He calls the program the “Contemplation Music Writing Project,” which he used in his own classroom starting back in the 1970s until his retirement. The method involves playing music for students as they relax and simply listen. Then, the students write down anything they are thinking about or feeling and afterwards discuss their writing.
The idea for the program started when Pflaum was a teacher at PS 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he had a particularly rowdy group of students come back after lunch break. He threw on some Billy Joel to get the kids to calm down.
“At first I just started with playing music after the kids came back from lunch and they were hyperactive,” Pflaum said. “After doing this for a couple of months, playing the music, I threw in the writing.”
There were no rules for the writing — no set number of words, no topic, no prompt. All they had to do was write down exactly what they were thinking or feeling in that moment. There were also no rules for what kind of music was played. He even asked students to bring in their own mixed tapes for him to play.
“The idea was to get the kids into present time, because I felt that they weren’t exactly with me,” Pflaum said. “I didn’t like to demand attention and say, ‘Listen to me,’ because I wanted it to come from them. I wanted it to be self-motivated.”
Today, emotional intelligence is a hot topic in schools all around the country. Psychologists, social workers and teachers alike have done research and looked into ways to get children more in-tune with their own emotions, noting that knowledge of self is an entire intelligence unto itself.
But back in the 1970s, when Pflaum started this project, no one had heard of emotional intelligence. He was working off of his own belief that children needed to understand themselves before they could really be educated about others.
“My feeling was that the kids had to know more about their world before they started studying about other worlds and other people,” he said. “The first step is to know yourself and then you can get into the world around you.”
An essential part of that self-awareness, according to Pflaum, was the discussion that followed the writing. Talking about writing allowed students to relate to each other and create a “cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences.”
Years later, Pflaum’s students still remember his class and use his lessons in their everyday lives. Jasmine Castro, a former student at PS 16, called Pflaum one of her “most influential teachers.”
“Contemplation helped me face and understand all the changes and stages we go through in life,” Castro said, noting that she kept a journal in high school to help her sort through her thoughts and emotions.
“Still to this day, when my husband and I argue, for any reason whatsoever, I grab my phone and jot down on my notepad what is really bothering me,” she said. “When I re-read what I have written I notice that sometimes I'm overreacting or sometimes there are more things that are bothering me.”
Another student, Marisol Santos, said the writing helped her in middle school, especially because she was “a very private person.”
“At the time when Mr. Pflaum introduced the contemplation writing program to me and my fellow classmates, I was at a place in my life where I felt no one or nothing can help me with whatever I was going through,” Santos said. “The contemplation writing program helped me express my thoughts and feelings.
“I really hope that others use this technique and it helps them as much as it helped me.”
Pflaum hopes to introduce his curriculum to others, as well. He wrote about the curriculum in a chapter of the upcoming book, Mindfulness for Youth: From the Classroom to the Clinic.
He believes the writing project will work well for students of all ages, and he hopes to have it introduced in correctional institutions.
“It would definitely have a strong, long-lasting effect on the current bullying and stressed out atmospheres in schools,” he said.