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Category Archives: Newsletter column
Forget the fuss. Let’s put in the hard work required to involve teachers in evaluating each other.
As is often the case when complex topics are debated in the media, creative thinking is a casualty in the current hubbub over whether school districts should publicly release teacher value-added scores. Reformers on both “sides” are digging their trenches so fast and sternly that they are missing the busy bees on the surface spreading good ideas like pollen.
Deputy Chancellor John White, even while staunchly defending the controversial metric, said much the same himself in a letter to the New York Times published on New Year’s Day: “It would be unfair to claim that any one statistic, such as newly developed ‘value-added data,’ should stand alone as definitive evidence of a teacher’s effectiveness.”
One such idea is including a peer component in teacher evaluations. This practice has been tried in some districts, most notably in Ohio, in some form since the 1980s. But the fact that it requires a nuanced and locally specific structure – a strength that is a counterbalance to value-added data – makes it difficult if not impossible to bring to scale. For this reason and others, I’m doubtful that the idea has been given a fair shake.
In other professions, peer evaluation is the norm, along with feedback from one’s superiors and direct reports. Teachers deserve “360-degree feedback”; they occupy one of the most complex, demanding professions around. Supervisors should have at their disposal more data and more diverse sources of information.
I know from experience that as a teacher surrounded by one’s four walls and focused so tightly on one’s classroom, it’s hard to see the big picture of what a school community needs as a whole. But teachers have valid opinions about the practices of their colleagues that simply can’t be ignored, opinions that are sometimes more pointed and helpful than those of administrators.
At our school, building the boat as we’ve been sailing for the past five years, we have not yet incorporated peer feedback into teacher evaluation in a meaningful way. But we have laid the groundwork with teacher leadership through school walkthroughs, teacher-facilitated lesson study observations and teacher coaching.
We already trust our teachers to give meaningful feedback. For example, teachers are heavily involved in the hiring process. Our teachers observe and debrief teacher candidates’ demonstration lessons, and recommend student teachers for a temporary or permanent assignment when a vacancy arises. Anecdotal evidence tells me that while teacher leadership opportunities (outside of the traditional, Peter Principle-plagued ladder climbing to Assistant Principal, Principal, district office, etc.) are scattershot, but these feedback opportunities in the hiring process are more commonplace. Should teachers’ opinions stop counting once a colleague signs on the dotted line?
Some critics of this idea – especially those stumbling over the sins of a toxic work environment – would question teachers’ willingness to criticize their colleagues when necessary. After all, why wouldn’t a teacher concerned about protecting his or her own hide take it easy on a colleague in exchange for the same treatment back? One clear answer is that a strong process with purposeful layers of feedback and oversight will prevent such an indulgence.
A better answer is that as constant learners, committed teachers are their own harshest critics—and when relationships with families and students are involved, that value extends to colleagues. Those who work hard and take pride in their students’ success, who have strong bonds throughout the school community and are focused on children, will not stand for a teacher in the next grade faltering and ruining their hard work. By the same token, imagine the motivation to help a teacher in a lower grade get it right when the evaluator will be teaching the affected students in only a few months!
Finally, if folks aren’t willing to be honest when it comes to student results, then the school community has bigger problems than incompetence. In other words, a modicum of two-way trust is required for this process to work. But rather than an obstacle, that’s another reason why fretting over value-added data is beside the point; without a supportive, trusting environment, it’s a fool’s errand to evaluate teachers anyway.
This post also appears at the Bank Street Alumni Blog.
That’s what some observers would have you believe after the scores students around New York State attained in standardized tests plummeted this year. At Harlem Link we do not want to confuse a sense of urgency with a counterproductive panic. We know that only long-term and comprehensive solutions are going to fix the problems that have plagued our schools for generations.
Has the state of our national educational program gotten worse? The problems our schools face have been compounded by globalization, the technology revolution and a rapidly changing world, but let’s face facts: Our nation has never provided equitable education, not since compulsory schooling began to take hold in the 19th century. And before then – good luck, unless you were landed, male and white.
Speaking of race, are you worried about a racial achievement gap? (I am.) In my office I have a 1950 issue of Life magazine, on which a white girl graces the cover with the headline “U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis.” Sixty years later, we’ve had wave after wave of educational reform driven by panic and hyperbolic assessment of this “crisis.”
Reflecting on these facts has helped me put the change in the state test scores this summer in their proper context. In sum, New York State Education Department (SED) commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch acted with a courage and an integrity rare among public officals when they decided to ratchet down scores that had been demonstrably inflated over the past five to 10 years. They noted in a July press conference that the state tests had become increasingly predictable and unchallenging. The announcement included a promise to overhaul the state exams and make them more rigorous in coming years. Moreover, the Regents and SED would be holding all students to a higher standard for tests already taken this year.
In recent years, New York City’s racial achievement gap had appeared to be steadily closing, at least if you believed the test scores, but overnight that gulf re-appeared in force. Suddenly there were heated reactions in the state educational community about the tests and what they had to say about student achievement. Did anyone really think that things had gotten much better?
The critics were merciless. Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute was quoted in The New York Times the day after the press conference as saying, “The state test is completely unreliable.” Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor, said in a Times article the next day, “We just really can’t trust the state tests for judging whether the quality of education in New York City has really improved.” New York City Mayor Bloomberg appeared ruffled by the sudden drop in scores. “Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” he said. Later, he infamously added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”
The furor reached a head at the August meeting of the city Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), during which parents protested the drop in test scores and the previously inflated scores so vociferously, bullhorns and all, that the meeting was shut down early.
My view is that for all the reforms, all the changes ebbing and flowing in curriculum and assessment of student achievement, all the fads and the gimmicks, things have not changed all that much since the “crisis” of 1950. Proficiency rates on state tests should not be the goal; student independence and success in higher education and in life ought to be the goal. So I see this drop in test scores as just the popping of another bubble – not unlike the home run bubble created by steroid proliferation in baseball and the stock market bubble created by an unsustainable housing boom. Do these two graphs appear to have anything in common?
Down, up, down again, WAY up, and then, BUST! If I were a betting man, I would bet that the New York City proficiency scores on 4th and 8th grade tests, if plotted over time, would show the same pattern. (I have searched the Internet, but this data is demonstrably harder to find than baseball and Dow Jones statistics.)
As with the dreadful state of the economy, panicking in the face of these test scores will get us nowhere. If we are going to have lasting change, we need to ignore fads and focus on what will bring long-term improvement. In the wake of the housing meltdown, hucksters sprung up to “rescue” defaulting homeowners from their crushing debt, only to be prove to be just another bunch of scam artists. There are no quick fixes. There are no shortcuts.
In education, we know what works. School by school, change is possible with a committed group of competent educators focused on a clear and compelling mission, a shared community emphasis on student goals, robust home-school communication and, finally, a clear vision to which everyone subscribes to make those elements come to life. Everything else – all the bells and whistles and promises and panics – is just another manifestation of the crisis thinking that, if obeyed, will send us back into yet another false boom and bust cycle.
My friends Barbara and Jane were with me that Sunday afternoon when I answered the call from 718-777-4300. “Just pick it up, see who it is,” said Barbara, over my protests that I’d already had about 10 missed calls from the same number that morning and didn’t want to deal with any telemarketers over the weekend. When I grudgingly answered, I heard, “Please hold,” and as the Rikers Island switchboard put through the call, a saga 10 years long began a new chapter.
It was my former student Tom calling, responding to my letter to him and my entreaty to his Legal Aid lawyer to have him get in touch with me and allow me to visit him in jail. That phone call on Memorial Day weekend 2010 was the first time I had spoken to Tom since 2001, when he was in the fourth grade, I was a young teacher, and we were about to lose touch – he by bouncing around from PS 192, where I met him, to special education school to detention center to jail on Rikers Island, I by leaving the school where he had been in my third grade class to look for a better environment in which to teach and, a few years later, by leaving the district altogether and starting Harlem Link with Margaret Ryan.
In the third grade, Tom touched me as few people have because it was clear that he had special gifts but without consistent and serious guidance he was headed for trouble. By the time he was eight, he had about every risk factor you could name: orphaned, neglected, disabled, hyperactive. With more agency identification numbers than birthdays, it’s no wonder he landed in the tracked “bottom class” that was assigned to me, the lowest ranked among six or seven sections of third graders at my gargantuan elementary school. Though he never seemed to sit still or attend to his lessons, though he ran circles around the routines his novice teacher was trying to put in place, Tom was a sponge for knowledge and somehow, through sheer eagerness to learn and some uncanny survival skills, met the academic standards in reading and arithmetic that year.
In the nine years between his transfer to what I had heard was a “special education school downtown” (“He was scared” was all another teacher could tell me about the situation as he left) and the Memorial Day phone call, I used every tool I could find to search for him: phone calls to colleagues, new lists of special education schools and Google and other resources on the Internet.
In about 2007 I found him registered at a detention center in the Bronx. Concerned but elated that he was seemingly back in the system where I could contact him, I called the school office there to ask about him. “No recollection of that one,” said the person responsible for registration there. “He’s probably already gone, if he was ever even here. We have 300 students in this facility, and they come and go all the time. You can’t expect me to know them all.”
In the nine years since I last saw him, Tom has made a series of poor choices. At the apex of these choices he committed a felony: robbery in the first degree. As a consequence he spent his 16th through 18th birthdays in a variety of jail and prison facilities from Rikers to the Bronx to upstate Goshen. In December 2009, three years after imprisonment for this act, he was released on parole. Within three months, he was back in jail for violating parole.
While Tom alone is responsible for his behavior, I’ve seen the long arc of his life since 1999 and understand that the truth is a bit more complicated. As he told me over the phone, he has lacked adult guidance over the years. That’s as gross an understatement as I’ve ever heard.
Each year, through various public and private agencies, our educational and correctional systems have spent tens of thousands of public dollars on Tom’s education and rehabilitation. Talking with him on that phone call from jail, I learned that the pattern I first observed with him in 2001 – when well-meaning social workers, psychologists and teachers based both at his school and the Administration for Children’s Services disappeared from his life with the stroke of a pen and a transfer to a new setting – would continue as service providers continued to flit in and out of his life.
Coming of age behind bars, having no family support to speak of and lacking a consistent adult authority figure, Tom was simply unprepared for life on his own. To make matters worse, when his parole began Tom also learned what it means to be homeless. It came as no surprise to this observer to learn that soon after being released, he made a thoughtless and self-destructive decision to skip a parole hearing. The sad tale thus continued in March 2010, when Tom was picked up by the police on that infraction and wound up back in jail, the one place he didn’t want to go.
In the weeks between Tom’s re-arrest and his 19th birthday in midsummer, he has found himself trapped in a Kafkaesque process in which the correctional system is doing its best to provide him with some support for life on the outside. I have joined him in the middle of this journey and gained yet another paradigm-shifting education in the process. Tom has been through a series of hearings intended to release him to a nonprofit agency that would provide him with some combination of life skills training, temporary housing and substance abuse treatment and prevention. Each hearing has seen new obstacles arise and has ended in delay and continued imprisonment.
Taken on their own, each obstacle is logical, even beneficial: An agency wasn’t aware of an earlier diagnosis, and requested a screening; after an animated display by a prosecutor, a judge decided Tom would be at risk of recidivism without an escort to his destination agency, something for which he is not eligible until age 19. With Tom’s maximum 45-day stay for violating parole now approaching 90 days, these hearings paint a picture of a bureaucracy that seems to refuse to coordinate information well enough both to serve justice and provide Tom with a chance to rehabilitate himself.
So for Tom, with yet another hearing scheduled in a few weeks, it’s more of the same: waiting in his cell and requesting “protective custody” as much as possible to avoid the violence of the other inmates. When I visited him, Tom showed me fresh handcuff marks on his wrists. “It’s not the guards, it’s the other inmates,” he said. Whatever Tom learned in third grade, it may have put him on the path to getting his GED before being released on parole – a glimmer of hope that he might recapture the promise I saw 10 years ago – but it did not provide the survival skills needed to stay out of jail or the social skills to deal with the target on his back that accompanies his status as one of the youngest inmates on Rikers Island.
When Margaret and I started designing our school, the word link kept coming up in our conversation, leading to the school’s name. There were interdisciplinary links between subjects in the curriculum, links between home and school, collaborative links through co-teaching, links with institutional partners for field trips, and more. As the school prepares to graduate its first class of fifth graders and send them out into the world, another link is taking center stage: the special relationship between teacher and student. I know our fifth graders are prepared to navigate the challenges that come with adolescence and growing up as they move on to competitive middle schools. They have had a much more concerted, coherent and rigorous experience than Tom did when he began bouncing around the system. Perhaps equally important, we are laying the plans to keep track of, support and invite back to Harlem Link our alumni as they progress through middle school, high school and college.
Maybe there is nothing I could have done to help Tom along the way. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t understand a world in which a child could be so short on support that Rikers seems an inevitable destination. I also don’t understand a world in which, despite all of the agencies, all the social workers in and out of Tom’s life, all the hearings, I was maybe the one person looking for him, and I couldn’t find him until it seemed far too late. In the research I’ve done in the last month, partly to prepare to set up an alumni program for Harlem Link and partly in response to my experience with Tom, I have learned that a federal privacy law prevented me from having access to Tom’s records after he left my classroom. As his former teacher, I was deemed a no longer “interested educational party.” That’s right: The system is set up so that when something momentous happens in a child’s life, good or bad, his or her former teachers are officially not part of the educational community that can celebrate or provide succor on that occasion.
There are schools, of course, that track their alumni well. There are schools that measure their success longitudinally by finding out where their students go to college and what type of lives they lead decades after graduation (something we intend to do). There is nothing in the law preventing a school from asking alumni to stay in touch. What bothers me is the tremendous expenditure of resources that comes with dedicating staff time and technology to this effort when the most basic of this information is easily available in the New York City Department of Education’s servers. As a small school, we will do what it takes to keep these strongest links alive. But because of our limited resources, I know we will struggle to do it.
I’m talking to my lawyer friends to understand the reasoning behind this law – or regulation, since this interpretation is not specifically spelled out in the law – but in the meantime I am determined that nothing momentous will happen in our alumni’s educational careers without their elementary school teachers knowing about it.
Someone asked me recently why I wanted to make a big deal of Harlem Link’s 90% teacher retention rate in the past two years. With the school year winding down and this big graduation approaching, it’s been a time of reflection and celebration for many fifth grade families. The notion that we are a larger family as a school and the famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” have come up repeatedly in different settings as families and students try to cope with the idea of moving on to the next school. To my questioner I say, the fact that our teachers are sticking around means, among other things, that Harlem Link will be better able to keep those teacher-alumni links intact.
I am back in Tom’s life now. I can’t see him every day for 180 days as I did 10 years ago, but I’m willing to bet that in those days I learned and today I still remember more about him and what he needs than the sum of all of the specialists and case workers who have appeared and disappeared in his life since. I wish I could have participated along the way, could have spoken to some of the people who had to learn his family history (or, in some cases, not even get that far) over and over again. And I’m determined that in 2020, none of our teachers will have to say the same about any of our proud graduates.
This post also appears at GothamSchools.
During the college basketball season, a commenter on a sports website described a star student-athlete from my alma mater as “big, strong, agile and smart.” I wouldn’t dispute that characterization, but I have some inside information about the player’s academic performance. An esteemed professor of mine, someone I consider a mentor, confided that this scholar could be found staring into his Blackberry during the professor’s lectures, something you don’t want to do with this prof – both because you’d be missing out on a golden opportunity to absorb some wisdom and because you won’t like the menacing stare that would be sure to follow!
This situation once again raised a question I’ve wondered about since I was a child: What does it mean to be smart? It turns out there is a lot of research and literature on the subject, and an endless number of opinions.
The question is of vital importance in a school setting. If educators begin with the assumption that there are some kids who are smart and other kids who are not smart, and these are fixed capacities that can only be mildly influenced by school, then there’s not a whole lot of good that a school can do other than shepherd each kid along his or her predestined path. If a school treats a child as having limitless potential, whatever environmental, medical or psychological issues have begun to shape him or her, then the approach becomes very different. That school will naturally have high expectations for all students and will challenge all kids to meet those expectations, to retain and synthesize what they experience in school. In my view, this expectation that our knowledge and skills need not have limits is, along with natural human curiosity, the starting point of all learning.
I believe that the idea that intelligence is a fixed quality about a person, like height, is a dangerous and damaging concept. I have observed students internalizing the negative (“I’m not smart”) when provided evidence of it more than internalizing the positive (“I am smart”) when they are provided evidence of that. In the school setting, this phenomenon has often led to a shallow and, I think, misguided attempt to build students’ self-esteem regardless of the circumstances. We can fight the very human tendency to fixate on the negative not by masking it, but by acknowledging that tendency and countering it by affirming the potential that we all have.
A series of town hall meetings last week reinforced this belief. Margaret and I talked frankly about this subject with groups of our students who were soon to take the state exams. I showed them our school’s test scores from last year and how we hope they perform on the tests this year. We compared their performance in 2009 to that of District 3, our local school district that is a diverse and fairly accurate snapshot of the city as a whole. (District 3 includes our small part of Harlem and all of the Upper West Side.)
The curious thing is that, when I asked the third graders who saw that our third grade had a 98% passing rate on the state math test last year, if that meant that our third graders were smarter than the District 3 kids who scored lower, they all said, “No.” They implicitly understood that under other circumstances the other kids could perform better and knock the Harlem Link students off their perch.
But when I asked the same question of the fifth graders, whose cohort did not outperform District 3 on last year’s exam (but still had a respectable 75% attainment rate), there was a robust mix of “Yes” and “No.” Many, maybe even most, of the kids believed that the students with a higher achievement rate were actually smarter than the the Harlem Link kids because of the test results! Our objective in this situation is to restore a sense in the students that they control their destiny, to instill in them the belief that their knowledge is what they make of it.
One of my favorite theories of intelligence is that of the psychologist Robert Sternberg. He built the “tri-archic” model, describing the analytic, creative, and practical domains of intelligence. The model suggests that we call on different aspects of our intelligence in different situations and that there is a fluidity to knowledge that is dependent on context. I believe that if our fifth graders thoroughly understood this idea, their reaction to last year’s test scores would be, “Those kids beat our school’s scores on that particular day, on that particular test.”
Our challenge is not only to light the candle of learning and help the kids internalize facts, skills and habits, but it’s also to help them view themselves as creatures more complex than can a simple number can express.
Time and again I have seen supposedly smart people appear foolish. We all witnessed that sort of behavior in the mortgage and banking crisis that precipitated our current recession. On my nightstand right now is The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book all but predicted the economic crisis the year before it happened, when the global economy was going through what turned out to be irrational exuberance. Taleb’s thesis was summarized by Bloomberg.com: “We’re all blind to rare events and routinely fool ourselves into believing we can predict risks and rewards.”
Congress and the federal education department also seem to be filled with smart people making not so smart decisions. The people who brought us the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 are at it again. The president’s proposed reauthorization of the law (formally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) will eliminate the unrealistic demand that all students in the country be deemed proficient on state tests by 2014. That’s all well and good – but there’s a problem. The federal education department has begun another program, called Race To The Top, offering federal stimulus dollars to state education departments that show they will implement favored reforms, among them tying teacher evaluations to student achievement and supporting charter schools. These are good ideas, but what’s disturbing – and foolish – is that there has been no public discourse on what went wrong in 2001. Instead of a reasoned, well-informed discourse on the 2001 expectation and why it turned out to the unrealistic, we are on the next silver bullet that’s going to solve all of our problems.
Harlem Link’s students? We continue to pound the message to them, with the state tests on the horizon: You are not the sum of the numbers assigned to you. Because you’re human, your intelligence can’t be fully measured by a test. (Believe it or not, Alfred Binet, the creator of the first IQ test, would agree, as he was horrified by the use of his diagnostic test to label and sort people.) The state tests, like the PSAT, SAT, SAT II, Regents exams and AP tests that our kids will take in years to come, are instead a chance to show what you know and know how to do in a certain domain.
That basketball player probably didn’t do so well on last semester’s final exam. But he is intelligent, in a manner of speaking (it takes analytic, creative and practical skills to succeed in high level athletic competition). In the classroom he made some not-so-intelligent choices or developed some not-so-intelligent habits. He has made a choice to develop and express certain aspects of his intelligence, while allowing some other aspects to wither. For the record, I think this choice is a terrible one, and it could have drastic consequences for him if his athletic plans fall through.
Our schoolwide attitude about testing is moving toward this notion of individual choice and the understanding that tests are a narrow and limited window into one dimension of knowledge. This attitude is still forming, given that 2010 is only our third year of administering state tests and we’ve been adding new teachers each year as our school expanded. Ultimately, I see Sternberg’s and Taleb’s ideas as supporting the triumph of the human spirit and the supremacy of individual choice. Consistent with the great thinkers across human cultures and history, they would have us question our basic assumptions about what we see, hear and believe. Finally, since our mission asks that we “empower children to taken an active role in learning,” the least we can do is teach them, encourage them, and ultimately trust them, to make good choices about their learning.
Life is an ongoing learning experience, and I’ve learned in 2010 that not everyone appreciates the ghosts I see as I walk down Lenox Avenue every day.
I was surprised when speaking to a colleague recently to learn that in most of the United States, there exists at best a vague awareness of the cultural legacy left by the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem, my colleague from San Francisco told me, is known in his hometown primarily for its high rates of poverty and crime. It took personal initiative for him to go beyond those stereotypes and come to understand a different side of this community.
While the casual reader may wonder if a greater awareness exists about “the Black Capital of America” among African-Americans, consider that my colleague is African-American.
When, while my co-director and I were writing our charter application in 2003, another colleague proudly handed me an annotated reference list of Harlem Renaissance luminaries that she compiled in college, I thought, “Big deal.” Only now do I understand that this simple list probably provided, in the days before the World Wide Web, a useful service at her undergraduate institution.
So I have learned that after all these years, growing up in New York City, and going to a public school only a block away from Spanish Harlem, probably gave me a special insight into the history of Harlem that most of the country doesn’t share. In high school I read James Baldwin novels, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass together with Langston Hughes’ poetic response. And I thought everyone did!
As future founders of Harlem Link, my co-director and I came to teach in Harlem almost by accident, one of us placed here in a vacant teacher position by Teach For America and the other moving from the South Bronx in search of a smaller, more caring school community. We stayed in Harlem partly because of the pull of families that, striving like our own families and yearning for the opportunities our forefathers promised, have yet to experience the schools they deserve. But we also stayed because of the dazzling energy in the streets, and because of those ghosts whispering tales of unparalleled intellectual and creative force from decades ago.
With this inspiration and the end of Black History Month as backdrop, I present to you my brief tutorial on the Harlem Renaissance. It’s impossible in this short space to give a full narrative of the Harlem Renaissance, its contributors legion and diverse not only in their backgrounds and artistic formats but in their politics as well. We’ll take a short walk through the Harlem Renaissance, then, through my eyes.
Black History Month, by the way, is often maligned for (a) occurring in the shortest month of the year, prompting protestors to say every month should be Black History Month and (b) separating “Black History” from “American History” and ghettoizing the African-American experience, which really exists as a set of inextricable threads in the tapestry of our republic. I think those criticisms have some bite, but they conveniently ignore some facts. First, it was an African-American man, historian Carter G. Woodson, who conceived of (initially) the week celebrating “Negro History,” and he chose February because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Fredrick Douglass (variously given as Feb. 7 and 14). In 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration of the United States, Negro History Week was expanded to Black History Month. (In Harlem, this expansion is not an unfamiliar experience; the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s summer celebration, Harlem Week, is now at least a month long!)
Second, critics of Black History Month overlook that one purpose of the month is to point to the achievements of African-Americans in the context of American history, not separate them. Woodson observed that history textbooks left out any reference to the role of African-Americans in the building of the union, and Black History Month seeks to correct that problem. Why, were it not for Black History month, we would not be having this conversation right now.
Let’s start our tour by orienting ourselves to the appropriate time period. The Harlem Renaissance is usually limited to literary and artistic achievements of the 1920s and 1930s. The 1920s were of course a boom time for leisure activities throughout the United States, but when the Great Depression hit the Harlem Renaissance continued to grow.
Any journey through the Harlem Renaissance starts and ends, for me, with Langston Hughes (1902-1967). A few years ago I read his monumental, meandering memoir, I Wonder As I Wander, really the second of a two-part autobiography that begins with The Big Sea. These books, particularly the former, take you, the reader, on a walk through Harlem and through time with Langston Hughes on your elbow, pointing out the sights as you go.
Langston Hughes’ literary contributions are astounding. For beginners, he published volume after volume of poetry, wrote a novel, two Broadway plays and a long-running satirical column in the Chicago Defender. (These stories of Simple and his skeptical drinking buddy Boyd are compiled in several books that retain their incisiveness today.) He was also a world traveler, with his exploits in Paris, the Soviet Union and Spain during the Spanish Civil War chronicled in his memoirs. He has something in common with Harlem Link; our building for Grades K-3 bears the name of his namesake, his uncle John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), abolitionist and the first African-American elected to the United States Congress from Virginia.
Langston Hughes’ legacy is apparent throughout Harlem. The brownstone where he spent the last decades of his life, at 20 West 127th Street, has seen preservationists seek to open it in recent years as a cultural center. His ashes are buried beneath an artistic interpretation of one of his poems (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”) by an artist named Houston Conwill (1947-present), at the world-famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at West 135th Street and Lenox Ave.
The Schomburg, now a research library of the New York Public Library system, holds the nation’s largest collection of books, manuscripts and artwork related to African-American history. The eponymous Puerto Rican-born Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938) was himself a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a writer and historian, but he was also one of the first to recognize the intellectual and cultural importance of the period and to collect and organize related documents and artifacts.
Hughes’ circle of .literary friends included luminaries Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Wallace Thurman (1902-1934). Hurston was an author and ethnographer who traveled the South with a tape recorder looking for folk stories and other oral narratives, best remembered now for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. They were contributors to and antagonizers of, The Crisis, a journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the controversial and short-lived literary journal Fire!! Its story and demise, richly described in Hughes’ memoirs, speaks to the high intensity and quality of the intellectual milieu in Harlem at the time.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was another famous Harlem poet from the period, and his name adorns the branch public library at the back of the Schomburg. Cullen’s poetry has a romantic strand to it – often using traditional verse that is largely absent in Langston Hughes’ folksy, sometimes free verse poems – but also, like Hughes’ work, features a heavy dose of social criticism presaging the coming civil rights era. Cullen wrote protest poems while at the same time arguing that African-American artists should look to Britain and American poetry for inspiration rather than “nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance.” The Harlem Renaissance was loaded with race controversy. Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), a white photographer, joined Hughes’ inner circle and left behind many of the most famous photographs of the era, but he also published a 1926 novel called Nigger Heaven, titled after the ironic name for balconies where African-Americans were forced to sit in theaters during segregation. Needless to say, it took Van Vechten’s rich descriptions of Harlem for white people downtown to begin in earnest to make their way uptown and pay attention to the music, art and parties already in full swing.
For me, the work of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) will always represent for the visual arts what Langston Hughes’ words mean for the literary arts. With the stark, haunting patterns of primary colors that he called “dynamic cubism,” Lawrence evocatively depicted street life as well as the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities in the early part of the 20th century.
Duke Ellington’s (1899-1974) orchestra enjoyed a remarkable ten-year run at Harlem’s landmark Cotton Club. Duke’s statue stands just a couple of blocks away from Harlem Link’s school building, in the circle at 110th Street and 5th Avenue, at the northeast corner of Central Park and a few feet away from the new Museum of African Art site.
The Cotton Club wasn’t the only place to swing in the 1930s in Harlem. The Apollo Theatre gradually became the most sought-after destination around for African-American performers. In 1934, Ralph Cooper (1908-1992) bought the club and ushered in the era of Amateur Night. He famously bought a piece of the Tree of Hope – an elm tree that had a traditional use as a good luck charm – for performers at the Apollo, where it is still used for that purpose today.