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Activities for Middle School Students on the Harlem Renaissance

by Michael Stratford

There's never been a cultural fusion of music, art and literature like the Harlem Renaissance; from the 1920s to the mid-1930s, voices such as novelist Zora Neale Hurston, poet Langston Hughes and jazz master Duke Ellington sought to rise above conventional ideas of African-American expression. These artists, and many like them, overcame stereotypes, used their art to respond to poverty and threw a spotlight on their culture. There are many effective middle school activities that can spotlight the Renaissance as well.

Hurston's Folktales

Zora Neale Hurston, author of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," was a leading figure in the Harlem movement; she took her contemporary ideas from her own folktales. Have your students select an African-American myth from Hurston and dramatize it as a class play, with students writing the script, creating scenes and acting out the tale for other classes. Or they can create a storybook with illustrations from the fable, done on colored construction paper with markers and colored pencils. Your students will gain a richer sense of the visual and dramatic elements inherent in these pieces.

Jazz and Poetic Responses to Poverty

The jazz stylings of the Harlem Renaissance directly connect to the lyrics of Harlem poets. Ask your students to read Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son" and listen to Bessie Smith's "Down Hearted Blues." Both speak of disadvantaged families, but your students can find essential differences in tone, moods and themes -- are these works hopeful or hopeless? What different approaches do the artists use in confronting poverty and its effects? The group discussions of your class and their journals can enrich students' knowledge about how culture responds to economic disadvantage.

Interconnections Diagrammed

Harlem's Renaissance enjoyed interconnection between music, art, dance, theater, poetry and story. One interactive tool is the Harlem Renaissance Venn diagram, which allows your students to connect the period's artists and works into a visual that reinforces their ideas. For example, they can diagram elements -- images, lyrics, lines -- by artist Charles Alston, poet Countee Cullen and novelist Claude McKay, demonstrating how their individual circles join; these artists were aware of their culture's power, and mutually reiterated the theme of rising above poverty through artistic expression. Students can discuss how artistry overcomes adverse circumstances.

Hughes and Stereotypes

Langston Hughes' career origin is a starting point for examining stereotypes. Hughes, elected class poet because "Negroes have rhythm," made a career out of this generality. You could have students write stereotypical group labels -- jocks, nerds, geeks -- on flip charts. Small groups would then travel from chart to chart, discussing how labels affect people they know or affect them personally, perhaps also giving examples of media portrayals of these labels. The students can move on to racial stereotypes, increasing their awareness of bias in human interaction.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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