Resources for Educators

On What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye sang about the world around him—war and social upheaval, environmental disaster, economic injustice, and urban decline. These themes are as resonant today as they were then, and offer rich opportunities to connect to a range of curricular topics and creative experiences.

This project uses three “lenses” to explore the historical, musical, and intellectual themes of What’s Going On:

  • History & Culture, to frame discovery and thinking about the world then and now.
  • Musicality, to learn through the lens of music composition and arrangement.
  • Issues & Ideas, to look into the essential themes of the album and judge their connection to today.

Through this framework, we invite young people to think about how their “now” compares with Marvin’s “then,” and to create original artworks in response to the critical question, what’s going on now?

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What's Going On...Now Lessons

Through these lessons, teens in grades 8-12 will:

  • Research, assess, and reflect on then and now, and the change between them through investigation of the history, culture, and art of the Vietnam era and contemporary times.
  • Use (and/or become familiar with) a variety of different “artistic lenses” or ways of seeing. This can include storytelling through digital media as well as other forms of artistic expression and performance.
  • Find and incorporate the tools, primary sources, and best practices for communicating ideas or creating variety of inspired new performances that leverage the music of What’s Going On itself.


These lessons and investigations are designed for 45-minute teaching blocks. Prior to beginning the lessons, make time to orient students to, and introduce the music, the times, and the issues section. Here is a way to introduce the campaign to your students.

The first four lessons provide the foundation for learning around the issues, songs, and historical contexts. We recommend that you teach each of these lessons and investigations in the following order:

Lesson 1

Music and Civil Society [PDF]:The first lesson of the series examines the role of music in society, through a conversation around contemporary songs and their themes. Students will analyze and reflect on popular music of today, and begin to understand the changing standards (and unchanging themes) in popular music over time.

Lesson 2

Culture and Music [PDF]: This lesson examines the ways music reflects the social, political, and cultural climate in which it was created. Students will understand the complex issues of the Vietnam Era, and begin to assess the ways music both captures and creates culture.

Lesson 3

The Role of the Artist [PDF]: In this lesson, students reflect on the role of artists in society, through the lens of socially-conscious music. They debate the responsibility of the artist to be a change-leader, and listen to contemporary songs that reflect the issues of today.

Listening Guide

Guided Listening: "What's Going On" [PDF]: This lesson dives deeply into the album through guided listening and discussion of the key issues and ideas it addresses. The framework for this lesson provides multiple pathways for teachers to create a variety of positive listening environments, develop skills in active listening, and support student critique and reflection.

At the conclusion of these four lessons, student groups will choose an Issue/Song for deeper investigation and creative production. We suggest that you choose one or two lessons for group focus.

The investigations below center on:

  1. Examining the issue in the context of “then” and “now,”
  2. Exploring essential questions, and
  3. Examining the connection between the song and the theme. Each closes with a “call to creative action,” prompting students to choose an art form and/or media type to create their final project.


Investigation 1

Veterans Issues/ “What’s Happening Brother” [PDF]: From the struggles of returning Vietnam veterans to the issues faced by our modern day soldiers and their families, this lesson examines how we, individually and as a country, return to normal after war.

Investigation 2

Addiction / “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)" [PDF]: This lesson examines historical attitudes toward addiction and drugs through the lens of popular music. Students survey how addiction is impacting their communities today.

Investigation 3

Social Responsibility / “Save the Children” [PDF]: This lesson asks students to challenge who is responsible for the health and well-being of our future world. It assesses the ways that music brings people together around issues of civic action, and the ways that spirit may be evident in their communities.

Investigation 4

The Environment / “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” [PDF]: In this lesson, students discuss issues around balancing economic and environmental sustainability, and how advances in technology both protect and threaten the environment. They analyze two songs about the environment from two different eras, looking for differences and similarities between them.

Investigation 5

Personal Truth / “Wholy Holy” [PDF], “God Is Love” [PDF], “Right On” [PDF]Music has often been used as a vehicle for the expression of personal truths. This lesson allows listeners to take any of the songs listed above to look at how Marvin Gaye professes his personal ideas about Faith, God, and Love, and discuss their own.

Investigation 6

Poverty / “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” [PDF]: This lesson examines poverty in America—where it is, who it affects—and how it is portrayed in the popular media.

ideas for group activities

Host a Film Screening. From Standing in the Shadows of Motown to documentaries of the music and cultural issues of the Vietnam Era and today, there are countless videos to increase understanding and dialogue around the issues Marvin grappled with.

Throw a Listening Party. Aside from listening to the album itself, there are lots of ways to engage around music:

  • Motown Quality Control listened to the weekly charts to see how their songs fit into the context of popular music. We’ve made Spotify playlists of hit songs from each year between 1960-1971, and 2000-2011. Listen to these summer hits, and talk about how tastes in popular music have changed over time.
  • What’s Going On is seen as a collection of protest songs. What other protest songs were popular during the era? What music from 2000 to today could be considered protest music? Use Spotify to create playlists of songs from a range of eras and discuss.

Discussion starters. Each module in the Issues/Songs section has “essential questions” that can be used to guide and prompt discussion.

  • Can a song written in response to a specific event transcend time and place to have a lasting appeal? Why do people still care about the song, "Four Dead in Ohio." Are there current popular songs dealing with the issue we have learned about that will, in your opinion, stand the test of time? Why? Play it for the group, and discuss.
  • In what ways was the Vietnam War a defining event for an entire generation of Americans? Has there been a defining moment for your generation?

Using the Site to Support Learning

  • The Times section of the site connects users to the Vietnam Era and to contemporary life, from 2000-today. Read the articles in this section, and use the Interactive Timeline to explore “Marvin’s then” and “our now.”
  • Each module in the Issues/Songs section contains essential questions that can be used to guide and prompt group discussion, written response, or media creation.
  • Remind students that the CREATE section gives step-by-step instructions for contributing, as well as guidelines and rubrics for selection, production tips, ideas, and more.

Tips for Introducing Students to the Project

This project asks young people to use media to create their own responses to the critical question, What’s Going On…Now? Tell your students that there are three easy ways to get started:

  • Familiarize yourself with the issues and think about how they touch you. If you have a personal or emotional connection to the subject, your piece will be that much stronger.
  • Listen to the music, and spend some time looking at how the world was in Marvin’s day. Connecting the “then” to the “now” is an important part of this project.
  • Do some research. It will help inform and inspire your work. There is plenty to get you started on this site, and links to other, bigger collections on our Primary Source page. You might even find things to use in your own piece.

Other Resources

Selected lesson plans, ideas, and other materials for teaching:

Teaching History, Then and Now

Motown, Music and Society



About the Campaign

The Kennedy Center is launching a national campaign that asks teens to tell us: What’s Going On…Now? Read more about the campaign.




View the timeline

From then to now, an interactive timeline showcases important issues that found a voice on the album.




View the media

Check out what others are saying about what's going on now. Submit your content and join the conversation.