Michael Jackson Lessons: A Cross-Curricular Experience

By learning about Michael Jackson through these lesson plans, students can explore history, science, math, and so much more.

By Debra Karr

Michael Jackson


It is no accident that Michael Jackson was granted the title "King of Pop." Like him or not, his music, image, and talent revolutionized modern popular culture, redefined the music video, and roused the public's interest.

Because his music spread into the collective world psyche crossing racial, geographic, historical, social, and economic boundaries for over four decades, it became a part of a global experience. When our world got the news of his sudden death on June 25, 2009 it caused global grief.

No stranger to the limelight, Michael Jackson, the individual, was often a topic of conversation about a variety of subjects (some pleasant, and some not) ranging from germ phobias (science) and legal problems (civics)  to humanitarian causes (social studies), unprecedented album sales (math), the African American influence on American music (history), and sensationalized journalism (language arts).

The next five lessons (in honor of the Jackson 5) can help teachers weave the theme of Michael Jackson into the content areas of History/Geography, Civics/Current Events, Jazz/Math, Science/Biology, and Language Arts/Journalism. By combining the subject of Michael Jackson with our academic content areas we, as educators, are allowing ourselves the opportunity to employ interdisciplinary teaching.  We are provoking class discussion by utilizing a high-profile icon to gain student interest. We are integrating the arts by analyzing the artist's contributions to the culture at large. We are encompassing current events as stories of the icon continue to develop and unfold via the media. We are training our students to decipher between fact and fiction by questioning information. We are helping our students develop their own opinions based on research, investigation, analysis, and historical facts rather than sensationalism.   

You could have your class do a five minute warm up by having them respond to the following questions in a notebook or journal: Where were you when you heard the news that Michael Jackson had died? How did you feel and why? Then use one of the lesson plans below to teach about Michael Jackson.

The Jackson Five Lessons:

"We Are the World"-From Continent to Continent and Migration to Music

This lesson describes African cultural roots in Nigeria, and the migration of slaves and sharecroppers in North America.  As African Americans expressed their own mental bondage via song during the Harlem Renaissance, they built a sub-culture within a mainstream culture and created literary, visual and performing art forms that have left an indelible mark on the world stage for generations to come. As students view Power Point presentations, read slave narratives, and are exposed to the music created during this historical period, they can form their own ideas and opinions which they can reflect later in the lesson via original poetry, paintings and songs. Because this lesson runs over a period of several days, I would introduce the lesson with a map of Africa and have students draw the slave routes that got slaves to the North, while students listen to the slave narrative giving the vicarious journey more potency by enhancing geographical knowledge. Any further Internet research on the regional areas within the continent of Africa would also be helpful.

"Billie Jean" - Jury and Justice- A Look at Our Legal System

This lesson is an in-depth study of the United States judicial system using the Michael Jackson trial as a case study. The authors of this lesson recommend that the material within this lesson be used for high school students only. Students read a New York Times article that highlights the high-profile case, and then they study aspects of our legal system. Four signs are posted around four corners of the room listing the following statements: "It is easy to presume someone innocent before proven guilty;" "All evidence presented at a trial provides clear, easy-to-understand information;" "It is always possible to find a jury of one's peers;" and "It is hard to be impartial when judging a celebrity." After much discussion, stand underneath the statement that they mostly agree with and then a further classroom discussion ensues. I like that this lesson combines civics with pop culture. I think the lesson would be more thought provoking if the same kind of case and lesson design were used with a non-celebrity to see if students would stand under the same signs they had during the previous case study.

"Thriller"- Math and Music

Students learn about the many different rhythmic combinations that can be utilized in a piece of music during this lesson. As they work in groups, they derive a mathematical formula and apply that formula to the measures of music by referencing a "fraction notation chart" and the "rhythms worksheet." With members of their groups they also experiment in creating combinations of rhythms, and compile a list of ways to notate one beat through referencing quarter notes, two eighth notes, four sixteenth notes, and a dotted eighth sixteenth note. They discuss finite and infinite possibilities. I like that this lesson couples math formulas with creativity, and shows students that there is a systematic method behind seemingly free-floating art forms. In addition to using the jazz genre and Ella Fitzgerald's scat technique, I would also use pop music, like "Thriller," and hip hop genres so that students could compare and contrast various styles while analyzing rhythmic combinations within measures.

"Bad" - The History of Germs and the Researching of Bacteria Killing Properties

In this lesson students study the historical beliefs surrounding germ theory beginning in the 1600's. Additionally, students implement prediction strategies with hands-on scientific experimentation to learn about the bacteria killing properties found in anti-bacterial wipes. This is a great lesson for a science lab because it puts theory into practice. I would also have students develop some kind of chart that listed all the different kinds of anti-bacterial products, and document their level of effectiveness once the actual lab results became clear. This would allow students to see the contrast between products.

 "Beat It"- First Amendment Rights, Journalism and Celebrity Rights

Students in this lesson are divided into two groups. One group is "pro-paparazzi" and the other group is "pro-celebrity-privacy". Students read the article "As Paparazzi Push Harder, Stars Try to Push Back"  and listen to the quote "Anyone who's a celebrity in this day and age knows this is part of what being a celebrity is, for better or worse. It's a 24-7 job." made by Janice Min, editor at Us Weekly. Students debate and discuss the two opposing sides and then develop their own closing arguments. As individuals, they answer a series of questions pertaining to the discussion. I like that this lesson is timely and encourages students to think beyond their own circumstances. To close out the lesson, as an exit ticket, I would  have the students pick one of the following words: "sensationalism," " journalism," "consumerism," "art," "supply" and "demand"  and then have them write about how that chosen word is related to the day's debate.





Teacher Education Guide

Debra Karr