Ninth graders have spent the fall immersed in the poetry and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, a golden age of Black literature, art, theater, and music that gave voice to the Black experience with lasting political, social, and cultural impact. While students have previously encountered individual works from this era, this is the first time they have dug deeply into this literary period, says English Department Chair Dr. Joseph Mendes. “The Harlem Renaissance is a transitional moment in American literature where Black artists, having been defined by others for hundreds of years, are looking at how they want to define themselves. They want to create a shared sense of identity that is one of power and dignity rather than the societal stereotypes that have been forced on them.” For ninth graders who are deciding how they want to define themselves as they enter high school, these themes resonate.
Examining history through literary analysis
The Harlem Renaissance was a cosmopolitan movement encompassing rural Black Americans moving from the south and artists from across the African diaspora, including Afro-Cuban, Afro-Jamaican, and other Afro-Caribbean writers. Joseph notes that “this multinational, multiethnic, and multilinguistic movement mirrors in many ways the ninth grade classroom at Fay.” This fall, students read and analyzed plays such as Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower and Zora Neale Hurston’s Color Struck as well as her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Shortly before Thanksgiving Break, the ninth graders visited the Sudbury Reservoir for a dramatic reading of the climactic scene of Their Eyes Were Watching God; they used the reservoir as a stand-in for Lake Okeechobee and imagined what it would be like to stand alongside the lake as the dams broke during the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.
In addition to novels and plays, students also read poetry from Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer and a variety of non-fiction texts to help them understand the political, social, and racial issues of the time. Students strengthened their analytical skills through close reading and examination of the style, structure, and themes of each work and a focus on the use of figurative language, imagery, symbolism, and tone. Through graded discussions and essays, Joseph focuses on preparing students for the rigors of advanced high school and college-level writing and literary analysis. He has been impressed with the caliber of student work so far. “The material is complex, but our students are already writing and discussing literature like upperclassmen in high school.”
Developing a distinctive voice
While students need strong analytical essay skills, they should also be developing a distinctive voice and style in their writing. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance show the breadth of what is possible in that regard. “It’s such an innovative time and very experimental,” says Joseph, “You have poets that are writing music where the cadence and sound of the words in their poems mimic a jazz musician going up and down the scales. That encourages the kids to experiment as well.” Later in the year, ninth graders will write restaurant reviews, obituaries, and satirical pieces to practice capturing the right tone and infusing their writing with style and originality. “You want a little punch and pizazz,” Joseph suggests with a grin. “I have read thousands of college essays, and it’s the ones with a vibrant voice and energetic style that stand out every single time.”
Building understanding through shared dialogue
Like many Fay classes, English 9 is discussion-based, with the teacher and students engaged in a shared dialogue. There were no computers on desks in a recent discussion of Their Eyes Were Watching God, just dog-eared and annotated copies of the novel. While Joseph guides the discussion, occasionally pointing to an example from the text or redirecting the conversation back to a particular theme, students lead it. The discussion bounces from the meaning of the pear tree as a theme to conjecture over the motivation of Janie’s third husband Tea Cake, to uproar when a student accidentally drops a plot spoiler that nobody is expecting. Discussing the text in class is preparation for writing, Joseph notes. “The students may not realize it, but they are uncovering aspects of the text that they hadn’t considered before, exploring themes, and then referring back to the text. It is the process of brainstorming for a paper.”
In addition to a summative essay that students spend the final month of the fall term outlining, drafting, writing, and editing, Joseph will also challenge students to demonstrate their mastery of the material, themes, and philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance in a creative way. A student could compose and record an original jazz piece, create a portfolio of art inspired by the movement, or write some modernist poetry. “The assignment gets students to engage with the text in a whole new way that interests them, deepening their learning and excitement.”