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TeachNYPL: 'Grace Aguilar's American Journey,' A Common Core-aligned Research Experience (Gr. 11-12)


By 1900, New York City and the United States were undergoing waves of dramatic, traumatic change. Industrialization, Reconstruction and a surge of immigrants from across the globe were remaking every aspect of life, from transportation to education, leisure, labor, race relations and the status of women. One response to the dislocations and turmoil of this era was the reform efforts that we now classify as the “Progressive Movement.”

Grace Aguilar did not participate in this movement. She had been dead for nearly sixty years, laid low by illness at the age of 31 after a short but prolific life. She was not an American and never traveled to the U.S. Her name, however, was evoked across Greater New York in social clubs and lodges, literature, editorials and religious mediations, and in the explosive growth of a small ecosystem of libraries stretching from lower Manhattan to the newly constructed tenements around East 110th Street, what is now East Harlem or El Barrio. The lesson described below began from questioning the apparent lack of connection between this an obscure British writer of Sephardic Jewish descent and one of the quirkiest library buildings in the New York Public Library system—the Aguilar Library. Why is a library branch building in East Harlem named after a British woman who never even visited the United States?

 Images from the NYPL Digital CollectionsGrace Aguilar & the Aguilar Library: Images from the NYPL Digital CollectionsIt was not yet apparent to me that the woman and the library had a powerful link, a bridge of memory that was now invisible, but palpable and discernible with the right tools. The New York Public Library’s resources and holdings, helped me create a common-core aligned series of texts, questions and research tasks that can guide students in grades 11-12 (or adults), rebuild this bridge between past and present – woman and community – writer and readers. These sources are in a variety of formats to accommodate all kinds of minds and learners, including English Language Learners (ELLs). They are mostly primary sources of the era, plus some secondary supplements, to flesh out the ghosts of the past, and reflect and build upon.

In particular, this grouping of texts asks:

  • Who was Grace Aguilar? Why was she so “importable” to the US?
  • What does her popularity tell us in particular about the status and concerns of Jews, immigrants and women during the late 19th century?
  • Why was the Aguilar Free Library Association founded? How does it fit into the project of acculturation of German Jews and Russian/Western European Jews?
  • What are the continuities between the mission of the Aguilar Free Library Society and the NYPL today?
  • How does the mission of the Aguilar Free Libraries fit into the debates and concerns of the Progressive era in America (ca. 1880-1920)?

The Lesson

This lesson consists of 10 documents—both primary and secondary sources—for students to compare and contrast in a meaningful evidence-based inquiry manner consist with both the Common Core State Standards and the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum . The subject area for this lesson is Social Studies/Information Literacy 'The Progressive Era.' In terms of grade range and as per scope and sequence, this lesson is ideally suited for Grades 11-12. The materials, however, can work for more than one grade range – as well as for Adult Education. They would change or could be adapted to meet the needs of different English proficiency levels by shortening, paraphrasing, or eliminating some of the 'wordier' samples.

Regardless, the thinking behind this remains complex and follows the six-phase model for the inquiry cycle of learning developed by Barbara Stripling (2003), in which "inquiry is recursive and cyclical, with learners going back and forth between the phases of inquiry to resolve new questions and complexities as they arise." This process has learners connecting, wondering, and investigating material, and then constructing, expressing, and reflecting on their discoveries and conclusions—with conclusions opening the door to future discoveries and inquiry.

 six-phase model for the inquiry cycle of learningStripling Model of Inquiry (2003): six-phase model for the inquiry cycle of learningStudents can begin exploring this topic as they compare and contrast two primary sources: Grace Aguilar’s portrait and the bulletin of the Aguilar Free Library Society. What is the connection?

Grace Aguilar., Digital ID 494572, New York Public LibraryDocument #1: Grace Aguilar's portrait. This portrait was widely disseminated across the British Empire, Europe, and the US. Idealized femininity and intellectual character merge in the face of a young author who would be dead at age 31

  • What does the author want you to notice about Aguilar?
  • What is the tone of the work?
  • Why would this image have been placed on so many walls?
  • Why might she appeal to Jewish homes in America?
  • What do you think was the audience/purpose of this print?

Document #2: "THE CITY: A Meritorious Institution Aguilar Free Library, Children's ..." The American Hebrew (1879-1902); June 2, 1883 (primary source) accessible through ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger (1857-1922) June 2, 1883 pp. 151. Additional library bulletins to consider (not available digitally) include documents of The Aguilar Free Library Society (viewable at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building Main Reading Room 315).

  • Who is this bulletin meant to please and placate?
  • Why is there an emphasis on particular kinds of books and a de-emphasis on fiction?

Next steps: having begun to ask the question 'why?' there was a connection between Grace Aguilar and the Aguilar Library, students can begin examining the remainder of the documents with the following questions in mind:

Document #3: Poem: The Wanderers by Grace Aguilar, 1845 (primary source).

Aguilar's interpretation of Hagar and Ishmael's exile and danger in the wilderness is a metaphor for the vulnerable and dispossessed – Jewish, female, or otherwise. A daring midrash by a woman who, by virtue of her sex, was not initially encouraged to comment on theology. It is also a pro-emancipation document; Hagar was perceived as an African slave in England during this era.

  • Why might Aguilar pick Hagar as her protagonist?
  • What is the style and genre of the work? Why do you think Aguilar made these particular choices for this topic?
  • How does the work reflect Aguilar’s own history of being a triple outsider in British society? How might this feeling translate for new Americans of any ethnicity?

Document #4: Grace Aguilar” biographical entry from the Jewish Women’s Archive (secondary source).

This online biography, from the Jewish Women's Archive, is essential for understanding Aguilar's contributions to literature, liturgy, philosophy, education, and social reform. Her advocacy of women, Jews, and other outsiders in 19th century life was not unique, but was notable and far-sighted. Includes current bibliography.

  • This secondary source is from a feminist perspective. How does it compare/contrast to the portrait of Aguilar (Doc 1)? What information does a secondary source provide in comparison to a primary source? What might be the benefits of a feminist viewpoint, and what are its limitations
  • Information Literacy Teaching Point: discuss the challenges and benefits of reading a text in this complex, web-based format. Does it influence how you perceive the content?

Title Page,Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. From actual surveys and official plans / by George W. and Walter S. Bromley., Digital ID 1516754, New York Public LibraryDocument #5: Atlas of NYPL: neighborhood of the future NYPL Aguilar Branch, 116th and Lexington Avenue, 1897 (primary source)
Nonfiction atlas. This Bromley map series was produced the year after the creation of the 116th Street A.F.L.S. Derived from actual surveys and official plans, show the explosive growth of immigrant neighborhoods such as East Harlem by visually describing available housing stock and density, thus making the case for more social and educational services. Even more powerful when used in tandem with census records.

  • Compare and contrast this map with the Aguilar Library Bulletin account (Doc 2). How does the atlas corroborate or refute the description of the library’s popularity and the amount of space it demands?
  • Why might so many people in the neighborhood seek a library?
  • Why tenements here, rather than apartments or another type of housing? Who owned the land? How do people get to work (the neighborhood aspect of it)?
  • What kinds of social services were being offered to immigrants? (By whom?).

Document #6: US Census Records, 1900 pp. 50-52 (primary source)

  • How does this source build upon and reinforce the atlas of the 116th Street area (Doc 5)? What does it tell you that the map cannot? What can the map tell you that the census omits?
  • What are the majority of occupations listed? Did anyone in your family hold these jobs? Could these jobs give residents of East Harlem upward mobility? How might the library assist them in climbing the economic ladder?
  • Has this changed?

 East Harlem (pp. 43-62)Census 1900 - From NYPL Study Guide: East Harlem (pp. 43-62)Document #7: Encyclopedia of New York City (primary and secondary source)

(Text can be excerpted for class use) This text combines both primary and secondary source evidence to give an overall comprehensive portrait of Greater New York and East Harlem at the turn of the 20th century. It also links the Lower East Side’s tenements and inhabitants with East 110th Street. Students will need to understand the differences between a primary and secondary source and why this text (though it includes primary source material) is a secondary source.

  • What do you notice about “uptown” and “downtown” in terms of housing, population, demographics, and transportation?
  • Using the previous two documents in tandem with this one, where do people in the neighborhood work, eat, live?
  • How does this compare with New York City or other urban areas today?

Now back to the library!

Document #8: Photograph of Aguilar library reading room from the NYPL Digital Collections (below) with open shelving, children and adult patrons (primary source)

  • What do you notice about the patrons? The librarian? How is the space arranged and decorated?
  • What can you infer about the levels and importance of literacy among the Jewish, Irish, and Italian residents who use the space? What, besides reading, might draw people to this space? Has that changed and if so, how and why (not)?
  • What do you think should go in a library? What makes a place inviting? What should a library DO for you and what is “inappropriate?” Who decides?
  • What is the value of open shelving in the library (an innovation of the Aguilar Library, first tried at this branch)?

 image from the NYPL Digital CollectionsThe Aguilar Library: image from the NYPL Digital CollectionsDocument #9: Streetscapes/Aguilar Library, 174 West 110th Street; A Library Branch That Wasn't Designed by the Book (secondary source)

  • What do you think should go in a library? What makes a place inviting? What should a library DO for you and what is “inappropriate?” Who decides?
  • What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? Why is it important? What stands in the way?

Document #10: “Emma Lazarus in Relation to Jewish Thought” The American Hebrew (1879-1902); Dec 9, 1887 (primary source)

The American Grace Aguilar? This review of Lazarus' mission and importance aligns her explicitly with Grace Aguilar, and the Aguilar Free Library. Each woman will leave her own "monument;" students can explore what they are and their legacies for today.

  • Which words evoke the Progressive movement?
  • What is “practical utility?”
  • Grace Aguilar and Emma Lazarus were both Sephardic and female. Is there something in their common backgrounds and/or gender that speak to the issue of immigrants? Which issues reflecting the Industrial Revolution are addressed by their two “monuments?”
  • What (and where) is Emma Lazarus’s “monument” in NYC? How does it compare with Aguilar’s?

Culminating Tasks for this Unit

Culminating Tasks can consist of one or more of the following (below). They can accommodate different groups of ages, English proficiencies, or settings. There is also a direct local and community history application.

  1. Find a landmark in your neighborhood – a street, building, statue, or historic site – and research the origins of its name. Using the inquiry process modeled through this research process you have just experienced, build your own bridge between the name and the place – past and present. Write a well-crafted research paper that shows how you assembled the evidence to build that bridge.
  2. In the 21st century, a digital map can be worth 1,000 words. Using the NYPL Map Warper or other internet/social media platforms, create and fill in the details of your own neighborhood’s map. You can also take photos and pin them onto Google Earth, literally “putting flesh on the bones” of a neighborhood map or street grid. Write 2-3 line captions for each photo, using as many languages as you feel should be included.
  3. When the original patrons of the Aguilar Free Libraries came to the US, they struggled with the need to fit in (and get ahead) vs. the need to remember and retain their heritages and cultures. How has this struggle played out in your own life and the history of your family? What do you need to keep and what do you want to lose? Draw upon the themes explored by Grace Aguilar and write a well-crafted, thoughtful response. Use any literary form or device that you feel will help your voice be heard with the most clarity and power.

Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10). 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.5 Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.10 By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 11–CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Want to use these texts in the Classroom?

All the above ten documents and texts are compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Tasks Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: Grace Aguilar’s American Journey Gr. 11-12 (PDF). This Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. This Texts and Task Unit includes information on text complexity, text dependent questions, and a recommended performance task for this unit aligned to Common Core State Standards and the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum.

 Texts & Tasks Unit for Common Core lesson planning (click to view downloadable PDF)Grace Aguilar's American Journey: Texts & Tasks Unit for Common Core lesson planning (click to view downloadable PDF)

Additional Resources

Common Core and the Information Fluency Continuum (IFC)

The cycle of inquiry - possible future discoveries starting from this topicThe cycle of inquiry - possible future discoveries starting from this topic

Emma Lazarus and Grace Aguilar

  • The Emma Lazarus Collection with full text online access; primary source documents including letters, poems, and articles written about Lazarus from the time period
  • Letters of Emma Lazarus - from the NYPL Digital Collections
  • The writings of Grace Aguilar including additional poems, and prose from the very prolific writer; many of the texts are full text online access
  • Grace Aguilar's American Journey - Additional Resources for Further Reading: an expanded text list with 30+ annotated primary and secondary sources from our Library Catalog

New York & the NYPL: Then and Now

  • Ephemera from the Aguilar Library (1886-) including annual reports, bulletins, and photographs. Of particular interest is to track the changes in Aguilar's community over time from the library bulletins—from being printed in Yiddish to being printed in Spanish.
  • Excerpts from the Annual Reports of Aguilar Librarians from 1941-1957 (pp.105-115), including mention of Aguilar children's librarian Pura Belpré: "Miss Belpré has had several large public school classes of Spanish children, none of whom has been in this country more than a month. You may imagine how greatly they enjoy her stories and book talks in Spanish and how glad they are to find books in a language they can understand" (pp. 106)
  • New York Neighborhoods: East Harlem NYPL guide to East Harlem Then & Now as seen through primary source documents of the period from NYPL collections including colonial maps, census records, and excerpts from annual reports of NYPL librarians from the 1940s-1950s.
  • NYPL Map Warper The NYPL Map Warper is a tool for digitally aligning ("rectifying") historical maps from the NYPL's collections to match today's precise maps.Browse our collections of maps to see snapshots of city blocks from NYC's colonial and recent past.
  • Search for archival primary source photos of the Aguilar Library in our Digital Collections

Feel free to add additional reading suggestions and educational resources in the comments below.

Danielle Lewis is Librarian, Learning Center Specialist and Instructor of French at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Washington Heights. She also supervises the school’s Library Squad, Book & Film Club, and its literature and art journal. Danielle began her teaching career as an NYC Teaching Fellow and has taught ESL, Social Studies, English, French, and interdisciplinary studies at LIU, the NYCDOE and FIT-SUNY where she is an adjunct instructor. She also has a background in grant writing, program development, community outreach and classical voice performance.

A native New Yorker, Danielle is an associate organizer of the NY Librarians Meetup and is active in the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), the American Association of School Libraries (AASL), and the American Jewish Library Association’s Mentoring Committee (AJL). She holds a B.A. in History from Oberlin College, an M. Ed. from Long Island University, and is currently completing her MLS online through SUNY Buffalo. She can be found across the five boroughs making and listening to music, volunteer tutoring, taking pictures, and browsing the bookstores.


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Danielle Lewis has provided a well thought out and well writen presentation that encourages the reader to further discoveries.

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