Sunday, June 13, 2010

American Lit. Lesson Plan: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes and Claude McKay
1. Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance
As part of our American Literature unit on writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I have selected three websites for students to read and study. Overall, my objectives for this lesson are to demonstrate how writers contributed to change in society
, and at the same time how society influenced and inspired the writing.
Eventually, I hope to lead my students to write about who they are, how they are shaped by today’s culture, and how they see themselves shaping our future society. This will connect their learning about African American literature with their personal interests, and encourage them to look at the universal themes that emerge in the poems and stories we are studying. “There is much in multicultural literature that reinforces basic beliefs and aspirations that are common across our society, while still pointing out important differences in the way people can think, act, live, and feel” (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 383).

For this particular lesson, I am asking students to read and organize a lot of information found online. This is an important skill, since “in a growing number of school districts, curriculum standards mandate that teachers help students become efficient and effective at searching on the Internet for information” (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 359). I will provide class time (with laptops) to view the following sites: (includes a link to a map of Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, and resources for learning about the music, literature, education, philosophy, religion, and political issues of this time period.) (includes bibliographical information about Langston Hughes, critical analysis of his poems, and resources for learning about social issues and reactions to Hughes’ work during the 1920’s-1940’s.) (includes resources for learning about the literature, music, and art produced during the Harlem Renaissance, from the Library of Congress.)

During reading, I will provide students with a graphic organizer called a “compare/contrast study matrix” (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 356) to organize the information about social and political events, artistic developments, and literary publications during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It will be a challenge for students to sort through all this information and put it order. Alvermann, Phelps, and Ridgeway (2009) say “compare/contrast matrices…help students organize information from several sources. Pertinent questions can be listed in the first column, while information from different sources is entered in each column thereafter. This helps students organize information and see patterns that exist across several sources” (p. 358).

After reading, I will divide the class into five groups of four students each, and ask them to search for cause and effect relationships between the cultural changes, political events, artistic movements, and writing topics of the authors of the Harlem Renaissance. Each group will have twenty minutes to coordinate the compare/contrast matrices of all their group members (helping each other clarify, summarize, and organize information—a bit of reciprocal teaching) and to come up with one strong example of a cause and effect relationship between an event and a piece of music, art, or literature. Alternately, they may find that a piece of music, art, or literature caused a social or political change. They must give a specific example. Time to discuss concepts with peers is important because it is “useful to let students connect with each other, to let them see the similarities and differences in their points of view” (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 370).

After the small-group discussions, we will share responses in a whole-group discussion. We will be building background information for the rest of this literature unit, particularly all the poems we will read by Langston Hughes, “by learning some biographical details of the author, reviewing the historical setting of the story and the period when the author wrote, and making ‘cultural footnotes’ on things that may be unfamiliar to students” (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 384). Additionally, the whole group discussion allows me to model the correct use of the graphic organizer, as well as allowing myself and the students to “think along” (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 218) as we review pieces of the reading and talk about the critical thinking we did as we discovered causes and effects.


Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Ridgeway, V. G. (2007). Content area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today’s diverse classrooms (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Williams, D. (2002, November). Seven literacy strategies that work. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 70–73.

2. Claude McKay and the Harlem Renaissance

I have selected two reading assignments for an American Literature unit about poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Students will read bibliographical information about poet Claude McKay at "POEMS OF CLAUDE McKAY" (, and take notes using structured note-taking. This will help them understand the information and learn how McKay, originally from Jamaica, came to have a strong impact on American literature. It will also provide an opportunity for teaching and practicing the structured note-taking strategy, which is a great study skill for students to develop. We often assign texts for students to study, and expect them actually study with no further guidance (Laureate, 2004). Having clear expectations for note-taking provides a guideline for students when studying and teaching them how to process and retain what they are reading. Learning about Claude McKay also serves to provide background knowledge for understanding his poetry, which will further increase student achievement on the unit test.

For the second part of this lesson, students will read three poems by Claude McKay at "Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay" ( This is available as a link at the first site. They will use reciprocal teaching and small-group discussion to process and reflect on these poems. In preparation for post-reading discussions, students will record predictions and questions in their reading journals before and during reading, and they will write a summary of each poem following their reading.

In post-reading small group discussions, students will share their predictions and questions, and provide each other with clarifications. They will have time to discuss their summaries, deciding on the author's meaning and purpose in each poem and looking for possible connections between the author's biography and his poems. They will also share and discuss literary elements they notice in these poems, such as the author's use of language, imagery, rhyme and metaphor. This will provide students with the opportunity to help others prepare for the test, thereby furthering their own understanding of the literature. It will help them comprehend and retain what they are reading.


Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2007). Program 6: During-Reading Strategies, Part 1. Reading in the content areas, Grades 6–12 [Video recording]. Baltimore: Author.

Using Reading Strategies to understand the Poetry of Langston Hughes

I normally use reading logs to encourage students to read actively and communicate their responses to literature in my high school English classes. Some of the literacy strategies I learned when I was an undergrad (and a short-time graduate student) many years ago included the uses of graphic organizers such as the Venn diagram, predictions, reading logs, journals, and literature circles. I also learned about Bloom's Taxonomy (Overbaugh, Schultzand) and the importance of asking high-level thinking questions. However, I never learned the best ways to conduct a discussion that generated critical thinking, or how to teach students to analyze their own understanding of a text and ask themselves high-level questions.

I believe using the "QAR" (Alvernmann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2007, p. 200) strategy will help me accomplish both of these objectives. As students learn that some questions are "right there" questions, some are "putting it together" questions, some are "author & you" questions, and others are "on your own" questions (Alvernmann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2007, P. 204) they will be able to apply this strategy to their reading in all subject areas. They will also learn that these are four ways of evaluating and responding to reading, thereby improving their comprehension. I have always believed it is important to teach students how they learn and to empower them by giving them control over their learning; and teaching literacy strategies does this.

To incorporate QAR into my American Literature class, I would like to use it when next I teach the poetry of Langston Hughes. It is always challenging to teach an appreciation of poetry, and sometimes difficult to conduct a discussion about the Harlem Renaissance and Hughes' poetry without making it mostly lecture. Now, by encouraging pre-reading discussion about students' prior knowledge and questions and then using QAR during reading, I feel much more confident about generating an engaging discussion. I plan to have students write the questions, a couple of each type, as they read the poems (Rampersad, 2004). The next day, they can work in small groups and answer their classmates' questions. Then, we can have a full class discussion that includes both looking at our new literacy strategy and question types, and looking at the poetry and the answers we found as readers. This strategy fits perfectly with this text, since I wish for students to understand literally what Hughes' poetry is stating, what it's deeper message is, how the author is communicating with his readers, and what their personal responses are to the poetry. I believe this will help me, as a teacher, "strike a balance between literal questions and more thought-provoking questions" (Alvernmann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2007, p. 205) and it will help students think more critically.

In my reading, I was particularly struck by the finding that students "did not question whether the author was trying to promote a particular point of view, whether information was selectively included or excluded, or whether the textbook was a trustworthy source of information" (Alvernmann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2007, p. 208) when studying history. These are the very ideas I am seeking to draw my students' attention to in American Literature class as they interpret the poetry of Langston Hughes. By teaching them this strategy for interacting with literature, I will encourage these types of realizations.


Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Ridgeway, V. G. (2007). Content area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today’s diverse classrooms (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Overbaugh, R. & Schultz, L.. Blooms Taxonomy. Old Dominion University. Retrieved from

Rampersad, A. (Editor). (2004). The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knoff.

Assessing Thinking Through Writing

Different writing tasks elicit different levels of thought; therefore writing assignments should be selected purposefully, based on the desired outcomes. In some instances, my objective is to measure what students recall and understand from their reading. This is “level one: knowledge and comprehension” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10). At other times, I want to assess their understanding of why or how something happened in a text, or their comprehension of the relationships between people, places, or events in a piece of literature. This represents “level two: application and analysis” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10). Sometimes I seek to assess students’ abilities to write purposefully, to “extend” (Laureate, 2005) their ideas beyond the factual; to apply their learning in a meaningful way. Sometimes the purpose is to persuade, and students must demonstrate the use of research and evidence from texts to support their arguments. Sometimes the purpose is to critique and evaluate, and students must evaluate an author’s use of literary devices to achieve a desired effect. These tasks require thinking at “level three: synthesis and analysis” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10). During our unit of study about writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I have designed writing tasks that require each of these three levels of thinking.

To prompt level one thinking, I use informal writing, or “writing without composing,” (Laureate, 2005). Students “use informal writing as a way of talking or thinking on paper,” (Duke & Sanchez, 2001, p. 86) when they respond to writing prompts. This allows me to assess what they know about the Harlem Renaissance before, during, and after the unit. First, I introduce the unit with a writing prompt, asking students to free write for six minutes about what they know about the history of Harlem, New York. We then share these responses through discussion as we begin to fill in a “K-W-L chart” (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002, p. 71) as a group. After reading an article about the Harlem Renaissance, I give another writing prompt asking students what they want to learn about the topic, based on the knowledge they have gained so far. Again, we share these responses as a group, adding to our K-W-L chart. Finally, after reading a selection of poetry and viewing several websites, I ask students to write an informal summary of what they have learned about the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, which we also discuss and add to our chart. This provides a factual review for students before they take a unit test, and it provides an opportunity for me to correct any misunderstandings before they begin a formal essay.

To engage students in level two thinking, I assign a formal writing task. “We can’t be said to understand any serious topic unless we see where it comes from, what factors gave rise to it, how it fits into the patterns of history, and how the world changed as a result of it” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 11). Therefore, students will select a poem from the unit and write an essay (at least five paragraphs) identifying personal, cultural, or political factors that prompted the author to compose the poem, explaining how the piece contributed to the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, and analyzing its place in American literature.

To take my students to level three thinking, I assign a creative writing task. Students will write a poem in the style of Langston Hughes. This requires them not only to know what Hughes wrote, and what influenced his writing, but also to create their own product based on these ideas. Students will write using their own voices, from today’s perspective, about their own relationships with their home towns or cities. They will use imagery, rhyme, rhythm, and voice, as we have identified Hughes using in our study of his poetry.


Students will experience three different forms of writing for three different purposes throughout this unit. The first, requiring level one thought, ensures that each student develops a knowledge-base and understands the material being read. The second, requiring application and analysis, ensures that each student understands the relationships between the ideas and the literature they are reading, and that he or she can “discuss the details in relation to the whole” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10). The final writing assignment, requiring the highest level of thinking, provides the opportunity for students to pull all of these ideas together, to internalize them, and to create a meaningful, authentic product based on their learning. Research shows “students do best with frequent and extended opportunities to read and write…and when exposed to a body of literature that represents a variety of genres topics, and styles” (Shellard, & Protheroe, 2004, p. 12). This unit accomplishes that by exposing students to articles, websites, poems, and biographies, and by included writing in three different genres: informal, analytical, and poetry.


Benjamin, A. (1999). Framing the task: Be careful what you ask for . . . you just might

get it. In Writing in the content areas (pp. 3–26). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Duke, C. R., & Sanchez, R. (Eds.) (2001). Assessing writing across the curriculum. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Williams, D. (2002, November). Seven literacy strategies that work. Educational Leadership, 60 (3), 70-73. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2005). Program 2. Writing and Content Area Thinking. [Motion Picture]. Writing in the Content Areas, Grades 6-12. Baltimore, MD.

Shellard, E., & Protheroe, N. (2004). Writing across the curriculum to increase student learning in middle and high school. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

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