Central America: An Introductory Lesson

Middle School and High School

By Pat Scallen

Educators in Mt. Rainier engaged in the lesson.

Educators in Mt. Rainier engaged in the lesson.

While the histories of the United States and Central America have been intertwined for centuries, Central America is invisible in most U. S. textbooks and curriculum.

This lesson is designed to introduce students to key issues and events in Central American history through brief biographical sketches of key twentieth-century figures.

It is a “meet and greet” activity where each participant takes on the identity of a key figure of note in Central American history. The lesson includes more than two dozen bios, with people who fought for independence, dictators, and representatives of the U.S. government.

Objectives

Students will emerge with a deeper understanding of:

  • key concepts and themes which define contemporary Central American politics and society,
  • U.S. foreign policy in Central America, and
  • the push factors leading to Central American migration to the United States.

Materials 

The materials are included on the downloadable PDF at the end of this page.

  • Meet-and-greet roles, one per student
  • Copies of “Getting to Know Central America” questions
  • Name tags: Distribute blank name tags and have students write their character’s name or use the pre-prepared photo name tags included at the end of this lesson. Print on card stock and use string to create hanging name tags.

Time Required

45-50 minutes (5 minutes for the warm-up, 5-10 minutes to introduce and explain the activity, 20 minutes for the meet-and-greet, 15 minutes for discussion)

D.C. public school teachers engaged in the lesson.

Procedure

Assess prior knowledge (warm-up/Do Now) 

What do students know about Central America? Pass out a sheet of paper with 3-4 questions regarding the region. Possible questions include:

  1. Name 3 Central American figures of note (political, literary, etc)
  2. Name as many countries in Central America as you can
  3. Name as many capital cities in Central America as you can
  4. How many people of Central American origin live in … (the U.S., your state)
  5. Why might a Central American choose to migrate to the United States?

Establish relevancy

Why is Central America important? Review the answers to warm-up questions.

  1. There are hundreds of people students could name. Here are three from the lesson that students will learn about during the interactive activity: Rigoberta Menchú Tum, General Efraín Ríos Montt, Otto René Castillo
  2. Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
  3. Belmopan (Belize), San José (Costa Rica), San Salvador (El Salvador), Guatemala City (Guatemala), Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Managua (Nicaragua), and Panama City (Panama)
  4. Four million people of Central American origin live in the U.S (U.S Census). For the number in a specific state, search that state's immigration data profile
  5. Family, war, economic crisis, political asylum
Augusto Sandino

Augusto Sandino

Rigoberta Menchu

Rigoberta Menchu

Gioconda Belli

Gioconda Belli

Gen. Somoza

Gen. Somoza

Introduce the activity

Pass out one role and name tag per student. Direct the students to read their respective roles and then write the names of their individuals on the tags. They will take on the persona of their characters, bringing them to life for the duration of the exercise. Ask students to commit to memory as much as they can about their assigned characters.

The video clip below is provided to offer the teacher a sense of how the lesson looks in action.  Teaching for Change curriculum specialist Julian Hipkins III is introducing the lesson to students at a high school in D.C. The school has a high percentage of Central American students. Following the lesson there are brief reflections from students. (Note that this was filmed with a handheld camera, so the production is a bit shaky.)

 
 

Meet and Greet Instructions

Distribute copies of the “Getting to Know Central America: Questions” to students. Explain that they will use these questions as guides in their succeeding conversations. Then model the type of interaction which will take place with a volunteer student, making sure that the student communicates his/her character clearly. Set a timer for 20 minutes. During this time, students will circulate throughout the classroom and interview each other in order to answer the questions posed on the handout.

Guidelines

Each question must be answered by speaking with a different individual
Students may not show each other their written role; they must act them out
Students should take their time interviewing each other

* While students are circulating, move around, listening to conversations and prompting students when necessary

Debrief Discussion

When time is up, lead a discussion based upon the conversations you have overheard. Potential prompts:

  • Describe one person that you met.
  • What do these groups tell us about the reality of life in Central America? (This should lead to a discussion on who held power and how they maintained it in the face of attempts to gain power by marginalized groups.)
  • What were some of the issues you encountered in your conversations? (i.e., social inequality, state-sponsored violence, land distribution, ideological conflict, racism)
  • Did anything surprise you?
  • Why did this activity include people from the U.S.?