The theme of my recent Harlem Renaissance unit was "Finding Your Own Voice". The idea was that my students would be able to wrap their heads around the concept of African-Americans being able to express themselves, if it was more personal and relatable.

A couple of days before I presented my 8th graders with material about Harlem itself, I asked them if they had ever been frustrated at not being able to communicate something important - either because someone wouldn't listen to them, or because they couldn't find a way to get their message across. This was something that they could pretty much all relate to.

As a homework assignment, I had them fill out a worksheet where they speculated on what kind of art they would make if time, money and talent weren't a restriction. Then I had them call my GoogleVoice account and tell me about it.

Here's a compilation of their ideas:
I think I may be onto something here.
Every year, I finish the year with my 8th graders studying the history and geography of New York City to get them ready for their class trip there in June.

We visit Central Park, so we study Central Park ahead of time. We spend time in Times Square, so we study that too. We visit the World Trade Center, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, so we study them, as well.

One place we visit, that I haven't always devoted enough time to, is Harlem.

For the past several years, one of the highlights of our trip has been visiting the Apollo Theater on 125th St. The students get a tour of the theater, hear stories about its history and even perform on stage. It's really memorable.

Except that our almost entirely white student population has no context to put any of it into.

Yes, we talk about African-American history throughout the year. We watch, discuss and blog about Roots. We discuss Jim Crow, Plessy Vs. Fergusson and segregation. I try really hard to relate how various historical topics - like Immigration or Jacksonian politics relates to African-Americans. But when it comes right down to it, our well-to-do, white students, who live in a homogenous, rural community in New Hampshire don't really have any way to relate to the Black Urban Experience.

So, this year, I decided to tackle the Harlem Renaissance.