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Jazzy lessons and activities for K-12 cats

Transcending Poetry, Jazz, Rap & Hip Hop


Students of grades 11-12 explore poetry, jazz, rap and hip hop music and discover the common threads that run through the poetry and music, and how the themes and subject matter of the poetry and music reflect the lifestyle of the period. Students begin the lesson by examining various types of music and selected poems, and discussing the similarities and differences in the themes and how they reflect everyday lifestyles.

Following the introduction, students research the music to obtain a more in-depth knowledge of its history, pioneers in the field, and examples of artists. From this research students prepare a PowerPoint presentation of the information found. Students then read jazz poems and compare these to the lyrics of the music they researched.

A culminating activity provides an opportunity for students to write their own lyrics to a jazz, rap or hip hop selection and share their songs with the class. At the conclusion of the lesson, students complete a unit evaluation.


Students will:

  • describe the characteristics of poetry, jazz, rap and hip hop music;
  • compare and contrast the themes and lyrics of poetry, jazz, rap and hip hop music; and,
  • analyze how poetry, jazz, hip hop and poetry reflect the culture of the time.

Estimated Time

Ten 50-minute class sessions.

Materials Needed

Print Literature

  • Selected Langston Hughes poems from The Weary Blues and Montage of A Dream Deferred. Specific poems include: "Railroad Avenue," "Mulatto," "Brass Spittoons," "The Cat and the Saxophone," "Jitney'," and "Closing Time."

    (These poems can be found in many standard American Literature anthologies as well as the Complete Works of Langston Hughes or Selected Poems of Langston Hughes.)

Song Lyrics

  • Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train" and "It Don't Mean A Thing"
  • Louis Armstrong's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Star Dust"
  • Billie Holiday "Lady Sings The Blues" and "God Bless The Child"
  • Grand Master Flash's "The Message"
  • Run DMC's "It's Like That"


  • The PBS JAZZ documentary, Episodes Two ("The Gift") and Three ("Our Language")


  • Your choice of recorded examples of jazz, rap and hip-hop music.

Equipment & Technology

  • Audio tape or CD player
  • VCR and television
  • Computes with Internet access and word processing software
  • Blank audio and video cassette tapes
  • Optional: PowerPoint projection system or overhead and transparencies
  • Optional: Scanner

General Supplies

  • Markers
  • Newsprint
  • Poster paper
  • Flip chart

Teaching Procedure

Session One

  1. Play recorded examples of jazz, hip-hop and rap for the students and have them write down characteristics of each type of music or describe what they hear. See the Behind the Beat section of the JAZZ Web site for online audio files of jazz music.

  2. Discuss the similarities and differences of each type and record their responses on newsprint or a chart. Include the subject and theme of the music. For example, the discussion might point out the answers to questions like:
    • What was the message of the song?
    • How was this message conveyed?
    • To whom was the message directed?
    • What words were used to convey the message?
    • What does the message say about the everyday lifestyle of people?
    • How were the messages similar or different?

  3. Have students listen to recorded poetry or read a poem to the students. The PBS Fooling with Words Web site includes recorded poetry.

  4. Discuss the theme and subject of the poetry, using questions similar to those asked about the music.

  5. Discuss the similarities and differences between the poetry and the music. You might consider message, language, lifestyle of time, etc.

  6. Tell students the objectives of the lesson. You might also introduce students to the vocabulary terms that will be referenced throughout the lesson.

Sessions Two and Three

  1. In preparation for group PowerPoint presentations (or optional oral presentations), divide class into three groups (one each for hip-hop, jazz and rap) and have them research the following:
    • Definition of music
    • Descriptions of music by individuals in that field
    • History of music (including era it became popular, pioneers in the field, etc.)
    • Find at least four pictures or images to include in your presentation
    • Titles of the genre's popular songs
    • Examples of at least four pieces of music, giving the theme/message and how it reflects the culture of the time. Use this music as a part of your PowerPoint or oral presentation.

    In addition to the resources on this Web site, see Recommended Resources below for more information.

  2. Review the Rubric for Group Work & PowerPoint Presentation for the assignment.

  3. If available, use I See The Rhythm by Toyomi Igus for students to find a description of jazz, rap and hip hop through poetry. The following poetic descriptions are available in this book: "A Tribute to the Jazz Women," "Jazz Beginnings," "BeBop," "Sounds of Swing," "Cool Jazz," "Rap/Hip." Each one of these poetic descriptions comes with a painting that depicts the idea of the poem. These poetic expressions and paintings could be a warm-up for research.

    For example, this excerpt from the poem "Rap/Hip" says:

    I see young rappers seek answers, speak truths, and reconnect to the Motherland."
    This statement could be an introduction to rap and hip-hop and what the artists see as its purpose. If this book is not available, you might find descriptions of how various artists view each type of music. (See Recommended Resources below.)

Sessions Four And Five

Using the information gathered during sessions two and three, have students prepare a 10- to 15-minute PowerPoint presentation. If students do not have access to PowerPoint, they can create an oral presentation, using audio-visuals (CD's, tapes, videos, etc.). Have each student deliver a portion of the presentation.

Session Six

  1. Have each group share its PowerPoint presentation.

  2. Students will complete an evaluation and comprehension assessment after each of the three presentations.

  3. Discuss the presentations as a class.

Sessions Seven, Eight, and Nine

  1. Give students a poem or several poems to read, such as the jazz poems of Langston Hughes. Suggestions are listed above under Materials Needed.

    For example the poem "Railroad Avenue" depicts the recreational/leisure activities of a person living in that community, i.e. describing fish joints, pool rooms, music—the victrola and piano, playing numbers, lounging on corner, laughing, girl-watching, etc.

  2. If available have students read Chapter Three, "Jazz, Jive & Jam," in Modern Critical Reviews: Langston Hughes, which deals with jazz poetry, or use it as a reference when discussing the themes.

    Discuss the themes and subjects of these poems and how they relate to the lifestyle of the period.

  3. View JAZZ Episode Two, the section titled, "New York," (00:59:30 - 01:03:55). Note especially the Langston Hughes quotation (01:03:00 - 01:03:55) regarding jazz music. Unlike the African-American middle class and other African-American intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, who preferred classical music and believed that "lowbrow" jazz music was vulgar and embarrassing to the race, Hughes recognized jazz as a unique, innovative art form that celebrated African-American life and culture.

  4. Give students the lyrics to some representative examples of jazz, hip hop and rap music. (See the Materials section for printable examples.)

    For further information on jazz, show students excerpts of JAZZ Episodes Two ("The Gift") and Three ("Our Language"), which give information on great jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

    Discuss the themes and subjects of these songs and how they relate to the lifestyle of each historical period. Discuss the similarities and differences in the lyrics to the various types of music and to the poetry. For example, "God Bless The Child" could be used to discuss how the Harlem Renaissance was a period where people were motivated towards individual financial and social achievement.

  5. As homework, have students select one of the types of music, a specific artist, and the lyrics to one song. Have them answer the questions: What is the theme or subject? When was it written? What does it say about the lifestyle of the period?

  6. Ask students to create their own lyrics for a jazz, hip hop or rap piece. They should identify their theme or subject. These lyrics will be performed in class, using music where appropriate.

Session Ten

  1. Share students' original compositions in class; encourage students to perform their songs, if possible.

  2. Ask each student to complete a Unit Evaluation.

Assessment Suggestions

Refer to student assessment forms.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. A modification of this lesson could be to use the recorded music of rap, jazz and hip-hop for warm-up. Play one of the types of music and have the students respond to the music in writing by answering questions such as what the music says about a particular community or culture, the theme, etc. This could be journal writing. You could have students share their responses with the class.

  2. Research the life of an artist of one of the types of music: jazz, hip-hop, or rap. Do a written report or PowerPoint presentation. For the special needs student, do a pictorial report or PowerPoint presentation with captions that represent events in the life of the artist.

  3. Write a report on selected jazz poems of Langston Hughes. Discuss the similarities of themes in the poems and how they reflect the lifestyle of the period.

  4. Make collages of lyrics and musicians of rap, hip-hop and jazz, or a combination of the three. This could be used for younger children or special needs students.

  5. Draw pictures of the leading artists in the field of rap, hip-hop or jazz. Use pictures to post in class or have an art show.

Recommended Resources

Web Sites

Duke Ellington's Washington

I hear America Singing (Langston Hughes)

Literature & Life

The Hip-Hop Phenomenon

Fooling with Words

Print Literature

African American Literature, Voices In Tradition, 1992.

Barksdale, Richard, (ed). Black Writers of America. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Bloom, Harold, (ed). Modern Critical Views: Langston Hughes. New York: Chelesa House Press, 1989.

Giants of Jazz, Louis Armstrong Alexandria, VA: Time Life.

Goss, Linda & Marian E. Barnes, Talk That Talk.

Igus, Toyomi, I see the rhythm. San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press, 1998.

Lewis, David L., (Ed). The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Nelson, Havelock & Michael Gonzales. Bring The Noise: A Guide To Rap Music & Hip Hop Culture.

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Wiltz, Teresa. "Taking The Rap Online And Off", Washington Post, Style Section, October 9, 2000.

Relevant National Standards


  • Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • Students use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

  • Students know the characteristics and uses of computer software programs. (Technology)
  • Students understand the relationship between music and history and culture. (Music)

About the Authors
Judith Kelly, currently director of the D.C. Area Writing Project, taught middle school for 27 years in the District of Columbia Public School System. She was recently honored by the D.C. Council of Teachers of English.

Patricia Bradford, chairperson of the English Department at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince Georges County, Maryland, was recently named Prince George's County Teacher of the Year.

Consentine Morgan, currently academic dean at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Washington, DC, has taught English for 28 years. She is one of the three 1999-2000 ACE-Intel Teacher Summer Institute grand prize winners for her lesson plan integrating technology into history and English language arts. Top

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