A Literary Tour: The Harlem Renaissance

12 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT evaluate author choices and Modernist themes in prose and analyze poetry for figurative language, symbols, tone, and social connection to the Harlem Renaissance in small groups.

Big Idea

Conceptualize the themes of the Harlem Renaissance with this small group activity focusing on the talented, iconic poets of the movement.


30 minutes

Students will begin this hour by digitally sharing with TodaysMeet.com (and collaboratively answering) their self-generated questions about "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall."  (I compiled the list of questions that students shared with me in a document in the Resources section.)  During this discussion time, I will make sure all students are participating and sharing their questions and answers (based in textual evidence) with the group.  My role will be primarily as a facilitator, as students have spent most of the year learning the Common Core skills needed to take charge and lead a text-based conversation.  Where necessary, I will represent an opposition to ideas that are unanimously accepted without probing in order to further stimulate discussion.  Outside of the questions that they generate during this time, I will make sure that we discuss the following questions as well:

  • How did the stream-of-consciousness structure change your job as a reader?  (Students will usually explain that their job is now more of an investigator, because they are asking questions and discovering answers, rather than just watching a story unfold neatly in front of them.  They will also likely suggest that this makes their job more difficult, so they had to reread sections, live with uncertainty at times, and push through difficult passages.  They may have also had to consult other resources to help them better understand ideas in the text, like the definition of "milk-leg.")
  • Why do you think the title is "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall"?  Is it a good title?  (Obviously, students will put together that the granny has been jilted by George at the altar the first time, but there will be more of a discussion about her second jilting--when no one came to greet her as she entered into death.  I'm hoping they will also pick up the "Weatherall" name as an immediate characterization of Ellen, who seems to have "weathered" quite a lot during her life.  I will also have them explain what "weathering" means in natural elements like rock and wood, then apply that to their understanding of Granny's own character.)
  • Obviously, there are times in this story that you have no certain idea of what is happening.  Why would Porter choose this stream-of-consciousness structure if it was going to get in the way of the reader's comprehension?  (Students should be able to understand that the times which were unclear or uncertain to the reader were also unclear or uncertain to Granny.  By utilizing this structure, the reader can more deeply relate to Granny's situation and journey.  A clear narration of this experience would have been far less meaningful for the reader.)
  • How do the themes in this story match the Modernist perspective?  (Like Modernism, this story shines all kinds of skeptical light on "traditions."  Granny doesn't appear to like her children, which is flying in the face of all happy-fuzzy sentiments that society tries to give us.  Additionally, she feels abandoned by religion in multiple instances, much like Modernists of the time.  She feels that her life hasn't really added up to all that much as well.  Students sometimes complain about how dark this story is, but when you investigate it from a Modernist's viewpoint, it's such a good indicator of the historical relevance.)

Building Knowledge

25 minutes

Next, we are going to switch gears a bit and look at another movement within Modernism, the Harlem Renaissance.  Since the last text was SO heavy for many students, I always try to work in some less-traumatic reading material afterwards!  We will begin by recalling what students know about the Harlem Renaissance, which we took notes on earlier in the unit.  Students typically only recall that it happened in New York and had to do with Civil rights, so to get more information, we will watch only the first 5:54 minutes of the following John Green video: Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Crash Course 215.

After watching the clip, we will explore "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "Harlem" by Langston Hughes.  This activity will be a model for small group activities, so all students will be involved in this process to better complete their group work.  We will follow the process below to evaluate this poem:

  1. Read the poem once aloud.
  2. Identify any words that are unknown to readers and define them.
  3. Paraphrase the poem's LITERAL meaning, providing an objective summary.
  4. Identify & list figurative language or figurative devices in the poem, including what that figurative language suggests.
  5. Identify & list symbols utilized in their poem with possible meanings.
  6. Choose a 6+ letter word to identify the tone of the poem (with evidence to justify).
  7. Paraphrase the figurative meaning of the poem.
  8. Articulate a connection to the Harlem Renaissance & the author's social intentions driving the poem.  Be sure to explicitly state to students that the connection is NOT "ending slavery," as it's the 1920's, and there is no slavery at this time.  Without this warning, you'll have 1 or 2 groups in each class choose this generic, FALSE connection for their poem!

After we analyze these poems as a group (and I write down the collective answers and ideas on a document I'm projecting of our work), we will view the remaining portion of the John Green video above.  He reviews the same poems we completed as a class here, so this will help "check" our work and add additional insight to our discussion.


33 minutes

Next, students will work in small groups (assigned by their seating charts to save time!) to analyze their own assigned poem using the same format we used as a group.  More than one group will analyze each poem so that there will be a better chance for collaboration and discussion about the poem during presentations at the end of the hour.  The poems to be analyzed are:

After students work with their groups to answer their poem's questions, groups will email me a copy of their group responses.  (I have organized this in an attached document in the Resources section.)  Once all student groups have finished, they will read their poem and explain it to their peers using their question outlines.  If any groups miss details, I will look to other groups who were assigned the same poem to help them with the question at hand.  I will also post other students' project in one consolidated document so that all students have access to these analyses for our next assessment.


2 minutes

Before students leave, I will assign them homework to complete for the next class period.  They will need to read two more poems, "Grass" by Carl Sandburg and "Out, Out--" by Robert Frost.  While reading, they will need to consider (and come to class prepared to discuss) the questions below.

  1. Is the grass in "Grass" a simile, metaphor, or personification?  How do you know? 
  2. What's the tone of "Grass"?  Positive?  Negative?  Find just the right word and have evidence to debate this.
  3. What makes "Out, Out--" such a disturbing poem?  Do you think this was Frost's intention?
  4. Why would Frost write this poem?  Consider the historic context, then use your best judgement to decide.

We will review these insights next class period.

Next Steps

Before next class period, I will consolidate and post the Harlem Renaissance poetry analyses.  I'm also still working on grading research papers, so their grades for today will be assigned primarily by in-class presentations.  If I need clarification on group answers, I will check their submission via email before assigning a grade.