The Harlem Renaissance | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2019 G7:M3

The Harlem Renaissance

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Can we "find fuel for the future in the past"? Poet Nikki Grimes asks this question in her poem "Emergency Measures," the first in her collection One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance. As Grimes does in her book, students will spend the module pondering the wisdom from works created during the Harlem Renaissance. First, students will explore scenes and songs from a play, poems, and artwork to experience the explosion of creativity and ideas of collaboration and innovation. Then, students examine political artwork and cartoons, informative articles, and short stories to explore the social and political context of the Harlem Renaissance. Finally, students explore the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, turning back to Nikki Grimes and her collection of poems crafted with lines from Harlem Renaissance poets. Students consider whether they and contemporary writers, singers, and musicians truly can "find fuel for the future in the past."

In Unit 1, students explore collaboration in the Harlem Renaissance, noting how the Harlem Renaissance was an explosion and confluence of art, music, and literature. Students first examine scenes and songs from the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, experiencing this celebratory text that transformed American musical theater and was created through the collaboration of Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, F. E. Miller, and Aubrey Lyles. Students analyze how the musical and textual techniques in the play affect meaning and develop themes such as love persevering through tough times. Similarly, students explore the thematic connections of triumph over hardships in the poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson and the song and sculpture inspired by the text. Students then analyze iconic poems such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes, "Calling Dreams" and "Hope" by Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Claude McKay's "I Shall Return." In each of these poems, students analyze the structure, figurative language, and themes such as drawing strength from the past and overcoming adversity to fulfill one's dreams. Students conclude their exploration of collaboration and cultural confluence in a collaborative discussion comparing McKay's poem to artwork by Meta Warrick Fuller and Winold Reiss for thematic connections around drawing strength from and longing for home or Africa.

In Unit 2, students explore the social and political context of the Harlem Renaissance by reading short informational texts and examining visual art. Students learn how the Harlem Renaissance occurred during the era of the Great Migration, Jim Crow laws, and the racial violence of post-Civil War America. They then read two short stories, "His Motto" by Lottie Burrell Dixon and "The Boy and the Bayonet" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, analyzing point of view and the interactions between story elements, such as character, plot, and setting. Additionally, students discuss how both stories develop themes about working hard to achieve dreams and how community helps to bring out our best selves. Students continue their exploration of the Harlem Renaissance context by engaging with literary argument writing. Students examine a model literary argument essay then write pair and independent essays, discussing how three pieces of work from the Harlem Renaissance are connected by themes such as looking to the past for strength, collaboration and community to bring out one's best self, and dreams giving life meaning and purpose.

In Unit 3, students explore the contemporary legacy of the Harlem Renaissance by examining short informational and literary texts, visual art, and performances to further develop their sense of how the Harlem Renaissance continues to impact us today. To develop their background knowledge about this legacy, students analyze Nikki Grimes' poem "Emergency Measures," original artwork associated with the poem, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's ballet, "Uptown," which was inspired by the people, places, art, music, and writing of the Harlem Renaissance. Then students study several of Nikki Grimes' poems in conjunction with the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, learning how Grimes uses lines from poets such as Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson to create her own poems which develop themes similar to those of the Harlem Renaissance but in a contemporary context. Students continue their exploration of the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance by creating a museum exhibit, which includes three pieces from the Harlem Renaissance and one contemporary piece that they have studied or created themselves. Students write a curator's statement explaining how the works are connected by theme and create labels discussing the details of structure, language, and theme in each piece. Students practice and revise the presentation of their curator's statements and labels preparing for the Harlem Renaissance museum, in which students contribute to making a better world by sharing these important works with their community.

Notes from the Designer

The texts for the module contain references to sensitive topics such as racism, oppression, racial violence, and life challenges. The poems, short stories, and artwork address these complex issues of racism. The supplemental texts examined throughout the module help to explain the collaboration, socio-political context, and legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. In tackling issues of racism, oppression, racial violence, and life challenges, the texts examined across this module raise issues that may be upsetting, painful, or confusing for students. The design of this module aims to support students as they process sensitive or challenging passages. Across lessons, teaching notes call attention to specific passages that may be especially troubling for students and offer suggestions for helping students process the content of these passages with strength and compassion. Instructional decisions throughout the module, too, equip students with the literacy skills necessary to interpret the writers' choices and their development of themes around hope and perseverance.

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas

How does collaboration influence an artistic renaissance?

  • Innovation occurs through collaboration and community.
  • The academic mindset of belonging is a critical aspect to creating a common identity and strong community during the Harlem Renaissance.
  • There are common themes, practices, and structures across the art, music, and literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

What are some of the historical factors surrounding and contributing to the Harlem Renaissance? 

  • Some societal factors that contributed to the movement and its art are the Great Migration, Jim Crow laws, and the racial violence of post-Civil War America. This migration, struggle, and oppression create urgency and frustration, out of which comes an expression of culture and identity. Out of the migration came a new freedom to create.

What are some of the lasting legacies of the Harlem Renaissance?

  • The Harlem Renaissance has contributed to contemporary art, music, literature, and politics.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. But the module intentionally incorporates Social Studies content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D2.Civ.14.6-8. Compare historical and contemporary means of changing societies, and promoting the common good.
  • D2.His.4.6-8. Analyze multiple factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
  • D2.His.14.6-8. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Devices to access the internet: To enable students to listen to or view audio, video, and artwork collections. Analyze and present music, visual, and performance art.

  • Laminators and computersTo make professional museum signage. Create signs for the performance task museum.

  • Devices to record presentations: To enable teachers and students to review presentations for formative and summative assessments. Record presentations for learning and assessment purposes.

Refer to each Unit Overview for more details, including information about what to prepare in advance.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • Consider arranging meetings either with the experts in the fields listed below, or other artists, musicians, or writers. Also, begin planning for the Harlem Renaissance Museum performance task early, so that students can invite community members such as the experts who have visited class, friends, family members, and other classes or schools.


  • The students explore contemporary art, music, dance, and literature inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. Consider contacting local art and music universities, studios, and authors to arrange meetings with those who have also been inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. Consider using the artist biographies from Nikki Grimes' One Last Word as a starting point.
  • Students also create a museum exhibit and Harlem Renaissance museum collection. Consider reaching out to local museum directors, curators, and other docents to share their experience writing statements and labels as well as setting up exhibits.


  • Consider visiting sites of interest, or the organizations associated with the experts above to meet with artists who have been inspired by the Harlem Renaissance or to see exhibits of Harlem Renaissance works at museums or libraries.


  • Throughout the module, students are provided with extension opportunities in the context of the classroom, but students eager to expand their engagement with the topic can record videos of their interviews with community members and work on "mini documentaries" or write stories of the people they interview in order to share with larger audiences.


Each unit file includes supporting materials for teachers and students, including guidance for supporting English language learners throughout this unit.


Each unit in the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize students' understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Performance Task

Harlem Renaissance Museum Collection

Throughout the module, students read poems and stories, listen to songs, and view visual and performing art from the Harlem Renaissance. For the performance task, students will share these works with an audience beyond their classroom, in a Harlem Renaissance Museum. Sharing this museum with others is important because these are seminal works and yet there are so few middle school resources on the Harlem Renaissance. In Unit 3, students curate a set of texts, songs, and artwork connected by a theme from the Harlem Renaissance. Additionally, they curate a contemporary piece that they either found or made themselves. Together with their classmates, students will present their set to a wider audience in a Harlem Renaissance Museum. Both their written and oral presentation of their curator's statement, labels, and the works themselves are part of their museum exhibit. 

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts and resources that need to be procured. Please download the Required Trade Books and Resources Procurement List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
Shuffle Along (CD)
by Eubie Blake
one per classroom
ISBN: 632433320426
One Last Word
by Nikki Grimes
one per student
ISBN: 9781681196022


Each module is approximately 6-8 weeks of instruction, broken into 3 units. The Module-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade level landing pages, provide a big picture view of the module, breaking down the module into a week-by-week outline. It shows how the module unfolds, the focus of each week of instruction, and where the six assessments and the performance task occur.

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