Fifth Graders Immerse Themselves in Study of Harlem Renaissance

Earlier this year, Severn School 5th graders studied the Harlem Renaissance, a golden age for African-American artists, writers, and musicians that took place in the 1920’s.
This coming-together of a great many artistic minds in one location – New York City’s Harlem neighborhood-- became a time of tremendous growth within the African-American arts community and also set the stage for the civil rights movement.

For this global studies unit, 5th grade teachers Jennifer Hayman and Parker Masselink had students read a book about the Harlem Renaissance and then cite other books on this time period in order to complete a related research project. Students chose an influential individual from the Harlem Renaissance, and then they researched them during a special field trip to the Zimmerman Library on the Teel campus. By having students select someone influential and create a project about them, they were able to connect those past events to today and recognize the lasting impact. “Part of what we wanted to convey to our students is that the Harlem Renaissance may have ended, but the contributions that came out of that time are still celebrated and enjoyed today,” said Masselink.

“This unit demonstrated how this time period and these individuals influenced today’s art and music,” said Hayman. “But there is also value in studying a time where more students can see themselves reflected in history.” In teaching the Harlem Renaissance, they could reinforce another concept, which is that of windows and mirrors – studying texts and events that either reflect (mirrors) a student’s experiences and identity, or provide insight (windows) into the identities, experiences and motivations of their peers.

The teachings for this unit extended beyond the regular classroom and into their specials, as Lower School Music Teacher Mary Gaylord incorporated four separate lessons and a field trip into her programming.
Over several weeks, students learned about Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong in their music class. They read books on each individual, studied their music and then completed an activity designed to reinforce the lesson. For example, after studying Duke Ellington’s composition “Duke’s Place” – based on 12 bar blues and using only two notes – Gaylord guided the class in writing their own song using this same form. And after studying Louis Armstrong, they learned ASL for one of his most famous recordings, “What a Wonderful World.”

After studying those three important figures, their last lesson was devoted to the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which featured an all-Black cast, playwright, composer and lyricist. It also used the first integrated pit orchestra on Broadway and helped to launch the careers of William Grant Still, Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Paul Robeson, and more.

“The students really had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the abundant music of the Harlem Renaissance,” said Gaylord. “They learned about the great migration from the south to the north and what that meant for music. The challenges these artists faced really impacted the students. The racism the artists faced didn't seem to stop them from creating great art.”

The unit culminated with a special field trip to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), which held a production titled “The Jazz Age – Harlem Renaissance”. The show explored the music and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, and featured Wordsmith, a spoken word artist.

The importance of this unit was further underscored for the students when one 5th grader – Sasha – was asked to create and present a short recap to the Board of Trustees at their March meeting. This was one of several student highlights that was shared with the board in support of Severn School’s focus on DEI.

Lower School

Upper School