In the 1920s and ’30s, Harlem in New York City was the place to be. Most might think of it as the era for jazz, swing, and big bands. People think of the popular entertainment spots like the Savoy and the Cotton Club. It was a time when the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway reigned nightspots.
The period was marked by an explosion of creative expression. The African American intellectual and artistic community grew and flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. The movement encouraged African Americans to celebrate their heritage. The social contributions of writers also explored civil rights, identity, and attainment of the American Dream.
After the Civil War, many African Americans left the south for the urban north and west. This is often referred to as the Great Migration. One of the places they settled was uptown Manhattan in a neighborhood called Harlem. Rudolph Fisher wrote, “In Harlem, black was white. You had rights that could not be denied you; you had privileges, protected by law. And you had money. Everybody in Harlem had money. It was a land of plenty.“
The Harlem Renaissance was a significant social and cultural movement. The result was the production of a lot of work in the creative arts in a short period. Each medium reflected the history and experience of the African American. The artistic, literary and musical contributions of the era’s intellectuals and artists continue to inspire people.
The Harlem Renaissance period was also marked other opportunities. More African Americans had access to higher education. The Harlem Renaissance helped to redefine how Americans and the world understood African American culture. It integrated black and white cultures, and marked the beginning of a black urban society. The Harlem Renaissance also set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Kaileigh Rosplohowski at Eisenhower High School came up with a simple classroom idea. She wanted to teach her art students about the Harlem Renaissance. She received a grant from the Texas Art Education Association. With the grant she rented a Harlem Renaissance traveling exhibition from Discovery Teacher®. Her simple idea quickly blossomed into a cross-curricular lesson. The Art Department found itself collaborating with several departments. The Harlem Renaissance unit of study turned into a multi-level learning experience across the campus.
Eisenhower is an IB World School. The IB Diploma program values visual arts as an integral part of everyday life. It permeates all levels of human creativity, expression, communication and understanding. The Harlem Renaissance lesson was a perfect fit for cross-curriculum integration.
High school students weren’t the only ones to enjoy the learning opportunity. Students from Kujawa Elementary School and Hoffman Middle School took part in the collaboration. Both are also IB World Schools. Kujawa offers the IB Primary Years Program and Hoffman provides the IB Middle Years Program.
Learning was not isolated to one classroom. Teachers worked collaboratively. Students in different classes learned about the Harlem Renaissance simultaneously. They studied lessons in their history, English and fine arts classes. The cross-curricular teaching helped students gain better insight and understanding by looking at many perspectives at the same time. This permitted them to better reflect on the historical and social issues of the movement.
Dr. Michaelann Kelley supports cross-curricular teaching. Cross-curricular studies create a more meaningful learning experience for students. Interdisciplinary teaching gives students a powerful opportunity for active and engaged learning. It makes educational experiences more authentic. They are of greater value to students when they can relate them to real life. Students need to understand that in just about every situation there are different layers.
There are different ways of looking at something. Most things in life do not fall into neat subject-matter packages. Through interdisciplinary studies, teachers encourage students to question. The experience leaves them better able to see the interconnectedness of things. For some students, it is difficult to learn through fragmented and isolated skill instruction. With interdisciplinary thematic units, teachers work together to support student creativity and active learning.
“The Harlem Renaissance took place more than 75 years ago,” said Kelley. “The students learned about the obstacles and struggles of African Americans during the period. Students looked at the different layers of the African American experience. These layers included art, history and literature. The interdisciplinary thematic unit helped students better understand complex issues such as social justice. They then looked at their personal experiences. And they discussed examples of social justice or injustice in their lives as well as themes of identity.“
The Ike students learned about several influential Harlem Renaissance artists, writers and musicians. They studied the techniques, styles and expression of the intellectuals. Aside from creative works, they looked at history to understand the context. Teachers encouraged active learning such as having students interpret poems. Students used theater to learn about writer Jacob Lawrence. They acted out his vision of heroes and heroines in African American history. The high schoolers also acted out the lines in Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred.
The students listened to the music of Louis Armstrong. For many musicians, Armstrong is jazz. Armstrong’s work as an instrumentalist and vocalist continues to impact American music. He lived and worked in a segregated society. He symbolized the civil rights struggle that was part of the changing America in which he lived.
They learned to use theater tools like pantomime and tableau vivant. These were popular forms of expression at the time. Tableau vivant is like a frozen picture. The tool has individuals re-enact a scene. They then stand still in staged positions. The students learned how this is like painting compositions created on a canvas. Tableau vivant has regained popularity in the classroom. It is a terrific tool to engage students in an area of study. The activity speaks to kinesthetic or active learners. It also engages the imaginations of everyone involved.
Ike students took in what they had learned. They internalized it to express their own experience. They created personal artwork inspired by works of the movement. The IB Diploma students dug deeper into their research. They created lessons about the Harlem Renaissance. They presented the lessons to visiting Hoffman and Kujawa students. In turn, the young learners created their own writings, collages and poem illustrations.
The culminating event was the Harlem Renaissance Extravaganza Night at Eisenhower High School. The campus invited the community to enjoy the sights, sounds and emotions of the era. Attendees enjoyed performances by the Eisenhower jazz band, choir and drama troupe. Community members also heard the Kujawa Elementary Eagle Choir perform well-known songs. They sang for example Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. They had the opportunity to visit the Eagle Gallery. Students had filled it with artistic examples. The IB students also showed off what they had learned and created.
Rosplohowski found the experience invaluable to students.
“I am so proud of the students,” said Rosplohowski. “They acted and performed before an audience of peers, educators and parents. They took this learning experience and internalized it. As a teacher, I got to see a real emotional side of the students. They didn’t just learn to express themselves on paper or canvas. They also learned to express themselves through words and performance.
“And the students had fun learning as they collaborated with their peers. Through this multi-level learning experience, students gained a better understanding of the Harlem Renaissance. They made connections to today’s society. The works of the Harlem Renaissance resonated with many of the students on a personal level.“
Director of Written Communication & Spanish Media
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