Taking Literature to the Streets

Jan 23, 2019 | All School, Inquiry, PBL/IBL, Upper School News

If you are a student in the Upper School’s mod 4 class, “Artistic Revolution and The Harlem Renaissance,” you don’t just read authors like Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, you read them in Harlem. Last week, Mount Vernon Upper School teacher and Harlem Renaissance Scholar, Meg Brooks took her students to Harlem, New York to walk the same streets, listen to the same songs, and read the very texts that Harlem Renaissance greats wrote in the place they were written nearly 100 years ago.

Students teamed up with upperclassmen from Marist for a walking/reading tour of Harlem on Friday morning where they paid homage to greats like Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr and Nelson Mandela who once spoke at the historic Riverside Church. After that, students walked the path described in the opening of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, and through Langston Hughes’ childhood home and Renaissance High School. The students also got to visit a black comic book festival at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where Langston Hughes’ ashes are buried beneath a pictorial representation of his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the lobby floor. Next, students were treated to a soul-food lunch at the world-famous Sylvia’s followed by a private jazz concert at a brownstone in Harlem. The concert was a survey of various jazz styles played by local jazz musicians who have been playing together and living in Harlem their whole lives.

On Saturday, students toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art before taking the A train (literally!) to get to Harlem where they visited the Apollo Theater. At the Apollo, students learned about the history of African Americans (?)  in NYC and how the great migration led to the Harlem Renaissance and the success of the Apollo Theater. The tour guide, Billy “Mr Apollo” Mitchell explained that he has worked there for 54 years and held every position in the Apollo. He began running errands at the age of 15 and has since met most artists that have played there. Afterwards, they heard stories about the Jackson 5 playing tag in the basement, Paul McCartney asking Billy to introduce him, and Michelle Obama encouraging him to write a book. Billy had a special attachment to Mount Vernon as that was the name of the city he grew up in outside NYC, in the same neighborhood as Denzel Washington, Nina Simone, and Sidney Poitier. Then, several students and chaperones participated in a talent show modeled after the infamous Amateur Night at the Apollo before going backstage and touring the dressing rooms below.

After the amazing experience at the Apollo, students were challenged to navigate the subway as they made their way to Times Square in small groups. Students took public transportation all weekend but felt confident enough to actually figure out the navigation without assistance by Saturday afternoon. After dinner on the Upper West Side, students had the opportunity to ice skate at Rockefeller Center.

On Sunday morning the students debriefed their experience in the hotel lobby, “I wish we had more time at The Met”, said senior Hayden Moore. “I really like jazz more than I thought I would” explained Robert Blumenkranz. Kelly Dickson commented that her favorite aspect was “being trusted to navigate the subway on our own”. “Spending my birthday in NYC with my friends was an experience that I’ll never forget,” reflects senior Elizabeth McGinness.

“It was beautiful to not only see literature and history come to life in this historically rich experience, but to watch students make this learning and this city their own as they developed the independence and passion for this subject that can only come with a real-world experience like this” commented Matthew Neylon who helped chaperone the trip with Meg Brooks.