due to scheduling limitations, the contemplation period can be compressed from 30 to 20 minutes: 5 minutes for music listening, 5 minutes for writing their contemplations, and a 5-minute discussion. Using this approach, I believe that educators, from elementary through high school, in inner-city, urban, suburban, and rural areas, can fit it into their programs, and would also appreciate an original, creative, entertaining, and progressive form of social, emotional, and academic writing and learning.

To give you a better idea of what I am talking about, I will present samples of my 5th grade students’ contemplations from “A Book of Experiences” (1981 – 1982). Each child had a “chapter” of his/her contemplations in the book, approximately 100 per student. I am also including in the article a final chapter from the book titled, “A Penny For Your Thought” (previously published on Education News), where kids wrote down thoughts occurring to them throughout the school day on 3” x 5” index cards and put them in a Bonus Box.

My SIGHT-IN lessons use quotations to make sense out of the children’s experiences they wrote about and described over the course of the school year. For the “A penny for your thought” lesson, we discussed its meaning and how it was used in everyday life. From there I chimed to the class, “a penny for your thought,” and handed out real pennies for each thought expressed orally by the students. Next, I set up a “Penny-For-Your-Thought Bonus Box.” Their thoughts were read aloud (anonymously) and discussed for a few minutes as a valuable downtime lesson. Examples of their “penny thoughts” will follow the student contemplations.

Student Contemplation Music Writing “Tweets” from A BOOK OF EXPERIENCES

The song made my heart stop. I thought I was out of breath. Then my heartbeat came
back. Boy, something scared me.

I thought of this morning in my house. My big cousin came and started to hit me with a
pen. I got so mad I punched her in the ribs and she cried like a baby.

I felt like an airplane in the sky just flying all over and feeling the air hitting against my hair.

I thought I was a skunk and everybody used to run away from me. One day I shook my own tail and I ran away from myself.

I remembered the time my brother and I were little. We were throwing oranges and my mother caught us and she did not do anything.

I became a bottle and everyone tried to break me, but it didn’t work.

I wish I could be Spiderman or Hulk so all the kids would look up to me. But being myself
I have more fun.

Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m in a dream or real life. Like I could be in bed sleeping right now or daydreaming about today.

April 30th is my birthday. I can’t wait. Even if I’m not having a party. I’d rather have love than a party.

Today I get the results of my x-rays. I wonder what’s wrong in my stomach. I hope and pray it’s not too bad.

I went to church four days in a row and felt good, real good. I was mad because my cousins also came and they were making fun of my religion.

I thought I was God. People pray to me but can’t see me. I live in a sky house. I can hold the Earth in my hand, make it rain, and let the sun out.

When I hear the music, my body feels like it is flying to the sun. And my head feels broken apart like I was in outer space.

I don’t want to do contemplation. I want to play 7-Up. Oh boy! Oh boy! I have to do contemplation. Oh boy! Oh boy! I want to play.

I imagined I could beat somebody up in a fight. I thought I was big, but when I looked at myself, I was not so big. I was little…

It was funny thinking today. I imagined my brother got sick and I stayed home with him.
It was sad, but it’s all in your mind…

I thought I was a father. I felt happy and funny. I was a good father.

I remembered my friend, he was my best friend, but he moved away somewhere and I
don’t know the name of the place. Can’t see him anymore.

At lunchtime I had a headache because it was noisy and they were throwing food all around the cafeteria and now I can’t think.

This is a very good thing. It is very good. I felt sad while the record was on. I remembered my grandfather when he died.

I felt like something would happen in the school. I was scared to death. I thought of this while going to school this morning. That’s why I wrote it.

I saw a little cat on the way to school. I wanted to take it, but the cat ran in the street and
almost got hit by a car. I got scared…

This afternoon I was playing jump rope and I always made out. I said to myself, “I am a

loser.” I tried and tried but I always lose.

I saw a dog inside my head and it was running after me and I was hitting him in the mouth.

Today I saw the sun, a beautiful sun, coming from behind a hill. It was so lovely that I didn’t know what to write.

Today while doing my work, my mom came to see the teacher. I was so scared because everyone looked at me, asking me why my mother came up.

I felt like an old man sitting alone at a lunch counter.

While I was going to the store for my aunt, I saw a guy curse out another guy and said in my mind that they were going to fight.

I felt relaxed and comfortable in my bed. Nobody’s in my house. Me by myself no noise and resting.

I had a lot of thoughts in my mind. I liked one of them. I was sitting on my couch eating a big pizza pie and watching TV.

I thought about last night. I woke up 4 times because I had 4 bad dreams. I would like to remember what they were to get them out of my mind.

Please note: Apologies if some of the contemplations run over the 140 characters, but most of them fall within the “required amount.”

Now try to picture the contemplations as Tweets written on computers or paper and reflect on how effective this “5-5-5 Contemplation Music Writing Tweet Project” might be in your classroom. The contemplations can be sparks for longer, future fiction and non-fiction student pieces. Check out the possible writing themes I extracted from the Contemplation Music Writing Tweets:

Breathless
Heartbeat
I Woke Up This Morning
Running Away from Myself
Yes, I Remember
Try to Break Me
Being Myself
Daydreaming
Is It Real or Fake?
I Can’t Wait
Hoping and Praying
I Live in a Sky House
Let the Sun Come Out
Flying to the Sun
Outer Space
Thinking Today
It’s All in Your Mind
Death in the Family
I Get Scared
I Am a Loser
An Old Man
Talking in My Mind
Self-Talk
Last Night
Get It Out of My Mind

These can be used as potential themes and titles for stories, fables, fairy tales, tall tales, myths, and poetry. Ask the class to expand their tweets into longer pieces, and the best part is: the “prompt-tweets” are organic and natural because they come from the students themselves, their own contemplation experiences. Again, the Tweet activity can be done on paper or on the computer.

The next exercise, “A Penny For Your Thought,” is where children write thoughts-as-tweets on index cards when thoughts come up during the school day. Check out these pennies-for-your-thoughts samples:

The Final Chapter: “A Penny For Your Thought”

I was thinking it was 3:00 P.M. Time to go home.

Today I was mad because I went home for lunch and no one was home. I went home for
nothing.

While we were in music, a girl from 6-2 was crying because she did not want to do the work that they gave her.

Today I had a very hard day. I had an earache and a bad one. I told the teacher and he said to go to the bathroom. Maybe that would help.

I thought I was a fat man. I always bumped into things. One day I sat in a chair and it broke and I bounced all over the place.
I felt angry because I woke up late for school. I was sleepy and having a nice dream and my mother woke me up.

Today when Marisol told me that her uncle died I said I am sorry that he died.

I thought I was Fonzie and all the girls loved me.

I imagined Ralph got out of the class and all the girls were happy because he is a pain.

My brother had a fight with a guy who had a knife. I saw my brother with blood on him.

I remembered when I was doing my homework. I made a mistake and was so mad that I wanted to cry. I failed to succeed.

I thought there would be no more school no more teachers and no more work.

I wish I had a little puppy.

I thought I was shrinking like an ant.

I remembered when I tried to catch a bird because it couldn’t fly and I jumped and fell and the bird flew away.

Today I feel like going home because the teacher is out and I don’t like the substitute. I don’t know what to do.

I imagined being in a waterbed with nobody bothering me.

I thought I was dead and they were praying for me.

I thought about the class. They are always fighting and they always get mad at each other and I wish they would stop.

I thought I was a feeling of love and an expression of love.

I had a thought that I was going to be the dumbest girl in the class because I always think I can’t do things or write things. But now I know I could do things.

I thought I could walk on a rainbow.

Little dog little I go to a little dog named Mr. Pflaum.

I draw a little monkey that looks just like __________, the monkey girl. Just kitten.

I thought I jumped off the roof and suddenly the wind pushed me out into the air and I
flew like Superman, but I didn’t have a cape.

When we do quotations it makes me feel good.

I thought I was a flower, but I was not. I became sad. I want people to like me.

My thought was about love and like I said in reading: “I love everybody in the world!”

I was thinking of love and that it would keep my marriage together forever, forever, and forever.

The guys were making fun of the girls today.

My sister was crying because her guy left her. I felt sad for her.

I thought I was a doll made out of paper and they threw me in the basket and that was the end of me.

In gym I thought we were going to lose, but we won two games and 4-2 was mad.

I imagined I was asleep and in another world and there was no one there but God and I.

I imagined what it would be like to live in a cloud. It would be my house made of clouds.

I thought I was going to pass the reading test.

I thought I was a very little baby put in front of a door.

I will write poems until I die.

I thought about going swimming, but I don’t know how to swim. I think I’m never going
to swim.

I had a good day in my dream and it was about today, but it was not true and I am mad.

I thought today was a beautiful day to go to school.

I thought I was an ant and somebody stepped on me.

I thought I would never finish the reading test, but I did and now I’m scared.

I thought I was a penny and I felt mad because I wasn’t worth anything.

Today I scared Angel and he started crying because he thought I would beat him up.

I imagined being a cow and I ate the farmer’s hair and Mr. Pflaum’s hair, too.

I thought about being friends with the whole wide world and never fighting with them and never arguing with them

I’m scared about tomorrow, I will act in a play and I’m really scared.

My sister and I talk like babies and my mother’s getting mad at us.

My brother and I had a fight. He almost sat on me and I thought I would die.

My dog was in my bed and when I looked, he had my shoe and broke it.

I imagined I was in a house of crazy people. If you go in my house, you come out crazy and hurt.

I was thinking about gym. I fell and looked like Stupid Man.

Today I’m going to the doctor and I don’t want to go because I hate doctors.

My brother and father had a fight and he told my brother that he’s big so he could get out and live his life the way he wants.

My father said, “_______, you are not my daughter.” I said, “I know. You’re so ugly next to me.” He got mad at me for the whole day.

I wish I wasn’t born because I don’t understand my life. I tell it to my friend and she says her life is the same thing. I wish I were with God.

I thought about all the work that we have done. I am proud of my work because I wanted
to learn.

I wished I passed to the 6th grade because I know how it feels to be left back.

I was thinking about contemplation. It’s good and it’s funny to me. Contemplation is
important to my life.

I think you can see how the “pennies-for-thoughts” would work as tweets and become potential prompts for longer writing, whether it’s a fiction or non-fiction narrative. “Pennies” or “Tweets” as compressed language can be expanded into creative writing, essays, short stories, poetry, and prose poems. I re-read the “pennies” and found the following possible themes and titles kids can use for future writing:

The Last Angry Kid
“Had to Cry Today”
A Hard Day
Fat Man
NICE Dreams
The Pain in the Class
Fighting
No More School
The Incredible Shrinking Child
Praying
A Feeling of Love
Rainbow Walking
The Wind
“Put a Little Love in Your Heart”
I Love Everybody
Making Fun
Lonely Hearts
Winners and Losers
The Reading Test
Good Day, Daydream
A Beautiful Day to Go to School
Dial 1-800-IMAGINE
Baby Talk
House of Crazy People
Fathers and Sons
Fathers and Daughters
Understanding My Life
Contemplation

Let your kids select their favorite music and they will enjoy tweeting away their contemplations in 140 characters and learn something in the process about themselves, their feelings, thoughts, memories, dreams, daydreams, reflections, and reality. Save one or two 15-minute time lessons each week, or assign a Contemplation Music Writing Tweet for homework, and your classroom atmosphere as well as the inner lives of your students, will change for the better.

For more information and references about “The Contemplation Music Writing Project,” please go to the following resources:

(1) “THE INNER CITIES POETRY ARTS PROJECT: There’s a Soul Arising in My Mind” (Part 1) at: http://www.educationviews.org/cities-poetry-arts-project-theres-soul-arising-mind/.

(2) “THE INNER CITIES POETRY ARTS PROJECT: There’s a Soul Arising in My Mind” (Part 2) at: http://www.educationviews.org/cities-poetry-arts-project-theres-soul-arising-mind-part-2/.

(3) “THE INNER CITIES POETRY ARTS PROJECT” at:
http://www.educationviews.org/cities-poetry-arts-project/.

(4) “Music Listening Changes Children’s Lives” at: http://www.educationviews.org/music-listening-childrens-lives.

(5) “How Parents Can Use Music To Change Their Kids’ Lives” at:

http://www.educationviews.org/parents-music-change-kids-lives.

(6) “3 M’s for EDUCATION: MEDITATION, MUSIC, and MOTIVATION” at: http://www.educationviews.org/3-ms-education-meditation-music-motivation/.

(7) The BAM Radio Network’s blog, ED Words, where you will find my posts on my various EI/SEL projects at:
www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/blogger/listings/jeffpaul.

(8) Edutopia blog post titled, “Using ‘Music Writing’ to Trigger Creativity, Awareness and Motivation” (4/12/12), at:
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/music-writing-trigger-creativity-jeffrey-pflaum.

(9) A follow-up piece, titled “Build Reading and Writing Skills with Music” (6/6/12), can be
found at: http://edutopia.org/blog/reading-skills-music-writing-jeffrey-pflaum.

(10) Newspaper article by Phil Corso in The Bayside Times/Times Ledger titled, “Bayside man
uses melody to move minds in classroom” (9/21/12).

(11) Author’s website at www.JeffreyPflaum.com has articles titled “Contemplation Writing”
(1992) and “Here and Now: Nine Meditative Writing Ideas” (1994) published by
Teachers & Writers Magazine (NYC). “’Contemplation’ strikes emotional chords with
kids” (1998), published by The New York Teacher Newspaper/City Edition, can be found
at the site. There is an unpublished article, “Reflection Writing,” which shows a practical
application of the Contemplation Music Writing process. Samples of longer student
contemplations and potential writing themes/titles are there as well.

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