The Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes


When I first heard that, by senior year, kids in NY state English classes should be reading 70% non-fiction, the English major in me cried.

I thought there must be a mistake, that some brainiac up in the State House had transposed numbers.

But there was no error.

So our kids would be able to read an economics textbook but would never see a tree as Joyce Kilmer did.  They would construct supported arguments, but will never experience the courage and compassion of Attiucs Finch, the fictional character who, ironically, presents one of the best arguments ever.

I was in mourning for all the reading my students and I wouldn’t do.

After I was done hanging crepe, I knew I would have to go on.  It occurred to me that maybe I could work around this.

It would mean paring down the literary texts, but I would soon be forced to do that anyway.  And once the texts were set, it was about finding the non-fiction that would best enhance the reading experience.

It could work.  Hell, it might even work well.

I know.  I was a non-believer, too.

But it works. I swear.

Take poetry…

In the past, I have served my kids a smorgasbord of American poetry:  a side order of Frost, a helping (OK, a heaping helping) of Whitman, a dash of Dickinson, a taste of Claude McKay, seasoned with a bit of Longfellow. You see where I’m going. Exposing them to a number of poets seemed like a sound idea.  They would sample a range of styles and topics.

This year, though, to satisfy the Common Core, I narrowed the scope.  The poetry unit falls in February, Black History Month, so I  focused  first on the Harlem Renaissance and then on Langston Hughes.   Our librarian and I dug up some age appropriate readings about the Harlem Renaissance, all non-fiction.

The kids and I read and annotated these resources. We searched on-line for pictures to help show us what the texts described.  In assigned pairs, they used information in the texts to mock up Power Point presentations about various aspects of the Harlem Renaissance.  Everyone was able to answer the basic questions: who, what, where, when, how and why.

Next, we moved on to Langston Hughes. More informational reading.  I reserved time in our computer lab and the kids spent three class periods researching Hughes’ life and his writing. They compiled their sources in a bibliography and presented their information in  both formal papers and on posters.


I chose seven of Hughes’ poems–finally, some literature– and compiled a packet.  Again,we read and annotated together. The kids created graphic organizers,  wrote and answered guided reading questions, explicated one poem and illustrated another.

Finally, we created a documentary. I had two classes of English 7.  One class was responsible for the Harlem Renaissance and the other class focused on the life and works of Langston Hughes.

I was terrified.  The kids, however, were not.

We created a storyboard for each class.  The kids wrote the scripts and helped build the set.  Though I did the filming, we had no shortage of associate producers: our amazing special education support staff.

002Our set:

I won’t lie and say it was easy.  There were all kinds of technical difficulties which I documented in Quiet on the Set! .  But it was worth the sleepless nights when we had our Red Carpet Event and premiered our film.

I am still sometimes sorry that we missed out on some of my favorite poets and poems.  But the depth of this unit is what the Common Core is all about.

And though I may not be convinced that 70% non-fiction is appropriate for English classes, I am a believer.

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