Harlem Renaissance Unit Plan

Instructor: Shanna Fox

Shanna has been an educator for 20 years and earned her Master of Education degree in 2017. She enjoys using her experience to provide engaging resources for other teachers.

Upper middle and high school students will explore the Harlem Renaissance through engaging lessons, activities, and projects. This unit offers a rich and exciting experience for students, in which they will discover the significance of this movement.

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an important time in American history. Taking place in the 1920s and 1930s, it was embedded within an exciting time of music, art, and literature throughout the country. However, Harlem's richness and cultural creativity was unparalleled and captured the essence of the African American experience.

In this unit, upper middle and high school students will explore several aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, including historical context, politics, art, music, and literature. Through this in-depth exploration, they will gain deep knowledge of the significance of this time period and the societal impact of the major players and their work. Its important to explore the Harlem Renaissance as just what it was - a movement of artistic and social transformation that influences our culture even today.


Begin the unit using this Harlem Renaissance Lesson Plan to build background knowledge about this important time period in American history. Have students take notes on a graphic organizer. They can also create a short newspaper article representing one aspect of the Harlem Renaissance or a poster showing a big event happening in Harlem.

Historical Context

Understanding the historical context of the Harlem Renaissance is essential for student comprehension of the art, music, and literature that is the hallmark of the movement.

Use these lesson plans to build contextual knowledge that will help them throughout the remainder of the unit:

  • Why did African Americans leave the South? Use this Jim Crow Laws Lesson Plan to help students understand the cause of the Great Migration. Extend their thinking with The Great Migration Lesson Plan which encapsulates the movement of African Americans to Northern states.
  • Politics were a big deal during the Harlem Renaissance. One political leader was W.E.B. Dubois, who started the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This organization is still very much a part of politics and civil rights today. Use this NAACP Lesson Plan to give students a glimpse into the history of the organization and the man behind its founding.
  • The social atmosphere in Harlem was always 'on'. Use this Roaring 20s Lesson Plan to help students understand the social and entertainment aspect of the time period. This lesson will help them envision what it was like to be there as a participant in the active social scene.


Now comes the really fun part! Students will enjoy learning about the Jazz Age and the music that kept people playing and dancing throughout the Harlem Renaissance. Use this Jazz Age Lesson Plan to help students gain a concept of the surrounding music atmosphere of the time period. Differentiate for students who need additional support by using this Jazz Lesson Plan for ESL Students.

Add to student knowledge by engaging them in this Harlem Renaissance Music Lesson Plan. Be sure to play some jazzy tunes for students to get the experience of listening to the music. A major player in the jazz movement was Duke Ellington. Explore his life and music in-depth using this Duke Ellington Lesson Plan.

One option to immerse students in the musical creativity that defines jazz is to set up your classroom as a jazz club and explore the music together. Inspire them even more by adding some technical music instruction. Syncopation gives jazz its unique rhythm and penchant for breaking the rules of the structured music that came before. Use this Syncopation Lesson Plan to help your students internalize the concept of jazz and its significance as part of the Harlem Renaissance.


The Harlem Renaissance was a time of art creation that reflected the culture, struggles, and celebrations of African Americans. Use this Harlem Renaissance Art Lesson Plan to introduce students to some of the major artists and concepts that were portrayed in artwork of the time.

Explore the life and art of Aaron Douglas, one of the quintessential Harlem Renaissance artists. Use this Aaron Douglas Lesson Plan to help students learn about him and what made his art unique and powerful.

Select several pieces of Harlem Renaissance art by various artists for in-depth analysis. Use this Elements of Art Lesson Plan to lay the groundwork for understanding and interpreting the art. Consider setting up stations in which students identify the artistic elements of one piece of art and discuss its meaning. Students can rotate through the stations until they have experienced each masterpiece.


Of course, the literature of the Harlem Renaissance made an enormous impact on American culture, both then and now. It reflected the difficulties African Americans faced before and during this time of innovation. One author whose work speaks to both the culture and the struggle is Langston Hughes. Use this Langston Hughes Lesson Plan to familiarize students with his life and writing.

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