NEXUS Connects: Harlem Renaissance


 “All NEXUS volumes emphasize the critical skills and analogical thinking that are crucial for success on the SAT.”

 CLASSROOM NOTES PLUS, NCTE (National   Council of Teachers of English)

 “Each [Nexus] volume…is a hybrid of a well-written interdisciplinary textbook and a lively, attractive magazine….’Songs of the Seventh Son’ is one of many  thoughtful chapters in The Harlem Renaissance volume of NEXUS. ”

Black creativity, suppressed in America for centuries, percolated and the arts intermingled in the cultural melting pot of 1920s’ Harlem. Students explore this fusion of African-American literature, art, blues, jazz and Black history in The Harlem Renaissance volume of NEXUS. Each chapter-lesson is calibrated to resonate with student interest, stimulate self-exploration, and interlink with the other lessons in this interdisciplinary unit. The GREAT MIGRATION is the HISTORICAL BACKBONE of the Harlem Renaissance; the short stories, poetry, visual art, jazz and blues that are explored in this exhilarating volume all reflect, like the facets of a prism, its influence as well as each other.

 The NEXUS Interdisciplinary Approach, ideal for teaching an Interdisciplinary Period, utilizes interactive, classroom-tested teaching strategies & lessons that engage & inspire students of all levels.

 WE DO THE RESEARCH FOR YOU, providing all you’ll need, including captivating Harlem Renaissance lessons, to teach the literature, art, blues, jazz & Black history of the Harlem Renaissance.


                                       (SEE TEXT SAMPLES BELOW IN GREEN.)

 “CURRENT STUDIES are revealing that adolescents undergo major developmental changes in their BRAIN NETWORKSthat is, in how the different   regions of their brains “talk” to one another, co-regulate, and coordinate….It is the networks’ interdependence that strengthens the rationale for a whole learner   approach to education, and likely explains why, when done well, such an approach is so powerful. – EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, May 2020

 The Educational Leadership article goes on to state that the brain has three interdependent networks, one of which is driven by emotions. When this emotional   network is NOT stimulated, the other brain networks do not function as well. “One can think of the kids’ emotional engagement…as fueling motivated thinking,   either concrete or abstract, like the outboard motor that both pushes the boat and steers it.” Part of the reason the NEXUS approach is so effective is because it   not only connects disciplines, it also connects learning to students’ emotional and experiential brain networks.

 The Harlem Renaissance lessons and text are aligned with Common Core Standards.


Harlem Renaissance Lessons Part I – African American Literature

  • An exciting Common Core exploration of Harlem Renaissance literature.
  • Students examine inspirational poetry influenced by W.E.B Du Bois’ theories.

Harlem Renaissance Short Stories Lesson – Short Stories that Explore the Great Migration

In this lesson, students study Harlem Renaissance short stories by Zora Neale Hurston (Spunk collection) and Dorothy West and link them to their own experiences. The two stories we compare and contrast in this lesson tied for second place in an Opportunity (National Urban League) fiction contest. Opportunity magazine was one the primary forums for Harlem Renaissance literature and visual art as well as an engine that helped drive the black Renaissance through its literature contests, popular literary galas, and its promotion of African-American studies and culture. Though its readership wasn’t large, its influence was enormous.  Many issues of Opportunity from the Harlem Renaissance period can be accessed at Google Books.

This Harlem Renaissance lesson satisfies Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.2, RL.3, and RL.4; and the Following Anchor Reading Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2, R.3, R.5, and R.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Figures of Speech Lesson: from Harlem Slang to Rap

In this lesson students learn exciting and entertaining ways to explicate figurative language as they carefully explore Zora Neale Hurston’s Glossary of Harlem Slang, an inherently figurative patois, and her hilarious “Story in Harlem Slang” (Spunk collection). In the second part of the lesson, students interpret some of the most artful lyrics of Grammy Award-winning rapper Coolio.

This chapter-lesson aligns with Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL1, RL.4, RL.7, and RL9 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Anchor standards CCRA.R.1, R.4, R5, and R9.

Harlem Renaissance Poetry Lesson 1: Langston Hughes + Poetry = Blues

Penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet (1994) Yusef Komunyakaa, this chapter-lesson explores Langston Hughes’s blues and jazz-influenced poetry and the use of tension and humor in his spare verse. Students also examine the jazz rhythms of his poems.

This lesson is aligned with the following Common Core Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 and RL.4 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 and R.8.

Harlem Renaissance Poetry Lesson 2: Langston Hughes’s Influence on Later Poets

This lesson, also written by Yusef Komunyakaa, examines Langston Hughes’ poetic legacy. It satisfies Common Core Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 and R.8.

Harlem Renaissance Poetry Lesson 3: Songs of the Seventh Son

Students explore social theories of W.E.B. Du Bois through poems they inspired by Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, Arna Bontemps and Claude McKay. The chapter-lesson teaches students to interpret complex poetry and connect it to black history as well as their own lives. It also invites students to compare a variety of interpretations of the same topics.


“Who are we really? Do we invent our own personalities, or are we shaped by our surroundings? Is the world’s opinion of us a mirror that we groom in front of everyday, adjusting our behavior and appearance until the world seems to smile at us? If so, what happens to people who are treated as second-class citizens, people who are sent to the back of the bus?”

“How much does heritage determine who we are? If heritage is an important part of identity, what happens to a people who have been forcibly uprooted from their homeland and history?…”


“You’re ugly!” George yells to a boy walking jauntily down the sidewalk in a flashy new jacket. Does George really think the other boy is ugly? Or is he thinking: “I wish I had a jacket like that”? Or: “This kid thinks he’s cool, I better cut him down.” George could be thinking any number of things. What he probably is NOT thinking is that the other boy is ugly. How often do people really mean what they say? ‘Speech was given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts,’ wrote French writer Stendhal 150 years ago. He was being ironic. Speech enables people to reveal what’s in their minds. But Stendhal implies that more often people use language to hide their thoughts. Is he right?

“In the poem Liars, Langston Hughes builds on this idea…”

This powerful lesson satisfies the following Common Core Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.2, RL.4 and RL.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12); and Anchor Standards for Reading: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4, R.5, R.6 and R.9.

Black Theater Lesson

This lesson explores Harlem Renaissance  theater, focusing on the pivotal role of 20s’ and 30s’ plays and musicals, from Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s era-defining hit Shuffle Along to Langston Hughes’s hilarious early comedies like Little Ham and his protest plays like Mulatto.

This lesson is aligned with Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1, R.2, R.6 and R.8.

Harlem Renaissance Lessons Part II – Black History

Harlem Renaissance History Lesson: The Great Migration

The historical backbone of this volume, this multi-pronged lesson covers the events that paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance, from Reconstruction through W.W.I and its aftermath. Powerfully written with a narrative introduction, the chapter probes the politics of prejudice.

This chapter aligns with Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, .RH.3, RH.6, RH.8, and RH.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Jazz-Age Harlem

This scintillating chapter, spliced with captivating quotes from Harlem Renaissance luminaries Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Johnson, J.A. Roger, Alain Locke, and the youngest writer of the Renaissance, Dorothy West, immerses students in the exhilarating creative atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age. (For brief bios on all of these figures see the African American Book Club.)

A“n exuberant three-page overview whose atmospheric approach does not fail to acknowledge that during that period, as Langston Hughes put it, “the Negro was in vogue.” While recognizing that the “marketability” of African American culture was driven by white tourists, the introduction still gives a good accounting of the achievements made possible by the “vogue” and includes recollections of Harlem life from Hughes, Dorothy West, and others.” – THE COLLEGE BOARD

Harlem Renaissance arts showcased black history and the contemporary black experience for a broad national audience for the first time in American history.

This lesson meets Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, and RH.3 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Harlem Renaissance Lessons Part III – Black Music

  • Harlem Renaissance music and black music from the Delta to the Chicago Blues.
  • Students to learn to recognize and distinguish the various musical voices of the period.

Harlem Renaissance Music Lesson 1: The Roots of the Blues

This chapter-lesson and the accompanying “Blues Supplement” and Harlem Renaissance lesson plans teach students the history and contemporary relevance of the blues. They also explore the structure of the blues and its offspring rock and roll and learn to write their own blues compositions and lyrics, modeled on the blues poetry of Langston Hughes. (For descriptions of the various types of blues see “A Brief History of the Blues” at the All About Jazz website.)

This lesson satisfies Common Core Anchor Reading Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1, R.2, R.6 and R.8. For more on the blues see Race Records and Selling Black Music below.

Harlem Renaissance Music Lesson 2: Jelly Roll Morton & Jazz Patterns

As “rap was borne at the block parties of the Bronx in the late seventies and early eighties, jazz was nurtured and perfected at rent parties in the twenties – not only in Harlem, but in Chicago and St. Louis.” (“When Harlem Was Heaven,” The Harlem Renaissance, NEXUS.)

This lesson examines the music of Jelly Roll Morton and teaches students to identify New Orleans Polyphony and to write their own jazz improvisations using his jazz-counterpoint style. For more on counterpoint and theme and variation see “Renaissance Music and Pattern Recognition – A Romeo and Juliet Activity,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance and the “Repetition in Literature and Music” lesson in  The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream supplement.

This lesson is aligned with Common Core Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 and R.2. as well as National Music Anchor Standards 1,2,3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Harlem Renaissance Music Lesson 3: Race Records and Selling Black Music

This lesson chronicles the evolution of the blues from its birth in the Mississippi Delta through the Classic Blues in Harlem to the Chicago Blues as well as the challenges and prejudice black musicians faced in the recording industry.

“W.C. Handy published “Memphis Blues” in 1912, three years after composing it for a Memphis mayoral race. Shortly afterward, Handy was finagled by two white businessmen into selling the copyright for $100. ‘Everybody connected with the “Memphis Blues” had made more money from it than I,’ Handy says in his autobiography. In those days it was almost impossible for a person of color to break into the publishing and recording industries.”

African-American band leader Perry Bradford, who recorded “Crazy Blues” with Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds in 1920, writes in his autobiography Born With the Blues about the challenges of recording in the teens and twenties.

“‘Phonograph officials…had been threatened by some southern and northern reactionaries to boycott their products – phonograph machines and records – if they had any truck with colored girls in the recording field….I’d walked out two pairs of shoes going from one studio to another.'”

The lesson is aligned with Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1, R.2, R.7, and R.8.

Harlem Renaissance Lessons Part IV – African-American Art

Harlem Renaissance Art Lesson: The Metaphorical and Narrative Murals and Paintings of Aaron Douglas

Students learn to “read” the visual metaphors and contrasts of the leading painter of the Harlem Renaissance Aaron Douglas and to interpret his visual narratives of black history.

“Aaron Douglas’s paintings were also influenced by other arts that thrived in Harlem: jazz, blues, dance, poetry. Lines, shapes and colors in his paintings are repeated and varied like jazz themes or blues riffs. The gestures of his figures often reflect the graceful, funky movement of jazz dancers. And his art is loaded with visual metaphors and symbolism which read like painted poetry.”

For more on reading visual metaphors see the lessons: “Poetry in Botticelli’s Primavera” in Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance and “Greek Art, Visual Storytelling” in Antigone and the Greek World.

This exciting chapter-lesson satisfies Common Core Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL7 (for 9-10 and 11-12) and National Core Art Standards, Program 8, Anchor Standards 1, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Harlem Renaissance Lesson Plans and Interdisciplinary Guidelines

NEXUS SUPPLEMENTS can be accessed under the SUPPLEMENTS menu. NOTE: NEXUS supplements and booklets are protected by U.S. Copyright and cannot be photocopied, photographed, or downloaded.

Harlem Renaissance Writing Projects

How to Write a Blues Poem in the Manner of Langston Hughes Using Contrast and Irony (COMING SOON!)
Students learn irony not merely as a remote concept but as a feeling by translating ironies in their own lives into blues lyrics in the manner of Langston Hughes. This creative writing supplement, besides teaching basic skills for composing verse, is aligned with Common Core Writing Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.1.C, 1.E, 2.A, 2.C and WHST.5 (for 9-10 and 11-12).
Structure of the Blues and Composing Your Own Blues
Students also learn to compose their own blues songs using the blues scale and a simple blues chord progression. This supplement meets National Music Anchor Standards 1,2,3, 5, and 6.
  • Harlem Renaissance activities
  • Harlem Renaissance project ideas

  • Additional Blues Resources for Students (Coming Soon)

  • Abridged Glossary of Harlem Slang, by Zora Neale Hurston (Coming Soon)

GUIDELINES: The NEXUS guidelines suggest interdisciplinary activities and student-friendly ancillary readings. 

NEXUS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Cleveland, OH. Our mission is to provide schools with outstanding interdisciplinary resources that inspire students to THINK, LINK and IMAGINE

A portion of our proceeds is donated annually to UNICEF’S Audrey Hepburn All Children in School Fund.