As we head into Black History Month, kicking off with the birthday of poet Langston Hughes on February 1st, we decided to take a fresh look at the Harlem Renaissance through the eyes of school kids. Black History and the figures associated with it shouldn’t just be remembered during one month, but studied throughout the year as an important part of American history, a lesson Jodi Rubin, a third grade teacher at P.S. 303 in Forest Hills, Queens, taught her students in a program she launched in 2013.
Rubin’s idea was to have her third graders bring the important figures of the Harlem Renaissance back to life by becoming them. The students researched the time period between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s when Harlem became a cultural epicenter for black artists, authors, performers and scholars. Each student selected a prominent figure, learned their life stories and then acted as them at a “rent party” hosted at the school. (Harlem rent parties were well-known gatherings for poor Harlemites to raise money to pay their rents: they would invite musicians to perform and friends would pay a small fee to enjoy the entertainment.)
Rubin says her students — who took on the alter egos of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and others — took their research much farther than she expected and wound up even teaching her a thing or two about how these figures of the Harlem Renaissance helped to redefine American culture. “I hope they learned the importance of these figures and the struggles they went through,” she says. “I think that’s an important lesson for any kid to learn.”