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New York Then and Now: Social Studies Resources for Upper Elementary Students

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We hope to get you and your students in a New York state of mind with these non-fiction resources about the Big Apple! There are so many great books on this topic, so please feel free to add to this list as you see fit. Feedback is greatly appreciated!

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Interested in New York current events? Search this database for full text articles from New York State newspapers. Need to spruce up your NYC history lessons with some historical photos? Search NYPL's Digital Gallery, including our historical postcard collection. Students learning about immigration into NYC will enjoy NYPL's Immigrant City, an online exhibition. Use it to find pictures and Voicethreads, contribute to a Google map to point out special sites, share immigration stories, and find/share lesson plans. Also available are several themed resource packets, which can be printed and distributed for student use: Three Worlds Meet in Early New York, Early New York, and The Lower East Side. Not to be missed is the Schomburg Center's online exhibition Harlem 1900-1940!

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In case it's picture books you're after, here is a list of some of my personal favorites — especially great for read alouds! 

New York: The Empire State by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas, illustrated by Jon Messer. This is a great introduction to different regions of New York State. Beautiful illustrations make this a good choice for students who would like to learn more about New York history and geography.

With Lady Liberty: A Biography, Doreen Rappaport hoped to "show readers how the statue personified for so many the enviable concepts of freedom and self-government." Based on primary sources, this picture book tells the story of how “the lady” was created from the perspectives of some of the people who made it happen.

Elaine Landau’s The Statue of Liberty is an appealing, informative resource for students who have questions about Lady Liberty. Fun facts, photographs, and timelines make this easy to read book a great choice for independent reading.

Several years ago, architect Matteo Pericoli illustrated the buildings and structures along the east and west sides of Manhattan in two 37 foot scrolls. See the City: The Journey of Manhattan Unfurled captures these drawings in a switchback format children’s book. (The blue cover indicates the west side and the red cover — or part two — is the east side.) Students will enjoy recognizing familiar sights and, after taking in Pericol's interpretation and reading his musings, may even see Manhattan a bit differently. It's a beautiful and worthwhile resource for students (or anyone) interested in taking a new look at the sights of Manhattan.

Richard Platt’s New York City: An Illustrated History of the Big Apple presents the history of New York City chronologically with two-page spreads of information, illustrations, and maps. It's a great resource for the big-picture view of the evolution of Manhattan. Check out other other books in the Through Time series.

Larry Dane Brimner’s Subway, The Story of Tunnels, Tubes and Tracks offers an easy-to-read, chronological account of how the NYC subway system came into being. For a more sophisticated resource, try Building the New York Subway by Andrew Santella or A Subway for New York by David L. Weitzman, which is especially great for budding mechanics, engineers, or students interested in the technical aspects of how the subway works.

Discover more books about the subway >>

Did you know that Grand Central Terminal was “born from the ashes of a tragic train wreck?" Appreciate the grandeur of NYC’s terminal with Ed Stanley’s Grand Central Terminal: Gateway to New York City. Also recommended is William Low's Old Penn Station, a compelling tribute. 

A Short and Remarkable History of New York City takes the form of an annotated timeline with illustrations from the Museum of the City of New York. It's great for history buffs or students studying a specific decade or time period in Gotham’s 400-year history.

Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924. Deborah Hopkinson provides a fantastic overview of who came to New York during that period, what they found when they arrived, and why they left their home countries in the first place. The history lessons take narrative form and are personalized by the stories of five different immigrants. This is perhaps a bit sophisticated for fourth graders, but it's a worthwhile resource for educators and students doing research or trying to learn more about this time period in New York’s City history.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire by Elaine Landau is a solid non-fiction choice for students. For a fictionalized account of this tragedy, check out Margaret Peterson Haddix's Uprising. Visit this blog post for a more comprehensive list of resources on this topic.

Wild Lives: A History of the People & Animals of the Bronx Zoo by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Beautiful photographs and an interesting narrative make this historical overview of the Bronx Zoo a great student reference.

Neil Waldman’s They Came from the Bronx: How the Buffalo Were Saved from Extinction is a fictionalized account of how buffalo were reintroduced to the plains of Oklahoma by a journey that started at the Bronx Zoo. This is a great read aloud to teach students about endangered species, the history of buffalo in the U.S., and the purpose of conservation societies, like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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