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6-12: A Renaissance of Jazz and Poetry

by Janet Fore, Learn NC

The Harlem Renaissance was the birth of a creative plethora in all fields of art for African Americans. The poetry and jazz composed during or inspired by this era naturally complemented each other. Furthermore, many of the themes from the musical and literary worlds are universal and provide a great lesson on how two different works can have a parallel theme.

A lesson plan for Grades 6–12 General Music/All Other High School Electives, and English I

Learning outcomes

Students will read selected poems and listen to jazz that have their roots in the Harlem Renaissance. The students will then discuss the similarities and differences of themes in the works of different poets and composers.

Time required for lesson: 3 to 5 days

Materials/resources

A cd player.

Access to as many of the following poems as possible.

  • From poet Countee Cullen. “For a Poet,” “From the Dark Tower,” “The Loss of Love,” and “Saturday’s Child.”
  • From poet Langston Hughes. “As I Grow Older,” “Daybreak in Alabama,” and “Mother to Son.”

Access to as many of the following jazz pieces as possible.

  • From jazz great, Count Basie. “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
  • From jazz great, Billie Holiday. “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.”
  • From jazz great, Bessie Smith. “Back Water Blues,” “Down Hearted Blues,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

Biographies and audio samples can also be obtained from Ken Burn’s Jazz.

Pre-activities

Review the literary terms: theme, mood, and tone.

Activities

Class Activity. Provide background on the Harlem Renaissance. See A Brief History of the Harlem Renaissance and Drop Me Off in Harlem. Discuss how the jazz that was frequently heard throughout Harlem may have influenced the poets who lived and wrote there.

Class Activity. Read the following poems aloud to your class, and then listen to the jazz pieces. You may want to listen to each piece more than once. Discuss the similarities and differences in their messages, themes, tones, and moods.

  • Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” compared to Bessie Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues.”
  • Count Basie’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” compared to Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

Small Group Activity. In cooperative groups, have the students read the poems “Daybreak in Alabama” by Langston Hughes and “For a Poet” by Countee Cullen. Discuss the similarities and differences in their messages, themes, tones, and moods.

Student Activity. Have the students independently read the poem “From the Dark Tower” by Countee Cullen and then listen to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Students should then write an essay discussing the similarities and differences in their messages, themes, tones, and moods. See the attachment labeled Student Activity for detailed instructions for the essay and a scoring rubric.

Assessment

Choice A: Students may choose to search for a modern poem or song that has a theme or message that is parallel with one of the poems or songs listed below. The students would then write an essay discussing the similarities and differences in their messages, themes, tones, and moods. See the attachment labeled Choice A – Assessment for detailed instructions for the essay and a scoring rubric.

Choice B: If the students have limited access to music and/or poetry, read one of the poems or play one of the jazz pieces listed below. Then have the students either independently or in cooperative groups identify the theme of the work and then compose a poem that has a similar theme or message. Use the attachment labeled Choice B – Assessment to score the assessment.

  • “The Loss of Love” by Countee Cullen
  • “Saturday’s Child” by Countee Cullen
  • “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday
  • “As I Grow Older” by Langston Hughes
  • “Back Water Blues” by Bessie Smith

Comments

Although these activities are presented as a unit, any one of the activities could be used alone to enrich your class’s appreciation of the poets and composers of the Harlem Renaissance.

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