Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Using Historic Digital Newspapers for National History Day

Created August 15, 2013


The Lesson


National History Day

National History Day logo.

Credit: National History Day.

Historic digitalized newspapers are treasure troves of information, historical context, and primary source material. Created through a partnership of The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, Chronicling America contains over 6 million pages of local and state newspapers from 1836–1922. As such, it is an essential resource for educators who are guiding students through their National History Day projects.

In this lesson, students will examine a preselected set of newspaper articles drawn from the Chronicling America website. They will determine the right each article illustrates and the responsibility that comes with that right.

Guiding Questions

  • What are examples of rights and responsibilities in American history?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify examples of rights in American history
  • Identify the responsibilities that come with those rights
  • Conduct research using the Chronicling America website

College and Career Readiness Standards

Anchor Standards
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.


Every year, National History Day (NHD), a highly regarded academic program for elementary and secondary school students, attracts more than half a million students (encouraged by thousands of teachers nationwide) to participate in the NHD contest. Student work is first submitted in competitions at local, state, and national levels each spring, where it is evaluated by professional historians and educators. The contest culminates each June, when finalists compete in the Kenneth E. Behring National Contest at the University of Maryland at College Park.

To enter the contest, students choose historical topics related to a theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews, and historic sites. They analyze and interpret their sources and draw conclusions about their topics’ significance in history. Then, students present their work in original papers, websites, exhibits, performances and documentaries.

Rights and Responsibilities in History” is the 2013/2014 NHD theme. Rights and responsibilities should go hand in hand in society. American citizens have the right to vote, therefore, they also have the responsibility to learn about the candidates and the issues and vote conscientiously. Rights have taken different forms throughout history. Some societies believe individual have rights simply because they are human (sometimes called natural rights), while in other societies, rights depend on belonging to a certain group or class (for example, citizen rights). Institutions, such as governments, churches, and corporation, also enjoy rights in society.

With these rights come responsibilities, whether it is to exercise rights within agreed upon limits or ensure that we recognize the same rights in others.

Topics for NHD can be well-known events in world history or focus on a small community. Students use available primary and secondary sources to analyze their topic and examine its significance in history. One helpful resource for students is Chronicling America.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What are Rights and Responsibilities?

This whole class activity will introduce students to close reading of complex historical primary source materials as a large group.

  • Begin class with a discussion of the question “What are rights?” Discuss the meaning of the word and then create a class list of rights Americans have as citizens. Discuss what responsibilities accompany those rights;
  • Pass out the copies of the Chronicling America newspaper articles and the Rights and Responsibilities worksheet;
  • As a class, read the Temperance article and go over the example on the worksheet;
  • As a class, read the article on the Thirteenth Amendment and fill in the worksheet together.

Have the class create definitions for “right” and “responsibility,” according to the classification “natural” or “citizenship.” Elect one student to write these on the classroom board to be referred to throughout the lesson.

Activity 2. Determining Rights and Responsibilities

This activity for smaller groups builds on the whole class activity, above, allowing students to determine types of rights and responsibilities independently.

  • Divide the class into 5 groups of students. Each group will receive a packet of the remaining 5 Chronicling America newspaper articles;
  • Have the groups read the newspaper articles and determine the topic, right, or responsibility being discussed in the article.

When the groups have completed the worksheet, have one group volunteer their conclusions on the type of rights and the responsibilities they determined for one article. Encourage a whole class discussion of the groups’ conclusions for each of the 5 articles.

Activity 3. Researching the Database

This activity introduces the Chronicling America database and allows students to practice with a sample search.

Introduce researching the historic newspaper database using the Chronicling America database through EDSITEment’s What is Chronicling America? This is a portal and guide created especially for teachers and students using the Chronicling America site, with curated links to sections of the Chronicling America pages of interest to educators, as well as to National History Day resources.

  • Using a whiteboard or individual student-controlled computers or devices, have students watch the two short videos, An Introduction to Chronicling America, and Using Chronicling America
  • Navigate to the Searching Chronicling America tab on the right and read the introductory paragraph and the sensitive content note at bottom; 
  • Have students click on “Search ideas: 100 years ago,” which will bring up the Chronicling America search page. Note that the more precise students are in their search terms, the better results they will have;
  • Instruct them to select, “All States”, and “1917” to “1920” in the date range section of the search bar and to type in “women vote” in quotations in the blank bar so that the search will understand the terms as a unit;
  • Let them practice using the Chronicling America features for this search.   


Have students research and find additional newspaper articles illustrating rights and responsibilities in history, based on a topic or topics determined by the teacher or the whole class. They will use the blank worksheet and fill in information on what they find.


Extending The Lesson

Among the useful features of the Chronicling America website are topic, subject, and decade listings containing multiple articles curated by the Library of Congress staff. 

For example, within the subject heading “Politics, Government and World Leaders,” you will find several articles about the Emancipation Proclamation (1862–1863), Nineteenth Amendment (1890–1920)  and Prohibition (1917–1920). Under “Struggle for Human Rights and Freedoms” are several articles about Booker T. Washington (1895–1915); Eight Hour Day (1915–1917); Ellis Island (1890–1907); Homestead Strike (1892); Plessy v. Ferguson (1892–1905); Pullman Porters (1894–1910); and the Race Riot, NY.

Ask student to explore one of this topics, picking an article from the collection, and summarizing the importance of the right and the responsibilities that come with it.

Notes for the Teacher

  • Students can choose one right, such as freedom of speech, and conduct research using Chronicling America and other sources to create a display illustrating that right throughout history;
  • Students examine a current newspaper to find an article demonstrating a right. They then write an essay summarizing the article and discussing the importance of the right and the responsibilities that come with it.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Online research
  • Using primary sources
  • Mary Bezbatchenko (OH)