Designing Primary Source Curricula for the K–12 Classroom

By Alex Tronolone


In 2021, the New York Public Library established the Center for Educators and Schools, whose mission is to use the resources and collections of NYPL to ignite the curiosity, joy, and passion of learning within educators, students, and school communities. The Curriculum Development team was established at the founding of the Center with a goal of publishing curricula to support educators in integrating the resources of NYPL’s three research libraries into their teaching practice. 

Designing Teaching with Primary Source Curricula

At the beginning of our design process, we asked ourselves, “How might we design a curriculum resource that makes it as easy as possible for K–12 classroom educators to integrate research library resources into their teaching?”

We began with an acknowledgement that doing original research in the archive is one of the most intellectually complex and challenging tasks that students will encounter in their school career. Consider: conducting original research is the terminal point of formal education in the humanities and sciences, usually beginning after the completion of undergraduate work.  As anyone who has spent hours hunched over a microfilm reader or deciphering handwriting with nothing to show for it can tell you, not all interactions with primary sources lead to clear results.

It’s harder, maybe, to explain the joy of the serendipitous discovery, or the meticulously compiled data, that reveals new ways of thinking, imagining art, or interpreting the current moment.

Grades 7-12 Cover for NYPL's "To Make Public Our Joy" emancipation curriculum

Therefore, our goal with primary source-based curriculum is to scaffold experiences with research library tools and items in a way that is developmentally appropriate. The resources and activities in our first curriculum, “To Make Public Our Joy: Black New Yorkers Commemorating Emancipation, 1808–1865,” achieves this by proposing a research question and modeling a process to find answers through the use of the library’s collections in a classroom.

But we don’t know, and couldn’t possibly plan for, all of the different contexts in which an educator might want to use this content. Therefore, you will notice that there are no distinct “lesson plans” in the curriculum guide. Each component of the guide was designed to be modular, so users can pick and choose the pieces most relevant to them and their students (including translations of the primary sources into three different languages). We’ve been describing it with a reference to logistics: we’re providing educators with “everything but the last mile” of curriculum delivery. We leave it to the educator’s creativity and judgment on how to implement this content with their students.

Design Process

The Emancipation curriculum was initiated in early 2022, shortly after Juneteenth became a national holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery and the New York City public school calendar had been updated to observe the day as a holiday. Our goal was to support classroom discussions on the holiday and help students understand that Juneteenth was the end of a long process of emancipations that played out in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was the result of tireless activism and advocacy by Black Americans

We began with a research question that would address a wide range of educators in our local context: “How did Black New Yorkers celebrate emancipation from 1800–1900?” After reading widely on the current scholarship and reviewing our relevant collections, we identified three moments on which to focus: 1808, the end of the international trade in humans, 1827, abolition in New York State, and 1865, national abolition. We chose these moments because they were well-supported by developmentally appropriate sources from our collections and would allow educators to find use for the materials in a variety of contexts.

In choosing items, it was important to consider how to move students from observation and comprehension of an item
(What do you see? What does this say? Who made this?)
to analysis, summary, and evaluation
(What can we learn from this? Why is this important? What do I think about this?).

After identifying the historical moments and the collections, we narrowed down the featured items by considering which ones would be accessible through a primarily observational analysis to students in our target grade levels. In choosing items, it was important to consider how to move students from observation and comprehension of an item (What do you see? What does this say? Who made this?) to analysis, summary, and evaluation (What can we learn from this? Why is this important? What do I think about this?). To help educators with this, we composed historical context essays, timelines, and model questions and answers. This step is important, because only with knowledge of the historical context of a primary source can educators accurately scaffold a transition between comprehending an item to integrating it into a broader analysis supporting an answer to a research question.

For example, in our unit on Emancipation in New York, we first provide educators with a short essay by a historian describing the process of emancipation in New York and an accompanying timeline of relevant moments. Then, we provide excerpts of letters to the editor and editorials from Freedom’s Journal, America’s first Black newspaper, on a debate about how to commemorate the abolition of slavery in New York State. Freedom’s Journal is held both in our Periodicals Division and accessible via online databases. Following the featured items are model questions and answers to scaffold student understanding of the context, stakes, and contours of the debate amongst Black abolitionists. At the end of the unit, students are invited to write their own letter to the editor or design an advertisement for one of the days. Do they support the celebration on July 4, 1827, a solemn and modest affair, performed in private, safe from vigilantism? Or do they support the celebration to be held on July 5, 1827, with a large public procession and speeches in the park?

When we shared this activity with educators in a teacher workshop our Center hosted, we received encouraging feedback. One of the educators said that although they didn’t teach abolitionism in their class, they were inspired to use the Historical Newspapers Database to have their students explore the Black press’s take on important moments in the course he teaches. Some educators were new to this history, and others said they were teaching the abolition movement and could use these resources as-is.


For educators who use all of the resources in the curriculum guide sequentially, their students will be prepared, with support, to either curate a museum-style exhibition digitally or on poster board, or write a research paper that cited both primary and secondary sources answering the research question, “How did Black New Yorkers commemorate emancipation from 1808–1865?”

By scaffolding student interactions with primary sources and library resources, we are hoping for a few outcomes. First, that students’ first interactions with primary sources and research libraries are successful and compelling. Second, we save K–12 classroom educators time they don’t have by poring over secondary sources to understand the contemporary historiography of the moment and digging through folders in the archive to find developmentally appropriate sources to share with their students. Finally, by modeling the research process, we hope that students and educators are motivated to ask research questions of their own, and use the resources of the library to answer it.

Alex Tronolone is the founding Manager, Curriculum Development, at New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools. He is a special educator with over a decade designing learning experiences with primary sources.