Teacher Magazine - March 3, 2000

"The Music Man"

By Karen L. Abercrombie 03/03/2000

A teacher's Motown curriculum makes learning as easy as A-B-C. From Baby Love to What's Going On, the singles produced by Motown Records artists such as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and the Jackson 5 in the 1960s and '70s changed the sound of popular music. And after 40 years of blasting out of radios, energizing film scores, hawking hamburgers, and prompting tears at weddings, the songs have become a soundtrack to modern American life.

The legend of Motown Records and its music has even sparked learning in a Michigan classroom, thanks to English teacher Ryan Goble.

The 24-year-old Goble, a teacher at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, grew up listening to Motown and still has a strong, emotional attachment to the music. As a teacher, it occurred to him that the songs and stories of Detroit's music factory would have cross-generational classroom appeal for both adults and students. Working as a consultant for Tinkham Alternative High School in Westland, Michigan, Goble collaborated with other teachers to create a two-week, Motown-inspired mini-unit in art, communications, math, and science and presented it to students last spring. 

Tinkham teachers give the unit high marks for innovation. For example, Goble modeled the communications classes after Motown Records' famous finishing school, where studio employees coached newly discovered artists in etiquette, interviewing skills, and stage routines. Students even took a field trip to the original Motown studios to meet Maxine Powell, the Motown etiquette coach. The modern day objective:improve students' job interview skills. The science component of the mini-course taught students about sound waves and electronic music, then dispatched them to build loudspeakers and microphones. "If you tried to teach this concept with a textbook, you would not have the same outcome," says Lynn Malinoff, a teacher consultant at the school. "The kids learned the content effortlessly."

This spring, Tinkham teachers plan to use Goble's brand of integrated thematic instruction when they teach about the Holocaust, working collaboratively with Detroit's Holocaust Memorial Center. Meanwhile, Goble is preparing to take his imaginative teaching methods to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Summer Teacher Institute in Cleveland, where he's conducting a workshop on how to teach creative writing using Beatles songs.

In addition to creating a sense of excitement about schoolwork, Goble hopes the mini-courses teach a lesson in the key of life: Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. transformed an $800 loan into a multimillion dollar business, he points out, and many of the Motown stars started out as teenagers pursuing their passion for music. "So many kids today are afraid to have dreams or are told that their dreams are impossible," he says. "Motown is proof that dreams can come true."