Visualizing Jazz Scenes of the Harlem Renaissance

Estimated Time: Ten 50-minute class sessions with out-of-class time for students to research, draft, edit, and prepare required writing projects.


The Harlem Renaissance represents an era in American history during which the uniqueness of African-American culture was celebrated. It was a period marked by an active and vibrant nightlife; by the publishing of a great number of short stories, plays, poems and novels by and about African-Americans; by musicals written by and starring African-Americans; and, by the creation of artwork by and about African-Americans. The Harlem Renaissance was an age during which African-Americans sought to dispel common stereotypes through their art.

This lesson begins with a summary of the history and chronology of the Harlem Renaissance. Historical background consists of topics such as the northern migration of African-Americans, prohibition, postwar conditions and race relations. During this historical overview, students focus on Harlem as a “Mecca” for African American artists, musicians, and writers. Students read and respond to literary selections that either portray the Harlem jazz scene or were written during the period; they also listen and respond to relevant jazz pieces and view videotapes that illustrate the distinctiveness of the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene. Finally, students demonstrate their understanding of the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene by constructing an exhibit and producing written, artistic and musical interpretations.


Students will:

  • identify and connect themes of selected nonfiction, fiction, poetry and art to Harlem Renaissance jazz
  • compare and contrast historical and fictionalized versions of the jazz scenes of the Harlem Renaissance
  • describe the impact of jazz on African-American literature of the Harlem Renaissance

Materials Needed

Print Literature

  • Your choice of select jazz poems by Langston Hughes:

    “The Weary Blues”
    “Red Silk Stockings”
    “Lenox Avenue: Midnight”
    “Dream Boogie”
    “Juke Box Love Song”
    “Trumpet Player”
    “Jam Session”
    “Harlem Night Club”
    “Midnight Dancer”
    “Saturday Night”
    “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)”

    (Selections may be found in many anthologies such as Selected Poems of Langston Hughes and The Langston Hughes Reader.)

  • Your choice of select writings by Harlem Renaissance authors:

    “Miss Cynthie” by Rudolph Fisher
    “When the Negro Was in Vogue” from The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
    “Ma Rainey” by Sterling Brown
    “Cabaret” by Sterling Brown
    “Poem” by Helene Johnson
    “Harlem” by Frank Horne
    “Jazz at Home,” an essay by Joel A. Rogers

Audio tape or CD

The instrumental version of “Take The ‘A’ Train,” performed by Duke Ellington.


JAZZ Episodes Two (“The Gift”) and Three (“Our Language”)

Art Work

Your choice of selected fine arts work. Suggested include:

  • Aaron Douglas: “Play de Blues”
  • William H. Johnson: “Street Life, Harlem”
  • Michele Wood (Illustrations in “i see the rhythm” by Toyomi Igus; Children’s Book Press, 1998)

(Note: Prints are often used in student anthologies to illustrate literature. One series, The Prentice-Hall Literature Series, contains a variety of prints that illustrate jazz.)

Equipment & Technology

  • Audio tape or CD player
  • VCR and television
  • Computers with Internet access and word processing software
  • Scanner & image producing software
  • PowerPoint projection system or overhead and transparencies
  • Blank Audio and video cassette tapes

General Supplies

  • Quotation From Billy Strayhorn
  • Thin markers
  • Newsprint
  • Poster paper
  • 4 x 5 index cards
  • Post-it notes
  • Student journals

Teaching Procedure

Assessment Suggestions

Rubric for Writing Descriptions

4—clear and appropriate organization, effective transitions that help readers to follow the organizational pattern, clear overall purpose, vivid details that relate to the overall focus of the description, few or no errors in mechanics, usage, grammar, or spelling, careful and precise word choice

3—focused and clear organization such as spatial or order of importance, use of transitions that help the reader follow the organizational pattern, details that support what is being described, descriptive words and phrases that help the reader visualize what is being described, minor errors in mechanics, usage, grammar and spelling

2—weak organization, inadequate transitions, some details that include too many extraneous ones, vague descriptive words that do not help the reader to visualize what is being described, numerous errors in mechanics, usage, grammar and spelling

1—no noticeable organization, unclear purpose, lack of transitions, few details, overall description is not helpful in helping readers to visualize what is being described, numerous errors in usage, mechanics, grammar or spelling that hinder comprehension, imprecise word choice

Rubric for Presentations

4—Clearly communicates understanding of key concepts, clear and coherent organization, participation of most group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience, goes beyond expectations

3—Demonstrates understanding of key concepts, clear organization, content relates to the purpose, participation of most of the group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience.

2—Demonstrates misinformation of some key concepts, weak organization, somewhat relates to purpose, participation by at least half of the group members, some evidence of originality or creativity, somewhat engages the audience.

1—Demonstrates obvious misconceptions or misinformation, too many vocal fillers, lacks coherent organization, does not relate to purpose, lack of participation of most group members, little or no evidence of creativity, does not engage the audience.

Extensions / Adaptations

Guide students in choosing a way in which they can share their understanding and knowledge. Suggestions include the following:

    • Construct a playbill for a bus or other public transportation
    • Using Hughes’s model, create two original jazz poems
    • Construct a “comic book” that illustrates a fiction selection
    • Illustrate a portrayal of Harlem from “When The Negro Was in Vogue” or “Miss Cynthie”
    • Design a Web page describing a Harlem Renaissance jazz scene
    • Write lyrics for a song that portrays the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene
    • Rewrite a work of fiction into a play
    • View a movie such as Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and write an essay relating it to the jazz age (Mature content and language).

Differentiated Instruction

Most activities and assessments are suitable for various skill levels and learning modalities. However, take into account the make up of the class and make adjustments as needed. For instance, less advanced students may be asked to paraphrase a selection prior to interpreting a selection, while average or advanced students may be asked to write a paragraph that explains the theme of a selection. Heterogeneous groups may be asked to choose a photograph or illustration to accompany a selection and justify their choice. Kinesthetic learners may be asked to create diorama models. Advanced students may also be able to compose a longer and more detailed comparison/contrast essay than other students may.

An example of differentiated instruction is as follows. More Advanced Students: Write a community profile of the Harlem Renaissance described in one of the selections. Less Advanced Students: Use pictures that represent key elements of the community to construct a collage of the scenes in one of the selections. Kinesthetic Learners: Use clay or papier-mâché to create a Harlem Renaissance scene.

Finally, some students may also have less advanced technological skills than others and will therefore need additional instruction in order to conduct research on the Internet.

Recommended Resources

Relevant National Standards


  • Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
  • Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
  • 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.
  • Conduct research on issues and interest by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems.
  • Use a wide variety of technological and information resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

  • Understands connections among the various art forms and other disciplines. (Art)
  • Understands the relationship between music and history and culture. (Music)
  • Understands the visual arts in relation to history and culture. (Visual arts)
  • Understands the relationships among science, technology, society and the individual. (Technology)
  • Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression. (United States History)

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.

All content in this curriculum provided by PBS. Chiaroscuro is not responsible for the content provided therein. Any questions, contact

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