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Lesson Plans

Lesson Plan: The Harlem Renaissance

February 15, 2013


Langston Hughes by Carl Van Vechten. 1936

Full Lesson



English, Social Studies, Art

Estimated Time

Two 45 or 60 minute class periods with several nights of homework (or four to five class periods if no homework is assigned)

Grade Level

7 – 12


Students will learn about the social, cultural and political circumstances which gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance. They will also learn about the influences that inspired the work of the Harlem Renaissance’s artists and musicians. Finally, students will be given several opportunities to create their own Harlem Renaissance inspired work.


The Harlem Renaissance was a significant social and cultural movement which took place in the 1920s and 1930s following the Great Migration during which thousands of African-Americans left the south and moved north and west.

The result was the flourishing of art, music and literature that reflected the history and experience of African-American life. The artistic, literary and musical contributions of Harlem Renaissance artists continue to serve as an inspiration for today’s artists.


Opening Activity
Discuss the social, political and economic climate of America in the 1920s and 1930s.

  • Assuming some prior knowledge, what are similarities and difference in circumstances of African-Americans and whites in a place like New York City at the the time? What about parts of the South?
  • Focus on what accounted for the differences in people’s experiences based on their race.
  • Ask students to consider what factors influenced the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and Midwest.
  • Ask students why they think the arts are an effective means through which individuals and groups can express their history, their frustrations and their hopes for the future. Ask them to give contemporary examples.

Activity 1
To set the stage, read “Harlem” by Walter Dean Myers to students and ask them to visualize the story as you are reading. As you read, you may show students a sideshow of Christopher Myers’ illustrations of the poem.

  • Give students a copy of the poem and ask them to underline all of the places and locations mentioned in it. Have students read the poem a third and final time and highlight or circle all of the people mentioned. Ask students why they think Harlem became a social and cultural center for African-Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Conduct a primary document analysis which will allow students to get a sense of Choose selections from Alain Locke’s “The New Negro”, poems by Langston Hughes (“Cultural Exchange”, “Democracy”, “Freedom’s Plow”) James Weldon Johnson (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) and Countee Cullen (“Yet Do I Marvel” and “Heritage”) or excerpts from the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Have student work either individually or in small groups to answer the following questions about the documents: Who is the intended audience? What is the subject matter? How does this reflect the themes of the Harlem Renaissance?

Once the analysis is complete, have students return to a large group and share their findings. Focus on the common themes throughout the different documents.

Have students write a found poem in which they alternate phrases or lines from Harlem Renaissance poems with original lines of their own. Host a poetry slam during which students will read their found poems aloud.

Activity 2
Introduce students to the art of Harlem Renaissance painters. Begin by viewing Harlem at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Be sure to highlight the work of Jacob Lawrence (especially his Migration series), Aaron Douglas and Romare Bearden. Ask students to analyze the artists’ respective styles and subject matter. Compare and contrast their work in terms of themes.

Have students create an original collage or work of art that mimics the style of one of these Harlem Renaissance artists. The subject matter should be based on a specific individual who was prominent during the era.

Students will curate their own exhibit of Harlem Renaissance inspired art and poetry. Display student work either in the classroom or the hallway. Be sure to have the student artists and writers include a brief artist’s statement with their work.

Activity 3
Students will write an essay entitled “The Lasting Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance” in which they focus on one aspect of the era – poetry, jazz, visual art, or music – and how it influences contemporary artists. In the interest of time, this may also be assigned as homework.

Extension Activities

  • Ask students to research one type of performance that took place at the Apollo Theater. Options include comedy, dance, and many types of music including jazz, hip-hop, swing, and rock. Have students create a timeline of performances of that genre and then highlight a performer of their choosing in a short biographical essay.
  • Performing arts educators may consider having students recreate a famous Apollo Theater performance or having students create an original performance piece inspired by one of the Apollo’s legendary performances. Visual arts educators may have students create a work of art in the style of one of the great Harlem Renaissance artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden or Aaron Douglas.
  • Host a tribute to the Apollo during which students can recite their original poems or poems they have studied as part of this lesson, display their artwork, sing songs popularized at the Apollo or perform live music made famous by Harlem Renaissance musicians.

By Daniella K. Garran, Marston Mills, Mass.