The Harlem Renaissance: Not Forgotten

Today’s post pays tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, which might be one of the most overlooked periods in American cultural and sociological history, but which is certainly one of the most overlooked topics in public K–12 classrooms.  Most students I talk with know almost nothing about the Harlem Renaissance, including students who live within 25 miles of Harlem.

Parents, the next time your child needs to do a report or project for Black History Month, please take a look at the wealth of content that the Harlem Renaissance has to offer.  That is true whether your child is in first grade or in twelfth grade.  I have done Harlem Renaissance lessons with students in a wide range of grade levels and have found something remarkable and suitable at every level.

For starters, my guess is that way too few parents have studied the career of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the brilliant sociologist who was the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance.  The leadership that Johnson displayed regarding how to improve the futures of African Americans was every bit as extraordinary as the artistic endeavors of the painters and poets and musicians and sculptors and novelists and actors and editors who are better known to many of us today.

Parents, read up on Johnson, who left Harlem for Nashville in 1928 to become a professor at Fisk University and who later became its first black president in 1946.  Fisk, of course, is one of our nation’s most respected HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  Fisk is also the home of the world-famous Jubilee Singers, whose story of saving Fisk from bankruptcy in its early days as a result of their worldwide singing tour is legendary.  Johnson eventually brought with him to Fisk some of the black artists and writers he had nurtured in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance—including inimitable visual artist Aaron Douglas and masterful writers James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps.  By the way, Bontemps collaborated with the now-better-known Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes on two fantastic children’s books, which most kids have never read, but absolutely should:  The Pasteboard Bandit and Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti.  (Parents:  This paragraph alone has enough Black History Month topics for your child to research every year he or she is in school!)

Earlier this month, my daughter did a project for an after-school program of elementary school kids.  She chose about 30 artists of all kinds who had contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and wrote a short paragraph about each one.  Each of the children in the program chose one of the artists to learn about, including making a small poster (with a photo) about the artist and presenting that poster to parents who came to a Black History Month celebration.  Your young children could have done the same; your older children could have done even more.  Here are some of those Harlem Renaissance artists, in addition to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, of course—in case you need them next February or, ideally, even sooner:

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, musician

Arnaud “Arna” Bontemps, poet

Countee Cullen, poet

Aaron Douglas, painter

Edward “Duke” Ellington, musician

Jessie Redmon Fauset, writer

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, sculptor

Palmer C. Hayden, painter

Fletcher Henderson, musician

James Mercer Langston Hughes, poet

Zora Neale Hurston, writer

May Howard Jackson, sculptor

James Weldon Johnson, writer

William Henry Johnson, painter

Mary Edmonia Lewis, sculptor

Claude McKay, poet

Horace Pippin, painter

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, sculptor

Paul Leroy Robeson, actor

Augusta Christine Savage, sculptor

Bessie Smith, singer

Henry Ossawa Tanner, painter

James Van Der Zee, photographer

Laura Wheeler Waring, painter

Ethel Waters, singer

When your child needs some source materials, here are two excellent books to hand over:

Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance, by P. Stephen Hardy and Sheila Jackson Hardy—This book has short, readable biographies of many of the leaders and the artists, with photographs.

Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance, by Laban Carrick Hill, with a cover illustration by the fabulous Christopher Myers—This is the single best book I have read on the Harlem Renaissance.  It provides more interesting information than you could ever use.  Read it yourself, even if your child does not have a report to do!

Parents:  You will know that you have done your homework on the Harlem Renaissance when you can explain to your child the significance of each of these (or vice versa, depending the age of your child):  the National Urban League’s Opportunity, the Civic Club Dinner, “The Weary Blues,” the NAACP’s Crisis, the Savoy, and the Cotton Club.  So, get Harlem Stomp! and start reading.

Carmen de Lavallade: Enough Said

Carmen de Lavallade: Enough Said

As Black History Month is coming to a close, I have been thinking about an appropriate post and settled on two.  Today’s post pays tribute to the inimitable Carmen de Lavallade.  I am not sure how many schoolchildren study the creative accomplishments and boundary-breaking life of De Lavallade, but I am sure that it is not nearly enough.

De Lavallade, almost 86 and still looking like the most classically beautiful dancer you ever saw, not only has had a brilliant career of her own in dance and theater (in dance companies, on Broadway, on television, and in film), but also has been surrounded for decades by icons of the dance and theater world—from her high school friend Alvin Ailey to her multi-talented husband Geoffrey Holder.  Let me say a word about De Lavallade’s background, just in case you don’t know as much about it as you should.

De Lavallade met a young Alvin Ailey when they were classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles (she graduated in 1948).  She took her friend Alvin to a dance class she had been attending with the great modern dance creator/teacher Lester Horton, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As you might know, De Lavallade started taking dancing lessons at a time in our history when black students were not welcome everywhere.  According to a Los Angeles Times interview last October, De Lavallade said, “You couldn’t even get into a dance studio without some student walking out.  I was lucky to find teachers like Melissa Blake, Carmelita Maracci, and, of course, Lester Horton. . . .  Lester opened up that place to everybody—every kind of person in the world was there!”

De Lavallade and Ailey went on to dance with Horton’s multicultural company and learned firsthand everything there was to know about running dance companies.  When Horton died in 1953, Ailey became one of the main proponents of the Horton technique (which is still used today by his world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Ailey School and which is the basis of many of Ailey’s best-loved and timeless works).  Ailey and De Lavallade came to New York City, danced together and separately in various companies and Broadway performances, and became the monumental stars they were both born to be.

De Lavallade met Holder in her Broadway debut, House of Flowers, in 1954.  Holder’s career later took him from dancing to painting to costume design to directing.  He won Tony awards for best direction and best costume design in 1975 for The Wiz, the well-known African-American musical version of The Wizard of Oz.  Holder and De Lavallade were an iconic couple until his death in 2014.

Last November, De Lavallade returned to her alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School, to talk to the students.  Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Gelt describes the scene in the auditorium:

Tall, slender and elegant with her hair pulled back in a tight bun and a bright red scarf around her swan-like neck, De Lavallade, now 85, choked up when she first began to speak at a morning assembly.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” she told students. “I was you. Alvin was you. You are a part of that history, and you will be a part of that history, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

. . . She shared with the students an anecdote about how she wasn’t allowed to dance with her partner on “something called The Ed Sullivan Show” because the partner was white.

As she talked about making her life’s path as an artist of color, about how the students were part of her history, about how students could make their own history, [s]he asked, “Do you understand?”

. . . “We came through times when everybody told us we couldn’t do it, and we believed it,” she said. “Don’t you believe it.”

My guess is that De Lavallade was a lot for the students to take in.  My guess is that they probably had never seen anyone like her.  Who really has?  The high school, which was about 80 percent black when De Lavallade and Ailey attended it, now serves mostly Latino students.  What must they have thought about “this person who came from outer space,” as De Lavallade described herself later to the reporter?

According to the Times article, De Lavallade spoke insistently to the students, “People are people all over the world.  Don’t let anybody tell you who you can be.  Do you understand?”  It was a simple, but powerful message, delivered by someone who never let anyone tell her who she could be.

And here is one last reason I wrote this post for Black History month.  At the close of the assembly, De Lavallade told the students something that Holder had said.  It is as memorable as any quotation you would ever want to hear during Black History Month.  Here it is:

“I walk through doors. If I’m not wanted in a place, there’s something wrong with the place, not me.”

Thank you, Ms. De Lavallade, for bringing those words to students who need to hear them.  Let’s hope that your life story and Mr. Holder’s words and Mr. Ailey’s works travel in some way to every school every February.

Parents:  Make it happen.

Arma Virumque Canō

Arma Virumque CanōI thought about titling this post “Amō, Amas, Amat” or “Venī, Vidī, Vicī”—well-known references to Latin I and Latin II—but I settled for the memorable opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid because my Latin IV class had to read all 12 books of the epic poem in Latin.  I say “had to,” but I really mean “got to.”  It is rare for that to happen in high school, and it is one of my proudest academic accomplishments to this day.  So what am I talking about right now?

I am talking about how important the study of Latin is and how dismally we do it as a nation.  I am guessing that a lot of you believe that Latin is a ridiculous choice of a language to study, but let me try to prove you wrong.  Parents of middle school students and high school students:  Since you might be in a position any day now to make a decision about language study for your child for next year, I don’t have much time left to convince you.  Parents of elementary school students:  Keep reading, because I am going to talk about a problem that affects your child’s ability to learn a fundamental skill in these early years.

Let me skip all of the obvious cultural and historical importance of Latin, because the study of any language will give that to your child.  All languages come with a rich culture and history, and that is one of the key reasons to study any language in addition to your own.  Let me also skip the fact that knowing Latin enables you to read all kinds of inscriptions on buildings and money and the like.  That’s cool, but probably not important.

What is important is the fact—the absolute fact—that studying Latin improves a student’s English vocabulary and, even more important, grammar skills.  Nothing teaches you English grammar like studying Latin.  And it is clear from many of my other posts, my USACollegeChat podcast episodes, and my upcoming speech at a KnowledgeWorks Early College conference in Orlando, that I believe that high school students’ grammar skills are woefully deficient.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to revamp a college’s freshman and sophomore core curriculum, which included mandatory language study.  I boldly advised that Latin be that mandatory study, given the struggles that many of that college’s students had with writing correctly and effectively.  After a lot of back and forth, the college ended up choosing Spanish instead, and I am still sorry.

It’s hard to get anyone to listen to my defense of Latin as the optimal language choice in middle school or high school or even college.  But, I now have new hope, based on my reading of a recent article in Educational Leadership (the well-respected journal of ASCD, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).  The excellent article, written by Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak and Joanna Newton, is entitled “The Roots of Comprehension.”

Here is the authors’ opening statement of the problem, which I think will be quite recognizable to plenty of parents:

Research going back seven decades demonstrates that vocabulary knowledge is strongly associated with proficiency in reading comprehension.  Large vocabularies lead to better reading performance (Baumann et al., 2002; Davis, 1944).  Amazingly, more than 80 percent of students’ reading comprehension test scores can be accounted for by vocabulary knowledge (Reutzel & Cooter, 2015).  Yet, the most recent assessment of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students’ vocabulary development shows that at all three grade levels, U.S. students have demonstrated no improvement at all in their vocabulary knowledge since 2009 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).

According to vocabulary scholar Margaret McKeown, very little vocabulary instruction happens in many U.S. classrooms (Banchero, 2013).  Where vocabulary instruction does occur, students often learn to view it as painful and meaningless: weekly word lists and quizzes. Students may memorize words, spellings, and definitions, but these are quickly forgotten.  The result of either approach—benign neglect or rote memorization—is stagnation in our students’ vocabulary knowledge. (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

Doesn’t that make you sit up and take notice, parents?  Could improving your child’s vocabulary actually improve his or her reading comprehension?  That’s what the research says, and that is a powerful finding, given the number of standardized tests that depend of your child’s ability to read with comprehension.  And that’s not to mention the fact that poor reading comprehension will hold your child back in every school subject from elementary school right through graduate school.

What helps improve your child’s vocabulary most (according to me)—or, at least, a lot (according to the research and the ASCD article)?  It is the study of Latin and Greek roots.  A young friend of mine at Stony Brook University just took a whole linguistics course on the study of vocabulary and the value of recognizing the roots of words.  A vocabulary course in college!

Here is the article’s technical explanation of this simple thesis:

…The majority of academic words are connected by morphemic (meaning-based) patterns derived largely from Latin and Greek lexicons (Edwards, Font, Baumann & Boland, 2004; Graves, 2004; Padak, Newton, Rasinski, & Newton, 2008).  Scholars estimate that up to 90 percent of words with more than one syllable have origins in Latin and that many of the remaining multisyllabic words share roots in Greek (Padak et al., 2008).  These morphological patterns provide the foundation of much content-area vocabulary, as up to 76 percent of commonly occurring academic words share morphological roots (Coxhead, 2000; Hiebert & Lubliner, 2008).  By analyzing these patterns, students can make connections between words that are semantically and conceptually related (Baumann, et al., 2002; Edwards, et al., 2004). (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

In other words, learning Latin (and Greek) roots—along with prefixes and suffixes, which turn them into English words and which themselves often come from Latin (and Greek)—makes it possible for students to dissect new words when they meet them in their reading.   Figuring out the meaning of the words will, of course, help students figure out the meaning of the whole passage.

It should be obvious that knowing one root—or, even one prefix—can allow a child to figure out many words.  Just think how helpful it is for a child to know that words that have port (portō, portāre, L) in them probably have something to do with “carrying”—hence, transport (with trans, L, across), export (with ex, L, out or away from), portable, porter.  There are a million—well, many, many—examples of roots and prefixes just like this.

I frequently find myself surprised when one of my own children does not know what a word means and I have to explain it to them.  Then, I remember that only my oldest child had the chance to take Latin in high school.  My children’s middle school did not offer it, and the high schools that my younger two children attended did not offer it, either.  I tried to get my youngest to take Latin in college—better late than never, I thought—but we could never get it to work in her schedule.  Even though the younger two studied both French and Italian both here and abroad, I continue to be disappointed that they missed Latin.

I often wonder what it must be like for students who don’t have any knowledge of Latin—even of Latin roots, which can be taught easily, starting in elementary school.  The authors of the article make this rather insightful statement:

Words in English aren’t random strings of letters; their patterns have logic and meaning, much of which comes from Latin and Greek.  Unfortunately, many students are unaware of this link and unable to use it to learn new words and concepts.

Yes, indeed.  What could look like random strings of letters to students with no Latin background look like actual words to students with that Latin background.  Think how empowering that must be to students when they are reading a passage and they come upon a word they don’t know.

Well, I haven’t even started on the case for how knowing Latin grammar can make the mastery of English grammar so much easier or how well Latin grammar is typically taught and how poorly English grammar is often taught.  Just trust me on that, though your own experience likely supports it.

And let me say, for the record, that studying Latin does not substitute for studying a modern foreign language.  Kids should study both—for quite different, but equally valuable, reasons.  So, parents, think hard about what your kids are taking in middle school and high school (and, if you are lucky, in elementary school) when it comes to studying a second or third language, and don’t underestimate the value of Latin.

Parents of elementary school students:  How is vocabulary taught in your school? Do they teach Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes?  If not, why not?  Find out.  Show the ASCD article to your principal.  Bring up the subject at a PTA meeting.  Parents should have a say in curriculum.  Have yours.

Parents of middle school and high school students:  Does your school offer Latin?  If not, why not?  Is it the lack of interest on the part of the students/parents or the inability to get a certified teacher?  Find out.  Both problems are solvable.  Ask your principal or superintendent or school board to solve them.

It’s All About the Music

It's All About the Music

Well, I was knee deep in editing about 150 college application essays for high school seniors for some weeks and finally can move on to other important things.  I have been wanting to talk with you about today’s topic ever since I read an article last summer about legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert.  (If you are too young to remember Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, go listen to Alpert’s signature style on YouTube.  Start with “Tijuana Taxi” and “This Guy’s In Love With You”—and stay for all the rest.)

Before we talk about Alpert, let’s say a word or two about the value of music in your child’s education.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have one son with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Berklee College of Music and another son who is an MC and on-the-rise performer of grime in the U.S.  (If you are too old to know what grime is, head back to YouTube and look for grime artists from London, where the genre originated.)  Clearly, as a parent, I think music is crucial to a child’s education.

When I co-founded a small Early College STEM high school in New York City, one of the first things we did was start a music program:  one required History of American Music course for all students, one elective music theory course, and an after-school performance group.  Why?  Because for some kids, music is the only reason to come to school.  Our student was Wilmer, and he is still playing music.  Parents, you might have a kid like Wilmer at home; but, even it you don’t, you have a kid who still needs a music education.

Jackie Zubrzycki reported on some recent research in the Education Week blog Curriculum Matters:

Studying music seems to have helped accelerate the cognitive development, and particularly the auditory- and speech and language-processing abilities, of a group of young children in Los Angeles.

That’s an early pair of findings from a five-year longitudinal study being conducted by researchers with the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Heart of Los Angeles, a community center. The study, published earlier this spring in Developmental Cognitive Neurosciencechecks in on a group of students two years into an experiment about the impact of music education on students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development.

And here is just a bit of the substantial research reported by Laura Lewis Brown at PBS Parents:

Research indicates the brain of a musician, even a young one, works differently than that of a nonmusician. “There’s some good neuroscience research that children involved in music have larger growth of neural activity than people not in music training. When you’re a musician and you’re playing an instrument, you have to be using more of your brain,” says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the Early Childhood Music Department at the Peabody Preparatory of The Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a specialized music curriculum for children aged two months to nine years.

In fact, a study led by Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schlaug, professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, found changes in the brain images of children who underwent 15 months of weekly music instruction and practice. The students in the study who received music instruction had improved sound discrimination and fine motor tasks, and brain imaging showed changes to the networks in the brain associated with those abilities, according to the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research.

So, for lots of reasons that are scientific and social and emotional and artistic and cultural more, music seems to be quite a gift for children.

And now, Alpert, musician extraordinaire and co-founder of A&M Records, has made music quite a gift for a group of talented college students.  His foundation—co-founded with his wife, singer Lani Hall—has made a $10.1 million gift to Los Angeles City College (LACC), a two-year public community college.  The money will create an endowment, which will be used to raise the number of music majors enrolled from 175 to 250 and to provide ALL of them with FREE tuition.

Yes, ALL of them with FREE tuition.  Talk about giving back…

As reported by Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times, Alpert said this about his gift:

“LACC is a gem of an institution. . . . The biggest motivation was helping kids who don’t have the financial energy to go to a major college. At LACC, they’ve nurtured thousands of dedicated students every year. My brother went there. My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I’ve visited the school. It’s alive. It’s kickin’.”

Alpert noted that he was especially interested in supporting a public institution where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds could get a college education.  I hope that our newest leaders are watching and listening, as they continue to slash the budgets of public higher education institutions and make it harder and harder for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to get the college education they deserve.

And one last word from Alpert:

 “I was super-shy and the trumpet was speaking for me. . . . It made the noise I couldn’t get out of my mouth. It’s a way for kids to experience their own uniqueness and appreciate the uniqueness of others.”

No one doubts that you are unique, Mr. Alpert.  We just need a lot more like you.

Parents of kids of all ages:  How many more research articles do you need?  Get some music into your kid’s life.  If you can afford to pay for private music lessons, great.  But there is so much more that our public schools can do and must do for all of our students.

Lobby your Board of Education, your district administrators, and your school administrators to offer a well-rounded music program—both music performance and music appreciation/history.  As the inimitable music genius Quincy Jones has said, American kids are woefully ignorant of our country’s rich music heritage.  Parents, make sure that ends now.