ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Explore the origins of “The Black National Anthem”


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration


In this lesson, students will develop perspective about historical events through art, poetry, and music. Students will gain insight about how significant historical events can inspire art that conveys emotions and mood. This allows students to develop conceptual ‘big ideas’ about hardship, fairness, equity, and the quest to bring change for the better. After analyzing sculpture, poetry, and a musical composition, students will experiment with metaphors and create their own poetry.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Develop a familiarity with the origins of "The Black National Anthem" in reference to author, time, purpose, circumstance, and mood.
  • Analyze and discuss the figurative language and imagery of the poem to derive meaning from significant, historical events
  • Recognize the effect that music and rhythm have on written words.

Teaching Approach

Arts Enhanced

Teaching Methods

  • Brainstorming
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Multimedia Instruction
  • Discussion
  • Discovery Learning

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • Whiteboard/Screen
  • Projector
  • Speakers
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should be familiar with the civil rights movement in US history. Teachers can use this Civil Rights Timeline to refresh their understanding.

Teachers will also need a basic understanding of the role James Weldon Johnson played as a civil rights activist during the Harlem Renaissance. Visit this website for a brief Biography of James Weldon Johnson.

Teachers should be familiar with “Lift Every Voice and Sing (Black National Anthem),” performance is availble to watch in the Resource Carousel above. The text of the original poem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," is also in the Carousel.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be comfortable working in pairs/quads. Also, they should have general knowledge about civil rights in the U.S. with post Civil War events to the early 1900’s. The students should know how to construct a biographical timeline to identify events in one’s life.

Students should have previously analyzed and interpreted visual art to explore and discover concepts.

Students should be familiar with metaphor used in poetry to help others gain perspective.

Physical Space



  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Preview sculpture and decide if a large image has clear resolution or to display in through a projector on the screen or wall, or on a white board, or a computer wired to a monitor or each pair of students has a copy of the visual representation of The Harp sculpted by Augusta Savage in 1939. A photograph of a scaled replica is located within the Resource Carousel available for you to use.
  • Bookmark websites
  • Copy for each student a black line master for analyzing sculpture(see TR#1 Picture Interpretation)
  • Have a large area vertical, top-bottom board or chart paper to allow for students to assemble a timeline from a link provided with 81/2” x 11” print outs placed in a sequence of the civil rights related historical events.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Display an image of the sculpture The Harp using the Resource Carousel above. Don't tell students the name of the sculpture. Have students examine and discuss the sculpture. Explain that this sculpture was displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and it stands about 16 feet high.

2. Have students, in pairs or groups of four, examine this work of art and generate responses in lists to the following:

  • What are the things you could touch (people, places, or things) if you were looking at this work of art. e.g. man, God’s hand, people, muscles, family, instruments.
  • Things you could not touch (abstract nouns), e.g. strength, determination, pride, harmony, unity, hope, power
  • Action that is happening (verbs), e.g. holding, lifting, balancing, singing, harmonizing
  • Things you hear, see, smell, taste, feel (adjectives), e.g. soft voices, strong, closeness

3. Ask students why the artist chose to capture this particular image.

  • What title would you give this sculpture? Tell why.
  • After they have a chance to generate their own title and tell why, then share the name of the Sculpture: The Harp sculpted in 1939 by Augusta Savage. She was inspired by the poem, written by James Weldon Johnson, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the song written by his brother, Rosamond.

Build Knowledge

1. Have students explore the events leading up to and surrounding the time the poem was written in 1900. The purpose is to let the reader build their knowledge about civil rights and how this poem connects to history. This website by ThinkQuest provides students with a timeline of important events to the African American history.

2. Create a simple timeline on the board or a long sheet of butcher paper. Place the following dates leading to the writing of the poem on the timeline: 1600s, 1787, 1820, 1826, 1828, 1847, 1849, 1850, 1854, 1857, 1859, 1860, 1860-1861, 1861-1865, 1863, 1865, 1865-1877, 1868, 1870, 1896

3. Divide students into five groups. Each group will need to research 4 dates at ThinkQuest. Each group should read about the event(s) during the time periods they receive, then report to the class in one or two sentences summarizing the event(s) and placing it along the timeline in large classroom display. Have chalk/markers available to allow for students to piece the timeline together from earliest events to 1900(writing of the poem).

4. Add James Weldon Johnson to the timeline (1871-1938). Within the timeline in a contrasting color to allow students to underscore his experiences in context of significant historical events related to civil rights movement.

5. Have students read about Johnson. Display Johnson's poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, on a whiteboard using the Lift Every Voice and Sing image gallery located within the Resource Carousel. You can also print and distribute the poem to students.

6. Ask students to think carefully and describe what types of feelings the poem evokes. Explain that poems, like music, use words to affect the emotions of the audience. The teacher can model a ‘think aloud’ with a line or stanza and then draw an inference about feelings, mood.


1. Explain that the poem Lift Every Voice and Sing was set to music by the poet's brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. Explain to students that words of a song are called lyrics. Now they are going to examine how the poem's words take on a different level of meaning when set to music.

2. Ask students what kinds of music they listen to. What is special about music that creates special feelings, memories, or meanings?

3. Have students listen to the anthem’s message of unifying African Americans in their struggle for equal rights in this country.

4. Have students watch the musical version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in the resource carousel above.

5. Have students discuss the effect of the music on the words of the poem.

  • How does the music affect the mood and emotion of the lyrics?
  • What do you think the singer(s) wants listeners to feel when they hear the song?
  • What emotions or feelings to you hear? Joyfulness, sadness, anything else?
  • How does one person singing (solo) compare to a group of people singing together?
  • Why do you think people sing together, such as in a choir?

6. Discuss the rhythm in the music selection. Ask students to identify the tempo of each the piece. Do they prefer a fast tempo or a slow one? Why?

7. Compare and contrast the words as a poem with the words set to music. Which has more of an effect on them? Which do they prefer? Why?

8. Analyze poem for use of descriptive language. Tell students to highlight keywords that create an image in their mind or establish feeling or mood. For example:

  • We have come over a way that with tears have been watered
  • Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty

9. Think aloud the imagery from those key words. Model think aloud: I see African Americans marching with hope that they will be treated with fairness and equality.


Revisit The Harp from the Engage step and select a noun from the lists students created.

  • The vocabulary the students brainstormed will provide rich content for them to create an individual stanza of a poem about The Harp.
  • Have each group member individually write a line of poetry about The Harp.
  • Then have groups put their lines together into a stanza. (Remind students that poems don't always have to rhyme)
  • Have students draw a picture of their group's stanza on a seperate sheet.
  • Students should then bring their images to a section of the wall and create a large picture moasic.
  • Explain that moasics could be described as image poems.

Extending the Learning

Have students read their class poem.  Ask them to think about what they see as they read each line. What images come to mind?

Does the moasic that they created reflect the images they think about when they read their poem?



Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
National Standards in Other Subjects



Colleen M. O'Donnell

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